My Life-Changing Week of Studying Abroad Over Spring Break

Over spring break, I was able to travel, work, and take classes in Costa Rica. The University of Utah’s Learning Abroad office offers a course entitled “Community Engagement in Costa Rica,” and after I learned about this program, I knew I had to take advantage of this amazing opportunity. This program partnered with the Bennion Center (who I already work with), and this combination of service while learning and practicing Spanish in a new country was too great to pass up.

Throughout the spring semester, all of the students accepted into this program met weekly with the class portion of the program to discuss community engagement, resilient communities, and how to best serve with members of other cultures.

This weekly class was a great way to get to know people, but it was also very informative about how to conduct a community-service based program. My trip to Costa Rica was my first time traveling abroad, but because of my familiarity with the faculty, the students, and our preparation in the class, I felt ready and confident to embark on this journey.

Friday, March 8

After the whirlwind that is midterms week and panicked hours of packing, this trip was finally underway Friday night. As my first international flight, I was a bit worried about customs and the long flight, but after checking in, everything went relatively smoothly!

Saturday, March 9

After a short layover in LA, our long flight to Costa Rica arrived in sunny San José in the morning. Customs and immigration went so smoothly and easily, all of my previous worries suddenly felt ridiculous. After our arrival in San José, we immediately departed on our long drive to Monteverde. Part way through this drive, we stopped for lunch on the beach and got to soak up some Costa Rican sun. Coming from Utah, the heat and humidity felt amazing, and the cold water was super refreshing. Although the long drive to Monteverde was a bit tiring after the long flight, it was so exciting to simply be in a new country with new sights.

Upon arriving in Monteverde, we visited the Monteverde Institute (MVI) because this is the institution that set up our homestay program, our community work, and our Spanish classes. The homestay program allowed us to stay with local families of Monteverde, and this factor of the overall trip really helped me to practice and become a better Spanish speaker. Although it wasn’t required to know any Spanish beforehand, I felt like my extensive background in studying Spanish just made the whole trip a lot easier.

Sunday, March 10

Our first full day in Costa Rica was mostly spent in the Cloud Forest. Here, we took guided tours that taught us about sustainability and the local ecosystems. Although I don’t typically like hiking, I loved walking in the forest and seeing all of the local wildlife. We saw monkeys, snakes, tarantulas, a quetzal, and hummingbirds. After the guided tour, as a class, we hiked up to the Continental Divide where we could go back and forth between the windy and stormy Caribbean side and the calm and dry Pacific side of Costa Rica.

Following our adventures in the Cloud Forest, we returned to MVI for a few orientation presentations, then we visited with our homestay families. At night, a large group of University of Utah students went and hung out in “downtown” Santa Elena, which neighbors the small town of Monteverde.

Monday, March 11

Monday was our first day dedicated to community service. We took a short drive to visit a community in Los Tornos who told the MVI that they wanted help with refinishing their community center. As we worked to restore this center, we painted the common spaces and the exterior of the building, we cleaned and organized their storage rooms, and we built water tanks. For me, it was important that the service we did was meaningful and useful, and I was so glad that the community requested our help and worked with us. We weren’t there to fix their problems, but rather we were there to listen and give our time to a cause that they needed help with completing.

Following our service work, we took a Spanish class at MVI, and later we departed for a guided Night Hike. As compared to our hike in the Cloud Forest, our Night Hike was at a slightly lower elevation and the timing allowed us to see different wildlife. On the hike, we saw an owl, a toucan, a tarantula, a snake, a scorpion, and a sloth!

Tuesday, March 12

On Tuesday, we continued our community work in Los Tornos and we were able to see all of our projects completed. Following this community service, we went and visited a local coffee farm. On our tour of the farm, we got to see all stages of the production of coffee, but we also got to see many other fruits (like bananas, plantains, avocados, papaya and more) growing on the farm as well. Then, after this busy day, we returned to our homestays to visit with our families. At night, I went out with a few peers to grab dessert at a local restaurant.

Wednesday, March 13

Although we completed our projects in Los Tornos, we were not finished with our community work. On Wednesday, we went to visit a pre-school to play with the kids, and help them construct a vegetable garden. Following the pre-school, we took a tour of a local private high school to see how they structure their educational systems. This tour was followed by a visit to a local cheese factory for some fresh ice cream, and then we returned to MVI for another Spanish class. To me, some of the Spanish classes felt like review sessions, but I know that for other people that aren’t as familiar with Spanish (and aren’t doing a Spanish minor), these classes were super useful!

After these busy activities, we had the option to take a relaxing yoga class at MVI before we hosted a dinner for our homestay families. Wednesday marked our last night in Monteverde, so we prepared dinner in order to thank the families for welcoming us into their homes. Afterword, many went to Santa Elena to celebrate a successful time in Monteverde.

Thursday, March 14

After leaving Monteverde, we had the chance to do a few more touristy activities. Thursday, we went on a zip-line up in the Cloud Forest. I had never done a zip-line before, so I was terrified but excited to try it! The zip-lines varied in length and height, but they all offered incredible views of the Cloud Forest. Near the end of the zip-line tour, we had the chance to do a Tarzan Jump where you climb up a platform, attach your harness to a rope, then free-fall for a little bit before swinging out to overlook a small cliff in the forest. Originally, I was not going to go on the Tarzan Jump, but the opportunity was too cool to pass up, and, although it was terrifying, I am so glad I did it and conquered my fear, if only for a passing moment.

Following our exciting morning, we headed onto the bus to go to La Fortuna. Here, we stayed at a hotel, and we visited a hot springs resort. This resort had extreme water slides and hot springs that occur because of the active volcano nearby! Although some of the water slides were a little scary, the hot natural water and the resort as a whole were incredibly relaxing. 

Friday, March 15

After eating breakfast in La Fortuna, we ventured out to a local waterfall. The hike to the waterfall was mostly just descending a large staircase, but the waterfall was so cool to see. We were able to swim in the waterfall pools, and in some of the springs, we could see fish swimming beside us.

Following our trip to the waterfall, we had to head onto the bus to reach our last destination of the trip. After a long bus ride, we arrived in San José. Here, we stayed at a hotel again, and we were able to hang out by the pool, reflect upon our trip, and enjoy our last night in Costa Rica.

Saturday, March 16

In order to make it back to SLC on time, we had to leave Costa Rica very early in the morning. Saturday was mostly spent in airports or in airplanes, so although we did not have as many activities as the previous days, this day felt just as exhausting.

The trip to Costa Rica was incredibly inspiring and I’m so glad I was able to volunteer and help these communities while traveling and practicing my Spanish. The large events of this trip, like the tour of the coffee farm and seeing a sloth, were impactful, but the smaller moments like the games we played on the bus and laughing while inadvertently covering ourselves in paint to utilizing our Spanish lessons and eating all of the local food were just as powerful. Costa Rica truly was my happy place, and I’m so grateful that I was able to find a program that gave me so many incredible opportunities.

 

all photos belong to the author