Once I decided I wanted to study abroad in Latin America, my only definite criteria was I wanted to speak a lot of Spanish. Which narrowed down my choices… not at all.
I knew little about the distinct Latin American cultures or differences in accent. I tried to find lists about the “best” places to study abroad in Latin America; I wanted someone to tell me, “Renee, this is where you should go. Now, hop to it.” No one ever did. I finally decided on Costa Rica because I wanted to live in the rainforest and I had already been looking at a botany program there before I switched my major to Spanish. In hindsight, these reasons are kind of the equivalent of closing my eyes and pointing to a place on the map since they have nothing to do with what I wanted to get out of study abroad.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of reasons I’m glad I ended up in Costa Rica. There are also reasons I wish I had considered someplace else, but those will come in the next post.
Culture and pride. Costa Rica is permeated by (primarily American) tourists, so many places have been tailored to make the Americans happy–at the expense of burying some of what makes Costa Rica amazing. Because of this, I feel the only way to truly experience Costa Rica rather than tourist-brochure Costa Rica is to live among the locals. Backpacking may be grand for experiencing the naturaleza, and resorts may be fun to hang out on the beautiful beaches, but if you want to get to know the people and food, it would be best to live in a non-tourist area. I lived in Heredia, a college town outside of San Jose, and liked the balance of being a “local” during the week while being only a bus ride away from being a tourist on the weekends.
- Costa Rican Spanish. I could be biased, but I really like the Costa Rican accent and slang. I’m super proud of the traces of Costa Rica in my own speech, in the intonation and accent. I was in Mexico for part of the World Cup, and since I hadn’t managed to find a reasonably-sized Tico jersey in Costa Rica before I left, I asked around in Mexico in the off-chance there was one for sale squirreled away behind the Argentinian, Colombian, and, of course, Mexican jerseys. Although I had no luck finding one, I did have a couple of very confused-looking Mexicans ask me if I was from Costa Rica, trying to reconcile my accent with my hair color. It was one of the highest compliments they could have given me.
- The fruit and coffee. Just yes.
The natural beauty. This one’s huge. Want to swim in waterfalls, zipline through the rainforest, go to incredibly varied beaches, climb volcanoes, and possibly see baby turtles? Go to Costa Rica. For being such a little country, there’s so much wildlife diversity, and it’s pretty accessible since the country is so developed for tourism. I was there for a year, and I still have a list of places I want to go. Excuses to visit, y’all.
- Rain and general greenness. I’m a big fan of rain, and during the wet season, it rained nearly every day. I miss the predictably cool afternoons that would come with the rain, and am still unpleasantly surprised when I walk out the door at 3 PM into the insufferable Texan heat–which basically won’t cool down until the next morning… Anyway, the point is, I recommend going in the wet season since the waterfalls are nicer, the greenery is greener, and hostels tend to be cheaper.
It’s a good transition for those not accustomed to extensive travel. In some senses, my transition was easier since Costa Rica is one of the more developed countries in Latin America. It’s a good way to learn the ropes of traveling and living abroad where there’s a bit more forgiveness for “stupid gringos.” Before living in Costa Rica, I had never even left the great Republic of Texas for more than ten days or so at a time. Therefore, it probably wasn’t too surprising that I had a tough transition. I imagine the transition may have been rougher in a country where less English is spoken, where it’s less safe, or where they’re not so used to tourists, although I probably would have survived. Anyway, the world seems a lot more accessible to me now that I’ve learned a lot of traveling lessons and I feel more prepared to dive into the deep end.
If I could go back and change my study location, I wouldn’t, especially because of the unique experiences I had, the people I met, and the classes I took in Costa Rica. After two and a half months back in the U.S., I’m still happy with my decision.
Sin embargo, ever decision has two sides, and I wrote another post about why I would consider studying in a different country.