Costa Rica Is My Home Away From Home

Costa Rica Is My Home Away From Home

This ecological wonderland has carved a special place in my heart.

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In January, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to go on a study abroad research trip to Costa Rica. Costa Rica in Spanish is literally "rich coast," and that name is so fitting. The vast amount of diversity and culture I was able to experience while abroad was simply flabbergasting. It was truly an amazing and rewarding experience.

Map of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a country in Central America, nestled between Panama and Nicaragua. Its capital and largest city is San Jose, with a population of a whopping 333,000. Costa Rica is known for being both the happiest and greenest country on Earth.

My trip was associated with a Biology course that included field research as a component. Over the course of our trip, we stayed at four places: The Goldring-Gund Marine Biology Station in Playa Grande, Cloudbridge Nature Reserve in San Gerardo, Poor Man's Paradise on the Osa Peninsula, and Heredia, right outside of San Jose.

Journey to Costa Rica

On a frigid January morning, my family and I began the 2 1/2 hour drive to Louisville's airport. Though this would be one of the shorter flights I've been on, I was still filled with apprehension. After a quick flight to Atlanta, my classmates and I soon were off on our journey to Liberia. The highlight of the flight was an extremely drunk man whose repetition of the phrase, "We're going Costa, we're going Rica," only served to increase my excitement for the new place I was about to explore.

Upon landing, I was struck by how rural and undeveloped the airport and surrounding area were. Our first destination, Playa Grande, was nearly an hour away by bus, and that ride gave me my first glimpse into the lives of rural Costa Ricans. Each town we passed through began very spread out and gradually centralized as we reached the town center. These communities were very obviously centered on education and religion, as almost every town had each in the middle.

Olivia Hawkins A church in a Costa Rican Village

Goldring-Gund Marine Biology Station

Goldring-Gund is a small block building nestled right on the beachfront of Playa Grande in Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas. The station itself is dedicated to the research and conservation of sea turtles. Because of drastically declining numbers, sea turtles are a precious commodity that needs protection. We didn't arrive until late that afternoon, but as soon as we arrived, we were assigned teams to patrol with later that night. I was assigned a beach patrol team. Our goal was to search for nesting sea turtles and fresh nests across local beaches to collect data or move the nest if it is uninhabitable.

Olivia Hawkins Sea Turtle Hatchlings

That night, in spite of the sheer exhaustion we all suffered from, we trekked out to the beach. Our bags arrived later than we did, so I was stuck traversing the beach in clunky hiking boots (to the dismay of my ankles). The stars were brighter than I had ever seen, and a cool breeze left us all at a comfortable temperature. My team leader, Jose, a local, was friendly and happy to teach us about the area. For hours, we walked miles up and down the beaches, nothing of note having happened.

We were walking along, talking and laughing under the skies of Playa Ventanas when suddenly Jose shushed us. He pointed excitedly at what looked like tire tracks. I followed the line of the tracks up until I laid my eyes on a massive creature—a leatherback sea turtle.

Jackson Chumbler Nesting Leatherback Sea Turtle

Suddenly, we were all set into motion. We recorded specifics, such as time and location. These were pretty hands off. However, when a sea turtle is found about to nest, close-up and personal measurements are needed. Jose tasked me with counting the eggs. To do this, I laid down on the sand at the back of the turtle, holding one flipper back, and placed a thermometer prior to the laying of the eggs. As the egg laying began, I had to get pretty close into the nest to count every egg that was laid. After what seemed like forever, the turtle stopped laying eggs, and I was able to get up from the ground. I was covered in sand and cloacal fluid, but I was exhilarated.

Afterward, physical measurements were taken, as well as observation of any markings of scars and whether or not it had been tagged. I was awestruck by the sheer mass of this creature. Though I had cared about ocean conservation before, getting to see this majestic animal right before my eyes gave me a brand new perspective.

Wendy Cecil My friend Alexa and I on the beach of Playa Grande

The rest of the days at Playa Grande were far less eventful and more laidback. My friends and I got to fully take in the beauty of Playa Grande and Playa Ventanas, as well as explore the local community a bit.

Olivia Hawkins Playa Ventanas

My experience in Playa Grande was a magical start to a trip of a lifetime.

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4 Breakfast Spots Near The University of Kentucky That Will Actually Get You Out Of Bed In The Morning

These places will satisfy all of your breakfast cravings.

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If you're a breakfast foodie like I am, you know that is an absolute priority to find the most popular breakfast spots despite the city you may be in. You don't want to visit the touristy and basic restaurants that everyone else goes to, but instead, you are determined to uncover the locations that are the best of the best. Most foodies will go to great lengths to discover these places. As a University of Kentucky student and major foodie, I have searched all over Lexington to find my favorite places to visit on Saturday and Sunday mornings. This took my entire first semester and many trips to the ATM, but today, I am now blessed to say that I am a regular at all 4 of these incredible breakfast spots.

1. The Great Bagel

The Great Bagel is one of my all-time favorite restaurants to visit on Sunday mornings. The restaurant offers a variety of bagel sandwiches and freshly squeezed orange juice, and it makes for the perfect early morning start to a day filled with homework or relaxation.

2. Chocolate Holler

Though not a true restaurant, Chocolate Holler is one of the most popular coffee shops near the University of Kentucky. Because it is only a 3-minute drive from campus, Chocolate Holler is always buzzing with UK students who come to socialize or study. The coffee shop is most well known for its chocolaty drinks and the music is great there, too!

3. Stir Krazy

Stir Krazy is a local smoothie bar down the street that serves protein shakes, smoothies, and tea. Though It only consists of these three beverages, the shakes at Stir Krazy are enough to fill you up for breakfast or lunch. Each shake or smoothies range from 200 to 250 calories and serves as the perfect energizer before a workout or a filling recovery drink after a workout.

4. La Madeleine

La Madeleine is a French breakfast and lunch cafe conveniently located on campus (and only a 30-second walk from my dorm). Their breakfast is served all day long and their croissants are to die for. I highly recommend building your own omelet for the most fulfilling experience. Not to mention, their iced caramel macchiatos are a great refresher on the side.

No matter which city, state, or country I am currently in, I make it my mission to eat as a local would. In Lexington, Kentucky, these four breakfast spots are guaranteed provide you with a plethora of different types of food to get you through even the worst cases of morning hunger. Though these places are my current favorites, I am now looking forward to containing the search for more breakfast restaurants, cafes, and juice bars throughout my next four years in this city.

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Solo Travel As An Extrovert Is Not Easy

Traveling alone, I can choose to view it as a difficult separation from other people or a journey of learning more about myself.

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Life has a funny way of revealing itself and after my mom ditched me on our mother-daughter trip to Taiwan, I found myself on a plane headed to a country I had never visited where I didn't know a soul. (Disclaimer: I have relatives in Taiwan but had never met them prior to the trip.) I was excited for the adventure that awaited, fear not setting in of how difficult it would be not to just travel in a foreign country where I didn't speak or read any Mandarin beyond the very, very basics (Literally my vocabulary consisted of 10 simple words/phrases, one of which was the word for "apple" which isn't that helpful for getting around. I have since picked up a few more phrases.), but also be alone with just myself for company.

So much of who we are is influenced by the people around us. A large part of our identity comes the communities we choose to be part of and how we interact with others. But who are we when no one's looking? Who am I without the pressure of other people around me?

I am an extrovert. I get my energy from being around other people. It's not that I can't spend time by myself; I just prefer to be in the company of others even if we aren't always interacting the entire time. My best friend and I will even do independent activities together. (Once when we were hanging out, she was knitting and I was doing a puzzle. I swear we don't act like grandmas all the time.)

Although an extrovert, I'm still a pretty independent person who doesn't like to rely on others for help. But traveling alone in Taiwan, I don't have much of a choice. I'm forced to learn to navigate public transport myself and somehow survive with the basic English that Taiwanese locals know.

Learning to travel alone has been an emotional and difficult journey as this is the first time I've been on my own for this long. Although lonely at times, I've realized that loneliness is a mental state of mind. There is the Sanskrit saying, "Mana eva manushyanam karanam bandha moksayoh" which translates to "As the mind, so the person; bondage or liberation are in your own mind." My mind determines my emotional state of being and perspective! Traveling alone, I can choose to view it as a difficult separation from other people or a journey of learning more about myself.

Through solo travel, I am slowly learning to be comfortable with my own company which has been the biggest challenge. I was never an only child, I've always had a roommate in college, and even when I study, I go to public spaces like coffee shops so I can be surrounded by people. I don't know what to do when it's just me and my thoughts all the time. (Especially during meals. Should I appear busy on my phone like all the other single people around me?)


Because when you're traveling alone, you're in charge. You have control. You can change the itinerary from moment to moment without anyone's approval. No one's holding you accountable. Spontaneity? Let's go. You can build barriers but you can also tear them down. It's fun, it's exhilarating. But it's also scary. And unpredictable.


Would I go on another solo expedition in the future? Preferably not as traveling is way more enjoyable when you have someone to share the experience with. It's the people, not the place who make all the difference on a vacation. Yet I do believe solo travel is an experience that everyone should embark on at some point in their life (to grow and learn more about yourself).


This trip has taught me to find spontaneity in the fear and excitement and I've learned to embrace discomfort and unpredictability. To travel with not just my mind and logic but my heart. There are so many unique experiences, if you overthink too much, you'll lose your chance.

I've found that when I am alone, I become more vulnerable and open to meeting new people and having more offbeat experiences. I say yes with zero hesitation. Certainly, there are friends I made, hikes I climbed, streets I meandered, and epiphanies I had that wouldn't have transpired had I been with my mom or a group of people.


Traveling alone, I am now more confident in myself and am ready for the next wave that life throws me. Because I've learned that once you overcome the fear of being by yourself, getting lost (which you will), or accidentally eating meat as a vegan because you didn't understand the signage (I'm sorry!), the world in all its vast infinity can be pretty great. And there are some things that you can only learn on solo travel.

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