Since they began keeping records in the 1800s no hurricane has ever made landfall in Costa Rica. We came close a few years ago with one right at the tail end of hurricane season, but as of today we can boast of being a safe from hurricanes. That’s at least how I promote the country when organizing exchange groups.
Recently, a group of high school students visited Costa Rican students for two weeks to really find out what the pura vida was all about. They had excursions, school visits and family outings all planned for the trip and everything started out true to form. No delays getting in, an excellent first day trip out to a tropical beach island, all followed by getting to their families and spending a day at the host school.
All was well as the following day we had a coffee tour in the morning and the weather couldn’t have been better. In the afternoon we went to the zip line canopy tour, where students would fly through the jungle on a cable. I had done it many times before and was excited for them as it was overcast and a bit foggy, which makes the experience even better.
I had sent them on their way and was just settling down with a cup of coffee to wait for them when I heard a tap. It was like a tap on a snare drum. Except it was coming from the roof and it’s the first sign it’s gonna rain. 99% of roofs are metal and not insulated so the rain is heard just as much as it’s felt. When it rains heavily it inhibits nearly all conversation, and forces you to turn on subtitles or crank the volume on anything you’re trying to watch.
Those taps became more frequent and eventually became a full fledged orchestra. I wonder how the group is doing out there? I already knew the answer (wet) and about an hour later it was confirmed as the downpour had not stopped. As they arrived off the last line the only thing that wasn’t rain soaked and drooping were the smiles on their faces. That’s the spirit, I thought. At least it’s not snowing (they were from Wisconsin).
What was a great adventure to end the day was only the beginning though. We got on the bus to head back to the host school, but it wasn’t long before we came to a standstill. Heavy rain from before caused a landslide and the road was blocked. Not a big deal in most countries, however in Costa Rica there is really only one road that connects places and detours are hours long. I was a little dejected, but once again the students didn’t seem distraught. Aside from some wet feet, spirits remained high.
On our way to the detour, the roads were crowded and slow because of the rain. It was then that families began to send pictures and videos of bridges that had washed out and rivers that had flooded.
At that moment, the host school wasn’t accessible as bridges on both sides had washed out or were closed in an abundance of caution till the rains subsided. Our chances were looking pretty bad and then were officially dashed when a landslide closed the detour we were on. Students wouldn’t make it back to their families that night. Luckily, I was able to find a nearby hotel for the group that night, got them fed, and their clothes dried.
Once the excitement/commotion of the day had died down I decided to turn on the news to see just what the heck had happened with all this rain. I expected them to lead with the rain, however they were looking 5-6 days out at a hurricane that would potentially make landfall in Costa Rica.
5 years ago I would have sulked and spent multiple nights sleepless, however I could only smirk at this next challenge mother nature was throwing at us. Over the years, weather has added drama to the exchange experience and it sometimes feels like a long running TV series or saga like the Fast and Furious or Avengers movies.
The most epic “battle” ever “fought” in our series was during the 2019 Wisconsin January exchange when a polar vortex stranded some students nearly a week before they were able to get back to Costa Rica. Next up was the pandemic that took us underground and now, it looked like a hurricane would be the next installment of the series, a first time exchange weather event on Costa Rican soil.
The forecast projected landfall Friday evening and we were to expect heavy rain and winds for a 24 hour period. The amount of rain in that period was expected to be about a month’s worth of precipitation. Thankfully, we still had a few days to prepare and the next day we got everyone back to their families and managed to squeeze in another excursion before the weather got bad.
The host school went remote the rest of the week, which unfortunately meant the cancellation of a school dance students were looking forward to and then all schools in Costa Rica were closed on Friday out of an abundance of precaution.
As the days went by the anticipation grew. However, the storm began tracking north and it was now only expected to make landfall as a tropical storm. We were still on high alert and when Friday became Saturday, the vast majority of the country only received standard precipitation for this time of year. There were definitively rivers and towns that flooded, but in sparsely populated areas and not near the intensity as the last time we had a close call with a tropical storm.
The exchange ended 4 days after the storm and besides getting to the airport a few hours earlier than normal to account for any colossal detours, the trip back uneventful. Still all smiles and the only upside down ones were from saying goodbye to their hosts.
I was relieved as I thought our landslide and improvised hotel stay was only a preview of worse things to come, but ended up being a bonus and probably one of the highlights of the trip. The storm ended up making landfall in Nicaragua, which preserves Costa Rica’s status as never having a tropical storm/hurricane make landfall in the territory.
With the changing planet, it’s likely that Costa Rica will one day have a hurricane make landfall, but it’s still way too soon to judge its visit-ability based on weather and as long as it snows in Wisconsin, the hurricane risk is well worth it.