Written by Ann Randall, EcoTeachConsultant/Traveler/Travel Writer
It was 8AM. The students were ready with notebooks, tape recorders and electronic tablets. The biologist showed a video clip, then pointed to the photos in her PowerPoint explaining the optimal conditions for temperature and water and passed around different types of coral fragments while the class peppered her with questions as they took notes. This could be a graduate level university marine biology class but instead, it’s the annual EcoTeach training for its guides and day two began early with a two hour in-depth lecture on the lifespan of various coral and fish species and the importance of marine life conservation.
As a regular traveler who occasionally relies on tour companies in my trips, it never occured to me that tour guides go to school. So when EcoTeach asked me to do a small presentation at their guide trainings, I jumped at the opportunity to go through the entire training with the guides to see what a group of experienced tour guides do for their professional development.
Costa Rica tour companies vary in their requirements for guide certification and training. EcoTeach guides must have previous guide experience and maintain certification in both basic first aid and wilderness first aid. EcoTeach conducts at least one annual 4-5 day training for its guides on a variety of guide requested topics and one follow-up end of season training day. The first annual training occurs in January before the next season begins, allowing the guides and the United States and Costa Rica offices to debrief the previous year and make changes for the next tour season. Some years EcoTeach offers additional training as it did my first year of attending. The guides wanted to update their first aid cards and so we went through an intense multi-day wilderness first aid course that included role playing with realistic looking injuries and an end of course performance test. Not being a guide, it was initially intimidating, but the EcoTeach guides were encouraging and I emerged from my end of course performance exam to their applause as the very proud recipient of my own wilderness first aid card.
This year the guides began their four day training by reviewing the completed season. Then, as they did in the previous year’s training, they heard a presentation from a guest local guide they partner with on some of the tours. This year it was Pedro Rajos Morales, a local guide from the Boruca indigenous community who EcoTeach uses when groups tour there. Pedro’s informative lecture was a follow-up to the 2014 EcoTeach training when guides heard from a university professor about the archeology of the area in Costa Rica now inhabited by the indigenous Boruca and Bri Bri communities.
Following the marine biology lecture the guides met the drivers from the new transportation company EcoTeach will be using which included a lively driver/guide/office question and answer hour. It never occured to me how critical the working relationship was between guides and the drivers who transport groups. Guides had lots of questions about how the drivers would handle specific situations and likewise, drivers had similar questions of the guides in order to understand the EcoTeach philosophy of driver/guide as a team.
The agenda for some years of guide training includes a field trip to a new site that EcoTeach wants to add to its menu of tour choices. The field trips give the guides an opportunity to see the new location, test out if it would work for groups and think about real life experiences they could offer there. The 2015 Guide Training included a two day field trip to both a potential new accomodation and new tour experience in the Saripiqui area. Sura Farm is a small family run operation using natural agricultural practices, with tilapia fish ponds, dormitories for overnight groups and a lot of potential for group activities such as planting and picking pineapple, making pineapple juice and catching and learning to cook tilapia as well as understanding the agricultural philosophy of natural versus organic practices.
Evening class in the farm’s dining area provided background information on the history of an 1856 invasion by an American soldier of fortune, William Walker, who declared himself the President of Nicaragua. One of the EcoTeach guides who is from Nicaragua explained what Nicaragua teaches about that period of his country’s history, I explained the US version of the events. The following day our group was accompanied up the Saripiqui River by a local historian and retired university professor who showed guides the Costa Rican battle sites where Costa Rica joined Nicaragua to oust Walker from Central America. On our way up the river we stopped at the home of a large extended and economically impoverished family to deliver clothes, food and school supplies the guides had collected for them and later in the day we also delivered school supplies and clothes to the community association to distribute to the local school and needy families. That evening the guides as a group debriefed the field trip and discussed what might be incorporated into EcoTeach trips.
The final day of training began again at 8AM with a lecture from two biologists about the environmental impact of a proposed major port in Puerto Limon on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. One of the EcoTeach turtle research sites lies north of the port and guides wanted to know not only about the direct impact on that site but also the effect on the entire coastal ecosystem.
The training ended with guides brainstorming topics for the next EcoTeach guide training and a presentation of EcoTeach t-shirts to the family of Don Francisco as a thank you for hosting guide training and for their hospitality towards EcoTeach students, parents and teachers throughout the year.
The guides are excited to share all the information and new experiences with their groups making the 2015-16 EcoTeach season one where “travel can change the world.”