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 (see Tour operators), 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 listed here 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, any of the places listed below can recommend a tutor – rates run from $16 to $23 per hour.

Language schools

Academia Latinoamericana de Español t 2224-9917, w Friendly school running small groups (up to 6) and intensive courses (20hr weekly; $170), with morning or afternoon schedules; homestay programmes (which include breakfast and dinner) cost a further $150 per week; all materials included.

Conversa t 2203-2071, w Well-established institute whose classes have a minimum of four students (5hr 30min daily for a super-intensive course) with thorough teaching that puts the emphasis on grammar; stay either with a Tico family or at the centre’s five-acre former dairy farm, 10km outside San José. Not cheap at $760–850 per week, though the price also includes Latin dance and cooking classes.

Costa Rica Spanish Institute (COSI) t 2234-1001, w Small classes in San Pedro, as well as a “beach and rainforest programme” in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. Homestays are arranged (or you can stay in an apartment or hotel), as are tours and cultural activities. Four-week (4hr per day) programme costs $1690 including homestay accommodation.

Costa Rican Language Academy t 2280-1685, w Small, friendly and Costa Rican-owned school, with a conversational approach to learning, based on current affairs. There are also Latin dance and cooking classes every afternoon, and trips to discos to practise the steps. Four-week (4hr per day) programme costs just $1499 including homestay accommodation.

Instituto Para Estudiantes Extranjeros t 2283-7731, w Small school that prides itself on a cosy atmosphere, total-immersion methodology and small groups (max six people). All ages and levels of Spanish are catered for, and courses run year-round, from one week to six months or more. Facilities include free internet, and they can also arrange field trips and excursions and homestays. Four-week (4hr per day) programme costs $1285 including homestay accommodation.

Montaña Linda Spanish School t 2533-3640, w Popular school in the gorgeous Valle Orosí run by a friendly and knowledgeable team. Tuition is either one-to-one or in tiny classes (3hr per day) up to a maximum of three people, with the choice of grammar or conversation. Accommodation is provided in a nearby hostel, homestay or guesthouse (starting from $125 for five nights in the hostel), and a wide range of tours and sightseeing activities are available.

Universal de Idiomas t 2223-9662, w Well-established school with programmes offering three to four hours of tuition daily. Tours can also be arranged. Four-week (4hr per day) programme costs $1310 including homestay accommodation.

Universidad Veritas t 2283-4747, w Intensive one- ($705), three- ($1970) and four-month ($2541) courses, with twenty hours’ tuition weekly; accommodation (homestays or student residence) and materials cost extra.

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 (t 1-802/442-4827, w, 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 (t 02/9215 0077, w; in New Zealand and South Africa, you should also contact the AFS, in Wellington (t 04/494 6020, w and Johannesburg (t 011/447 2673 w, respectively.

Volunteer programmes

In addition to the programmes recommended below, many private reserves take volunteers direct, including the Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde and the Reserva Santa Elena.

Amigos de las Aves t 2441-2658, w This organization works on breeding pairs of scarlet and great green macaws, with volunteers required for a minimum of two weeks (Breeding Centre; $23per day) or two months (Release Site; $10per day); rates include accommodation.

ASVO t 2258-4430, w Non-profit association enabling volunteers to work in national parks and wildlife refuges, local schools or communities, from monitoring turtle nests in the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanilo to helping in a cheese factory in Zapotal.

Sea Turtle Conservancy t 1-800/678-7853, w Volunteer research work on leatherback and green turtles at Parque Nacional Tortuguero.

Earthwatch In the US t 1-800/776-0188, in the UK t 01865/318838, in Australia t 03/9682 6828; w Leatherback turtle study in Guanacaste, helping with a turtle hatchery and relocating threatened nests; monitoring the effect of climate change on Costa Rica’s caterpillars; or helping coffee growers create more environmentally friendly farms.

Global Volunteers t 1-800/487-1074, w Volunteer programme helping to construct a variety of buildings in Monteverde, including healthcare centres and school classrooms.

Monteverde Institute t 2645-5053, w Volunteer projects in the Monteverde cloudforest including teaching, fieldwork on trails and other conservation efforts.

Friends of the Osa t 2735-5756, w Hands-on help at a sea-turtle project on the southern tip of the Osa Peninsula, measuring turtles, monitoring nesting sites and hatchlings, and patrolling the beach at night. Minimum one week.

Proyecto Campanario t 2258-5778, w Research station and eco-tourist project on the Osa Peninsula, which sometimes offers free or discounted lodging and meals in exchange for a minimum of three months’ work on and around the reserve.

Reserva Rara Avis t 2764-1111, w This off-the-beaten-track research station and rainforest lodge in the Zona Norte regularly requires volunteers to help with guiding, research or conservation projects. Minimum three months.

Volunteers for Peace t 1-802/540-3060, w Volunteer stints in Costa Rica, including sea-turtle projects, working at a wildlife rescue centre and helping out in the Reserva Santa Elena.

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