When Zach McDuffie first landed on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, “learning vacations” were still a new concept.
No one denied that many travelers had a thirst to learn, but few had fed that desire by offering tourist-tailored courses.
So, McDuffie combined surf classes – already popular in Costa Rica – with yoga, Spanish and photography lessons to offer tourists a unique experience at his School of the World in Jacó, on the central Pacific coast. His idea was to allow visitors not only to enjoy Costa Rica’s world-famous beaches, but also to go home feeling they accomplished something.
Learning vacations have since taken off, affording travelers something more than the traditional sit-on-the-beach get-away.
“It’s a new area of travel that is blooming,” said McDuffie, whose blog at www.out2sea.com features a variety of learning vacations. “People want to go on vacation and take home something that is more meaningful. They bring home a skill they didn’t have before; they get to explore a new aspect of life. Sometimes this leads them to change their career paths…”
While learning vacations tend to be more popular among individual travelers, McDuffie said a shared learning vacation can be a powerful experience for families as well.
“Every family vacation, the goal is to show your kids something,” he said. “So in that sense, the family vacation is already a learning experience. But classes provide structure for the learning.”
Adelita Jiménez, co-founder and director of Heredia-based Intercultura language school, has had families do joint homestay-Spanish integration programs. More often than not, it’s a mother-daughter or grandfather-grandson combination, she said, but her programs have also been successful with entire families.
“It’s a growing experience they can share together,” she said. “Having the family there provides a sense of safety” while individual family members experiment with a new language. Jiménez complements language learning with cooking and dancing classes so that travelers get a well-rounded experience.
Shabnam Frei did the family learning vacation a little differently. She enrolled her son in an immersion program at Intercultura’s Sámara campus, on the northern Pacific coast, and took advantage of his time in Costa Rica to enjoy a beachside vacation.
“He did his thing and I did mine,” said the Indian-born resident of Switzerland. “It worked out well. I had an easy vacation and he returned home speaking Spanish.”
Surf programs and Spanish courses are perhaps the most popular courses in Costa Rica, but a little digging can get you yoga, Latin dance and cooking classes in nearly any tourist destination.
To aid families in their Costa Rica learning vacation search, we’ve provided just a few starting places here:
Witch’s Rock Surf Camp (2653-1262, www.witchsrocksurfcamp.com) – Claiming to be the first International Surfing Association-certified surf school program in Costa Rica, Witch’s Rock offers camps, private and group lessons and full-week packages out of its camp in Tamarindo. Cost: $45 to $80 for a two-hour lesson.
Tamarindo SurfSchool (2653-0923, www.tamarindosurfschool.com) – Choose between private and group lessons as well as three- to four-day courses. Combination packages with Spanish and tennis classes are also available. Cost: $35 to $80 per two-hour lesson.
Iguana Surf (2653-0148, www.iguanasurf.net) – In addition to four set lessons throughout the day – at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. – Iguana Surf in Tamarindo offers group or private lessons for people as young as 4 and as old as 88. Cost: $45 to $80 per two-hour lesson.
Ocotal Diving (2670-0321, ext. 261, www.ocotaldiving.com) – Situated on the beautiful Gulf of Papagayo, Ocotal Diving offers four-day certification programs for ages 10 and up. Options for a truncated course or one directed at more advanced divers are also available. Cost: $446 for full certification.
CPI Spanish Immersion School (2265-6306, www.cpi-edu.com) – With campuses in Heredia in the Central Valley, north-central Costa Rica’s Monteverde and Flamingo on the northern Pacific coast, this Spanish immersion program has been around since 1991 and complements language lessons with dance and cooking classes, included in the price. Cost: $330 to $450 per week.
School of the World (2643-2462, www.schooloftheworld.org) – Offers Spanish, yoga, photography and surf classes, in combination if desired, in Jacó. Cost: $525 to $675 per week, including lodging.
Waves Costa Rica (2643-7025, www.wavescr.com) – Operated by Costa Ricans and based in Jacó and Playa Hermosa, this surf outfit offers both private and group lessons and surf guides for experienced riders. Cost: $55 to $100 for a two-hour lesson.
Jacó SurfSchool (2643-1095, www.jacosurfschool.com) – Cost: $50 to $80 for a two-hour lesson and 24-hour surfboard rental.
Costa Rica Spanish Institute (COSI, 2234-1001, www.cosi.co.cr) – Manuel Antonio (also in San José). Private tutoring and group sessions run from 8 a.m. to noon or 1 to 5 p.m. Cost: $350 to $625 per week.
Costa Rica Adventure Divers (2231-5806, www.costaricadiving.com) – Offers a full menu of options, from refreshers to full PADI certification, out of DrakeBay on the OsaPeninsula. Cost: $340 for full certification program.
Costa Rica Language Academy (2280- 1685, www.spanishandmore.com) – Offering individual Spanish classes or weeklong programs in eastern San José’s Barrio Dent, CRLA also does Latin dance and Costa Rican cooking programs for those participating in its Spanish programs. Cost: Spanish classes $13.50 to $20 per hour, $158 to $317 per week.
Intercultura (2260-8480, www.interculturacostarica.com) – With campuses in Heredia and Sámara, this language institute offers tailored Spanish classes and packages for all types of people, including Spanish and Surf, Spanish and the Environment, Spanish for 50+ and Spanish and Horseback Riding. Cost: Starts at $280 for a full week.
Costa Rica CreoleCookingSchool (8383-0544, www.cerrocoyote.com) – In San Ramón de Alajuela. Local Costa Rican chefs conduct cooking classes with a Latin flavor, with dishes such as ceviche, traditional tamales and empanadas. Cost: $25 to $30 per hour.
Foto Verde Tours (2253-1611, www.fotoverdetours.com) – Full-day photography workshops tailored to experience level in San José and Zarcero, plus photo adventures to destinations around the country. Cost: $60 to $200 per day.
ICARI (2755-0545, www.icari-spanishlearning.net) – Offering holiday crash courses up to business intensive training, this Spanish-language school in Cahuita is 100 percent Costa Rican. Cost: $425 per week.
Aquamor (2759-9012, 8835-6041, firstname.lastname@example.org) – Diving and kayak-surfing lessons in the Gandoca-Manzanillo wildlife refuge. Cost: $25 to $59 for dives; $25 for kayak surf school.