Central America / Costa Rica / Personal Stories & Opinions

If you want to learn Spanish in Costa Rica (and find out how a fellow student HUMILIATED me), read this

If you want to learn Spanish in Costa Rica (and find out how a fellow student HUMILIATED me), read this

While planning for my future in LA, I decided that I should know Spanish. Years ago, I had taken a semester of Spanish in college, but I realized that it hadn’t been enough, when I couldn’t understand or answer the questions that Hispanics in my neighborhood asked me because they thought I was Latina.

When I had 3 months off between my transfer from college to university, I researched the expenses of volunteering in Central/South America versus studying Spanish at a language school. Surprisingly, the latter was nearly 3 times as cheap, and thus, I decided to attend Forester Instituto Internacional in San Jose, Costa Rica, for two weeks in March of 2012. I would stay with a host family, who would provide breakfast and dinner. Prior my arrival, I received their names, phone number, and address. However, addresses in Costa Rica, as in many other Central/South American countries, merely state the cross streets, or reference points, and the distance north, south, east, or west from them in meters, instead of a street and house number.

I flew in from Germany, over Puerto Rico, and Panama, and finally, after an approximate 20 hour journey, touched down in San Jose at around 8 p.m. Since I had to take a cab to the family’s home, the first thing I did was to exchange money. After that, I stepped outside into the hot, humid night and looked for the red cabs. After I found one, a man came up to me and insisted on helping me with my suitcase. When I got into the cab, I thanked him, but he looked kind of mad. Later I found out, that people who do that, expect a tip.



The cab driver tried to ask me questions, but my Spanish was not enough to completely understand everything nor to answer the way I wanted to. He had to call my host family to ask them where they exactly they lived. Once we found it, they awaited me in the kitchen of their cozy home. Maria*, the mother, Jose* the father, and Carlos*, Enrique* and Fernando* the three brothers in their twenties. There was one more person at the table who didn’t look as if he belonged to the family: Julian*. He was an American exchange student. He was overweight (to put it nicely), had a red face, and also tried to speak Spanish with me. Unfortunately, I was so exhausted from my journey, that I couldn’t stay up for much longer and asked them to show me where I would sleep. Enrique had vacated his room and part of his closet for me. After a quick shower, I fell into a deep sleep.

Now, because I don’t want to give a day-to-day account, I will summarize the most interesting points:

Notable things I have learned (besides Spanish of course):

  • Costa Rica does not have an army. Instead, they have free education (wink wink, USA)
  • “jugo de papaya” (papaya juice) does not mean the same in Costa Rica and Cuba: Carlos told me that he, when he visited Cuba, ordered “jugo de papaya.” The waitress shot him a confused look. He had just ordered “pussy juice.”
  • There is a way tell people to do their homework in Venezuela, and, with the same words, tell them to engage in an orgy in Spain
  • When you ask Costa Ricans how they are or feel or what’s up, a lot of them will answer with “pura vida” – pure life. Pura vida is an expression for everything great, greeting or saying goodbye
  • Costa Ricans are also referred to as “ticos/ticas”
  • Their trash is accumulated in iron grids a few feet above ground to keep it away from the many street dogs
Sena's host family's dog. What a cutie!

Sena’s host family’s dog. What a cutie!

The host family:

The Diaz* family had a strong family spirit, would always sit together, laugh, talk, and cook. They definitely took joy in making fun of their exchange students. Fortunately, Julian was their usual victim; they only teased me about my “negrito” taste in men. Besides from Carlos, nobody spoke a lot of English, which was good, because that made me speak Spanish. It was hard at times, and sometimes I was too lazy to overcome the language barrier and talk to them, so I just sat in my room by myself.

Julian, the American exchange student:

Julian hated the US. Whatever bad news there were, he would bring it up. His goal was to live in a Spanish speaking country in the Caribbean (and probably smoke weed and party every day). He also loved the African-American culture. My host family always made fun of him because they said he liked sleeping with “hood chicks” and went to the bad parts of San Jose to find them. Whenever he thought a girl was hot, he would say “que rica” and would make a ridiculous kissy face which reminded me more of a fish thanks to his big cheeks. I loved making the whole family laugh about me imitating him. Maria once found lubricant in his room, and she asked Carlos what it was. After he explained it to her, they started calling him “grizzly,” the equivalent of a fat, hairy, gay man. Nowadays, a few years later, Julian has lost an immense amount of weight to the extent where I barely recognized him, and posts pictures of him wearing grillz and drinking somewhere in the Caribbean.


When I first arrived at the school,  Forester Instituto Internacional, they had me take a placement test. I scored into an intermediate class. Since it was a slow season in March, there were only 3 other students that I knew of: Julian*, Turkish Sena*, and Saudi-Arabian Abdul*. All of them were in different classes and I got lucky to be taught one-on-one by Mona*, a super sweet Costa Rican lady, who had taught Spanish in Europe before. We had so much fun in class and she told me she was happy to have me as a student. I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher! For the last 3 school days, another guy scored into my class. He was another American, but with a terrible breath, and the whole room always smelled!

After class, the school offered free Salsa lessons every day. Cuban teacher Adriana* taught Sena and I all the core steps of every Latin American dances. In week two, Abdul and the American with the smelly breath joined our classes. Both of them were so stiff that, unfortunately, Sena and I stopped enjoying the classes as much as in the beginning.



On my last day, I got a certificate from the school’s manager. Mona and I had teary eyes when we had to say goodbye.



The Westside, Manuel Antonio, where I upgraded from a hostel to a hotel and went ziplining:

For the first weekend of my stay, I had booked one night in the Vista Serena hostel in Manuel Antonio. From San Jose, it was a 3-4 hour bus ride (for only $7) and a few minutes walking to get to the hostel. At the hostel, I befriended an American couple, who drove me down to the crowded beach. For the afternoon, I had booked a Catamaran tour including snorkeling, for which I was picked up from the hostel. On the Catamaran, they served fresh Piña Coladas. Because everybody else was traveling in groups, I found myself talking to a Venezuelan woman with a German surname, Carla*, who was also traveling by herself. Both of us were a bit disappointed when we only saw 3 different fish while snorkeling. I had expected more because it had been my very first time. Carla and I got along so well, that she offered me to spend the night at her hotel, where she had an extra bed in her room. I gladly accepted and we spent the evening together listening to a band. The next morning, she invited me for breakfast. After exchanging our information, I had to return to the hostel because a bus for my zip-lining tour would pick me up at 7. After a short drive, we arrived at the jungle, where we would climb trees and platforms and zip-line our way through it. One of the tour guides resembled my ex-boyfriend, and the other had creepy cat’s eyes. Everyone called him “gato.” Ziplining was an amazing, fun experience, and I absolutely recommend you to do it before you die!

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The Eastside, Puerto Viejo, where my schoolmate secretly snapped pictures of my behind:

The Eastside of Costa Rica is completely different than the Westside. There, at the Caribbean Sea, the climate is way more humid and rainy, and most of the population is black. My host family had recommended me to go to Rockin’ J’s. Along with my schoolmates Sena and Abdul, I had booked a room for 2 nights with 3 beds, for about $10/night. Rockin’ J’s was directly at the ocean, and everything there was made out of mosaics. You could choose whether you wanted to sleep in a hammock, a tent, or a room. They had a desk to book excursions and a small kitchen with mostly American food.

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The first night, we went out to a club where you could see the local guys picking up (preferably blond) foreign girls. Sena and I had a great time dancing and drinking, while Abdul refrained from both and watched us, and, because we asked him to, took pictures of us.

The next day, we strolled down the main road to explore the small town of Puerto Viejo. Again, we had Abdul take pictures for us. Then, he wanted me to take a picture of him. As I did so, I saw the previous picture he had taken in a small square on the bottom left on his screen: It showed my ass and maybe a tiny bit of my legs. Disturbed, and without saying anything to him, I gave him back his phone and later told Sena about what I had discovered. Her reaction were similar to my thoughts earlier: “What? Abdul? No! Are you sure? He seems so nice!” That’s what I had thought, too. Sena and I were alone in our room, and Abdul had left his phone to charge it. We looked at each other. “You try to unlock it, while I stand outside and warn you if he’s coming,” I said. When we looked at the pictures, we found another picture of my butt. This time with a bit more legs and upper body. Sena was shocked. Now she believed me. As soon as Abdul came back, I asked him: “Can I look at the pictures you took of us yesterday?” “Of course,” he said and gave me his phone. I went back to my ass pictures and confronted him: “So what’s that about?” “What? I don’t know. I really didn’t do this on purpose. I’m so sorry. I will delete them right now.” “No, I’ll delete them.” And so I did. Even though he apologized a few more times, the rest of the trip with him was super awkward and he avoided Sena and me constantly. When Sena got his digital camera two days later to download other pictures from our trip, she discovered another one of my ass.

This is "Abdul." If you see him take a picture of someone's butt, please don't be quiet like me and report him.

This is “Abdul.” If you see him take a picture of someone’s butt, please don’t be quiet like me and report him.


Costa Ricans:

I love them! For the most part, they are very friendly, helpful, and outgoing.

From what I was able to learn within the short time span of two weeks, Costa Ricans are very proud of their country. Their backgrounds are very diverse, which also shows in their appearance. What I disliked was that they would make fun of you or even look down on you, when you could not speak Spanish. Ironically, not many of them spoke English well enough to understand me. If you do not speak Spanish, it is very hard to integrate into groups of people or communicate on a daily basis.


The currency in Costa Rica are colones. 100 colones equal about US $0.18. Bus fares are very cheap, food and clothes have approximately the same price as in the US.



Public transportation:

The buses regularly drive with open doors. Every bus driver has cash laying in a foam “box” to his right. Theoretically, you could have easily grabbed the money and ran off, but apparently, people in Costa Rica wouldn’t do that. The drivers always seem like they’re in a hurry, so if you don’t stand up when your stop comes, they might not stop, even though you pushed the button, or pulled the cord.

*Names have been changed

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