Spanish Immersion in Costa Rica: Unexpected Highpoints for My Kids

If you read last week’s post about our family’s experience learning Spanish in Costa Rica for a month, you no doubt got the impression that it was a fairly trying adventure, but an adventure nonetheless!

My summary at the time of this type of travel with children was:

On the one hand it is incredibly taxing to travel in this way with 3 kids.  Each of us is our own sherpa, carrying our daily needs in our backpack as we walk and bus everywhere.  The days we forget to bring our additional bag stuffed with raingear we’re quickly punished with one of the frequent downpours.

But traveling like this is also a wonderful way to meet people!  We have met so many Costa Ricans (Ticos) through our kids asking their kids to play.  People here love children and are more willing to talk with us, I think, because the kids are with us.

A man came up yesterday, said hello, then mentioned that he sees us out walking each day with our kids.  Daily, people approach Annie, say something like “muchacha” or “linda” and squeeze her chubby cheeks.  She’s actually been quite good about this and just smiles back.  Since there are not many American families in this town, people are definitely getting to know us.  Today as we walked to Spanish school, a bus driver going the other direction honked and waved hello.  We’d taken his bus last week.

We rewarded ourselves for completing 3 weeks of Spanish school by traveling to what we referred to as the other Costa Rica.  We visited the rainforest and observed probably 20 different types of animals, most memorably the White-faced Capuchin monkeys who played together like children in the broad-leafed trees directly above us.  Our entire family ziplined through the Cloud Forest.  And we visited a bubbling, gurgling volcano. Totally cool.

The kids loved these experiences as did we, and many amazing photos were taken.  But these times didn’t turn out to be the parts of this trip our family still talks about regularly.  Instead, our most frequent Costa Rican conversations center on the weird and unexpected experiences we tended to have on the local buses.

To give you a visual, here’s my description from week 3:

We’ve totally gotten the hang of the local buses now.  As some of you know they are old American school buses, though painted all different colors, not merely yellow.  In the afternoons that we don’t play futbol at the park, we often take a bus to explore a nearby town.  The first time we did this, I feared we wouldn’t know when we’d arrived and where to get off.  However, I now know not to worry.  Simply wait until you see the big Catholic Church with the town square right across the street, and get off there.

We had so many slightly stressful, surprising, and/or funny experiences on buses in Costa Rica.  These are what Stephen, Daniel, and Annie love to reminisce about to this day!

Once we were riding on a crowded bus and were packed in beside the back door, which the whole time never closed.  I clung to Daniel who was a little too excited about the rapidly passing scenery.  Or the time our family group became divided and only one part could wedge their way through the congested bus aisle and out the back door when our stop came.  Another time the only available seat left on the bus didn’t possess a cushion, just a hole in a metal frame.  Daniel willingly sat there.

But probably the most popular bus story is one about me.  We’d had a long day exploring a new town and had been waiting a while at one of the dirtier, busier bus stations I’d ever experienced.  There was an unhealthy odor coming from somewhere nearby.  Being in a foreign country we were never sure if we were standing in the correct spot or which bus was ours.

By the time we stepped on to our bus, a humid darkness had descended.  Our driver climbed surprisingly speedily up a steep, winding hill toward the area in which our hotel was located.  Todd and I carefully scanned the surroundings so we wouldn’t pass by our somewhat unfamiliar lodging, when suddenly the bus did indeed drive right by it!

I won’t say I panicked.  What would you call just below panic, hypo-panic maybe?  That was me.  I found myself banging on the dusty bus window while loudly pleading, “Para! Para!” (meaning Stop!)  See, if I was fully panicking I would have yelled in English.  The generally low-key Costa Rican women on board all paused their conversations to stare at me.

Then the bus driver halted the bus, at a regular stop.  It turned out our stop was just past our hotel, not before it.  Not my best moment.  However the kids love this story and retell it with zeal perhaps monthly!

Our time learning Spanish in Costa Rica was both a difficult and incredibly enriching experience.  Annie, Daniel, and Stephen lived and ate with a family from another culture for 3 weeks, which Stephen later said felt like a year.  (I actually consider this a positive thing.  I’m not sure he did.)  Being in Costa Rica led us into a myriad of conversations we wouldn’t otherwise have had with the kids:

“What are the advantages of having one’s waste water system below ground versus above ground?”

“Mama, did you notice that not all the kids have bikes here like they do at home?”

“Why would Costa Rica choose not to fund a military?”

Here was my final email home from Costa Rica:

We are on our last day of this adventure, and as all parents of young children will understand, I feel the desperate need for a vacation.  How I would love to visit one of those beautiful spa or yoga retreats one hears about in exotic places, like Costa Rica perhaps.

Our family did in fact take a similar trip the next summer. This trip, to Guatemala, turned out to be even more challenging than the first one.  Read about it in here two weeks from now.

Have you taken any trips like this one with your family?  Leave a comment below!

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4 Responses to Spanish Immersion in Costa Rica: Unexpected Highpoints for My Kids

  1. Bettina Berg says:

    Hi. I read your story about Costa Rica and was curious to know more. If you don’t mind, how did you decide where in Costa Rica to stay? If you had younger children, would you have attempted this? Would you recommend this experience or would you do it differently if you could do it again? Would you consider doing this for a year if you could, do get a more complete immersion (you mentioned one year as a more realistic time frame for learning a second language)? Were you concerned about water quality (a very big deal to me, as we found out recently we’ve been drinking unsafe water for the duration of my children’s lives—4+ and 2 respectively). Were you concerned about the availability of organic food at all (we are so used to it here) or given that it was only one month, willing to “go with the flow”? I look forward to hearing from you. Best, Bettina

    • Hi Bettina,
      Email me at and we can talk more about the experience we had in Costa Rica. This was our first Spanish language experience, then the next summer we went to Guatemala for a month. I have a couple posts on this blog about our experience in Guatemala that may answer a few of your questions. When you email me, tell me what you are particularly interested in for your family and I will also try to answer the questions you asked here. A few quick responses. Yes, I was worried about water quality, much more of an issue in Guatemala than Costa Rica. No, I would not have gone on these trips with a child younger than 6. Even a six year-old was pretty darn challenging. In one of my posts I mention a really helpful book called Family Sabbatical Handbook, you may want to check this out.

  2. Tiera says:

    I did this last year and went to Spain with a then 4yo, 2yo, and 10mo old. I’m looking to do it this year to Costa Rica. Just wondering where you went and how you decided what program to go with. It is overwhelming me how many language programs there are in CR.
    Thanks, T.

    • Suzita says:

      I would look online at Spanish-language schools in Costa Rica. When you find a program that looks good, look at the testimonials and see if you find other parents who have written reviews. You might even contact a program and ask them if you can contact a parent who has brought children to their program. Buena suerte!

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