Taking Spanish lessons in Costa Rica can be a great prelude to any adventure in Central or South America and is essential for ensuring that you get the most out of your travels
A travelling experience can be enriched beyond all recognition if you are able to engage local people in their own language. I usually try to master a few rudimentary words and phrases before travelling, which certainly helps, but have never learned another language to a conversational level, which has really frustrated me in recent years. To correct this, after much deliberation, I set myself the challenge of picking up as much Spanish as possible in five weeks.
Costa Rica had always been high on my ever-expanding wish list of destinations to visit and the Spanish spoken there is readily understandable in both Spain and Latin American countries, so it seemed the ideal place for me. Apple Languages, an organisation specialising in learning languages abroad for people of all ages, was an extremely helpful one-stop shop for arranging my trip.
It was important to me to see as much of the country as possible – after all, it was also partly a holiday. The language school Centro Panamericano de Idiomas (or CPI for short) came highly recommended and, crucially, offered the chance to move around three totally different locations while retaining continuity in my studies – a really great way to see more of what is a truly beautiful country. CPI students also have the option of living with local families. Consequently, language development is infinitely more effective and this also provides an unparalleled insight into local culture.
My first three weeks were spent at the CPI school along Playa Flamingo, a golden stretch of sand on the Pacific coast, living with a charming family in the nearby village of Potrero. I was made to feel extremely welcome from the first moment. The one issue upon which they were adamant, however, was in insisting that I spoke Spanish at every available opportunity!
Days here were idyllic. Up at the crack of dawn with the crowing of the resident cockerel, then breakfast, which was a varied affair, usually consisting of fruit and eggs together with the ever-present gallo pinto, a local staple of refried beans and rice. Then there was the coffee: Costa Rica’s national drink is simply superb whether you are dining in a fancy restaurant or living with a local family.
Each day, the students were collected by a local bus at the town’s main square, which also happened to be a football pitch around which people would congregate to watch many fiercely contested games. A short bumpy ride down the coast would bring us to Playa Flamingo. The school itself was a very relaxing spot with outdoor gardens, a swimming pool and a central courtyard with a fountain. Each day I received four hours of tuition in classes of no more than two people - developing language skills here was made very easy.
At about midday all the students would have finished class and the rest of day would be ours. Afternoons were spent either along the beach next to Potrero, called Playa Penca, a gorgeous slice of deserted white sand where we could swim, do our homework, set up beach bonfires and party into the evening. On other days we would take a short ride down the coast to Tamarindo, known as a surfing and party hotspot on the Pacific coast, and a lively alternative to Potrero. I even spent a couple of afternoons scuba diving among schools of eagle rays and white tip sharks, although kayaking, parasailing and a host of other activities were on offer as well.
There were students of all ages studying at CPI, from all over the world. Many of them were there as a prelude to a lengthy stint of travelling around Central and South America. At weekends, a group of us would head away from Potrero to explore Costa Rica’s many gems. There was the unusually turquoise waters of the waterfall at Rio Celeste near Volcan Tenorio, best explored from the exquisite La Carolina Lodge. Montezuma, a sleepy haven for backpackers at the foot of the Nicoya Peninsula, was perfect for anyone looking to get away from it all. We also made it out to one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Arenal, which erupts almost nightly in a glittering red fountain. Due to a recent change in the lava direction, we found the intimate Nido del Colibri in the tiny mountain village of El Castillo to be the ideal spot to enjoy the nightly fireworks, sipping on a drink in the outdoor hot tub overlooking the crater.
My final two weeks were spent in Monteverde, the legendary swathe of dense cloud forest in the central mountainous region of Costa Rica, where afternoon pursuits were very different to Flamingo. It is an eco-adventurer’s paradise, with outfits such as Selvatura offering an unending and dizzying array of inventive ways to take in the extraordinary local flora and fauna - whistling through the upper branches of the forest on a zip line, meandering along various hanging bridges, horseback riding and hiking trails to name a few. I would often strike out into the mist after classes to explore the surrounding area, or spend the afternoon with other students in one of the many cafes or restaurants that dotted the town.
Was it worth it? My time in Costa Rica was easily one of the best travelling experiences that I have ever had, not just because it is a stunning country with an enormous diversity of scenery, but because of the way that I was able to interact with the local people. I have subsequently been to Spain and, again, have found that my newly-acquired language skills have opened many new doors to me. It is a shame that many native English speakers don’t feel the need to learn another language, as the enjoyment that can be derived from travelling will always be limited as a result. I cannot recommend Costa Rica highly enough as a destination for correcting this.