There are seven zip lines that send students through the rain forest near the majestic Arenal volcano and lake in central Costa Rica. Teens traveling with Rustic Pathways on the Pura Vida Service program can start on training lines before taking the larger leap. Program manager Antoine Callo says once the students try the smaller lines they are eager to get out of their comfort zone and move on to the longer, higher lines.
That chance to try something different – and maybe even a little scary – was hard to come by when Covid concerns were high. But Costa Rica led the way in welcoming visitors as things improved, and that has brought more attention to this nation that is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of West Virginia.
According to The Tico Times, in a poll of 150 tourism professionals Costa Rica was named as one of the top five best destinations for travel. It’s a particularly great nation for teens to visit, including those who have never traveled internationally.
The city of San Jose is only about a five hour plane ride from major U.S. cities like New York and since it is in the Central Time Zone there aren’t many problems with jet lag. The country is also known for its beauty, eco-tourism, and healthy outdoor adventures.
The Pura Vida Service program, which is one of eight Rustic programs in Costa Rica, is offered in the town of La Fortuna or “The Fortune” where fertile lands lie adjacent to the mountainous terrain that surrounds most of the Arenal volcano. The Soccer and Service and Summer Camp Leadership programs also spend time in this town.
Rustic Country Manager Wainer Ocampo, who was born and raised in Costa Rica, says the village is a great place for student travel.
“What I love about Fortuna is it is very safe and well-managed. The town is clean and the people are welcoming and friendly. There also are many adventure activities nearby,” Ocampo said.
The base house for students in the program also has Western-style amenities. Plus, there are plenty of opportunities for service since Rustic has a strong relationship with a number of community partners.
These Rustic partnerships extend into other parts of Costa Rica as well – as do the reasons the country is a prime destination for student travel. Here are four things teens love about Costa Rica:
It’s a Paradise – Really It is
Nearly 25-percent of the land in Costa Rica is protected, which is the largest percentage among nations of the world. These areas have a tremendous amount of biodiversity. The land includes more than 100 volcano cones, tropical dry forests, cloud forests, wetlands, rainforests, and plenty of coastal beaches.
The country is on a number of “best” lists for its environmental measures. It was listed as one of the world’s best ethical destinations for 2020 and topped the list in the Happy Planet Index more than once.
The Arenal volcano near where the Pura Vida service program is held is listed as one of Costa Rica’s Seven Natural Wonders. Other areas where Rustic programs take place also were hand-selected by local experts for their stunning landscapes and program opportunities.
The Surf and Service program, which regularly sells out, is held on Playa Grande Beach on the North Pacific coast. This area is known for having waves that are accessible to surfers of all skill levels. It’s also an important nesting site for sea turtles and is near an estuary that is home to many animals.
The Turtle Conservation Project is held farther south at the Camaronal Wildlife Refuge on the Nicoya Peninsula. This area aims to protect four species of sea turtles, but it also is a top destination for bird watchers.
Heart of the Jungle, which also regularly sells out, is held on the Osa Peninsula in southern Costa Rica. The region contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity, has seventeen protected reserves, and an amazing array of flora and fauna.
Meaningful Service Opportunities
Most of Rustic’s programs offer the opportunity for service so students can give back and fully immerse themselves in the local culture. Callo has many memories of service experiences in Fortuna that have deeply affected the students.
One project involved building a house for 30-year-old Ana and her two children. The small family had been living in a shed, and the Rustic students, along with local community members, built them a new house – doing everything required from mixing concrete to installing wall posts.
“We were building the house right next to the old one, so it was really impactful for the students to see how people live,” Callo said.
Along with these types of projects, Ocampo says students also clear trails and do other work in the Arenal Volcano National Park. When possible, teens also work in the local schools, exchanging English and Spanish lessons and interacting with local children.
The Chance for Adventure
There are numerous adrenaline rush opportunities in Costa Rica. The Pura Vida program not only includes zip lining, but also white water rafting and visits to the local hot springs. Callo says the adventure part of the program really helps with team bonding, and it enables students to face their fears and overcome them.
In addition, it’s an adventure just being in a country with stunning landscapes and friendly people from a different cultural background. That adventure element paired with service is a perfect combination for many teens. Alumna Ella Veljovich who participated in the Pura Vida Service program a few years ago still has fond memories of both parts of the trip.
“My trip to Costa Rica was one of the best experiences of my life. It was so much fun and I met such amazing people,” Veljovich said. “The country was absolutely beautiful, and while zip lining and whitewater rafting were some of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done, volunteering truly opened my eyes.”
Sloths and More
Teens who may have seen their share of squirrels will no doubt love seeing the diversity of wildlife in Costa Rica. Callo says in Fortuna there is a good chance students will see (or at least hear) howler monkeys, along with sloths, red eyed frogs, coatis and many, many birds, including the beloved toucan.
There was a viral video in 2020 from Arenal Volcano National Park that shows a sloth giving birth in a tree. It showcases just some of the wonders in that region. Students who make it to the coast may also enjoy seeing sea turtles, dolphins, and many other sea creatures.
Along the way, any student traveling to Costa Rica will very likely hear the phrase “pura vida,” which means pure life or simple life. The motto is used for greetings and to make people feel at home, and it summarizes the laid-back lifestyle in this nation.
Costa Rica has no army. It remains neutral in international conflicts. It models environmental responsibility, and attracts millions of tourists to its shores. But most importantly it teaches people to enjoy life, and that may be the best reason of all for students to travel to Costa Rica.
If you’re considering a traveling to Costa Rica, here’s a helpful travel guide for beginners:
Mary is the Lead Editor at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.