If you’re going to study abroad in Costa Rica, congratulations! This is a great step for you, both academically and personally. You’ll see some amazing and beautiful places, meet wonderful people (Ticos/Ticas, fellow students, and more) and make lifelong connections discovering one of the most incredible countries in the world.
To help you get the most out of your trip and have the very best experience possible, here are my 10 tips for studying abroad in Costa Rica, some of which I knew before I went, and others which I learned while there.
1) Pack as few outfits as possible. Then take out a few articles of clothing, because you won’t need them. Seriously.
Everyone’s probably already telling you to pack light, but it’s true (and difficult). My checked bag was 38 lbs, which was well below the 50 lb limit, but it was still too heavy for me to easily carry. I noticed this especially after I picked up my checked bag in San Jose and had to carry it around the airport through customs. I brought clothes I didn’t wear, and books I didn’t read. It’s hard to pare down and bring just the necessities, but if I’d done that it would have been easier for me to carry my luggage across the airports and would’ve left me more room for souvenirs. (And I wanted more souvenirs.)
2) Make sure to bring your prescriptions and some over-the-counter medications with you, and pack them in your carry-on.
Get your prescriptions refilled before you leave so there’s no danger of running out while you’re abroad. It’s also important to bring everyday OTCs too–ibuprofen, tylenol, and an antihistamine (ex. benadryl)–in case you get a headache, fever, or have a mild allergic reaction. There aren’t any Rite Aids in Costa Rica! Keeping these items in your carryon will prevent you from losing them should you be separated from your luggage during flights. This happened to my parents one time on the way to a conference: they went to Florida, but their luggage accidentally went to Chicago. My Dad had to buy an all-new, business-appropriate wardrobe to attend his meetings, but his prescriptions, which would have been harder to replace, were not lost.
3) Embrace your homestay experience!
This is one of the very best parts of the CISabroad study abroad experience! I absolutely adored my host mother and the housekeeper. Being in a homestay allowed me to practice my Spanish with my host family and engage with them. Some of my favorite times were when Mama Tica’s extended family would visit and I could chat (or more accurately, listen to them chat) and participate in their cultural traditions. Ask your host family about cool places to visit, what restaurants to eat at, and what to pack on excursions, and how much money to bring. Ask them to help with your homework. Ask them about themselves, and tell them about you. You’re missing out if you don’t take advantage of your homestay.
4) Bring something from home with you for your host family.
It’s a nice gesture of goodwill and a great way to say “thank you” to your host family for the kindness and consideration they’re going to show you for the duration of your stay. I brought my host mom a dish and a towel with “Maine” things on them: loons, moose, pine trees, etc., to show her about where I was from. I also brought some pictures of my family to show her and wrote a short letter to help her get to know me. She really appreciated this and it helped us to connect: I showed her my brothers, sister, and parents, and she showed me her son, grandson, and nephews. It helped us get to know each other, right from the start.
5) If there’s something you want to do but you’re scared, do it anyway.
My CISabroad group went to Monteverde and ziplined through the rainforest my final weekend in Costa Rica. It was an incredible experience–the 100% Aventura staff were so good at what they did, I barely had to do any work at all. All I had to do was relax and glide over the rainforest. It was amazing to see the Costa Rican landscape from that height, flying across a wire above the rainforest canopy to get a true bird’s-eye view. I was so nervous before we started that I was shaking. I remember it pretty vividly because the guy strapping me into the gear asked me if I was ok, and all I could manage to say was, “Estoy nerviosa.” But once we got on the lines I felt completely safe and I loved every minute of it. I even did the Tarzan Swing at the end! I’d go back and do it again in a heartbeat. Take advantage of EVERY opportunity Costa Rica offers you. Looking back, I wish I’d been more adventurous, less timid, and done more. Don’t let fear hold you back.
6) Always carry your homestay address on you.
Some friends and I were in an Uber trying to get back to our homestays, but didn’t know the exact addresses. (Foolish, right?) In my experience, the cab/Uber drivers will know where you live if you tell them the name of your homestay, but this driver did not. We drove around in circles for a little bit trying to direct the poor guy left and right, and eventually found our way home, but it would’ve been MUCH easier had we just been able to give him our addresses. Ask your host family to write your address down on a piece of paper for you, program it into your phone, whatever–just make sure you have it with you!
7) Visit the artisan market in downtown San Jose.
One of the most fun places to try and practice your Spanish is at the artisan market in downtown San Jose, and odds are at least a little part of the reason you’re in Costa Rica is to learn some Spanish. Don’t be afraid to practice it! Locals, especially around San Jose, are used to English-speakers trying to speak Spanish to them, and the vendors at the artisan market are especially accustomed to this. At least some of them speak English themselves, and the best part is that even if your Spanish is absolutely terrible, they’ll still tell you “hablas muy bien!” because they want you to buy their wares and know that flattery works. I didn’t care–a compliment is a compliment, even if it does stretch the truth a bit– and I thought it was so much fun to ask things like “how much is this” and “where did this come from.” Additionally, the artisan market has some beautiful souvenirs and they’re more reasonably priced than the souvenirs in the more tourist-y destinations, like Tamarindo or Puerto Viejo.
8) Costa Rican time is different.
And no, I’m not talking about time zones. If you’re coming from the US (like I was) you’re used to things running at break-neck pace, and classes starting at exactly the time listed on your schedule. At my home university, I had a history professor who would lock the door when class started at 1:30 PM, and if you weren’t in your seat when he did, well, that was just too bad for you. In Costa Rica my Spanish professor would routinely arrive five-ten minutes late, no big deal. Costa Rican time is more laid back. Everyone isn’t always rushing everywhere like they often are in the States. If you give it a chance, you might enjoy the change!
9) Pedestrians, beware!
Costa Rican drivers are crazy. I’m not making this up–my host mother told me this, the CISabroad on-site director told me this, and my professor at Universidad Veritas told me this. They drive very fast; they do not “yield to pedestrians in crosswalk.” The CISabroad on-site director also told me this; if you have to cross the highway to get from your homestay to school, it’ll be a lot like playing frogger. Watch how the locals do it, and learn from them. Don’t step out into the street like you might at your home university or your hometown, assuming the drivers will stop for you, because there’s a good chance they won’t. Remember what you probably learned when you were a little kid: look both ways before you cross the street and once you’re in the road, don’t dawdle!
10) Become a CISabroad Alumni Ambassador when you get back!
It looks great on a resume and it’s good experience. Plus, you’ll want to share your great experiences with others and encourage them to take the leap like you did! As an added bonus, you’ll even get paid. Visit this link when you get back to apply to start your Alumni Ambassador experience.