The Best Sweet Sixteen

The Best Sweet Sixteen

Ella Russell

Pura Vida Service, Costa Rica 2022

Images have been provided by Ella and Rustic staff. Read Ella’s story below!


Ella Russell had a specific date in mind when she picked a travel program. She wanted to spend her Sweet Sixteen birthday in July in Costa Rica. After some consideration, she settled on the Pura Vida Service program.

Her program leaders celebrated Ella’s rite of passage birthday by giving her a vanilla cake that she said was the best cake she ever had. Perhaps it was sweeter since she had several days before her milestone birthday to take in all Costa Rica has to offer. Much of that time centered around the town of La Fortuna near the Arenal Volcano.

Get spectacular views of the Arenal Volcano on the program. Copyright: © 2022 Rustic Pathways

“It was beautiful. I’ve literally never seen anything like it. Just seeing the volcano being right there – it was amazing with all the green,” Ella said. “There are no words to describe it.”

Ella and the other students had plenty of opportunities to view the scenery in that area. Among the highlights were walks at Arenal National Park and ziplining over a lake. They learned how the community uses that lake for water and electricity. They also saw a number of animals during the program’s outings, including a sloth, a monkey and many lizards.

One tiny creature that caught Ella’s attention was the leaf cutter ant. The students witnessed many of these ants in action. The insects can carry almost 50 times their weight on their back and are being studied for their abilities to fight parasites and create fungi gardens.

“I thought they were really interesting because they use smell to walk in long lines that you see everywhere you go,” Ella said.

She has some experience searching for such wonders during international travel. Ella has been to Europe and Mexico with her family. However, she had never made a student journey like this before. Aside from nature, she also appreciated learning about the culture. She threw herself into service efforts and relished the opportunity to travel independently as a teenager.

Connecting with a Community

Right after arriving in the town of La Fortuna, Ella said she had one of her most memorable moments. The students joined local community members to learn about the culture.

“The dancing and the presentation were probably my favorite parts of the trip because we got to learn and actually experience their culture,” Ella said. “They taught us about La Fortuna and the volcano and they showed us their dances. We got to learn them too – like the salsa and the merengue. That was a lot of fun. I loved it.”

Making an Impact

Afterwards, Ella and her fellow students got into the service portion of the program. Their first projects involved building a natural filtration system for water at the national park and working on a storage facility. They worked hard digging water pathways and scraping cement.

“When we would scrape the cement it would get all over us, so I had a lot of fun doing that. I laughed a lot,” Ella said “The digging was also really fun because we made a lot of progress that we could actually see.”

Later they went to a community center where they cleaned a wall and mixed cement to build another wall. Like the first day, Ella found the labor intensive projects to be quite enjoyable.

“That was my favorite service day experience… We kept doing projects. There was no time to stand around and do nothing. We were always busy. We were always helping, and we made a lot of progress with the wall which was amazing to see,” Ella said. “I also got really dirty, so that was fun!”

The students rounded out their service work by building a sidewalk at the local school. Ella described the work as “satisfying” since she enjoyed smoothing out the cement to make it flat.

All these efforts are important since the Costa Rican government does not provide much assistance for schools and other community endeavors. That made it particularly rewarding, but there also was plenty of time to try other new things and get the adrenaline pumping.

Exciting Adventures

Breaking up the service projects were a number of outings. Ella said she thought adventure activities like white water rafting and ziplining were scary at first. But she overcame her fears.

Ella and her fellow students take a break while ziplining near Mt. Arenal.

She said it helped that the guides during the rafting were really funny and that the ziplining showcased more of the scenery she had come to love.

“You had an amazing view while you were going. You would just look to your side, and you would see the lake. It was really pretty,”  Ella said.

Throughout these adventures Ella had the support of both an old friend and new ones. She traveled to Costa Rica with her friend Olivia. They used to live in the same town, but now they live a long plane ride apart in different states.

Reconnecting with a friend may be enough to make any birthday special. But they also made new friends and enjoyed expanding their horizons. Friendships within her group were strengthened by the Rustic ties tradition, where they tie bracelets on each other and discuss what they learned during the program.

“I liked the questions they asked and how it bonded us,” Ella said. “We’re always going to be friends.”

Ella is already looking ahead to the next Rustic Pathways program. Now that she’s a year older and more comfortable with independent travel she is considering going farther from home. Next possible stop – Thailand. Ella says it’s on her bucket list to see Asian elephants.

In the meantime, she’ll always have a Sweet Sixteen to remember. And a new Pura Vida way of looking at life.

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