Diego Gutierrez sits beside a fire at Seven Mile Beach in Grand Cayman during the trip he won as part of the Grand Cayman National Geographic Kids Hands-On Explorer Challenge . (DANIEL R. WESTERGREN)

Atree is just a tree, right? And a bush is just a bush? Not to Diego Gutierrez, who next month starts fifth grade at Greenbriar West Elementary School in Fairfax. To him, nature is “amazing” and “delicate.” To him, nature even “has its own personality.”

That kind of perspective won Diego a trip to the Cayman Islands this summer with 14 other kids who entered the National Geographic Hands-On Explorer Challenge. (Wow! Talk about a great answer to the first-day-of-school question “What did you do during your summer vacation?”) Thousands of kids from across the country entered the contest by writing in 300 words or fewer about how they explore their world. They had to include something about water in their answers.

Diego, 10, wrote about visiting the stream near his house with his dog, Paisa, where “the civilized world quickly disappears.”

The Cayman Islands, which are three islands in the Caribbean Sea, were pretty different from the nature Diego was used to. “Everything was just amazing,” he said. “But the coolest thing I saw there was Stingray City. It was just irreplaceable.” People and stingrays swim together in shallow water. “At first, I was freaked out,” Diego said. “All these stingrays come up to you. They are completely friendly. It’s just so amazing.”

The blue iguanas that Diego saw in the Caymans amazed him, too. In danger of becoming extinct, blue iguanas live in protected areas. “The rare blue iguanas are only found on the Grand Cayman,” Diego said. “We also learned that blue iguanas communicate through head nods and gestures, [and] they might communicate with other blue iguanas with their postures.”

But it wasn’t just the weird animals that impressed Diego. The young explorer took a two-mile hike on the Mastic Trail through a forest that has been growing wild for millions of years. “We saw all different plant life and wildlife that you can’t find anywhere else,” he said. A tree called the yellow mastic “was completely huge and surrounded by all these red bark trees,” Diego recalled.

Back from his week-long ad­ven­ture, Diego says the trip is one he won’t soon forget. He has always loved nature, but, after this trip, he vows to pay “closer attention to nature around me. . . . I love exploring because there’s always new things. I just love watching all the wildlife, and it’s just amazing how it never stops changing.”

— Moira E. McLaughlin