Teachers and on look back on a trip to Costa Rica that featured volcanoes, giant leatherback turtles, crocodiles, howler monkeys, limbo dancing and a wonderful oasis.
Four am on a Sunday in May. The venue is Manchester Airport, the destination Costa Rica in Central America. We rounded up 14 eager children and three adults to embark upon the trip of a lifetime. St Andrew's C of E primary in Eccles, Salford, is a school proud of promoting new experiences and broadening children's horizons. But never had we embarked upon a trip so adventurous.
Eighteen months ago a dream began to unfold. We wanted to take the children from an inner city classroom and provide them with a firsthand and totally unique experience. Costa Rica was the perfect choice. Small, very safe, with an abundance of wildlife and an admirable reputation for working to preserve their vulnerable and precious rainforests.
The children would have the opportunity to trek through rainforest, help save endangered leatherback turtles, visit an indigenous community, white water raft and live with a Costa Rican family.
The AmericanCosta Rican company EcoTeach were the perfect choice. They had a fantastic safety record, and a wonderful attitude towards environmental issues and the preservation of Costa Rican culture.
The cost was beyond the reach of most of our families. We needed more than pound;20,000, but would not be deterred. The fundraising and sponsorship requests began. The community, school, children and parents worked tirelessly to raise the amount. Fundraising ranged from car boot sales, bingo evenings and a sponsored abseil thoroughly enjoyed by our vicar, to the most popular - sleepovers in school. With the generous support of a number of local companies the money was eventually raised.
Even after careful research, selecting the company and following the advice of the director of education, we felt it essential to carry out a reconnaissance. A teacher and a safety adviser visited EcoTeach in Costa Rica and were 100 per cent satisfied with the safety provision and the quality of experiences provided.
The trip was opened up to all children in Years 4, 5 and 6. It was the intention to select them by merit: for teamwork skills, interest in the environment and learning Spanish and a commitment to fundraising. In fact fundraising prevailed.
To begin with we had a team of about 40 children, not including parents, who had agreed to fundraise regardless of who was chosen. This reflected great community spirit. For some the fundraising became too intense, and some parents decided their children were not suitable for the trip. This natural selection made the task a lot easier for us. We originally said we would take 12 children. We now had 14. Rather than leave any behind, we set out to raise the extra fares.
On our arrival, one of the first enthralling experiences for the children was a sky trek through the Monteverde Cloud Forest. We snapped ourselves onto a pulley on a steel cable and "zip lined" through the clouds as high as 420 feet above the ground. Zip lining demanded courage from each of us, especially the adults, and produced tremendous team spirit.
As if this wasn't enough, we moved on to witness the active rumbles and magnificent lava flows of the Arenal volcano. In the evening we were still amazed by its awesome presence as we bathed in its natural hot springs.
Another favourite experience among the children was their time spent on a farm with a Costa Rican family an hour from the capital, San Jose. Here their day began at 4am, helping to milk the cows. Then they had a typical Costa Rican breakfast of kidney beans, egg and rice (not always too popular). The day was spent learning about Costa Rican culture, practising their Spanish and playing with their friends.
One of the most memorable days was spent on the Caribbean coast celebrating the ninth birthday of our youngest member. Early in the morning we set off on our intrepid adventure, which took us close to the border with Panama. Our journey entailed a bus ride, a trip in a dug-out canoe, a long trek through beautiful but very humid rainforest, and finally horseback riding through a river.
We finally arrived to be greeted eagerly by Bri Bri children from the indigenous community of Costa Rica. They accepted us warmly. We traded songs and played football with them, then tucked into a traditional Bri Bri meal cooked on an open fire. After an exhausting day, a birthday surprise awaited our group back at the hotel on the coast. The local reggae and calypso band serenaded us and we jammed the night away to Bob Marley, with time for some limbo dancing.
There were precious encounters with the Costa Rican wildlife. At a sloth sanctuary the children were able to hold a friendly resident sloth. On a boat along a lagoon, we watched crocodiles in their natural habitat, while an abundance of birds flew over and howler monkeys cried in the trees. The children spent two nights working alongside volunteers at a turtle reserve on the Caribbean coast. On nightly patrols of the beach, the children discovered giant leatherback turtles up to 1.7m long.
Once the turtles had come on to the beach to build their nest we helped remove the eggs and place them in a special nursery safe from poachers. The children's contribution to this project was invaluable and made such an impression upon them. One has already worked out how much she can save from her spending money by the time she turns 18, when she has vowed to come back to work with the turtles in her gap year.
After 15 nights away in this beautiful country we returned with an abundance of memories, souvenirs and 14 very different children. We always knew it would be a challenge to take young children to the other side of the world and immerse them completely in a new culture. But having been privileged enough to see first hand how mature, independent and confident they became, and how their opinions about themselves and others had changed, was enough to make even the most unbelieving onlooker very proud.
The Costa Rican people fell in love with the Salford charm and openness of our children. EcoTeach had never had a group from England and never with such young members. They were amazed how the children coped with every challenge and welcomed each new experience. The owner of the company described them as "excellent ambassadors for the country. The Queen should be proud!" We talked a lot to the children about their unique experience and their duty to share it with families and friends. This is what we had set out to do. We had a Costa Rican evening in Eccles where the children put on a show and shared their experiences in front of families, the school and members of the local community who had sponsored them. The children have continued to learn Spanish.
And a final sleepover raised money so the school could sponsor the two leatherback turtles whose eggs we rescued during our trip.
ContactsEcoTeach website: www.ecoteach.comOr for advice on organising a trip, email Gina Fletcher email@example.com Adult fares with KLM were pound;450, children pound;302. Ground price with Ecoteach, for all activities, food, some insurance and housing, was pound;857 each for 2 weeks.