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My Spanish immersion experience in Costa Rica

By Fr. Mike Galbraith – Pastor of St. Paul the Apostle parish, Juneau

This past June of 2019, I was fortunate enough to be able to spend four weeks in a Spanish Immersion Program in Liberia, Costa Rica. I’m glad I was finally able to attend some type of professional training in Spanish without trying to figure it out by myself. I learned a great deal but not as much as I had hoped. I found that four weeks was just a taste of the beautiful language that I would really like to become fluent in during a regular conversation with parishioners. Reading the language and speaking it, I found, is two completely different things. Hopefully, next summer, I will be able to participate in another type of Immersion Program, either back in Costa Rica or somewhere else and improve my Spanish skills even more.

Costa Rica is a beautiful country between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Costa Rica means “Rich Coast,” and it ranks first on the Happy Planet’s Index as the “greenest” country in the world. It is a deep-colored green everywhere you look due to the climate, which is tropical year-round. Tourism makes it the most visited nation in Central America. The Catholic faith of the people is tremendous, and the Churches were immaculate and full to capacity at every Mass I attended on Sunday. Even the morning 7:00 am daily Masses had an attendance of more than one hundred attendees. They also had an all-day Adoration every Thursday and Friday with a rosary being said every other hour throughout the day.

Costa Rica features a remarkable variety of natural beauty. Nearly 12% of the country is devoted to the preservation of nature and wildlife, under the protection of the national park system. Costa Rica offers visitors a view of rare birds, turtles, animals, and hundreds of species of plants and flowers; so much so that it is often referred to as the “Garden of the Americas.” I was able to visit one of the National Parks on a site that has two volcanoes and hike the path to the top and look down into the caldera of an active volcano. Another trip was a visit to the Rain Forest, which was also very beautiful but the hike around the park was somewhat uncomfortable because of the 90-degree heat and 100% humidity.

Costa Rica refuses to conform to stereotypes about Central American countries. It enjoys a stable democratic government, adheres to high standards of education, and is a relatively prosperous land. The people are very friendly and hospitable. Even though English is required as a second language, it was still a little difficult to converse with the locals even though I tried desperately to speak Spanish; but many times they just stared at me in total confusion as to what I was trying to say. Their national food dish is called “gallo pinto,” which is cooked rice and black beans fried together. Most of the Costa Ricans eat this type of meal three times a day, and they love it. I would usually have it for lunch about two or three times a week, and the other days I ate at my favorite fried chicken place, Servios Express Pollo. Even though they never understood my Texas Spanish, I ate whatever they wanted to serve me. For my evening dinner, I found at a steak house called “Don Fran Steak & Grill” which served an 8-ounce ribeye, fried potatoes, salad and grilled pineapple for about $8.50, “What a deal”! I ate at that place almost every night. The owner and I got to be buenos amigos, and we watched a lot of soccer together there at the restaurant.

It may seem to you that all I did was eat for a month. However, I did attend Spanish classes every morning for four hours and two hours in the afternoon associated with different activities. So, I did officially study Spanish Monday thru Friday at “Instituto Estelar Bilingüe” as well as the weekend trips they arranged to the National Parks, Monkey Farm, and a couple of Playas (beaches). We were encouraged to use our limited Spanish to talk with the local Costa Ricans (TICO’s) and practice as much as we could throughout the day.

To sum up my experience in Costa Rica would be to say “Pura Vida” (Pure Living), which is the national saying for the country. It is a wonderful place to visit and even live for many retired Americans. If you ever have a chance to visit this beautiful country, I would recommend you do so. I think you would find the country and people truly beautiful, as well as an experience of a lifetime. Felices Viajes.