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On the Trail of Accessible Costa Rica

July 25, 2008

Dreams can come true. Residents in Costa Rica know how heavenly it is to visit the country’s beaches, volcanoes and rainforests and appreciate all the beauty this paradise has to offer. Many complain about the quality of the roads, among other things, but they may be taking for granted the ease with which they can visit these attractions as able-bodied people.

Cody Rapine, a 14-year-old boy from Greenville, Indiana, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, hoped to experience nature in Costa Rica, and as sometimes is the case with dreams, his came true.

For Cody and his family, the trip would not be easy. First of all, travel for a family of four to Central America is not an inexpensive venture. Second, this journey would need to be fully wheelchair accessible as Cody uses a 250-pound motorized wheelchair.

This seemed like a challenge rather than an impossibility for The Dream Factory, a volunteer-based non-profit organization that grants the wishes of critically and chronically ill children ages 3 to 18. Founded in 1980 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, the factory now has 40 chapters across the United States.

The Louisville chapter took on Cody’s wish in 2006, but due to extensive surgeries the trip was postponed till May 2008.

Perhaps the most critical component was finding the trained staff, accessible hotels and facilities that would make the trip possible.

Erik Shiozaki, owner of Vaya Con Silla de Ruedas (Go With Wheelchairs), a company that provides wheelchair-accessible tours in Costa Rica, helped make it happen. His paratransit van and extensive knowledge of the country’s accessible options for nature travel were what made Cody’s dream, and that of many other visitors in the company’s 11 years of work in this field, a reality.

Cody, his mother and stepfather, Jill and Shawn Osbrink, and sister Kit Rapine were able to do cover considerable ground, thanks to a network of guides, hotel owners and other people committed to accessibility in a way not often observed in Costa Rica.

The family met The Tico Times during a tour of San José the third day of their journey.

They had already seen the Butterfly Farm in La Guacima, Alajuela, northwest of San José, and INBio Parque, north of the capital in Santo Domingo de Heredia, not far from Cypress Hills Guest House, where they were staying.

Milton Valentine and Erik Shiozaki gave a detailed tour of the capital, offering fascinating facts and pointing out each ramp that made downtown sites such as Parque España and National Park more manageable.

But there were spots with no ramps, forcing Cody to venture into the street to get to the next destination. The group followed Cody to protect him from traffic.

“I can’t imagine anyone disabled coming here by themselves,” said Jill Osbrink.

Erik Shiozaki said, in over two decades providing paratransit tours, he has seen improvements at tourist sites. However, there are still many improvements to be made. Students with disabilities who want to study in language schools, he said, can’t come. Accessibility is something people here need to more of, Shiozaki said.

Thanks to Shiozaki and accessibility- minded travel companies, Cody and his family toured all over Costa Rica – from Arenal, in the north-central region, to the Tarcoles River on the way to Central Pacific Jacó beach, where on a pontoon ride, Cody watched a crocodile eat a chicken.

The highlight for Cody, he said, was La Selva Biological Station, near Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean, which has seven kilometers of concrete trails on which he was able to see an eyelash viper snake, poisonous dart frogs, a toucan and howler monkeys.

For Osbrink, Cody’s mother, Hotel Fortuna near Arenal Volcano topped the list. “The accessibility, decor, amazing food and friendly staff surpassed any hotel we’ve stayed in the states,” she said.

Cody’s trip came to an end, but Osbrink is already thinking of how her family can return to paradise – for three weeks this time.

 

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