As I gazed out the tiny airplane window at the crystalline water below, I could only think one thing: I'm not in Delaware anymore. It was my first time out of the country, and I was travelling alone. Despite my less than perfect Spanish, I felt comfortable as I departed the plane and set foot on Costa Rican soil. This is the beginning of the study abroad experience that changed my life.
The summer after sophomore year of high school, I found myself a job to fund my dream: to study abroad. After a year of working and saving, I finally found a program that met and exceeded all of my expectations with Learning Programs International, which consisted of a month-long stay in Costa Rica with a host family, where I would be studying for two weeks and then volunteering for two weeks. By far, I am not the adventurous type, but this trip changed everything that I thought I knew about myself.
I soon found myself wandering through the rainforest, hiking up mountains, repelling down waterfalls, white water rafting, playing fútbol with locals at night, learning to dance from Columbian store owners, talking and sharing stories with cab drivers, salsa dancing at discos, zip lining through the rainforest canopy, watching monkeys steal peoples' belongings on the beach, bargaining with merchants at the market, and for once in my life, feeling completely relaxed and accepted. I made so many new friends, and we have such a strong bond together: we survived a month in a foreign country.
The program was centered in Heredia, Costa Rica, where my host family lived. Though the town itself was fairly small, but it was filled with beauty. The town square was fairly large and open, but always busy and filled with people. Near El Centro resides POPS, a local ice cream store that is absolutely delicious, and Arteria, a store where you can get cool T-shirts that define Costa Rican slang words and expressions like “Tuanis,” “Que Chiva,” and of course, “Pura Vida.” (URL for their Facebook page below). Above all, I think my favorite place in Heredia was the little store next to the fútbol field at the intersection of Street 12 and Avenue 7. The owner of the store was so sweet and nice, and we spent a lot of time talking with him after a long game of fútbol. He helped us with our Spanish, and showed us how to salsa dance, going in the back to turn up the music and waving the other customers over to join us. At the end of the night, he would call us a cab and ensure we would be safe with the driver. If I ever were to return to Heredia, that would definitely be the first stop I make.
Though Heredia was nice, the places I visited outside of Heredia were amazing. The first excursion was a white water rafting trip on the Pacuare River (scary at times, beautiful at others), then we headed to Monteverde, which was an exhilarating experience in itself: hiking through the rainforest made me feel like I was on an episode of LOST. We then visited the serene Manuel Antonio beach, where wildlife is just as abundant as people, and the beaches are BEAUTIFUL. The last stop we made was Volcán Arenal, which was awesome just because I’d never seen a volcano before. The program that I found with LPI was a perfect mix of culture and sight-seeing, but I think any trip to Costa Rica will definitely by life-changing. ¡Pura Vida!
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