WITH the long school vacations almost upon us, many parents are wracking their brains looking for outdoor summer programs in Costa Rica.Adventures Under the Sun, a company specializing in adventure and environmental tourism for young people, is the brainchild of Melida Barbee, 33, a U.S. citizen raised in Costa Rica and a graduate of the Country Day School in Escazú, west of San José.After finishing her environmental studies at the University of California and working in the adventure travel industry for a couple of years, Barbee decided to set up her own company.“Taking a group of teenagers on a wilderness trip really reinforced my outlook that outdoor educational and environmental trips not only develop a sense of adventure, they also leave a profound mark on (the kids’) understanding of the world and their sense of self-esteem,” Barbee told The Tico Times at an interview in her new office in Escazú, amidst a collection of surfboards, canoe oars, camping gear and other tools of the outdoor-adventure trade.THE company offers four- to five-day surf camps, a variety of backcountry programs through remote areas inaccessible by vehicle for a real wilderness experience, and “front-country” routes on which the kids stay in lodges.Designing programs for teenagers (ages 12-18) that would combine environmental studies, adventure and fun was not easy, Barbee said.“One of the hardest things for me was overcoming the cultural differences in Costa Rica,” she said. “I come from an adventurous family, but here I came across a very different attitude in the Tico families.”By combining Costa Rican and foreign teenagers and carefully matching the participants by age and maturity level, Barbee strives to create a group experience in a unique environment. Every group of 10-15 participants has two fully trained leaders.All the programs have one thing in common: the trip has to plant a seed of greater awareness and sensibility toward the world and increase environmental awareness and respect. Those who choose to paddle in sea kayaks first learn about mangrove conservation, while surfers have lessons in oceanography, learning where the waves and the tides come from, before grabbing their boards.A typical backcountry program might be an eight-day trip to the Nicoya Peninsula, off the northern Pacific coast. After catching a ferry from the Pacific port city of Puntarenas across the Gulf of Nicoya to Naranjo, the group spends two days sea kayaking and exploring the waters around Isla San Lucas, camping on the deserted beach. Crossing the peninsula, the next four days are spent in an old hacienda, where kids camp out next to the river in a Wild West environment. The ranch has its own organic farm and a beachfront campsite.After an overnight horseback-riding trip, participants take surfing lessons on a beach protected by a reef, offering ideal conditions for beginners. After more sea kayaking and a canopy tour, the group heads back to San José.Backpacking and camping programs are designed with educating the modern teenager in mind; participants have to take turns cooking and cleaning, and also have to learn to subsist on the food and gear they travel with, plan the meals and experiment with making exotic dishes such as ceviche, polenta and couscous.The unique Sea to Sea front-country program is geared toward newcomers to Costa Rica, offering a 10-day trip covering various locations around the country: the canals and turtle-nesting beaches of Tortuguero, on the northern Caribbean coast; Arenal, a lake and volcano in the north-central region of the country; Rincón de la Vieja, a volcano and national park in the northwestern province of Guanacaste; the northern-Pacific beach town of Tamarindo; and the Nicoya Peninsula. Accommodation is in rustic lodges.ADVENTURES Under the Sun is committed to involving local communities in its programs, giving the teenagers a chance to get to know and interact with a new culture, whether that means local fishermen lending a hand with the sea kayaks or Guanacaste cowboys teaching them how to care for and saddle up the horses. Safety is a priority for the company, and all trip leaders are certified in Wilderness First Responder. Campsites are carefully chosen and are always set up in the grounds of the park ranger stations in the national parks.The trips are not survival programs, and do not require any athletic expertise or previous outdoor experience. The most important requirements are enthusiasm and readiness to step into the unknown and face new challenges.“My students learn not only about environmental wonders, but also about themselves,” Barbee said. “I strive to make every trip a life-changing experience for each one of them.“Whether kids camp on deserted beaches, explore corals off pristine islands, hike the lush forests of the Osa Peninsula, swing through the canopies of the tropical dry forests of Nicoya, watch leatherback turtles nest or raft the rapids of the Sarapiquí, their adventure is bound to be a real wilderness experience.”Adventures Under the Sun offers holiday packages for young people from Costa Rica and abroad, as well as tailor-made educational trips throughout the year for student groups. Residents get a substantial discount off the regular price. For more information, call 289-0404 or visit www.adventuresunderthesun.com.