Becca’s 3 Highlights

            For the month of May 2014, I had my second field school experience with VIU, this time in Costa Rica for the Heart of Gold project. This year’s field school was incredible. It was such an unbelievable experience. There were moments that I will treasure for the rest of my life. I feel so lucky to have experienced everything I did. From start to finish it was amazing, but there were three things that stood out to me more than anything else: the people, the scenery, and the project itself. I am going to expand on each of them.

The first one that I am going to talk about is the people. I have met my share of people around the world, but I have never met people that are so welcoming before. I thought that Canadians were hospitable, but we have nothing on Costa Ricans. Each and everyone I met greeted us with open arms and took all of us in like we were their own families. Part of the project was for us to get to know the families and they made it extremely easy to do that. These people have the biggest hearts out of all the people I have encountered. I have made connections that will last a lifetime. After only meeting them for a short period of time, without hesitation, I can say that I have gained so many family members. These people are the most beautiful people inside and out. I will admit that I have a family oriented mind, but Costa Ricans are so wonderfully amazing! Everyday I am not with them, I will be thinking of them for sure.

Speaking of people, I am a firm believer that the people you are actually travelling with can make or break your trip. I seriously could not have picked out a better group of people to share this adventure. Each and every one of the 9 others I was travelling with have their own unique and lovely personalities. All of them were so accepting of one another. When we needed encouragement from each other, we always knew what to do. Everyone truly had a heart of gold!

Secondly, the scenery! Before I left I had numerous people telling me how beautiful Costa Rica is. I have seen my fair share of beautiful places, but this country does not even come close to comparing to any of them. There were times when my breath was actually taken away, because of the pure beauty that surrounded me. I even had to pinch myself to make sure I was actually alive to witness the beauty. Starting 3500 metres above sea level and ending right at the Pacific Ocean, we got to experience all different terrains. Sometimes the views were in a location where you could see 360 degrees with mountains on one side and the ocean on the other side, or in a place being sheltered by huge green luscious trees. I took some pictures, but they certainly do not do this place justice.

Last, but not least, the project. I had heard about this project ever since I entered first year in the tourism program at VIU. However, it was not until this past fall that I got really interested. I knew it was a life changing experience for some, but now I am part of that group of people. I know why this project is called the heart of gold. I got to experience more then I could have ever imagined. The project has so much love, support, and joy. I seriously have nothing bad to say about it. During the second day of hiking, I felt an overwhelming amount of love pass through me. All the people that I was with at that moment made me feel so comfortable and welcoming. It also had to do with knowing how many different people had taken this same journey previously and how they had stepped on the path before me. Hearing all the stories about how this trail came to be made me realize how the land itself has had so much love. Experiencing all three of those things made tears fall, happy tears and I am so grateful for them. Now that I know how much the project can change my life, I have made a promise to the land and to the people and to myself that I will return next year. As I was leaving the country, I did not say goodbye Costa Rica, I said hasta luego (see you later)! Muchos Gracias (many thanks)!

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Nichola’s Video Blog – The 2013 Heart of Gold Experience

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The Heart of Gold Project Eco-Trail by Jonny Bierman

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Looking into the Future Con Mucho Gusto

The Heart of Gold team successfully piloted the 8-day Eco tour traveling through the cloud forest in five different Los Santos communities. The journeys consisted of many culturally educational experiences, quality community bonding, and plenty of opportunity for mobilizing knowledge. The team was hard at work all May working in the field by hosting and going to meetings, a SWOT Workshop, mini meetings among the group, a presentation with a Los Santos school, upgrading the Heart of Gold website, translating documents, working on daily and weekly blogs, and making deep rooted connections with our host families.

Next year the project has already gathered a rather large list of action items that must be addressed. The agenda looks a little like this:
– Run one last pilot tour under the training of Thomas (the avid bird watcher/ Rainforest Alliance Member) potentially in February.
– Have people from the Heart of Gold Project (VIU students and/or FAALS) to make an appearance at Earth University as well as meet with Rainforest Alliance for capacity building.
– Start on a marketing plan. Find groups to market and promote the tour through as well as set up volunteer expeditions through one of the projects partners.
– Find more funding. Applying for grants and competitions such as this years g-project are always on the go. If you have not heard already, the Heart of Gold Project was issued in the online news paper called matador network as one of the top 10 projects that are going to change the world! Click here to see the article.
– Creating a blue print of the 8-day tour.
– Connecting with other volunteer groups in the Los Santos area to help with project tasks.
– If the trails are re-done and the tour is ready to go, look into creating a project expansion plan.
– Then create a 5-year vision plan for the trail.
Con mucho gusto (with great pleasure), is a very popular saying in Costa Rica. People say it when they meet someone new and to say thank you (de nada) for something. This is a word that personally stands out to me, as this visit has been- very pleasurable working on this project. Now coming to a close on our 2013 mission to Costa Rica, the trip has proven to be a successful progression. With still a bit of work ahead of us to go, we are well on our way to running an official tourist packed tour for 2014.
The learning curb has been immense this cooperative education. This project was a great reminder of the importance of connectivity. The stresses of our world sometimes take the pleasure out of human interaction. Human interaction and relationships are vital in anyone’s life they promote inspiration, idea building, trust and lifelong friendships. So take the time to converse and network, get to know your community and contribute to the bigger picture. Thanks for following us through our 2013 Costa Rican Heart of Gold excursions. Pura Vida folks. Stay tuned for next year’s adventures!

¡Con Mucho gusto!

The Test Pilot Crew on Day 1 of the Hike!

Written by:Jennifer Dorby

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INA School Visit~ Spreading the word through a Community of Empowered Young Adults

The young adults of INA school and VIU's Heart of Gold Students

The young adults of INA school and VIU’s Heart of Gold Students

On May 29th the Vancouver Island University students visited Instituto Nacional De Aprendizaje (INA)- The National Institute of Learning, an alternative educational facility focusing on technical skills in the Los Santos region. The class we were presenting to was English as second language (ESL) students with a study focus on tourism. Our main purpose for visiting the school was to spread the word of the Heart of Gold project happening in their area as well as give the presentation in our native language to help the students practice listening to English.
We were greeted at 8 am by a room full of the English students. They had come in 6 hours earlier than normal for this occasion and made breakfast for us! During the breakfast everyone introduced themselves and we discovered that most of the students were between the ages of 19-25 years old, had been in school learning English for the past 5 months, that the institute is free and since it is an alternative school, you only need a minimum of grade 9 education. This school is also so new, that the president Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica was coming to the community for the opening ceremony of the school that following week.

The 15 minute slide show presentation turned into 1.5 hours of conversations. After the presentation, we took group photos, had very mature conversations about recycling systems in Canada, Canadian traditions and how INA can be involved in the project (for just 5 months of English, we were very impressed with their ability to communicate) and even walked them through how to vote if they liked the project for the G-Project competition. It is nice to have such a large amount of the communities support both locally and for the G-Project, ratings sky rocketed. The instructor was of great assistance and even the principal came to speak with us. The VIU Heart of Gold team will be keeping in touch with the instructor during the school year and will hopefully give another presentation to the new students next year; they are a wonderful contact to have!

This was truly an amazing experience and one of the main highlights for a couple of the students on the project. The fact that we were presenting to students learning English and tourism in this small community was a gold mine. The project could be the incentive these students need to keep them in their small communities to be ambassadors and generate income for these rural destinations. Collaborating information and spreading the word with the students of this school would be very beneficial to all parties involved!

Learning a second language is very valued in tourism along local educational facility partnerships as it gives the project a lot more dimension, opportunity to expand, generate different approaches and ideas and helps students gain the hands on practice they desire to confront the ‘real’ world. By the Vancouver Island University students appearing in the community, we hope people will talk to their friends and family and the word will be spread about the project happening in their own backyard.

Written by: Jennifer Dorby

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Costa Rica students benefit from cross-cultural exchanges in Canada

In the past three years, the Heart of Gold project’s main focus has been helping farming families subsidize their small scale farming economies. This project has had several different phases, the current phase has been the creation of an Eco trail tour that will one day bring smart travelers to the Los Santos region and into these small communities. Through this main initiative, the project has diversified and now has several focuses including: protecting the Los Santos reserve, supporting young men and women, empowering  women, and replicating  the project in different communities.

One  of the main challenges that this project has been facing is the limited English speaking abilities within the communities. If these families hope to create a successful tour, they need to be able to communicate with English speaking tourists. As part of supporting young men and women,  Vancouver Island University (VIU) has brought three students to Nanaimo for three months and provided scholarships for them to come and learn English in their ESL  program. The students are chosen by the families that are working within the association, and are usually people who have been involved within the project.

Each student that has been to Canada gives back to the project in very different ways. Jefferson Salazar was the first student to be given this opportunity and  is currently working as a liaison for the association between NGO’s and different institutions within Costa Rica.  Some of these partnerships include: The Rainforest Alliance, Earthwatch Institute, and Earth University.  Sharon Fallas currently contributes to the project by housing the Canadian students that are working in Costa Rica. Sharon also helps the students with translating and editing the reports that they write for the association. Nidia Montero works with the town of Naranjillo, her job is to organize the accommodation for the tourists while they are staying within the community. Nidia and her family also provide home stays for the students while they are working in San Marcos.

This year Esteban Chinchilla  has been selected by the Farm and Agro-tourism Association of Los Santos (FAALS) to come to Nanaimo in September for three months to learn English. Esteban is 21 years old and from the community of Quebrada Grande. He currently is working with his father in construction, building and fixing up houses in the community as well as taking general studies at a university in Copey. In the past year, Esteban has been working for the association as the secretary, ensuring communication between the communities, and with VIU. This is a unique and wonderful opportunity for Esteban and he is excited and nervous to begin his adventure.

During his time in Canada, Esteban will not only learn to speak English, but he will  have the opportunity to learn about Canadian culture and experience how Canadian’s live their lives. His accommodations will be provided by a home stay family whose daughter was a student whom previously participated in the Heart of Gold project four years ago, and now has the opportunity to give back to the project in a unique way.

It is clear that this cross-cultural learning opportunity has affected each of the students in different ways. The support that VIU provides these young men and women will help benefit not only these individuals but their communities for years to come.

By Kassandra KirkhamImage

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Knowledge Mobilization in Action

One of the main research methods utilized by the Heart of Gold Project is participatory observation research. During the pilot tour the team of student researchers participate as if they are “real” tourists experiencing all aspects of the tour as FAALS intends to offer. Behind the scenes, the researchers are paying close attention to every detail from homestay arrangements to activities to guiding techniques, and critically assessing the good, the bad, and the ugly. Once the tour is complete the researchers gather for an intensive debrief session to share thoughts, ideas, suggestions, and perspectives. This is one area where the value of having a diverse team of researchers really shines through.  While many ideas overlap there are many important subtleties that each individual detects as a result of their unique perspective, cultural background, education, etc.


After all thought are shared and the debrief draws to a close, a brief sense of relief and accomplishment washes over the group – we’ve completed the task we set out to do! But have we really? Not quite. All of these ideas and data are not going to achieve anything floating around in our heads or stuck between the pages of our notebooks. We need to share the information with the people that need it most and can transform the information into an action plan. This step is referred to as knowledge mobilization (KM) and is arguably one of the most important and challenging aspects of conducting successful research.


In this case, the FAALS members were the primary group with whom we intended to share the results of our research. When determining the most effective approach to KM the group considered several factors such as language/cultural barriers to overcome, literacy levels, and access to technology. During the research design phase, we decided that we would present our findings in a brief report using simple language and highlighting our main ideas using bullet points. The report was written in English, translated to Spanish by the researchers, and then proofread by a local to ensure the translations were accurate. By creating a report, the families would have a tangible document they could use as reference as they continue to move forward with the development of the trail.


Another strategy employed to enhance KM was a capacity building workshop with FAALS that featured several components to share our findings and recommendations. We facilitated a world café style activity where FAALS participants were separated into their respective communities and were asked to critically reflect on several categories: accommodation, transportation, guiding, trails, and tourist safety. This activity promoted collaboration and critical thinking among the FAALS families and highlighted the fact they possess a great deal of knowledge within themselves. We (the researchers) are here to empower and support, not to be “the experts” and tell them what to do and how to do it. Afterwards we shared some of our main points and suggestions with the families and encouraged them to create a one-year action plan with due dates and coordinators to implement the ideas generated during the workshop. As always it is up to FAALS to decide how they will use our ideas and recommendations. For me personally, one of the most satisfying parts of returning to volunteer on the project a second time was to see all the progress that had been made as a result of some of our the work we did the previous year.

Written by: Nichola Evernden

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It’s not over yet…

By Jonny Bierman

A little over a year ago, I approached our professor David Robinson, about the opportunity to join The Heart of Gold Project in 2013. What I knew was that the project worked with farming communities and that they were developing an Eco-Trail to bring more income in to these places. My thought was that this would be the perfect opportunity for me to get experience developing a tourism product, as this is something I would like to explore in the future for a career. What I didn’t know was that this experience would be life altering, perspective changing and mind blowing. I didn’t know that the families I met and stayed with would be like my own. I didn’t know that no matter how basic the living, the experience would always be heightened by the contributions and collaboration with the communities and families and that this would change the way I saw tourism as an industry, and the way I perform as a traveller.

This experience has been so much more then helping communities develop a tourism product. In fact, I got so caught up in the experiences of living with the families, helping out around the house, and working with the other students like a family and as a community, I completely forgot that the reason I wanted to join the project was to help establish the tourism product. It was not until we started the actual Eco-Trail and evaluating it as we went along, that I remembered the original reason I wanted to join.

I could divide this experience in two sections: 1) Homestay family engagement and relationship building, and 2) The actual evaluation, experience and recommendations of the Eco-Trail. Prior to starting and after the tour itself, I lived with homestay families and they welcomed me in their houses as if I was one of their own kids. The experiences were enriching and soul-filling and I valued this relationship building and cross-cultural interaction on a very personal level.

We left the first homestay after 12 days and officially started The Eco-Trail on May 14th. Dave gave each of us a little booklet to carry with us during the trial so that we could write down things we noticed; we did this so that after the tour we could have a debrief and eventually update a report on what needed to be worked on for the tour to be sold to actual tourists. Eventually, I hope to start up my own international adventure travel company and this part of the Heart of Gold experience was useful for me as I was able to evaluate things that went well and things that didn’t; things that needed improvement, and things that I would expect to see done or done differently as a full-paying tourist. Many times during the tour I thought how awesome of experience I was getting being able to evaluate a tour before I start up one of my own. If I end up starting up my own company, I will probably take the experience and learning of the pilot Eco-Trail and do a pilot tour of my own, and give my “tourists” a book to evaluate it as we go along. That was real industry experience that I know will benefit me in the future. On the tour we had a fiesta where all the families came together with us and put on a “wedding” where Kassandra was the bride. This night was a defining moment for me during the tour, as I realized the level of commitment and collaboration between the families. It was amazing to see everyone come together for a celebration. We had a moment to say something in front of everyone and most people got little teary eyed. It was a moving and amazing moment of the trip.

The experience was so enriching and life changing that I feel that my work is not done. As I write this post looking out the airplane window at the lands below and reflect on this incredible experience, it is hard to think that my work in Costa Rica is done. The positive change I contributed too cannot have a price put on it. I will be surprised if it doesn’t play a key role for the rest of my life. This experience was so enriching that I am already making plans to return next year. I think that if I don’t return, then I wont feel like my work was completed to its fullest potential. The families down there are like my own, and the communities welcome me as if I am a long-time resident. My heart is so full of positive energy and great vibes from the experience that I think I’ll find myself down there in the near future.


The group with some of FAALS familiesImageThe “bride” and her wedding party

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Collaboration Station- A Tour Debrief

By Jonny Bierman

Collaboration, not competition- some of David Robinson’s most famous words. The Heart of Gold Project Pilot Tour highlighted collaboration at its finest. Each community worked together to engage with the tourists through organized group activities, meals, and cross-cultural interactions; the culture was displayed in almost everything that we took part in. While on the tour, each group member had a tiny blue book and a pen that Dave had provided at the start. The task? To write down everything we observed from the good–to the bad–and the in between. The ultimate goal for this was to debrief in Manual Antonio at the end of the tour to assess what needed improvements and what was ready for the regular paying tourist. Ultimately the tour went smoothly and everyone was thoroughly impressed, but that being said, there is still much work to be done before the tour can be sold.

The 4.5 hour debrief in Manuel Antonio consisted of everyone voicing their opinion about the tour; many of us had the same things to say as the others as the obvious was pointed out, such as a fluently English speaking guide, and trail improvements. Ultimately this debrief between the “tourists” would lead to a SWOT (Strengths, weaknesses, opportunity and threats) meeting between the communities and us the following week. Throughout the debrief some voiced opinions that others had missed, which was great, because that meant we were all noticing different aspects of the tour. Food, hikes, activities, accommodation, transportation, guides and basically any aspect that one could think of that would be involved with a tour were talked about on a positive and critical level. The group recognized the amount of work put into this project and it was noticeable throughout the tour. This in turn showed the level of commitment, engagement and collaboration by the communities.

So back to the collaboration aspect- that’s what this entire tour, debrief and SWOT meeting was about. It was about the communities collaborating to provide the best possible outcomes for the tourists, it was about the tourists banding together to find the best opportunities and improvements for the communities, and it was about the tourists and the communities working together as a whole. As with any group project, competition will lead to conflicts and potentially failure, and this project was the exact opposite. Most everyone worked together and continues too, so that the bar is raised and everyone is reaching his or hers fullest potential to ensure the future success of the ‘Sky to Sea’ Eco-Trekking & Homestay Tour.  Image

The “Tourists” in Manuel Antonio


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From Mountain Tops to Coffee Crops

At the end of our last day of hiking we trekked into the small village of Naranjillo and were greeted by fresh pipas (coconuts), friendly smiles, and chocolate bars on our pillows – these folks know how to make hikers happy! After starting our first day of hiking at an altitude of about 3500 meters, we arrived in Naranjillo at around 600 meters. We have traversed through several different microclimates and have experienced an incredible range of biodiversity on each leg of the hike. This last section feels very tropical with Tarzan-like vines hanging from the trees and impressive anthills alongside the trail, the jungle feels very alive on the way to Naranjillo.

This tiny, remote village nestled next to a river at the bottom of a valley surrounded by tropical plants and fresh fruit crops is a picturesque setting. But life in Naranjillo isn’t all a tropical paradise for the locals – with the nearest neighbouring community an hour and half away on a dirt road that often washes out during heavy rains, even going for groceries is a mission. Communication is also limited, with the only phone service to the town being two unreliable pay phones. The local elementary school has a grand total of four students, and older students must go elsewhere to get their secondary school education. At one point Naranjillo was a (relatively) busy little agricultural community, but with limited services and opportunities the town now sits empty with only a handful of families remaining. The community has refurbished one of the abandoned homes into a rustic, yet cozy homestay casa to house small groups of tourists. We were thrilled to have had the opportunity to help them paint the house and to be the first group to stay in the house. Because of Naranjillo’s remote location, the resident families work hard to grow much of their own food. In fact, all of the meals during our stay were made from locally grown organic food.

As rural areas undergo transformation, communities must adapt to the changing landscape and demographics. Some of the issues that affect communities undergoing outmigration are an aging population due to youth outmigration in particular as well as the presence of abandoned, derelict buildings. For a community that has undergone significant outmigration, building partnerships is one way to boost social and human capital. The residents of Naranjillo have reached out to form these partnerships through the Heart of Gold Project by joining with the other FAALS families to help diversify the Los Santos region. In this way, FAALS has recognized that what they can offer to tourists is greatly enhanced by working together and showcasing the unique aspects of each community and each family.

The Heart of Gold Project also seeks to empower the youth in the community through the scholarship program. The hope is that the young adults from the communities that receive scholarships to study English in Canada will be able to return home and strengthen their own communities by contributing their English skills and broadened cultural perspective to the project. Giving young people roles and responsibilities in their home communities adds to their sense of place attachment and community pride, and will hopefully help maintain the integrity of the region.

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Written by: Nichola Evernden

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