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Finding “Pura Vida” in La Fortuna

I found Spanish Immersion Costa Rica through I was going through a “midlife” crisis. Here I was about to be 35 and like many of us I hadn’t gotten out much or done much over the past two years since the pandemic. The world was opening up again and I was trying to return to my roots, my authentic self, and I had always wanted to be a polyglot.

I got everything I was asking for and more through my trip to La Fortuna. Though I had studied some Spanish in school and had even been to Bolivia for two weeks with a friend and had to speak in Spanish the whole time, I had never before had the opportunity to both study the Spanish language intensively while immersing myself in a community and culture. 

Milking cows at the host family’s dairy farm. 

From the moment I arrived and was picked up by one of the program associates, I was treated like a guest in their country rather than a tourist-  as though I was a family member visiting from out of town. 

Drinking straight from the coconut.

My host mother was wonderful and reminded me of a younger version of my own grandmother. She treated me like a daughter and was constantly offering me food, “fresco” (juice or lemonade with “chino” seeds, similar to chia seeds), and coffee. I went to church with her family for the new year’s eve service and her nephew took me to see their family’s dairy farm, where I milked a cow, drank freshly squeezed chocolate milk (cocoa powder in a cup that the cow was milked directly into, rode their horse and went on a hike to their amazing waterfall). Every day I would play with her three year old grandson and I enjoyed speaking with both of her daughters as well when they would come to visit.

Playing with the host family’s grandchildren.

I had four hours of language classes each day with Doña Doris. She is an amazing independent and intelligent woman with many years of experience teaching Spanish language, literature and linguistics to students at the local high school and at university. Beyond her entirely personalized lesson plans teaching me the grammar principles and vocabulary that I thought I needed to know, she taught me how to have conversations about complex abstract topics in a foreign language. 

We discussed the meaning of life and how it is cyclical but not circular. We talked about linguistic changes from Latin, which Spanish is derived from, to Spanish. Every day I had a 10 minute break where she would offer me fresh fruit and water. 

Coaxing a young cow to play with me at the Finca de Los Ramos.

There were also planned activities with Patricia/Vilma who happen to be the same person, but you’ll hear people refer to her as both. My first day we rode in an ox cart with her Uncle Alfredo and visited petroglyphs on a local finca (small farm). 

Posing as a “Boyero” with Tio Alfredo’s oxen.

Petroglyphs are ancient carvings made by the indigenous people of Costa Rica and can be found on many of the local fincas. We used ochre to repaint the carvings and reveal intricate symbols and guess their meanings.

Petroglyphs we had painted with ochre.

Many of Patricia’s field trips were messy and I loved getting down in the dirt. On another trip to a local wildlife preserve we even dug up a petroglyph as though we were archaeologists. I remembered that I had always wanted to be an archaeologist when I was a small child, and here I was living my childhood dream. We washed the rocks in fresh water to reveal carvings that looked like a fish and a face, but could have been anything. All of the water in Costa Rica is potable and you can drink straight from the streams. I also saw wild monkeys from a distance and toucans and other birds. 

Digging up an ancient petroglyph in a forest.

Patricia’s Tio Alfredo took me on his motorcycle, which was quite an adventure. I had never ridden one before, but it felt so free. Every time he was responsible for taking me out on my activities we would make many stops along the way where he would show me things like the many clean power plants. All of the energy in the area is created from the volcanos, the wind, the sun, and water. He also took me to “los hornos”, which are open volcanic craters. Pools of sulfuric mud that can be used as a face mask; pools of mud that are bubbling at boiling point. These are on the Miravalles volcano which is dormant but still generating thermal energy. Tio Alfredo even took me to the next town over so that I could do some gift shopping!

The Hot Springs at Yoko at night.

For New Year’s, I was blessed to join in the celebration with Patricia and her family. We drank Pilsen, which is one of two national beers (the other is Imperial, but I did not like that one). Her family also took me to the beach where we played all day in the soft waves. 

Sunset at the beach.

The beach had an island shaped like a turtle.

Buried in the sand by Patricia’s family.

Throughout the experience, my Spanish grew stronger every day. In the beginning of my short weeklong stay, I could converse in Spanish and understood a lot, but usually only if someone was directly speaking to me, and usually only about what was happening in that moment. By the end of my stay I could understand conversations I was not a part of. I could talk about things that were possibilities or more abstract and I could tell stories about my own life. 

One of Patricia’s nephews painted my face in ochre to look like a cat.

Also throughout the experience, I found myself rediscovering myself and learning more things about myself. The freedom of a new country, of being on a trip by myself (even though it was scary as I had never traveled alone before), allowed me to try things I had never done before, remember things I like that I haven’t been doing, and to be accepted as part of a community for exactly who I am. 

Riding horses through the Finca de Los Ramos.

I had never been so sad to leave a vacation and return back to my normal life, but the relationships I built there are continuing. I still message my host mother and Patricia and continue my Spanish learning. I hope to return one day soon for this excellent program. It is more than a language learning program. It is a cultural exchange that builds relationships across the world and helps us all feel more connected as part of one world and one community. There is a saying in Costa Rica – “pura vida” (pure life) and that was my experience as part of this program. 

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