Alexa was born in Geneva, Switzerland and grew up in Miami, Florida. She originally came to Costa Rica as a college sophomore on a Tropical Ecology field course through the University of Georgia. After graduating with a degree in Psychology/Zoology from the University of Florida in 2010, she returned to Costa Rica to intern as a Resident Naturalist at the University of Georgia’s satellite campus in San Luis de Monteverde. She continued studying Tropical Ecology and became specifically interested in birds, amphibians, and insects. She moved on to become a Teaching Assistant, developing lectures, workshops, field modules and student research project designs for semester-long Ecology courses. She also co-instructed short field courses in Tropical Ornithology, taught Spanish lessons, and worked as a professional translator and interpreter. After a year in San Luis, Alexa began working as a Course Coordinator for a Costa Rican nonprofit called the Monteverde Institute, which combined logistical planning with fieldwork and nature guiding. When she is not coordinating, Alexa works as a freelance Naturalist guide, leading bird watching and natural history tours in various ecosystems: cloud forests, the dry forests of the Pacific coast, and the lowland rainforests of the Caribbean and Southern Pacific slopes. Alexa has been living in San Luis de Monteverde since July of 2010, is an active member of her community, and is fluent in Spanish. When she isn’t out working, you can find her bird watching from her front porch, going for a run, visiting friends for coffee, or Salsa dancing.
How do the experiences you offer at TropicAves give guests a unique perspective on the history, people or culture of Costa Rica?
As a foreigner who is enamored with my adopted home, I offer a unique perspective: I understand the intricacies of Costa Rican culture and standards, bearing in mind the expectations of travelers from more developed areas. I still, naturally, notice things that are distinct about Costa Rica– different or unusual for a visitor– that a born-and-raised local may not pick up on as special or different enough to point out. I always have safety concerns, food quality, and access to medical facilities on my radar. In my role as guide and educator, I combine expertise with academic rigor and a working familiarity with ongoing research on the natural wonders of Costa Rica. Alex, our driver and co-founder, is also a vital component to our trips. He provides local perspective, authenticity, charisma, and fun Spanish practice for our clients. We have incredibly tight-knit relationships with the communities we visit, and when we are traveling in Monteverde, our clients are interacting with our close neighbors and friends. We offer an unparalleled level of direct cultural integration.
How have the tours that you offer evolved since their inception?
I used to be much more passive with clients during their travel with us—I thought, ‘it is their itinerary after all- I should only provide them with what they ask for.’ But I’ve learned that, often, people hire us precisely because they don’t know what all their options are, and thus may not know what to ask for– they want someone that they trust to introduce them to an experience that they have never been exposed to and would therefore not be able to request. My clients are adventurous and curious, and I feel honored to help them leave their comfort zone in a way that feels genuine, productive, and safe. They’ve put their trust in me to provide a unique experience, and I now feel at home pushing their boundaries, taking the reins, and imparting educational information even when it is not specifically requested.
What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?
Guests may not notice the behind-the-scenes effort we make to match their expressed interests, based on pre-trip interviews, with their in-country experience– everything from which local families we decide to connect them with for activities, to which types of foods or experiences we try out, to which forests or reserves we visit. Then, in country, we are regularly gauging their interests and satisfaction, and adjusting as we go to ensure that they are having an optimal experience.
Another aspect that is unique to us is that we sit with our clients at mealtimes. With other operations, you’ll notice the guides and drivers sit separately at mealtimes. We join in and become part of the family (we always offer to leave room for privacy and alone time if that is what people prefer- but that hasn’t happened yet!). It creates a truly unique experience for our clients: they leave feeling like that have a genuine connection to the country, because they’ve developed a sincere friendship with us.
What do you wish every guest knew as they consider participating in the experiences you offer?
That there is a huge difference is between travel with us and travel with other companies: we provide an active experience- not a passive one. If they choose to really pay attention and engage, their trip will be so much more than a fun vacation- it will be transformative, it will inspire new passions, and it will generate new friends, new connections, a new understanding of the world and their place in it.
What is one unexpected piece of clothing or equipment guests should have to maximize their enjoyment of the experiences you offer?
Can I name one unexpected piece of equipment that you should NOT bring, in order to maximize your enjoyment of the experiences we offer? YOUR SMART PHONE! Detach from it! I believe that putting your phone away allows you to truly connect: you connect with yourself, with nature, with the place you are in, with us as your guides and in-country hosts, and with the people you are travelling with (more often than not, with our clients, that means family!). It is incredible the difference it makes to let yourself be present in the moment. Bring a camera if you like taking pictures—but leave your phone at home or turned off and in your suitcase 😊
What is one travel trend that really excites you?
Using locals as a venue to “dig deeper” and access the true culture. It has been super cool to see that happen with Airbnb here in my community.
What is one insiders tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?
Be an advocate for your own experience. Doing a little bit of background reading and preparation before your trip can make your time in-country so much more gratifying and educational. USE your travel providers as a resource—that is what we are here for! Never be afraid to ask questions (after all, you’re paying for the service of having an expert with you!), and that goes for before the trip, during the trip, AND after the trip. Ask us for pre-trip reading recommendations, ask us for a list of animal sightings, ask us to clarify something you heard us say in the field that you are not quite sure you remember. Milk your experience for all it is worth, always ask for more—with us, you’ll get it! It is one of the most gratifying things for me as an educator to be asked questions in the field. Another tip of mine is to journal while you travel– reflect on your experience, learn from it, and let it change you. My travel journals are among my most intimately treasured possessions, because they are a record of what impacted me and what I learned about myself and the world around me.
What is one strategy that has helped your business to grow?
Word of mouth, and providing excellent, well-designed and well-executed travel itineraries that we pour our heart and soul into! The level of quality and customization we offer is unmatched in our field. For now, we are staying small to conserve that customer experience – and we will only expand once we can be sure of our capacity to maintain that standard with a larger volume of clients.
What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?
Is it ok if I write about more than one? I have learned to focus my efforts on work that I am truly passionate about, and I constantly remind myself to stay present and mindful, and allow myself some room for healthy play even while I’m working. When you’re truly engaged, mindfully “in” the experience, you connect better with your clients and students, you have the space to be curious, and you give yourself the space to enjoy yourself so you do not get burnt out (common in the service industry!). Also, perhaps most importantly, you give yourself the space to reflect, learn, and continue to grow. If a client asks me a question that I don’t know the answer to, I always investigate—that back and forth is one of the most dynamic and motivating parts of my job, as it keeps me learning, curious, and on my toes. Another success strategy of mine is keeping detailed notes about what worked well and what didn’t on each trip, and asking for my clients’ feedback in written form once they have returned home. I practice clear and honest communication both internally, with myself, and externally, with my clients and third-party service providers.
Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.
We recently had the pleasure of working with a 7-year-old animal enthusiast and his father. Even at his early age, this boy is so passionate and knowledgeable about nature and animals that he was an inspiration to everyone we worked with. I was able to use his youthful eagerness as leverage to get us access to some experiences that are usually reserved for student groups of scientific researchers exclusively. Upon their return to the United States, this boy’s father related to me that they were “still feeling the magic” of their trip. For me, the fact that their experience in Costa Rica was still salient once they were home embodies our philosophy of travel and how it can change us permanently, for the better. That boy will never look at a nature documentary the same way, now that he has experienced the tropics and its biodiversity first-hand.