August 2010 issue

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Costa Rica and Panama

Learning Spanish in any one of the two eco-adventure centres of Costa Rica and Panama is sure to give students an experience of a lifetime. Gillian Evans reports.

Lapped by the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south, Costa Rica and Panama cover a stretch of land linking Central and South America. White sandy beaches and coral reefs, tropical rainforests and mountains, and an abundance of exotic wildlife make both Costa Rica and Panama tempting Spanish language destinations for those looking for adventure.

Both countries are also known for their friendly populations, and Costa Rica in particular is, according to Reto Patt at WAYRA Spanish Institute in Playa Tamarindo in the country, safe and easy to travel around. He highlights the country’s rich wildlife and scenery as just two of its many attributes. “Costa Rica has many natural wonders to visit,” he relates. “It is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world, a treasure house of flora and fauna unequalled within such a small area.”

Gabriela Garcia at IH Costa Rica in San José, agrees, adding, “Costa Rica has many natural attractions for ecotourism, from our numerous national parks and reserves to our wonderful climate...to our museums and botanical gardens.”

Linking the temperate north and the tropical south means that Costa Rica has an intriguing mix of animal inhabitants, including jaguars, tapir [a pig-like mammal] and coati [a type of raccoon]. It also boasts 850 bird species and a quarter of the world’s known species of butterfly. Patt mentions the nearby Las Baulas National Park, a marine park which is one of the world’s few remaining sites where Giant Leatherback Turtles come to lay their eggs.

At IH Costa Rica, a mix of classroom lessons and trips are used to give students an insight into the country. “We are able to teach the students about all of the different geographical and cultural regions of Costa Rica, stretching from the Afro-Caribbean fishing communities of the Atlantic coast, to the mountain agricultural communities in the centre of the country, to the tropical dry forest and cattle ranches of the Pacific coast,” relates Garcia. “We organise all types of special interest tour packages – canopy tours, rafting, bird watching, visits to national parks, cooking and dance classes – as well as language packages in over 92 specialty professional areas, such as organic agriculture, community emergency preparedness, architecture, language teaching, physical therapy, graphic design...which we have developed over the last 15 years.” Similarly, students at Academia Latinoamericana de Español (ALE), also in the city centre, benefit from a class that examines the history of Costa Rica as well as a walking tour of the city sights.

Situated in a busy suburb of San José, IH Costa Rica occupies an old building with plenty of mod cons such as a self-access centre with free Internet, wireless Internet, and an open caféteria looking out on to a large tropical garden, while ALE is located in a residential area just a 15 minute walk from downtown San José. “Our school is located on the eastern side of the capital, very near to the University of Costa Rica, shopping centres and restaurants,” relates Garcia. “The historic capital of Costa Rica, Cartago, is situated in a beautiful area located to the east of San José, in a province that offers cultural and agricultural diversity...this is a site of great interest for all tourists as it reveals much about our national character.”

As a whole, San José offers its visitors much to explore, from butterfly farms to galleries and museums, as well as a whole catalogue of restaurants, bars and shops. Gladys Portela from ALE notes that she is ideally located to tap into some of the capital’s more cultural offerings. “Living in San José allows me to be around museums, cinemas, and concerts; I enjoy the symphony orchestra as much as Aerosmith or Chayanne,” she says. However, despite being the country’s capital city, it is still close to nature – the largest area of rainforest in Central America is just a half-hour drive away, while the beaches of the Pacific can be reached in two hours. “I am three hours from the beach of Manuel Antonio National Park or the Caribbean Coast, where I go at least every other weekend,” adds Portela.

But if it’s a beach experience students are interested in, then WAYRA is ideally located in Playa Tamarindo, which, according to Patt, is a small multicultural beach town. “When we started back in 1996 we thought it might be a great idea to offer language courses right at the beach,” recounts Patt. “Back then almost all of the Spanish schools in Costa Rica where located in and around the capital of San José.” Being a beach town means water-sports such as sailing, snorkelling, diving, fishing and especially surfing are readily available. “Tamarindo is a great place for surfers,” emphasises Patt.

Away from the water, there are also plenty of activities to choose from. “We offer canopy tours, horseback riding, ATV [all-terrain vehicle] tours and more,” says Patt. “During the dry season from December to April there are many typical colourful local fiestas in the nearby towns where the students can be part of the cultural activities.”

In Panama, Habla Ya Spanish School also offers a rich cornucopia of experiences to get to know the country and its people. “Besides the obvious immersion programme, where students get to live with a local host family, and our weekly conversational sessions, where students get together with locals and each get a chance to practise their language skills, we also provide volunteer placement services,” explains Julio Santamaria at the Boquete-based school. “Our students can work at orphanages, with teenage mothers, help kids from difficult backgrounds with their homework, teach English to those who can’t afford it, improve the local recycling programme, run sports lessons, computer instruction, music, dance and singing lessons, assist health professionals to take care of ill children and so much more.”

In contrast to Costa Rica, Panama remains relatively untouched by tourism. “Panama has many places where you just cannot shake off the feeling that you’re the first person to be there,” relates Santamaria. “Panama is the path less travelled, and I think many people are attracted to Panama because there are so many beautiful places that are completely untouched and pristine.” He flags up the Chiriqui Gulf National Marine Park, just an hour-and-a-half’s drive from the township of Boquete, as one of his favourite places to visit in his freetime.

Having grown up in Panama City and then gone on to university in Mexico, Santamaria decided to do something that “added value to the country” by establishing a language school there. Boquete, he says, was a natural choice. “It had that charming rural feel of tranquillity and peace which is ideal for someone wanting to relax and study; our town’s 1,000 metres above sea level which takes 10 degrees celsius off Panama’s average temperature...and the opportunities for outdoor activities are literally endless...it comes as no wonder to me that Boquete is now considered Panama’s eco adventure capital.”

Albert Orillac from EPA! Español en Panama, in the heart of Panama City, also notes that they established a school owing to the country’s unique environment. In contrast to the more remote Boquete, however, the country capital will surprise first time visitors with its vibrancy and modernity, says Orillac. With a diverse array of cutting edge architecture, he adds, “the country is growing so fast”.

He relates that one of the main Panamanian attractions are its “extensive indigenous communities that maintain their dialect and customs” and he adds that the school organises a day tour to visit the Emberá Drúa – an indigenous tribe of 110 individuals. This, he observes, offers students the “opportunity to learn about their way of living, dialect, manners, food and beliefs”, making for a wholly rewarding experience.

Agent viewpoint

“Costa Rica is known to be the Switzerland of Central America and this makes us Swiss curious to know how that might be. It is ideal to travel around after a language course, is known to be safe and clean and has beautiful oceans, beaches and national parks. Panama is not so commercialised. It’s pretty unknown as a destination...another reason is price. It is one of the less expensive countries to go for a language course.”
Claudio Cesarano, globo-study, Switzerland

“Students choose Costa Rica either for the beach and surfing or for the natural beauty of the well-preserved national parks. It appeals very much to students who want a holiday which includes language learning. We also send students to Panama City and Boquete. They are both as popular as each other and receive about the same amount of students per year. They appeal to different types of clients; people who are into adventure tourism love Boquete where you can go rafting, climbing, trekking and more. Panama City is both historic and modern with all the benefits that go with this.”
Alex Wolfson, Cactus Languages, UK

“Students who choose Costa Rica as their course destination want to improve their Spanish skills in a unique setting. The country offers excellent travel opportunities for the weekends and the Ticos [Costa Ricans] are very friendly and hospitable. Our students like to stay in welcoming host families and share their lifestyle, which is simply called “pura vida” – pure life. Within this environment they rapidly improve their language skills.”
Sara Thielsch, Stepin, Germany

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