Costa Rica SOTA Expedition After Action Report

From January 3 to January 9, I visited Costa Rica to go “play radio.” This article will summarize my experience, share some lessons learned, and highlight the success resulting from CW Academy training.

Around January of 2020, I researched a few options for international travel. My criteria required either reciprocal licensing or a pathway for foreign travelers to obtain an amateur radio license. My criteria also included a need for the destination to participate in the Summits on the Air (SOTA) award program. For those who don’t know, SOTA is an award program that grants points to “activators” who climb summits and make QSOs using portable equipment as well as to the “chasers” who contact the “activator.” For an activator, the program’s ultimate award is “Mountain Goat,” which requires 1000 points and typically takes several years to accomplish.

Although I initially planned on traveling to Japan, the country closed its borders to all foreign travelers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, I selected Costa Rica, which had measures for foreign visitors (including mandatory additional health insurance, health screening, rapid testing, and a few others). From June 2020 to January 2021, I closely monitored the US Embassy website and Costa Rican government messages about immigration, and surprisingly restrictions slightly relaxed over time. I simultaneously submitted the required paperwork to Sutel, the Costa Rican FCC, for callsign designators TI2, TI3, and TI5. The paperwork was very specific and required that I list each planned operating location, radio type, power, and antenna type, polarization, and gain. As a note for anyone planning on operating in Costa Rica or Costa Rican territories: submit your paperwork to Sutel as early as possible – 6 months is “cutting it close.” I’d recommend submission a year in advance to assist in navigating additional questions, corrections, and resubmission.

After my paperwork was submitted and my flight was booked, I contacted the Radio Club of Costa Rica (TI0RC) and the Asociacion Radioaficionados Cartago (TI0ARC). Both groups were familiar with SOTA and provided me with insights and a list of a few possible summits to explore. They graciously created a “What’s App” messaging group and contacted me regularly throughout my planning process. Using their recommendations, I visited sotl.as (the SOTA Atlas) and plotted my ​trip through the country. I concluded I could probably activate 2 summits per day, which would be feasible while fac-toring in drive time, available battery time, weather, and daylight hours.

In January 3, 2021, I landed in San Jose and met Luis Arias, and we immediately set out to activate two summits. This plan required a few modifications because of closed gates, area closures due to COVID-19, and access issues; however, we activated both Alto Indias and Cerro Frio within several hours. While Luis utilized a VHF HT, I used my Yaesu FT 891 and wire dipole to work CW on HF. As stations stacked up (Argentina, France, Maine, California, etc.) I called them out to Luis, who told me he would set up FT8 for some DX on his Icom 705. Our conversation quickly switched to the topic of CW.

The following day was definitely a trip highlight. I discovered the Turrialba Volcano was open for climbing with a guide. I was excited because Turrialba had been closed to all exploration for approximately 10 years due to volcanic activity. The only downside to climbing the volcano was that I was only authorized to transmit using an HT rather than a complete HF setup due to time restrictions at the summit. Regardless the hike up to 11,000 ft was literally breathtaking due to the scenery and lack of oxygen. I am proud to say that TI3LSK and I were the first to activate this particular summit, which would not have been possible even two weeks prior. After Turrialba, I summited Volcano Irazu, which was equally beautiful and a bit higher in elevation.

My true “DX” station CW learning experience happened on day 3. Conditions were excellent, and I began calling CQ on 20m atop Cerro Espiritu Santo. I received an avalanche of calls. The only time I remember being more mentally flooded was on my first attempt at activating a summit using CW. Fortunately, I practiced by using Morse Runner before my trip, and I was able to pick out pieces of callsigns. I discovered a few things that helped me.

Before I share my lessons learned, I need to point out that I made my first CW QSO around September 2019 and earned my CWops number in June of 2020. Although I know CW, I am not experienced in running as a station, let alone a DX station. While I have run a station on various SOTA summits, the last solar minimum helped create smaller pileups that were more manageable. Additionally, fewer stations are interested in working California than they would be working Costa Rica.

Given the above, here are my observations. First, managing a pileup with rhythmic and standardized responses makes things flow more smoothly. When chasers know what to expect from me on each transmission, the pileup naturally becomes more organized. I also found that when I used a “?” combined with a partial call, the situation would become worse vs. just returning a partial call. I concluded that a “?” sent in combination with anything leads some to send their callsign despite the question not applying to them; whereas, sending a partial call almost always restrained those I didn’t intend to work at the moment and allowed me to focus on the intended station. I also found that I needed to try and work the loudest stations first. I learned working a pileup is similar to peeling layers off an onion – and often, the more rare callsigns were hidden at the innermost layers. Most importantly, though, I realized that a DXpedition doesn’t require any-thing beyond the radio you bring with you because the best radio is the one you use. For me, 100w and a wire worked out just fine.

I lastly decided that next time I travel, I will probably not plan on activating a large number of summits; rather, I will choose one or two and spend more time on the summit working all bands and making contacts. My purpose for this trip was a SOTA DXpedition to earn points toward the Mountain Goat award. I met that goal at the expense of rushing through the actual QSO phase. I earned points but made fewer contacts than I could have. By my next trip, I will have the Mountain Goat award, and making points will be secondary to making QSOs and generating a full logbook.

On my final day in Costa Rica, I met with the TI0ARC at a local bar. I was surprised when they presented me with an award they created, congratulating me on a successful SOTA Expedition. I was additionally told that TI3LSK registered for the next available CW Academy Basic course and encouraged fellow club members to do the same.

Although I could write a detailed log describing each day, in summary, I activated 9 different summits, including 2 volcanoes. I made contacts with stations across the United States, Germany, Spain, France, England, Czech Republic, Cuba, Sweden, Argentina, Canada, Costa Rica, and a few others. In total, I added 76 points to my SOTA score, bringing my total up to 908 (as of the day I write this). I drove several hundred miles and met many incredible people. I walked away with many new experiences, great memories, and excitement to do something similar in the future. I also realized my trip was a testament to the CW Academy program. I will forever be grateful for the time NN7M and K6RB put into teaching me proper code. It has made all the difference for me.

Before I close, I wanted to share one point of comedy during my trip. Costa Rica has a saying, “Pura Vida,” which means “pure life” but is more of a way of life than anything. The term can apply to bad situations you can’t help equally to the beautiful and amazing. On one of the last days of my trip, I was driving from a summit I had just activated toward the next village. Roads in Costa Rica are mediocre at best and terrible at worst, but I rented a 4×4 for that reason. While driving down a hill, the road transitioned from paved to dirt, to overgrown, and finally to muddy. Needless to say, I quickly became stuck to the point that I had my back right tire suspended in the air. Given the situation and my inability to self-recover, I hiked approximately 3 miles back into the town came from. Thankfully my Spanish helped me find someone who owned a tow truck, and we returned to my vehicle. While we were at work recovering my vehicle, a local who was walking by stopped and lectured me in Spanish, saying, “We have a hard time walking down this road; what makes you think you can drive down this!?” Pura Vida? Pura Vida.

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