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Pura Vida Española

Kate Sommers-Dawes marvels at Costa Rica as a Spanish immersion destination

Visit Costa Rica’s official tourism site and read its official slogan; “No Artificial Ingredients,” — a mantra of which you will not need reminding from the first moment you step foot in one of the country’s myriad waterfalls or stumble upon one of its one hundred plus species of brightly colored frogs. The country is of a manageable size and the bus network is extensive if somewhat slow due to rainy weather and less than perfect roads. Its two airports allow visitors to crisscross the country with speed but at greater expense (if you’ve got the time, a two peso, six-hour bus ride is hard to turn down — as is the quality time you’ll get to spend with the locals).

The country, a veritable natural amusement park, offers active volcanoes, stunning beaches (both Caribbean and Pacific), and intoxicating rain forests full of exotic flora and fauna. In the country’s center is the famed Arenal volcano, which is a hefty but picturesque hike from the small town over which it looms. The landmark also overlooks a waterfall and swimming hole as well as a luxury resort based around natural hot springs. Tortuguero National Park, on the Caribbean coast, is an epicenter for ecotourism and a hot spot for sea turtle watching and caring. For monkeys, iguanas, and sloths galore, head to Manuel Antonio National Park, clear on the other side of the country, to hike in a stunning evergreen forest that grows right up to the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean. Mountainous Monteverde also offers cloud forests, canopy tours, and ziplining for the ultra-adventurous. Additionally, for the surfer-expat types, no shortage of laid back, tiny beach towns dot Costa Rica’s shores, offering prime, picturesque, beach-bumming locales.

With its diverse array of landscapes, climates, and activities on offer, Costa Rica, as a nation, could not disappoint visitors even if it tried. The main difficulty facing the language traveler with limited time will be deciding which places to visit first. Occupying a small strip of land between Panama and Nicaragua, Costa Rica is home to fifty plus Spanish schools, including:

Common Ground
Common Ground International’s Spanish Immersion programs in Costa Rica are specifically designed by Spanish teachers and continually tweaked year after year to ensure that you meet the main objective for Spanish immersion travel — improving  oral Spanish skills.

One of the biggest roadblocks students encounter while on an immersion program are other English speakers traveling with them who want to speak English. Programs are chaperoned by Spanish teachers and participants maximize their immersion experience by committing to speak Spanish at all times. “We intentionally weave Spanish classes, host families, service learning, and adventure travel together to help you gain cultural understanding, earn a minimum of 20 community service hours, experience the beauty of Costa Rica, and return home with the ability to communicate in Spanish comfortably.”

Common Ground International currently offers these high-touch Spanish immersion programs for 3 broad audiences: middle & high school students, healthcare students and professionals, and educators. The outcomes for each program are slightly different:

Middle/High School students convert their academic knowledge into the practical oral ability to communicate in Spanish in culturally appropriate ways.

Healthcare students & professionals gain oral proficiency in Spanish (conversational and medical terminology) while understanding the nuances of health and healthcare in Latino populations.

Educators get a Spanish tune-up (much needed after teaching basic tenses all year long) or gain enough Spanish proficiency to interact with their Spanish-only students and parents.

If you’re serious about Spanish immersion, their programs are a great option.

Learn more:

The Centro Panamericano de Idiomas CPI
CPI Spanish Immersion School has been offering quality Spanish immersion courses since 1991 at the best locations in Costa Rica: Heredia Central Valley, Monteverde Cloud Forest and Flamingo Beach. Students may divide their time between three distinct campuses without sacrificing quality nor continuity. A variety of programs, each with small class size, have been designed for all ages and all levels. The arrangement of accommodations (homestays, apartments and student residencies), the availability of academic university credits, along with bilingual staff providing personalized service to students through the organization of volunteer programs and excursions makes CPI one of the best study abroad options in Costa Rica.

CPI has designed a variety of professional seminars, of which one of the most popular is the workshop for teachers of Spanish as a foreign language. Seminar participants are taught various techniques created, developed, and successfully applied during many years of experience as an institution that specializes in Spanish as a second language. The teachers who participate in this seminar leave prepared to step into the classroom with various instructional techniques that can easily be modified to meet the needs of any type of student.

Another important service that you´ll find at CPI is the Groups Division which has been custom creating itineraries and hosting groups of up to 70 students for over 10 years. Groups range from primary school children to senior citizens, and they host several high school and university groups, most of which return on an annual basis.

For further information, visit

COINED where their priority is to make sure their programs meet your expectations because they understand that your choice to pursue an experiential education entails risk and some degree of adventure. They have a wide variety of courses so that you can choose the one that suits you the best with the advantages of experience-based learning in small groups. Also they offer a minimum of two recreational activities per week so you can submerge in the local culture. You will get qualified and professional teaching. COINED offers you the possibility of obtaining credits in cooperation with various international colleges and universities. Their goal is to help you develop the skills and concepts necessary to feel comfortable in any speaking situation.

For further information visit

Centro de Idiomas Intercultura is a lively language school with 15 years of experience teaching Spanish and immersing students into Costa Rican culture. Located in the peaceful and biologically rich country of Costa Rica, two campuses are offered–one in the colonial and university town of Heredia (20 minutes from the capital city of San José) and another in the beautiful beach town of Sámara (located on the Pacific coast in the culturally rich region of Guanacaste).

The Small Group Spanish Intensive program includes a series of 18 courses designed by curriculum specialists, using small, interactive groups in a total immersion environment. All professors are university trained and credentialed to teach Spanish as a second language, and college credit is available. In addition to the Small Group Spanish Intensive, advanced language special topics courses, customized group itineraries, and semester programs are available.

Intercultura offers exceptional teachers, provides dynamic, fun, and educational classes, and integrates activities and culture into their programs. Their motto is Learn the Language, Live the Culture, and in addition to an excellent academic record and commitment to the environment and sustainable development (they recently became the first private language school to receive recognition by the United Nations as a partner in the UN Global compact), a wealth of free cultural and extra-curricular activities are available for all local and international students. Latin dance, cooking class, movie nights, and conversational exchanges with Costa Rican students of English are a few examples which encourage cultural participation, exchange, and friendship.

For further information visit

Amigos de las Américas (AMIGOS) offers the exciting opportunity for high school and college students to experience the beauty of Costa Rica while working on meaningful environmental and educational projects.

AMIGOS volunteers live and work in rural and semi-rural communities in Costa Rica. Unlike many other volunteer programs, volunteers get a full immersion experience because they are placed in a community with only one or two other English-speaking AMIGOS volunteers and they stay with Spanish-speaking host families. Participants facilitate camps for local children ages 5-12 that focus on creative expression, conservation, trash collection and nutrition. Additionally, volunteers work on community improvement projects like making trash and recycle bins, building bus stops, repairing playgrounds and forming sports teams.

AMIGOS works in the Brunca region of Costa Rica in the district of Perez Zeledon, located in the southern part of the country. This area is dominated by coffee, pineapple and banana plantations, and the climate in this region ranges from cool in mountainous areas to hot, humid sections near the Pacific coast. AMIGOS also offers 5-8 week summer programs in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Founded in 1965 in Houston, AMIGOS is an international, non-profit organization that provides unparalleled leadership and community service opportunities for young people while concurrently contributing to the well-being of hundreds of communities throughout the Americas. During its 43-year history, more than 20,000 AMIGOS Volunteers have gained a life-long commitment to community service, while strengthening multicultural understanding and friendships in the Americas.

For more information, please visit

Volunteering is a great way to kick start your Spanish conversation skills, learning on the go as you create trails in the cloud forest; teach English in Monteverde or patrol protected sea turtle beaches. United Planet offers a wide range of different volunteer experiences in Costa Rica. All of United Planet’s programs offer the chance to be fully immersed in the Tico lifestyle, for which Costa Rica is famous.

Volunteer stints are available from one to 12 weeks and include accommodation with host families and at dorm-style cabins. Participants receive a formal three to four day orientation in San Jose including a visit to the Manuel Antonio National Park and the Metropolitan Opera.

Volunteer for the Environment
Costa Rica is an eco-tourism hotspot, well-known for its amazing natural beauty and biodiversity. Through eco-tourism, Costa Rica has been able to prosper while still protecting the country’s vast natural resources and ensuring its economic future.

United Planet volunteers work at eco-lodges, endangered sea turtle beaches and wildlife rehabilitation centers at various locations to help raise the local standard of living and quality of life while also protecting the environment.

Community Development
Various opportunities to volunteer in San Jose are also available. United Planet offers a wide range of experiences from assisting with cultural activities to teaching English to school children and organizing activities for at risk children.

For additional information on United Planet’s environmental projects in Costa Rica, visit:

For those students, who want to gain a unique and valuable working experience in a foreign country, improve the situation of children and young people in Costa Rica, contribute to the protection of the abundant nature or get in touch with a completely different “pura vida” life style and learn Spanish at the same time, Wayra Spanish Institute offers a volunteer work program. WAYRA Spanish Institute offers a wide range of different programs and combines learning Spanish with working as a volunteer. From teaching English at local schools, social work at nonprofit human rights organizations, beach cleaning, turtle rescue in national parks, shadowing at a local clinic to working at a natural farm.

Students work together with locals and other volunteers while applying their Spanish knowledge and they help to change the situation of Costa Rican people for the better. It is a unique possibility to get to know the beautiful and stunning country Costa Rica. Volunteering with the Spanish Institute WAYRA in Costa Rica will definitely be a wonderful and unforgettable experience.

For further information, visit

Escuela Latina de Lenguas is located in Barva, a lively colonial town in the foothills of the Central Valley in Costa Rica. Their approach to learning employs an intense immersion experience which includes small classes taught entirely in Spanish and homestays with hospitable Costa Rican families. The classroom extends beyond the school to local traditional markets, parks, and museums. Class assignments range from the traditional to the exploratory to truly challenge students’ communication abilities and survival skills. The program is open to anyone from high school or college students to retirees or anyone in between who is interested in exploring a new culture and gaining skills in a new language.

Kate Sommers-Dawes is assistant editor at Language Magazine.

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