From Australia to Costa Rica

This is part two of Towson alumnus Zachary Renner’s story on life after study abroad in Costa Rica. We are so pleased so share his adventures, and are grateful that he contacted us to do so!

Zachary Renner
Studied Abroad Sophomore Year
The University of The Sunshine Coast, Australia
Graphic Design Major
Graduated from Towson Spring 2010

The following winter, I convinced three friends to go on a surf trip to Costa Rica. We spent three weeks hunting down waves on the Pacific Coast and camping in the back yards of local homes. The people I met in Costa Rica seemed to really enjoy life. Many of them had with far fewer possessions then anyone I knew in the United States. I could tell Costa Rica was very special place, and could easily see myself spending more time there. As graduation was getting closer, I ready to catch a plane to just about anywhere, start bouncing around from country to country like those kids I had met in Australia.

The last part of the Graphic Design degree is the senior portfolio review. That semester Towson was short a teacher so they brought in Hud, the owner of a small graphic design firm in Washington DC. One of my design teachers caught me in the hallway after my review and asked that I show some of my work to Hud. He was apparently looking for a new designer. Hud liked my work and called me on the phone shortly after to come in for an interview.

My mind was already completely set on starting my travels, but I knew how fortunate I was, and how hard I had worked to get opportunities like this. I very difficultly decided that if I was offered the job, I would take it. I would work as along as I could stand it, then start my adventures. Figuring that traveling would be a lot easier with money, was also appealing. I picked an amount of money that I thought I could travel on for at least two years, and started my 8:30 to 6 job. Commuting from Towson to DC, parking four miles from my office, and skateboarding in to work. I did everything I could to save money and reach that number faster.

I left my job on great terms about 15 months from the day I was hired. Fortunately, Hud fully understood what I was after. When I told him I would like to leave the company to travel, he gave me $100 and told me take my girlfriend to a nice dinner to celebrate. He is an amazing guy, and I still do freelance work for him.

Me and Kate both decided it would be nice to really immerse ourselves in a culture. So we would stay at our first country for a year or so. We decided on Costa Rica. We already knew that I liked it. Costa Rica is also close to the United States, so we would get plenty of visitors.

I left Xanthus Design in August and flew to Costa Rica in September. No idea where I would live, what I would do, or how I would speak to anyone in Spanish. Stayed in a few hostels for about a month before finding El Castillo.

El Castillo (the castle), was an abandoned, run down hostel/hotel/bar/restaurant on the Pacific coast of the country. It is absolutely secluded on a protected beach for sea turtle nesting. The drive to the closest town takes between 20 minutes and 1 hour depending on whether or not the river is low enough to drive your car/motorcycle through it. I am unique in my ability to see possibilities in things that are far from functional as anything. I told Kate that I found something for us to do, but to give me a little bit of time to make it livable.

I learned how to run electricity, fix plumbing, build bed frames, and talk enough Spanish. I bought a car, mattresses from Nicaragua, pots, pans, a stove… About two months after I arrived, we accepted our first guest.

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We have been doing this for three years now and I am pleased to say that El Castillo is now a fully functional hostel and pizza restaurant. We always have at least one volunteer that lives here. I give surf lessons, perform all of the maintenance, and am the pizza chef. When we have free time we take trips to Panama, Nicaragua or places that we have not seen in Costa Rica.

About two years ago we saw the possibility to get El Castillo more involved in our community. We started by hosting kids movies nights. We have now hosted several community fund raisers, Christmas parties, and grass roots art festivals. Since we always have young, able guys and girls staying here, it was really easy to start a volunteer hostel.

Most people love to help. It is hard to take a multi-week or multi-month vacation without feeling a little useless. So when people arrive here and see that there is work they can do they are really excited. Foreign guys and girls learn some Spanish and about a different culture.

We built a big concrete half pipe for skateboarding. It turned out amazing, we even had some skateboards donated from friends in the United States. We have had people drive long distances to skateboard here since it is one of the only ramps in the country. We held an online fund raiser to build playground and library for the local school. We received donations from all over the world. Before our 50 book library cabinet, the kids only had a few black and white copies of textbooks. The leftover money from the playground will go into the future library building with even a few computers.