Night Hikes: A Second Helping of Dessert

At UGA Costa Rica, the forest floor is crawling with completely different life after the sun goes down. This is why night hikes are one the naturalists’ favorite activities to host and one of the most unpredictable as to what guests may find. Plus, having so many nocturnal species gives us thousands of reasons to pack a flashlight.

Our jungle is a city that never sleeps, where animals showcase many sensory abilities that are beyond what humans typically rely on. Leaf cutter ants work all night long, following the pheromones of their group to keep trails back to their colony.

Students and ecotourists are shown a perspective of wildlife that prompts different questions from any other activity. Flashlights and headlamps reflect the eye shine of spiders, mammals, and many other species that are usually looked over or hidden during the day. Even some species of worms only glow in the darkness. Night hikes show a contrasting side to our lush ecosystem.

The insecurities of being in a mysterious jungle turn into a sense of reassurance. With the right knowledge and equipment, we learn to stay out of harm’s way in a diverse jungle that supports the life of various spiders, poisonous insects, snakes and even cats. Night-hiking serves as a great model of living along side life that we often see as dangerous.

Night hikes give guests the opportunity to learn outside of the comfort zone that they are used to in the daylight. That type of uneasiness in the darkness transforms into a gratification in the ability to see more of the elusive species that aren’t active during the day.

We invite you to tune into a different frequency by turning off the lights. Take a couple minutes to listen and look at the stars under an open canopy – hear the sounds. Adding a human harmony to the twilight orchestra creates a song that is unique to this activity.

 

Photos and words contributed by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll

Research Results: Widening the Wingspan

If you have visited our campus, you may have noticed a tiny sticker in the bottom-left corner of each of our windows – a product of our organized study to combat bird strikes. UGA Costa Rica reached an imperative milestone for our studies this week by having one of the top researchers in Costa Rica visit our campus for a lab tutorial and presentation over her findings over the past four years.

Martha Cruz has been working on her bird strike project for over a year now. Her mentor, Rose Marie Menacho-Odio, has been conducting meticulous research since 2013.

Martha Garro Cruz, with several other researchers and assistants gathered with Menacho-Odio in the campus laboratory for a training on bird dissection. This was absolutely imperative for Cruz’s study to be able to distinguish the gender of affected bird species that lack sexual dimorphism. The studies of Martha Cruz now have increasing ability to be included in Costa Rica’s national museum, which has been preserving specimens since the 1970’s.

The questions of Menacho-Odio’s research are which species strike the most frequently, which buildings are most prone to being struck, and what are the most effective measures to prevent strikes? Her research has produced tangible answers to all of these questions. We are following suit on campus – here are our methods and then results:

cab_2017_312_chasingperezosoThe research that has been occurring since 2013 is organized into three different areas based off altitude. The San Luis valley that is home to our campus is known as area one. These areas show differing results of species striking most frequently. For example, we rarely have Emerald Toucanets striking our windows, while that is the most common species in area two, with higher altitude. This occurs even though we have this species on our campus, pictured from our bird-watching activity here.

The organized research has been conducted in three steps based off parameters set by researchers Hager and Cosentino:

The first is the systematic search, where researchers search a distance about 2 meters around the perimeter of each building, three consecutive days in a row during the most optimal hours.

The second is systematic observation, which happens 6 consecutive days in the morning for 15 minutes on each building side, moving clockwise. This is an observation where the scientists stand at a slight distance from the building and observe the birds behavior towards a window. Different species interact with completely different behavior. For example, the house wren, who is known for living within close proximity to buildings, has never been recorded as actually striking a window on campus. However, it is very frequent that the house wren will approach the window to catch insects that are stuck in spider webs, eating the insects
before safely maneuvering away from the window. This is opposed to the clay-colored thrush, who is known to fight its own reflection. These observations generate new hypotheses for how adaptation is working.

The third is staff and citizen science. Many of our naturalists will help to record bird strikes and capture injured or stunned birds. The naturalists inform all of our residents to help record bird strikes on the posted chart located just to left of our reception office. UGACR makes recording this information a small-scale model of a community effort to combat this issue that claims hundreds of thousands of bird lives each year.

On campus, we have recorded 44 species of birds from 22 different families striking windows here on campus from January 2016 to January 2017.

The most striking bird is the Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus). This is a migratory species that usually enters our region in October. On this graph you can see the influx of strikes in October and again when they are returning in March.

The following species are in order for the most strikes, following the Swainson’s Thrush: The Clay-colored Thrush (Turdus grayi), Long-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia linearis), and White-tipped Dove (Leptotila verreauxi)cab_2017_274_chasingperezoso

The Trochilidae family (hummingbirds) is the second most recorded for striking windows.

Bird strikes are common around the globe. If you ever witness one, it is best to catch the bird, gently stabilizing the head, wings, and legs. Place it in a paper bag for 15-20 minutes to help relieve stress, then let the bird loose. Species like humming birds can often face heart-attacks from the stress of the strike and then being handled.

Moving forward, the goal of Menacho-Odio is to present more talks to increase awareness and dispel myth surrounding the subject. Martha Cruz hopes to use the research to implement the most effective preventative measures on campus, like stringing vertical rope about 5 inches apart over the frame of windows to let birds know it is not maneuverable.

Photos and words offered by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll with graphic additions created by Martha Garro Cruz.

Up to Speed with Our Community

Around campus, we know Gilberth Lobo de Rodríguez as a bright and compassionate host of our coffee tours. His wife, Amalia Rodríguez, is responsible for the fresh smell of our fabrics and shining campus corridors. But behind the family of hardworking farmers, there is even a more intense side to one of their favorite hobbies – running!

cab_2017_755_leisureGilberth and Amalia both finished in medaling positions in their last race, the Fire Mountain Trail. They demonstrate the importance of experience as grandparents in a competition of all ages.

The long display of trophies in the Rodríguez house shows the fruit of practice and repetition – medals won from all around the country, some named with races they have run 10 years in a row. Their running crosses borders from thin forested trails to paved roads, from steep mountains to a yearly race on the beach. With Hilbert’s hopes of running the Boston Marathon, the possibilities show no end.

The UGACR campus depends on locals like Amalia and Gilberth to keep all of our necessities available. Gilberth explains how this hasn’t always been easy: The generation before Gilberth’s grandparents were some of the first groups of people in the upper San Luis area to cultivate coffee. Most of the farmers that lived here would grow coffee, beans, and corn with a focus on subsistence. Families would often take the harvested plants long distances to be able to trade for necessities like medicines, clothes, and textiles.

cab_2017_00710_toursIn the background of this photo you can see a trunk of a coffee tree passed down from Gilberth’s grandfather, cut when it was 65 years old. From the tours, we learn how the cultivation of coffee has evolved in these few generations. By refraining from the use of pesticides and chemicals, the production quantity is reduced on the fincas (farms) around our campus.

This is a logical sacrifice because of the demand for high-quality organic coffee.
cab_2017_00741_toursRetaining these independent ethics means balancing the
relationship with fungus, parasites, and local wildlife, which is a community effort. Like many in the community, Gilberth shares his strong labor on several farms aside from his own.

The workers and visitors at UGA Costa Rica all play a role in the production cycle by creating trade opportunities. The food that we eat either comes from campus or other local fincas. Gilberth sees a beneficial companionship between the two. From his perspective, the university has developed in harmony with the local fincas. The arrival of different nationalities, cultures and customs provided the community with a possibility of beneficial exchanges of experiences and knowledge. Now he sees much of the local youth speaking English.

“Cuando llegan grupos de diferentes nacionalidades, culturas y costumbres, eso permite a algunas familias de la comunidad tener una relación de intercambio, experiencia, y conocimiento.”

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The Rodríguez family is a supercharged example of working hard and playing even harder, waking up early in spite of long hours. They keep their practice strong by maintaining healthful and organized habits that are centered around the family. They continue the tradition of growing coffee in a similar way they pass down the hobby of running to the next generation – theicab_2017_00334_toursr daughter now has seven races under her belt.

Gilberth and Amalia say that the other competitors are often people they are familiar with. They do not see opponents as rivals, but rather as friends to share the experience with. When he gets tired and may slow down, Gilberth thinks of the exhaustion as a common denominator between his friends, that the man behind him may be even more tired himself.

“Cuando me siento cansado yo solamente pienso que los demás también están cansados y posiblemente más que yo. Entonces no hay razón para terminar.”

Racing with this mentality is an exchange that motivates the community. Gilberth and Amalia are more content with the tranquil lifestyle of rural Costa Rica in the San Luis valley. They have relatives scattered in many parts of the country, but enjoy seeing the fruits of their labor in a more direct way. At a finca, you have to be committed to your daily work, but it pays off when you are provided with the ability to immediately quench your hunger and thirst without paper exchange.

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Meeting people like Gilberth and Amalia is what makes a visit to UGACR memorable. It makes an impression to see people who are committed to their trades and hobbies every day, helping to lift up the campus community. This is part of what makes our exchange so rich, that possibly one day the Rodríguez grandson will show his medals to a touring group.

 

 

Photos and words contributed by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll

Meet Our New Volunteers!

The new year has brought in a handful of new residents at UGA Costa Rica who are getting settled in quite nicely. However, orchestrating the multiplicity of events that are offered on campus is tough business. Being a team of naturalists and volunteers means that most of our meals, guided hikes, and training sessions are spent together. As we share these things, it becomes more apparent how each individual contributes to the melting-pot which is UGACR. It is quite wondrous the way we are meshing together to create a family of global citizens and revealing more potential each day.

The nature of our work holds importance in close-knit relationships. Our flexibility leaves us open to trade tour schedules, workout schedules, or let the box of fate decide which classic movie we will watch. This way our volleyball matches, daily haikus, and movie nights are filled with laughter at each other and ourselves. Here are some quick bios to help you get to know the new faces:

cab_2017_00038_tours Emilie Morris, 22, graduated from University of Georgia in December of 2015 with a double major in Ecology and Biology. She was enthralled by studying the way parasitic disease moved through a population of Monarch butterflies in the lab. Going from a microscopic to macro scale, she now has goals of going to medical school to study practical application of medicine in humans. After graduation from UGA she hiked over 2,000 miles on the Appalachian Trail with her uncle. Our favorite things about her is the way she infuses a happy-go-lucky art into our group across all media. We love to see her drawing, painting, and even writing music in her free time. Emilie and Gaby are veteran naturalists, being here for a few months now. They are quick to add a new workout to the routine and organize a movie night.

cab_2017_00550_toursGaby Benitez, 22, graduated from Duke University with a double major in Biology and Environmental Science. During her inspirational undergraduate career, she traveled to Singapore, Malaysia, southwest Turkey, and Ascension Island to study sea turtles. She led an advocacy group at Duke called Food for Thought that explored the relationship between dietary decisions and their environmental affects. She continues to look into sustainable urban development and integrative human systems. UGACR is a great culmination of her interests, being in the San Luis valley where there are small-scale farms that sustainably support the community. Gaby has a capacity for gently guiding people to explore, whether it be through the medicinal gardens or a yoga flow.

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Sean Peacock, 25, has a sweet background in conservation. After graduating from Georgia College and State University in 2014, he worked in a lab doing analytic chemistry of metals in water by his hometown of Savannah. After environmental education training and guiding at the Dunwoody Nature Center, Sean found himself on St. Catherine’s Island as a conservation zookeeper. He worked with ring-tailed lemurs, cranes, great hornbills, and Georgia’s state reptile, the gopher tortoise. His wealth of knowledge is transforming into a passion of protecting biodiversity through education and preservation of species. He’s the type of guy to pull you away from the computer for a quick stroll that turns into an hour of chasing capuchins through the jungle!

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Ellie Swanson, also in the 22 club, recently graduated from the University of Utah in December of 2016. She found out about UGACR when her friend clued her in after a visit. As a river-rafting guide in the summers, she decided to skip a winter in Utah this year for an endless summer! After a biology and geography major, she’s fulfilling a vision to deeply expand upon her four years of Spanish in high school. Ellie has already gone from our library’s children books to mini-novelas and is already translating our awesome coffee tours. We have loved seeing her break open a new world in interpersonal communications and flourish inside of her always-down attitude.
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Mel Freshwater, 23, is a May 2016 graduate from James Madison University in Virginia in the Appalachian foothills. She focused on geographical sciences and environmental conservation in school and continued to spontaneously plan travels, taking a year off to travel by work-trade through Spain, Italy, and Hawaii. Mel’s passion has recently led her to work for the American Conservation Experience in habitat conservation in Asheville, NC. The positive, go-getter mentality adds a delightful tone to our hang outs. Mel is early to rise in the morning and quick with a pause of appreciation, always smelling the flowers.

 

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Ben Schmidt, 24, is a May 2015 graduate from Northwestern College in Iowa. He had an extremely diverse undergraduate career where he studied all across the globe. His degrees in Biology and Secondary Education have taken him to British Columbia and even the southern alps of New Zealand. He studied field botany in Michigan and now focuses on stream ecology, including invertebrates that have aquatic phases, like dragonflies and different types of naiads. Since graduating, his travels have taken him through the Oregon Cascades and Northern California. He’s the type of Minnesotan to seem reserved until he breaks out one of his unbelievable family stories, like a transformer mystery man!

cab_2017_00043_farmAnaLiz Rojas Mendez, 24, is a current student at the Zamorano Pan-American Agricultural School in Honduras. She was born and raised in Buenos Aires in the southern region of Costa Rica. As a sustainable agriculture intern, she spends much of her time in the vegetable garden. AnaLiz is a double threat, doing research at the National University of Costa Rica and hands-on training at Zamorano in Honduras. She helps UGACR embody the “pura vida” style when she is seen walking the cows from pasture to pasture and transplanting young sprouts. She often puts in a couple extra hours of work to take extra care of the life around her. AnaLiz even fills her free time with hiking, riding a bicycle, or swimming. Cruise on, AnaLiz!

cab_2017_00052_farmAriana Muñoz, 20, is a sustainable agriculture intern who is currently studying at the Zamorano Pan-American Agricultural School in Honduras as well. Because of their shared classes, she has known AnaLiz for a few years now. Despite her age, Ariana has loads of practical experiences in all types of agriculture. Zamorano requires the students to have both intense reading for part of the curriculum and hands-on training for the second half. Most of her gardening and skills in the stable seem second nature, as she has learned from her father who also works in the agriculture industry. She has a work hard, play hard ethic that will leave you with dirt on your boots and a smile on your face. Ariana is the type of person to toss dirt on you with one hand, and then toss you a fresh banana with the other.

Photos and words contributed by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll

 

The Faces of Our Food

 

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The world-famous milk served daily at UGA Costa Rica doesn’t just taste great, but it serves as an example of how to minimize our eco-footprint. Students gain a feeling of gratification knowing there is zero waste behind the animals that make our meals savory and delicious.

As the sun dawns each day, Marlon Martínez, the stable manager, calls the cows for milking. He has beckoned them with a patient demeanor ever since the stables were constructed in this location five years ago.

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Depending upon the number of interns and the season, UGA Costa Rica produces between 15 and 25 percent of the food we consume, right here on campus! This model is applicable both locally and globally. Here’s why:

The vast majority of the world’s farms are just like ours – small scale. According to the 2015 State of Food Insecurity in the World, family farms produce over 80 percent of the Earth’s food. Additionally, over 80 percent of these farms are smaller than two hectares, about two soccer fields.

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Volunteers and students team up with Marlon to tend the stables to milk, clean, and facilitate sustainable farming. Students of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida rolled up their sleeves to get in on the action.

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Students here learn about the process start to finish, feed to waste. Being committed to sustainability means managing all of these factors. The manure from the cows and pigs goes toward the biodigester, a giant bladder that converts waste into methane energy using micro-organisms.

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Raising farm animals in this fashion translates to an essential learning curve, not just for the students that visit from across the globe, but also for the local community. UGACR has already implemented several biodigesters for local farmers off-campus.

It’s a grand contribution to the health and happiness of the community. The end product – chocolate milk served daily in el comedor, from grass-fed cows that can run just as much as our students.

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Photos and words provided by Photojournalism Intern Charles Austin Boll.

An Afternoon at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Many travelers visit Costa Rica with dreams of experiencing and capturing the country’s incredible environmental heritage: spotting a resplendent quetzal, hearing the distinct call of the bellbird, observing a strangler fig growth that has completely taken over its host tree, leaving behind hollow ribs of its own.

These singular experiences form just stitches in the country’s environmental tapestry. Costa Rica accounts for only 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface, but it boasts nearly 6 percent of its biodiversity. The Children’s Eternal Rainforest, one of Monteverde’s private reserves, contains seven distinct life zones in its 23,000 hectares. Travelers with minds for science and sustainability flock to Costa Rica for good reason; here they can see flora and fauna that can’t be found anywhere else.

This past Sunday, UGA Costa Rica’s team of naturalists and interns visited the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve to experience a bit of this biodiversity, enjoying a few hours of hiking, climbing to the continental divide and identifying birds and plants with every step. We’re grateful to live in a country that values environmental conservation, puts these ideals to work with lasting public policy, and allows visitors from all around the world to take part in sustainable tourism.

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Want to experience the cloud forest for yourself? Stay with us at Ecolodge San Luis and we’ll sort out the details for you. Utilizing the expertise of local staff, we personalize authentic Costa Rican adventures and contribute to a growing landscape of sustainable tourism.

Blog post and images by Rachel Eubanks. For more photos from Monteverde, follow us on Instagram.

We found some magic today ✨ here's hoping you did the same! Photo by @rachel_eubanks

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UGA Partners with Fit4Earth to Provide Immersive Science Education

This week UGA Costa Rica hosted a special group of middle school students as part of the Fit4Earth scientific immersion program. For the fourth consecutive year, this organization, founded by Gaby von Breymann and Pat de la Cruz, has partnered with UGA Costa Rica to deepen students’ understanding of global environmental issues.

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Resident naturalist Gaby Benitez leads students in a workshop about composting and sustainable waste management tactics.

As part of this experiential learning program, thirty students from the Country Day School in Alajuela visited the UGA campus in Monteverde, where they spent a week learning about butterfly conservation, carbon offset efforts, how biodigesters work, the importance of water quality, waste management and sustainability.

By partnering with UGA Costa Rica, Fit4Earth enables students to engage with local experts such as José Montero, UGACR’s Research Coordinator, a butterfly researcher of 15 years and an author of two books on butterflies and moths. As Gaby Benitez, a resident naturalist from Austin, Texas, explained, this program provides an exciting opportunity for students to “get involved out of the classroom with learning experiences that are more hands-on.”

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By visiting UGA Costa Rica, students from Country Day School, the first K-12 LEED certified school in Costa Rica, gain real world experience that can only be found in immersive, engaging programs like Fit4Earth. As resident naturalist Insiyaa Ahmed explained, “the best way to learn is to do it yourself.” This week, Country Day School students took ownership for their education and their environment in a unique living classroom.

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Clara, a 6th grade student from Argentina, expressed the positivity of her experience even though she first felt hesitant to attend the week-long trip. Even though she didn’t have many friends in attendance, Clara found the chance to connect with her classmates while taking part in activities such as camera trap research and water quality testing. “I really like it and I think that I’m going to do it again,” she said in regards to the program.

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Aja, a Country Day School science teacher from Gwinnett, Georgia, said that the Fit4Earth program not only educates her students on the importance of environmental conservation, but also takes them out of their everyday urban environment and into a sustainable living community where they can learn to live more simply. By partnering with Fit4Earth, UGA Costa Rica can continue in its mission of educating and empowering future generations to protect the planet starting right here in the students’ stunning backyard of Costa Rica.

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Blog post and images made by Rachel Eubanks.

Research Spotlight Video: Water Quality with Darixa Hernandez

As you’ve read before on the blog, UGA Costa Rica hosts an ongoing research project focused on water quality, currently led by graduate student Darixa Hernandez. Recently Hernandez traveled from the streams of Monteverde to the Gulf of Nicoya to gather water samples from the Lagarto, Guacimal and Aranjuez watersheds.

UGA Costa Rica’s resident naturalists assisted Hernandez with a week’s worth of sampling, utilizing the unique opportunity to help with various research projects in addition to their work guiding educational tours. For this project the group gathered macroinvertebrates and water samples to monitor three watersheds along the Bellbird Biological Corridor. Back in the lab, Hernandez expects these samples to reveal the differences in water quality from the protected headwaters of upper elevations compared to those in coastal areas, where human activity impacts the environment more because of agriculture and development.

I tagged along with Darixa, her assistants and head naturalist Martha Garro Cruz to create this video about the research conducted through UGA Costa Rica as part of its aim in educating visitors about environmental conservation.

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Photos, video and blog post by Rachel Eubanks

Feliz Cumpleaños, Denver!

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Denver poses for a portrait after having her face painted at el Día de San Luis.

Today Denver Gordon, one of our resident naturalists, turns 24 years old! Here at UGA Costa Rica, our staff operates like a family (and not only because many of our local employees really are related). We love to celebrate birthdays together with cake, singing and sometimes a broken egg on the head!

For her birthday, we asked Denver a few questions. We hope you enjoy getting to know her as much as we do!

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Denver holds her intricately-made farole, or paper lantern, before the Independence Day celebrations began. Photo by Rachel Eubanks.

Hometown: Murrells Inlet, South Carolina

Favorite color: Orange

Favorite animal: Sea turtle

Favorite part of living in Costa Rica: Seeing the sunsets

Best memory of working at UGA Costa Rica: Spotting an olingo (a furry, bushy-tailed arboreal animal) with fellow naturalists Molly and Ernest while climbing a tree at night.

Best aspect of being a naturalist: I like to be outside and teach people and the ecosystem [here in the cloud forest] has a lot going on. I like continuously learning about it while showing other people.

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Blog post and photos by photojournalism intern Rachel Eubanks.

Costa Rican Independence Day

On Thursday communities all over Central America celebrated 195 years of independence from Spain. After Spain’s defeat in the Mexican War of Independence, news of the region’s freedom spread by a running of the torch, beginning on September 9th in Guatemala and continuing by foot through Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and eventually Cartago, Costa Rica, the capital of the country in 1821.

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Costa Rican “independence was not gained as a result of warfare,” Julio Jurado Fernández from the Tico Times explains. “There was no war of independence. Costa Ricans became owners of their own destiny by simply ratifying Guatemala’s declaration” of freedom.

As a result, Independence Day in Costa Rica focuses less on military victory, especially since Costa Rica holds no standing army, and more on the value of education and a celebration of Costa Rican culture with comida tipica, traditional dress, music and dancing.

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Young girls in traditional dresses march through the streets of Santa Elena.

Here in Monteverde, we celebrate el Día de la Independencia the traditional Tico way, with a lantern march the night before the holiday and a town parade on the 15th of September. Take a look at the photos below to celebrate Costa Rica’s independence with us.

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Blog post and all images by photojournalism intern Rachel Eubanks.