Costa Rica is a great place to broaden your mind, and an increasing number of visitors kick off their travels through the country with an immersive language course, or break up their vacation with a few days of volunteering, which can range from helping maintain trails in a cloudforest reserve to measuring turtles on the Pacific coast. There are also a great number of opportunities for travellers with more time and a scientific interest in the country’s flora and fauna to enrol in a variety of research projects.
Study programmes and learning Spanish
There are over 125 language schools in Costa Rica, with San José and the Valle Central offering a wealth of Spanish courses. Though you can arrange a place through organizations based in your home country, the best way to choose (at least in the low season, from May to November) is to visit a few, perhaps sit in on a class or two, and judge the school according to your own personality and needs; in the high season, many classes will have been booked in advance. Note that courses in Costa Rica generally cost more than in Mexico or Guatemala.
Some of the language schools are Tico-run; some are branches of international (usually North American) education networks. Instructors are almost invariably Costa Ricans who speak some English. School notice boards are an excellent source of information and contact for travel opportunities, apartment shares and social activities. Most schools have a number of Costa Rican families on their books with whom they regularly place students for homestays. If you want private tuition, rates run at an hourly fee.
Volunteer work and research projects
There’s a considerable choice of volunteer work and research projects in Costa Rica – some include food and lodging, and many can be organized from overseas. You’ll be required to spend at least a week working on a project (which includes monitoring sea turtles, helping conserve endangered parrots and working with rural communities), and sometimes up to three months, though the extra insight you’ll gain – and, of course, the enormous sense of achievement – are ample rewards.
A good resource in the US for volunteer work programmes is Transitions Abroad, a bimonthly magazine and website focusing on living and working overseas. Prospective British volunteers should contact the Costa Rican Embassy in London. In Australia, details of current student exchanges and study programmes are available either from the Costa Rican consul, or from the AFS in Sydney; in New Zealand and South Africa, you should also contact the AFS, in Wellington and Johannesburg, respectively.