School of the World: A Learning Vacation in Costa Rica

I set out on my trip around the Caribbean and Central America with a goal in mind – to try and improve my Spanish. After researching Costa Rica and some of its different Spanish schools, I found a huge range of choices and locations, but what I really wanted was somewhere near the beach, with plenty of sun and where I could relax and enjoy myself. The School of the World (Escuela Del Mundo in Spanish) ticked all the boxes for me and as I walked in the door, I knew I had made a great choice. After two weeks of Spanish and Photography classes, making some new friends and discovering the town of Jaco and its surrounds, I would most certainly return for more.

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Escuela Del Mundo is the brainchild of Zach McDuffie, who 15 years ago with his last $3000, bought a laptop and began renting the property in Jaco, which back then was a small surfer’s paradise on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. Zach took on the combined roles of owner, teacher, secretary and gardener and through years of hard work, the School began to grow as Jaco itself, experienced a surge in growth and investment. While Jaco developed in a completely different direction as tourism took hold, the School grew steadily and expanded into one of the region’s most recognized and distinguished places for a Learning Vacation. Today, the school offers Spanish classes for all levels, as well as Surfing, Photography and Yoga. There are full time teachers, instructors, housekeepers and maintenance staff who are often locals and are fantastic for practicing your Spanish with. The School can also book and recommend things like canopy zipline tours in the nearby rainforest and also offers activities like paddle boarding, cooking or salsa dancing.

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Walking into the School itself, I instantly felt at home. I was given my lesson plan, a tour of the place and shown to my room. Accommodation and lodgings are usually twin share and include an ensuite bathroom, air-conditioning and a refrigerator. Single and couple upgrades are also available for those seeking a bit more privacy. For a more authentic experience, there is also the option to stay with a local family or to find your own lodgings and if space at the school is in short supply, they will put you up in nearby accommodations.

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The school itself is where it all happens. I found the layout and design really comfortable – Asian inspired architecture with overhanging sloped roofs, Japanese style fusuma sliding doors, decorative murals, artworks and bamboo. Iguanas and lizards can often be heard scurrying around the roof at night and the school’s four legged friends – a cat named Jasper and Fiji the dog – can be found snoozing all around. There are two classrooms, a photography editing suite, surfboard storage and a yoga studio on site. Throw in a pool, a modern spacious kitchen and dining area, several seating areas to relax and an always popular hammock and you have everything you really need! One of the best things about staying at the School, was that all classes were barely 30 seconds from my bed – which certainly helped after some big nights. The town centre is 5 minutes walk from the School and there are great restaurants and shops nearby. The beach is a short walk away.

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Timetables are drafted for the week’s classes in such a way that everybody’s preferences are taken into account and usually, there are no overlaps. The week’s lessons only run Monday to Friday, leaving students with the option to enjoy the weekend or pitch in together for a car and visit other areas of the country. Between classes, groups of us would grab empanadas, fruit or quick meals from one of several local eateries or sodas, near the school.

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Spanish students are tested on ability and skill prior to arrival and streamed into classes accordingly. The classes go for 2 hours in the morning and there are usually no more than 6 students per class. Our teacher, Lucia, was friendly, patient and helpful and in only a few days I felt as though I was making progress. Another hour of Spanish lab every day was used for playing games and improving conversation. Playing monopoly, charades and creating a play in Spanish were challenging but a lot more fun than I had imagined! There was even a Spanish cooking class in which we learnt how to whip up a Costa Rican staple – gallo pinto. With only 3 hours a day of language lessons, there is plenty of time to take other classes, relax or explore the town. For those only wanting an intensive Spanish learning experience, other schools in Costa Rica can offer up to 8 hours of classes per day.

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I’d hoped to do the surfing and yoga courses until I dislocated my kneecap in Trinidad. I was able to do photography instead and was thoroughly impressed by this program! Two hours of daily photography were taken by Carlos, our super cool teacher who gave us theory lessons and camera help every day before taking us out “shooting”. For me, the best part of these classes was the fact that we went somewhere different every single day – places that few tourists would get to check out. The class went from small fishing communities to surfboard workshops to secluded surf beaches to an abandoned hillside restaurant with views over town. Seeing how the locals live, showed how authentic life can still be in the region, despite the influx of gringos in recent years. Once a week, we hit the studio to edit and digitally enhance our images on Adobe Lightshop.

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The fishing village of Tarcoles, one of the photography class locations.

The majority of people who stay at the school, come to learn or improve their surfing. Friendly local instructors take people down at high tide for a couple of hours and there is usually somebody in the water taking photographs and footage as well. Everybody that I spoke to said that the surfing was incredible and often students head down after class for a sunset surf. Those who take Yoga, come out of the classes in a Zen state – completely relaxed as the instructors educate them in Ashtanga, Bikram and Anasura methods. And the best thing about all of these classes is that they are all completely up to YOU – how good you want to get depends entirely on how much work you’d like to put in. The School understands that students are there on a learning vacation and places responsibility entirely in the hands of its students.

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Photography class at Playa Escondida

The mix of different people from around the globe, was something that really made my two weeks memorable. Students, mainly from North America, Europe and Australasia learn and party together in a friendly yet relaxed environment that allows you to be as study or social focused as you wish. While some were keen to get into the rum and dabble with Jaco’s infamous nightlife, others preferred to rest and get up early for a surf – and both options were perfectly acceptable. No ego’s. No bullshit. Just good people. Some of the fondest memories I had were cooking up huge communal meals and chatting in the kitchen, heading down to Hermosa with everybody to watch a surfing competition on a Saturday afternoon and just lazing around the pool or hammock after class. People between the ages of 18 and 60 mixed and mingled and everyone at the school was there for a purpose – to learn but also to enjoy themselves on their holiday.

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Catching a surfing competition on the weekend with others from the school.

One week of super comfortable accommodation and Spanish lessons, including amenities such as free WiFi, air-conditioning, a fully equipped kitchen and cleaning services starts from $540, with a combination of two classes (Spanish/Surfing/Photography/Yoga) costing no more than $695. The longer you spend at the school, the cheaper it works out to per week and its not uncommon to find people staying four weeks or more.

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The heart (or stomach) of the school – the kitchen!

After two jam-packed weeks at the School of the World, I was slightly bummed to leave. Making new friends, picking up or improving new skills and having a homely base from which to explore the region were simple pleasures that made my stay there completely worth it. Learning holidays seem to be a growing attraction to travelers and School of the World provides a perfect model when it comes to finding that balance between a peaceful and productive holiday; something that I’d highly recommend. I left the school completely relaxed, but felt like I’d done something worthwhile with my time – and anybody who enjoys learning, keeping active and exploring the outdoors will, I’m sure, benefit from an experience like this!

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Pura Vida …

* For further information or to enquire, visit http://www.schooloftheworld.org
* All prices listed are in US Dollars.

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