Valpo Voyager

Student Stories from Around the World

Category: san jose (page 1 of 4)

Tan pronto que puedo

Name: Jenna Johnston 

Location: San José, Costa Rica

During my last few days in Costa Rica, I found myself repeating the same phrase over and over, to myself and to my friends and family — “Tan pronto que pueda.” I will go back to Costa Rica as soon as I can.

Here are a few of my favorite photos from my last weeks abroad.


I took a trip to Playa Puntarenas with friends from all over the world that I met in my University of Costa Rica classes, celebrating the end of our month of Spanish classes in February.

When traveling with my ICADS ecology course, one of our first stops was the Páramo ecosystem on Cerro de la Muerte. It’s right in the middle of the country, but from some vantage points, you can see the ocean.

My ICADS class took a boat down Río Sixaola, the river between Panamá and Costa Rica, to visit the indigenous Bribri community of Yorkín, which is only accessible by foot or by water.

The ICADS travel course was unexpectedly cut short. One morning in Puerto Viejo, which ended up being one of my last days with ICADS, I woke up to see the sunrise.

More Puerto Viejo gorgeousness, and wishing I didn’t have to leave.

I spent my last week in Costa Rica working in the garden at Casa Adobe. Heidi tells me that the house is now harvesting and eating what I planted back in March. That week, I also managed to spend plenty of time with Don Quixote (nicknamed Quijo), Casa Adobe’s beautiful cat.

A few of my favorite pictures I took of my tico siblings: a trip to a park in San José back in February, playing outside in the backyard, and saying goodbye.

Expectations and Reflections

Name: Jenna Johnston

Location: Santa Rosa, Costa Rica

It is impossible to summarize everything that I learned or took away from my experience in Costa Rica in a blog post. Over a month after returning to the States, I’m still untangling this mess of emotions, from gratitude and love for the experiences I had and the people I met, to profound grief for the seven weeks I lost. So far, what’s helped me has been reflecting on some of the little things, from dinner table customs to the treatment of time, which then allow for me to draw greater connections and reflect more deeply about my experiences.

I noticed one difference between my culture and Costa Rican culture during my first meal in the country. Heidi picked me up from the airport and brought me to my host family’s house, and we all ate lunch together. While we were eating, Heidi explained to me that, in Costa Rica, it is respectful to leave your hands on the table while eating. In the United States, it’s rude to do that, so this was the first small behavior that I changed to respect Costa Rican culture. This situation also helped me to pay attention to the subtle differences — hand gestures, table manners, daily practices — that were not as obvious as the dramatic changes in climate and language, but still had an impact on my life.

I found out about another cultural difference before getting to Costa Rica. I have friends who have already studied in Costa Rica, and they told me about the big difference between “gringo time” and “tico time”. They told me that, in Costa Rica, the exact start time of meetings and activities matters less, and there are only a few exceptions to this rule — some classes, medical appointments, some religious services, and train schedules. In Costa Rica, I frequently had to ask Heidi if a class or activity was going to start at “gringo time” (exactly on time) or at “tico time” (a little later). In my culture in the United States, I frequently heard the phrase “early is on time, on time is late.” In my high school, during the school day and in my extracurricular activities like marching band and theatre, there were consequences for students who arrived late. As a result, personally, I try to be punctual, so I don’t inconvenience others. It stresses me out when things don’t start on time. Gradually I learned to relax with respect to time in Costa Rica — it’s not necessary to know exactly when something is going to happen. I hope this new attitude doesn’t cause too many problems for me now that I’m going to have more “gringo time” meetings in the future!

In my semester abroad, I also learned a lot about the religious differences between my part of the United States and my part of Costa Rica, which I’ve talked about extensively in other posts. Out of everything I learned about religion in Costa Rica, the most important thing was not something academic — it was very personal. I had often heard that Catholics in Costa Rica did not accept LGBTQ+ people. However, after a few weeks living with my host family, I told my host parents that I have a girlfriend. I was nervous, but everything was fine. My host family is very Catholic and religious, so I was afraid, but they are very inclusive and love all of their “gringa daughters” (as they affectionately call us), more than anything else. The first question my host mom asked after I told her was “well, what’s your girlfriend like?”, showing me that everything was normal and okay. And afterward, nothing changed between me and my host family — we’re still very close, and we love each other a lot. From all of this, it reinforced for me not to judge or stereotype people based on their religion or culture. Everyone is capable of prioritizing love.

Before I went to Costa Rica, a professor gave me the advice to not have any expectations about my experiences: just to observe, learn, and stay in the moment. Even after taking this advice to heart, I still had some basic expectations about how my semester was going to go — introductory classes, travel course, then internship — and these were not met because I had to leave seven weeks early.

But as much as I can sadly reflect, I can also remember my wonderful memories. The most important thing I took away from my experiences wasn’t from my classes, the trips I took, or the Spanish I learned — it was from my time with my host family. I don’t have younger siblings in my US family, so with my tica family, I learned how to be an older sister. I re-learned how to play, how to relax after a difficult day of classes, and how to appreciate the small moments with my little siblings. I cannot express all that my tica family means to me, but one thing I can take away is to value my time with family and loved ones, and to remember to make time to play and laugh, even in the difficult moments.

In Costa Rica, I learned that I am capable of doing more than I thought I was, in both my classes and in my life. I hope that now, I will listen as well as I can, think more critically, not be afraid to try new things, value my time with my loved ones, stay empathetic, and keep asking questions. Moving forward, I will continue to untangle the web of what I learned, what I can change, and what I can stay curious about.

Religion, Rights, and Marriage Equality in Costa Rica and Cuba

Name: Jenna Johnston

Location: San José, Costa Rica

Since my time in Costa Rica was cut short, for 3 of my 5 remaining blogs, I’m publishing stories based around the academic research and personal interviews I conducted for my Central American history class.

On the surface, Costa Rica is doing well when it comes to the rights of LGBTQ+ people. There are some non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people in areas like work and commerce, and marriage equality will be legalized in May. At the same time as these political advances, Costa Rica remains a Catholic country: legally as the state religion, and popularly as the religious identity of three-fourths of the population. These seemingly contradictory realities have complex roots and results in the fields of politics, Christianity, and history, as well as implications for the lives of individuals.

To gain a more personal perspective on the interrelatedness of LGBTQ+ rights, identity, and Christianity in Latin America, I conducted an interview with Alex*, an ordained Lutheran pastor who has lived in Costa Rica for twelve years. Alex is also gay and was born and raised in Cuba. As such, he has unique insight into the connections between LGBTQ+ rights, Christianity, and politics in Latin America. I interviewed Alex and researched to learn about the history of LGBTQ+ rights and marriage equality in Costa Rica and Cuba. I spoke with Alex about his experience growing up and working in the church throughout his life, and his personal experience with the interactions between Christianity and LGBTQ+ identity in both countries.

According to recent studies, 92% of Costa Ricans identify as Christian, including 76% Catholic (Velzer 2015). There is no available data about the percentage of the population who identifies as LGBTQ+. The first Roman Catholic missionary came to present-day Costa Rica in 1522, and shortly after, the Spanish colony was officially established in 1524 (Holland 2002). After colonization, Roman Catholic ideology was pushed onto indigenous peoples in Central America. It is difficult to know much about how Indigenous cultures in Costa Rica historically treated LGBTQ+ people, because the surviving narratives are almost entirely from the perspectives of colonizers, but there is some evidence of wider acceptance and normalization of diverse sexualities and gender identities in indigenous Latin America (Fernandez 2004b). Same-sex sexual activity was punishable by death until 1575, when the Spanish crown decided that indigenous people should not be judged by the Inquisition in the same way as Spaniards “because they were new to the Faith and, thus, they were not gente de razón [people capable of reasoning]” (Fernandez 2004b). Homosexuality was viewed as a “nefarious sin”, and after independence in 1821, it remained politically punishable until its decriminalization in the 1870s under the liberal president Tomás Guardia (Fernandez 2004a).

Wider social acceptance in Costa Rica followed trends in Western societies that began in the 1960s and 70s (Fernandez 2004a), and remaining laws that criminalized “scandalous sodomy”, which was not well defined and was rarely used as a charge in court, were repealed in 2002 (ILGA 2009). Since the election of President Carlos Alvarado Quesada in 2018, LGBTQ rights in Costa Rica have continued to improve. The issue of same-sex marriage was a major issue in the 2018 election, and after winning by a landslide, Alvarado has led Costa Rica to give people the right to change their legal gender, and has promoted the acceptance of the ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to legalize same-sex marriage and adoption by June 2020 (Henley 2018).

From a legal perspective, the rights of LGBTQ people today look similar in Costa Rica and Cuba — both are pending or awaiting legalization of same-sex marriage (Paz Martín 2018), and both recently legalized official gender changes (Kirk and Huish 2018). However, Costa Rica and Cuba have vastly different histories around LGBTQ issues. The Cuban government blatantly persecuted LGBTQ+ people as recently as the 1960s, when men who were suspected to be homosexual were incarcerated in labor camps (Arguelles and Rich 1984). Yet today, Cuba is considered one of the most socially accepting countries of LGBTQ+ people in Latin America and the Caribbean (Smith 2018). This is likely related to the fact that Cuba’s Communist government is not associated with Catholicism, and Cuba’s population is much less Christian than Costa Rica’s: one-fourth of the population identifies as non-religious, and while 60% of the population identifies as Catholic, less than 5% of that group attend mass regularly (WOLA 2012). Cuba’s complex sociopolitical and religious history cannot be explored within the context of this story, so the focus will remain on Cuba’s recent history, which relates most closely with Alex’s life experiences.

Alex said his childhood in Cuba was different from most Latin Americans’ childhoods because Cuba is a communist country: education and healthcare are relatively good, but freedom and human rights are more complicated. Alex grew up in and was always connected to the church, which was unusual for Cubans. He wasn’t open about his sexuality while living in Cuba, because of general sentiments about LGBTQ+ people, and especially after he was ordained as a pastor in the Presbyterian church. He knew some LGBTQ+ people who were out in their lives and to their church communities. However, these people did not typically feel comfortable enough to display public affection with their partners, to talk about their identities openly, or to seek church leadership or ordination. In general, according to Alex, LGBTQ+ people in the Presbyterian church in Cuba lived a life of “toleration in silence.”

Alex drew comparisons between the culture of his Presbyterian church in Cuba and mainstream Costa Rican Catholic culture when he moved there. Most Costa Ricans knew that LGBTQ+ people existed, but they misunderstood the topic and didn’t want to talk or think about it. People would quietly disagree, but avoid direct confrontation. Alex became a Lutheran pastor in Costa Rica, and found an accepting, open community that contrasted his experience in the Presbyterian church in Cuba. In the Lutheran church, Alex could be out as gay and work as a pastor, which he had never thought would be possible. He was welcomed in a community based on inclusion and social change and was able to have a “reencounter” with theology and sexuality. Many people with different histories of being excluded from the church came to his church, which helped Alex realize how important acceptance and inclusion are. Compared to the millions of Costa Rican Catholics, only a few thousand Costa Ricans identify as Lutheran (Bartlett 2008). Alex believes that now is the time for a “moment of integration and acceptance” in wider Costa Rican Christianity and culture.

The recent marriage equality debate in Costa Rica has been complex and polarizing in Costa Rica, which is frustrating for Alex, but will hopefully be resolved when marriage equality is legalized in late -May. The issue arose most recently in 2015, when due to an error with government identification paperwork, two women, Laura Flórez-Estrada and Jazmín Elizondo, got legally married. The couple, as well as those who participated in the official ceremony, were accused by the state of “ideological falsehood to the detriment of the family” (Madrigal 2019). This lawsuit led to the 2018 decisions by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Costa Rica’s Sala Constitucional, which stated that prohibiting same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and should be legalized in the next 18 months (Rico 2019). Alex described being frustrated with the public discourse around these issues. He said that it led to radicalization: moderate Christians who previously had no opinion on marriage equality were led by politicians and media to adopt increasingly hateful positions. However, he was grateful that Alvarado Quesada, the pro-marriage equality candidate, won the presidential election in 2018, and hoped that after legalization in May, the issue will turn back into something that can be discussed on the individual human level, instead of on overwhelming political scales.

In Cuba, Alex is less personally impacted by debates about marriage equality, but still is invested in how the issue is changing and progressing. Political forces in Cuba work differently because of the one-party system: Alex was very clear to express that no one in Cuba has political power outside of the government party. However, he said the Church still has influence over political decisions, as evidenced by the changing discussion around marriage equality about a year ago. While drafting a new Constitution in 2018, the Party decided to legalize marriage equality. Alex thinks this was because the Party wanted to placate and stay on the side of Western foreigners, presenting an image of Cuba as a place with democracy and progressivism. However, due to fear of the church’s response, they changed their minds and removed the accepting language from the draft of the Constitution, saying they may put it into the draft of the new Family Code instead (Paz Martín 2018). Alex was hopeful that the rights of LGBTQ+ people will continue to improve in Cuba but recognizes that the complex interactions between the Party and the Church make predicting or influencing change difficult.

The relationship between history, Christianity, LGBTQ+ identity, and politics has its own manifestations and complexities in every country. There is a tendency in some areas of the “developed” world to either wholeheartedly celebrate or completely dismiss countries in Latin America as progressive or not, accepting or not. However, the truth in many Latin American countries, such as Cuba and Costa Rica, is much more complicated. Histories of colonialism, Catholic influence, polarization, and reform have led to confusing realities and seeming contradictions between law, public opinion, and everyday life. Adding a personal perspective to historical context facilitates a more complex, complete understanding of LGBTQ+ and Christian issues.


*Name changed to protect privacy.

References cited in this story can be viewed here:

Venezuelan Refugees in Costa Rica: Political Background and Personal Narrative

Name: Jenna Johnston

Location: Santa Rosa, Costa Rica

Since my time in Costa Rica was cut short, for 3 of my 5 remaining blogs, I’m publishing stories based around the academic research and personal interviews I conducted for my Central American history class.

It is impactful enough to look at Costa Rica’s immigration situation from a demographic and statistical perspective. As of 2014, immigrants made up 9 percent of Costa Rica’s population, the largest percentage of any Latin American country (Arias 2014). Most immigrants in Costa Rica are from Nicaragua, with other significant portions from Panama, the United States, El Salvador, and Venezuela (Migration For Development 2018). Yet behind these numbers, every immigrant in Costa Rica has a story. To understand the refugee situation in Costa Rica and political violence in Venezuela from a personal perspective, I interviewed María* about being a refugee from Venezuela in Costa Rica. We discussed her reasons for leaving, her experience with the immigration system, and her personal dreams for the future.

During the presidencies of Hugo Chavez (from 1999 to 2013) and Nicolás Maduro (from 2013 until now), political repression and economic crisis have been the norm in Venezuela, worsening in the past several years. Hyperinflation, election fraud, shortages of important goods, and persecution of political opposition are just some of the problems Venezuelans have faced since 1999 (Human Rights Watch 2018). After Maduro was reelected in in 2018, Juan Guiadó, a political opposition leader, also declared himself president. Guiadó was formally recognized by many other governments, including the United States. However, most of the military and police forces in Venezuela still back Maduro, so he functionally has presidential power (BBC 2020). Since 2014, approximately 4.8 million Venezuelans have fled the country (BBC 2020). María and her family were among these refugees fleeing Venezuela in 2018.

Unlike other refugees who fled due to generally worsening economic and political circumstances, María and her family left because of a specific event: the assassination of her only brother during the El Junquito massacre of January 15, 2018. The massacre was an official attempt by the Venezuelan government to kill Óscar Pérez, leader of an opposition movement. In a mission called Operación Gedeón, five hundred troops were sent early in the morning to one house in El Junquito where Pérez and some companions were staying (Bellingcat 2018). Pérez and six of his supporters, including María’s brother, were killed, and others were arrested (Romero-Castillo 2018).

Not only was María’s family coping with their own grief, but the massacre made international news, and it was difficult for the families of the dead to get their loved ones’ bodies back from the government. Many of the other involved families also left the country. In María’s case, all three of her sisters and her mom left Venezuela — her mom left first, going to Peru just a few weeks after the massacre, while the rest of her extended family is now scattered elsewhere. During the months following her brother’s assassination, María and her family kept a very low profile. Her family suffered emotional and psychological pain, living in fear and under indirect and direct threats from the government. After several months of planning, María, her husband, and her two young children arrived in Costa Rica on August 3, 2018, a little over one and a half years ago.

Since 1950, Costa Rica’s government has remained stable. As a result, Costa Rica has a growing immigrant and refugee population, especially since crises in Venezuela and Nicaragua have escalated in the last two years. Among all the immigrants in Costa Rica, 100,000 (2% of the country’s population) are asylum seekers like María’s family (UNHCR Global Focus 2020). As of June 2019, Costa Rica hosted 28,870 Venezuelan refugees, including 16,236 asylum seekers and 5,692 people with residency or regular stay permits (UNHCR 2020a). According to Former President Chinchilla, “We are, in our hemisphere, the country that has received the second-highest migrant population, after the United States. We estimate that by the end of this year [2019] we will have about 100,000 Nicaraguans and 30,000 Venezuelans living with us” (Agence France-Presse 2019b).

María’s immigration experiences reflect the problems that have arisen from the surge in asylum seekers over the last few years. María and her family arrived just after the situation in Nicaragua worsened in April 2018. By August, the immigration system was overcrowded, understaffed, and slow. Increasing difficulties with the immigration system has led Costa Rica to ask for international assistance for dealing with the refugee crisis (Agence France-Presse 2019b). At the same time, the United Nations asked the country to expedite their processing of asylum requests for the sake of refugees and to combat rising xenophobia since 2018 (Agence France-Presse 2019a).

According to the UNHCR (or ACNUR in Spanish-speaking countries), there are several steps one must take to apply for refugee status in Costa Rica. After three months of residence in Costa Rica, asylum seekers can apply for a work permit, which takes several more months to process. Later, there is an interview with immigration authorities, and finally a waiting period to see whether the request for refugee status was approved or denied (UNHCR 2020b).

María talked about this process, and said it was frustrating because of how long each step has taken. Her family delayed leaving Venezuela in the first place to could get passports and other documents in order. Upon arrival in Costa Rica, her family received temporary documents that said they were seeking asylum, but this uncommon form of identification was confusing to potential employers and local authorities. Her husband had to wait many months to apply for a work permit, leaving them to rely on the generosity of family, friends, and social services to survive. Her family finally had their refugee application interview in January 2019. Several organizations, including ACNUR, HIAS, and RET, have provided her family with legal, social, and psychological support. At the time of this interview, in late January 2020, her family had still not heard anything about their application. Lawyers and immigration authorities have told them “tranquila,” that it could take years. While her husband has been able to work, it is generally harder to get jobs, and their family cannot leave the country. María said she would have liked to be able to visit her family in the United States and Peru, but she cannot until her refugee status is processed, so she feels a bit stuck. Many other refugees also share her frustration, as evidenced by the protests in Costa Rica led by Nicaraguan immigrants in 2018 and 2019 (Agence France-Presse 2019b).

While our interview focused on María’s reasons for leaving Venezuela and her immigration process in Costa Rica, her life is much more than her legal status and political history. She has two young children that keep her life “busy and crazy, but never boring.” She misses a lot from her home country, including her city, Caracas, and the warmer climate, but most of all “la gente”, the people. María has plenty of dreams and hopes for her future once her kids get older and she has more free time. While she has studied and worked in administration, she has a wide variety of interests in vocal music, theology, social services, and women’s issues. She would love to study theology and become a religious leader, life coach, or nonprofit worker. María views her difficult life experiences as a way to connect with others, particularly women, who have experienced harm, and guide them toward finding their vocation. Venezuela’s political crisis and Costa Rica’s immigration issues are striking enough while looking at the facts and statistics over time. When a personal perspective is brought in, it shines an even brighter light on how compassion and empathy are essential to building effective immigration systems and policies today.


*Name changed to protect privacy.

References cited in this story can be viewed here:

Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres: Context, Theology, and Personal Testimony

Name: Jenna Johnston

Location: San José, Costa Rica

Since my time in Costa Rica was cut short, for 3 of my 5 remaining blogs, I’m publishing stories based around the academic research and personal interviews I conducted in January and February for my Central American history class.

I interviewed Doña Eva*, a woman from El Salvador, about Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres, a song from the Nicaraguan Peasant Mass. Our interview took place during a night of singing and sharing Latin American protest hymns, including this song, together. Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres (“You are the God of the poor”) was written by Carlos Mejía Godoy, and comes from his Misa Campesina Nicaragüense (Nicaraguan Peasants’ Mass). The mass was written in the mid-1970s, and was used as a religious protest song in Nicaragua and El Salvador throughout the 1980s, when El Salvador was in a civil war. Leftist protestors and guerrillas fought against a US-backed military government that was characterized by mass death and disappearance, torture, and targeting of Catholic clergy (Michelsen 2020). Vos Sos has a rich history, is part of a radical theological movement, reflects Latin American culture, and has intense personal significance to Central Americans, reflected in Eva’s testimony.

Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres was composed as the entrada (entrance song) for the Nicaraguan Peasants’ Mass, published in the mid-1970s by Carlos Mejía Godoy (Vigil and Torrellas 1988). Following the Second Vatican Council and Latin American council meetings in the 1960s, Catholic composers began to write masses in the language and context of everyday people. The importance of Mejía Godoy’s life and music to Nicaraguan revolutionary movements cannot be overstated. Former Vice President of Nicaragua Sergio Ramirez described Mejía Godoy: “The [Sandinista] revolution owes everything to Carlos. He put the soundtrack to the revolution” (Salinas 2018).

Mejía Godoy is considered by some to be the most popular singer and composer in Nicaragua, famous for revolutionary and religious songs that came from Latin American folk traditions (Gioconda 2002). Before writing the Mass, Mejía Godoy had been in Catholic seminary in Costa Rica, but dropped out because it was run by “backwards” (atrasado) Spanish elites (Zeledón 2001). The mass was banned in Nicaragua by both the Church and the government following its publication because of its humanization of God and its Marxist undertones (Gurza 2003; Perez 2014; Zeledón 2001). Due to the political nature of his songs and their use in protests, Mejía Godoy has spent part of his life in exile. Many of his songs, including those in the mass, have more religious connotations and are less explicitly revolutionary. However, several songs of the album Guitarra Armada (“Armed Guitar”) give direct instructions on how to operate rifles that protestors stole from the Nicaraguan National Guard in the late 1970s. Mejía Godoy recently left Nicaragua again, fearing for his life because of his open personal and musical defiance of President Ortega’s regime (Salinas 2018).

The musical style of Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres is distinctly Nicaraguan. Mejía Godoy said he tried to incorporate rhythms and instruments from all parts of Nicaragua into the mass, just as he used his authentic conversations with Nicaraguan common people as inspiration for its lyrics (Zeledón 2001). Even as a newcomer to the genre, the language, and the song, at the music night, I found the chorus’ melody and harmonies easy to pick up in the moment. I was able to sing along in full voice by the time the last few choruses came around. The song’s inviting tone and quickly learnable chorus has likely enhanced its popularity and use as a protest song.

Several words, phrases, and themes stuck in my head while reflecting on the lyrics to Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres. The first and most obvious word that sticks out is the very first word of the song: vos. Unlike more traditional hymns and translations of the Bible, this song does not use the formal usted to refer to God. God is vos, the Latin American informal “you” used for everyday peoples. This relates to a friendly image of God, radically different from traditional paternalistic conceptions. The emphasis on God’s struggle also points out God’s humanness. The word “struggle” (luchás) is directly used in the first verse, to describe God struggling in the field and the city. Within the song, it is God’s nature as a worker that gives ordinary people the power and ability to speak directly to God.

While Vos Sos is not in the Misa Popular Salvadoreña (Salvadoran Popular Mass), it has still been sung in El Salvador in worship and other settings from the late 1970s onward (Peterson 1997), which explains the personal connection that Eva and other Salvadorans have to the song. When I asked Doña Eva what Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres says about God and humanity, she was overwhelmed by such a big question: “With this song you can say a lot.” The first point she focused on was that the song elevated and praised work that was traditionally viewed as “low” or inferior. She said the song is “a new way of looking at work” because it dignifies and admires people simply for working. The song reflects the culture of everyday working Central Americans, which relates to what Ernesto Cardenal, a Nicaraguan priest, said: the mass is not neutral — it is a mass against the oppressors (Zeledón 2001).

In addition to giving a fresh perspective on the value of work, the song also reframes God’s relationship to man. Doña Eva talked about how Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres shows God as a part of humanity, one who is walking and working alongside us. Drawing from liberation theology, the song paints a picture of God based on Jesus’ life: a God who is an integral part of humanity.

In many of Carlos Mejía Godoy’s other works, the social messages and calls for change are explicit. The social problems that Vos Sos highlights are more subtle, but are rooted in the concerns of liberation theology. God works and struggles in the lyrics of this song, but God is not sad or angry — God only has one mild complaint, and it’s about the flavor of shaved ice, not about social issues. Yet the focus on God’s many different jobs, some of which are physically taxing and all of which are low paying, highlight and center the struggles of the poor within the narrative. The mass and its opening song hold theological importance as an advancement in the continued centering of the poor within the Christian fight for justice.

When asked how singing Vos Sos made her feel, Doña Eva expressed a wide range of emotions. In El Salvador and when first arriving as a refugee in Costa Rica, she had fear associated with singing the song, but the fear always gave way to passion, a sense of pride in her identity, and adoring love for God. Singing the songs of the mass allows her to “desaugándome” (“let it all out”). The rich historical background, social and theological implications, and impact of words and themes of Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres contextualize these responses, enriching the song’s spiritual significance today.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

References cited in this story can be viewed here:

Que Dios Te Acompañe

Author: Jenna Johnston

Location:  San José and Heredia Provinces, Costa Rica

When I filled out my host family profile form for my study abroad application, it asked about religion. I remember writing that I would love to be with a family with whom I could attend church, but that it wasn’t the most important factor for me. I was lucky enough to be placed with a family that is a great fit for me in pretty much every aspect. I love spending time with my little siblings, enjoy the boisterousness of a house of 6, talk about everything from politics to future goals with my tico parents after my hermanitos are asleep, and we’ve been to church together plenty times.

Around 92% of Costa Ricans identify as Christian, including 76% Catholic, 14% Evangelical, and a mere 0.7% Protestant. As a Christian who has floated between mainline Protestant denominations (Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopalian) my whole life, I approach religious services here with open-mindedness and curiosity, as I’m learning not just about new denominations, but about how those churches manifest in Costa Rican culture.

Catholic Sunday Service at Santa Rosa de Lima Iglesia Católica

My first full day in Costa Rica, I went to Sunday morning church with my host family. I had been warned by many that nothing in Costa Rica starts on time, so I was surprised when we walked up to the church at 10am and the service began right on the hour. (Church services, along with train departures and doctor’s appointments, turned out to be the few exceptions to the “tico time” rule.) I’d never actually been to a Catholic mass before, and there wasn’t a service folder that told me what to do, so I followed along as well as I could. I enjoyed the guitar-accompanied music, the breeze carrying through the wide-open church doors, and the relaxed atmosphere. It was nice to spend time with my new family and get an introduction to their religious life.

Across the street from the brightly colored Santa Rosa de Lima church.

Evangelical Service at Proyecto Abraham

My second week here, on my way to Longo Mai with my cohort and some Casa Adobe people, we went to a Sunday morning service at an evangelical church. Between the heavy focus on end-of-days theology and the auditorium-like setting, it wasn’t my style, and frankly, I didn’t feel super comfortable during the service. But outside of their services, Proyecto Abraham has a lot of community outreach projects that sounded interesting, and I’m still grateful for the chance to learn more about the diversity of churches and worship styles of Costa Rica.

Didn’t get a picture at Proyecto Abraham, but this is the main basilica in Santo Domingo. Due to Spanish colonial influence on urban planning, nearly every city in Costa Rica, including all the ones I’ve visited, has a basilica in the center, right across the street from the city park.

Noche de Música at Longo Mai

During our trip to Longo Mai, we held a music night with several community members, most of whom are immigrants from El Salvador. We sang songs from the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan Peasant Masses, which were written in the 60s and 70s after the Second Vatican Council allowed the customization of mass for different languages and cultures. The masses were immediately banned by oppressive governments, because they spoke of a liberating theology with God on the side of the poor.

I played a ukulele someone brought along, a Longo Mai resident played all the guitar parts from memory, others joined in on violin and percussion, and we all sang our hearts out. I asked Doña Edit what the songs meant to her, and she said she was so grateful to be able to sing them freely and openly, because she could “desaugándome” (let it all out): joy, sadness, gratitude, and everything in between. It was so beautiful to be able to experience a small part of what these protest hymns mean to so many Central Americans.

We held the noche de música at Edit’s house. This is the Catholic church in Longo Mai. The mural features Óscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop who was assassinated by the government for his activism in 1980. The flag is half a Costa Rica and half an El Salvador flag.

Rezo del Niño

I have attended two small prayer services called Rezos del Niño with my host family. In the Epiphany season (between Christmas and Lent), Costa Ricans celebrate by gathering on a weekend evening in a friend or neighbor’s home. After attending or hosting a rezo, each family finally takes down their large nativity scenes, which are usually adorned with Christmas lights. At the service, there’s usually a rezador, or professional singer, and the host leads the prayers. Everyone prays the rosary together, reflecting on the mysteries of Jesus’ birth and childhood and singing Christmas carols in between each decade (set of prayers). Afterward, everyone shares food and conversation.

I really enjoyed both rezos — while I’m not Catholic, I appreciated the repetitive, meditative nature of the rosary (as well as the chifrijo and tacos we enjoyed afterward!). After the first rezo, I successfully held a conversation with a brand-new acquaintance, which was a first for me in Spanish. (Looking back a month later, I have conversations with strangers all the time. Day-by-day progress is slow, but I’ve improved a lot). The second rezo was last weekend at our neighbor’s house. Due to maintenance and construction, our whole neighborhood didn’t have water for about 24 hours that weekend, and there was something extra meaningful about praying “Lord, have mercy” when we were all praying for our water to come back. It was lovely to experience a uniquely Costa Rican way of celebrating Jesus’ birth and bridging the time between Christmas and Lent.

My tico siblings, mom, and I on the same day we went to the second rezo del niño. (Theme of this blog — I don’t tend to take very many pictures at religious services!)

Devotions at Casa Adobe

Every Sunday, Casa Adobe hosts afternoon devotions. When I don’t have too much homework, I attend and always enjoy it. Fabio leads the music on his guitar, and Heidi accompanies on violin. We sing a few songs, pray for each other, and discuss a Bible passage together. I’m still working on getting to the level of Spanish where I’m able to contribute to a high-level theological discussion, but for now, I like listening! Everyone is invited to Sunday dinner afterward, which is always lovely. Since my two classmates/cohort members live at Casa Adobe, I like getting the chance to spend time there outside the class and to continue to get to know the community.

Casa Adobe on an unusually cloudy day.

Friday Night Mass at San Pablo Apóstol

A few weeks ago, my family went to mass on Friday night instead of Sunday morning. It was in a neighboring town at a larger church. One difference I noticed from the smaller Santa Rosa de Lima church was that they had “Sunday school,” or whatever you call Sunday school on Friday nights — the kids all went to a different room for most of the service, playing games and learning the Bible story of the night. In the main service, there was a small contemporary band that alternated with a few recorded tracks. There were also liturgical dancers during the praise songs, who looked so joyful the whole time. The service was a bit long, but I really liked it; thanks to Candlelight at Valpo, I’ll always be partial to evening services.

A (blurry, unfortunately) picture of the church in San Pablo, all lit up for the evening mass.

Coronilla a la Divina Misericordia for Santa Faustina

Yesterday, my tico parents took us to a church in Coronado for a special service that they were helping to run. All over Costa Rica, from households to postcards to key fobs, you find the same image of Jesus, who has rays of red and blue light coming from his hand, with the caption “Jesús, en Ti confío” (Jesus, I trust in You). This image was inspired by St. Faustina’s vision, which she had many years ago on February 22. We celebrated by talking about her life and work, and praying a modified rosary called the “Coronilla a la Divina Misericordia” (Crown of Divine Mercy). It was a really interesting and unique service, and it was lovely seeing my host parents in their element, leading the Coronilla and talking passionately about St. Faustina’s life and purpose.

The altar, featuring images of St. Faustina, Pope John Paul II (who canonized her), and the famous painting.

My tico dad speaking to the congregation about St. Faustina’s life.

Whenever I say goodbye to my host mom in the morning, she always says “Que Dios te acompañe” (May God be with you) as I leave for class. From hearing this common phrase, to praying together as a family whenever we drive somewhere, to getting the opportunity to attend such a wide variety of services, I’m grateful for the way I’ve been able to experience Christianity embedded in daily life here in Costa Rica.

Finding God in a beautiful forest and in my beautiful family.

Getting Around

Author: Jenna Johnston

Location: San José and Heredia, Costa Rica

Now that I’ve been here for a few weeks, I’m starting to get used to the varied methods of public and private transportation. My Spanish classes at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) started this week, and while Heidi oriented me to the university, she must have told me at least four ways to get to class in the morning, and four more to get home in the afternoon. I realized a few days ago that I had used six methods of transportation in one day: I walked, biked, took a train, took a bus, took an Uber, and took a taxi. So here’s what each of those are like for me in my everyday life.


My favorite method of transportation, though by far the slowest, is walking. This would be unthinkable to my last-semester self. I biked everywhere on Valpo’s campus — with my back-to-back classes and packed schedule, it was necessary. If I couldn’t bike due to snowy weather or a flat tire, I would lament how long it took to walk everywhere, and would be just a few minutes late to everything.

But here, walking is fun again. Between neighborhood dogs and darting through traffic, it might be the added thrill — pedestrians don’t have the right of way or very many crosswalks, so crossing the road is all about timing. The sunny weather and better views certainly help, as does the fact that here, absolutely no one will care if I’m a few minutes late. My daily walk has been to Casa Adobe, where the Valpo study center is located, about 20 minutes from my house. There are a few different routes between my house and Casa Adobe. I prefer the one that I can’t take if it’s starting to get dark outside. Here, people say streets are dangerous at night if they’re sola — if there aren’t any houses around, so you might end up walking alone. But the sola route has fewer cars to dodge, and it takes me on a road bordered by trees through a local park, so it’s particularly pleasant early in the morning.

The sola route on a sunny morning.


Last week, in anticipation of having to catch the 6:45 train for classes at the UCR, I borrowed a bike from Casa Adobe. Despite my bike being my lifeline back at Valpo, it’s more difficult here. With more hills, lots of traffic, and worse sidewalks, biking can be a bit dangerous, especially when I’m coming home during rush hour. With the added steps of retrieving my bike from the garage at home and stashing it at Casa Adobe, biking and walking from my house to the train station end up taking about the same amount of time. Maybe as I get more confident in this new environment, something will change, but I haven’t gotten the hang of biking here yet.

My bike, waiting in the garage for the next time I decide to try it.


The train is definitely the most reliable source of transportation I have access to. It always follows the same schedule, arriving just a few minutes before 6:46 am every weekday. But it’s a far cry from the South Shore Line. Going from the suburbs into the city on a weekday morning means it’s rush hour — every car is packed full of people. I’m not very assertive in a crowd, so I usually end up having to ride a few stops in the precarious closed-in space between train cars, with the floor and walls moving and no handles in sight. It’s a relief once we get closer to the city, people start getting off, and I can make a dash for the stability of the train car, grabbing on to an overhead handle.

The train also gets me to school really early. The train arrives at 7:15, so I have a full 45 minutes to wander around campus, grab coffee, or do some last-minute homework before class begins. I can’t complain, because the it’s the fastest way to get anywhere. The timeworn car may rock back and forth on the tracks as we move, more boatlike than trainlike, but that’s part of the adventure, right? The views out the window, the price, and the time are unbeatable. I love the train.

Santa Rosa’s train tracks. I wish I had a picture from the train, but it’s usually far too crowded to get my phone out.


I’ve taken fewer Ubers and taxis than anything else to get around. They’re more expensive, take more steps to catch one, and require conversation. My first weekend here, I took an Uber to and from the mall to buy pants (my biggest study abroad advice — check your suitcase to make sure you actually grabbed all the clothes you planned on taking out of your closet!!). The first driver I had said only a few words, but my driver home was very chatty. While I was worried at first I would make a fool of myself, after he realized I was from the US, we talked and joked about cultural and language differences, and it was a lot of fun. It was definitely a good step toward becoming more confident in my Spanish and acclimating to the culture. Speaking of culture — in Costa Rica, when you take a taxi, you sit in the backseat, but when you take an Uber, you sit in the front. Not totally sure why, but the more you know!

A pic from Longo Mai, because it’s weird to take pictures in Ubers.


The bus is my ticket home, in more ways than one. The train only runs at rush hour, so when I get out of Spanish class at 1 pm, I take a bus or two instead. Also, as proof that I won’t overstay my travel visa, I bought a bus ticket to a neighboring country before going through immigration. Buses are everywhere — while I’ve heard nothing about a formal timetable, I’ve never had to wait longer than a few minutes for a bus. And I’ve taken them everywhere — to get home from class, to get around my neighborhood, city, or province, and to travel to, from, and within San José.

There are (at least) two ways to get home by bus after class. If it’s close to an hour, I take the direct bus from the UCR to Santo Domingo. This one requires paying a lot of attention — since it’s heading all the way to the city of Heredia, the bus doesn’t like to stop unless it has to, so when I’m approaching my neighborhood, I pull this little cord next to my seat and hope the bus driver will let me off. It’s a comfortable bus though, less crowded than the train, and having a direct route from school to (near) home is a blessing.

The other way to get home is less certain, and I’m not too confident in it yet. I can go to the bus stop, take literally any bus into downtown San José, walk around the corner, and take any bus whose sign in the window lists “SANTO DOMINGO” as a stop. I’m still weirded out by the concept of not worrying what specific bus or route to take, but it does give me freedom and flexibility, since I can take it at any time, and if I want, take a detour into downtown San José to hang out in the city after class.

This isn’t the bus I take, but there are so many buses on UCR’s campus. Here’s one of them!

Some Costa Rica things I’ve googled recently:

  1. micah 6:8 espanol: The Casa Adobe community holds devotions every Sunday evening. I finally made it to one this past Sunday, and didn’t bring a Bible, so I looked up the verse for discussion in both Spanish and English to have them side by side.
  2. what is vitamaiz: I went with my host family this weekend to visit our grandmother’s house. On Saturday, I saw her stir something flour-like into a pot of hot water on the stove, and a few minutes later she handed me a mug full of a warm, light-colored drink. I wasn’t really sure what it was but drank it anyway – not my favorite, but it was pretty sweet. I saw her pull out the box later, and later googled the name of the product, but I still don’t really know what it is – some kind of corn drink, probably? Some cultural mysteries can’t be solved even by Google!
  3. how to get US shows in costa rica: I’m an avid fan of The Good Place, so I was very sad when I tried to log into my Hulu account here and it blocked me because I’m not in the United States. Ever since, I’ve been searching for a way to watch the last several episodes and the series finale, but no luck so far! If you have any idea how to do it, please let me know 🙂
  4. wonder park movie summary: One of my host family’s favorite activities is to watch movies together, usually in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. I can follow along pretty well, but sometimes my limited vocabulary will cause me to miss the point of an important scene. I’ve taken to googling the plot summaries of movies so I can read along and keep track of what’s happening.
  5. C2 grammar spanish: I’m taking two Spanish classes this month – grammar and conversation. There are six levels from A1 to C2, and I placed into B2 for conversation, but there aren’t enough students to offer B2 grammar this month. I had the choice of an easier or harder Spanish class, and after trying both and some frantic googling to make sure I wouldn’t be in too over my head, I chose the harder class. It’s going to be a challenge, but I think I’m up for it!

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I really have a handle on getting around Costa Rica. I told a classmate how to take the bus from UCR to Santo Domingo today, and I can only hope that when I ask him tomorrow, the directions made sense! But I’m grateful for the number of different ways I can get from here to there. It’s exciting having the freedom and ability to go pretty much anywhere, with just a little forethought, a few solid Spanish phrases, and some change in my pocket.

Taking in all the sun I can.

Mucho más allá

Author: Jenna Johnston

Location: Santa Rosa, Santo Domingo, Heredia, Costa Rica

I arrived here in Santa Rosa, Costa Rica a week and a half ago. From classes starting, to life with a new family, to weekend adventures and a trip to Longo Mai, it’s been a whirlwind. While I was definitely nervous for the semester, there was one thing that helped as I prepared to leave. Hannah, a Valpo alum and friend who stayed with the same family, connected me with our tica mom* on WhatsApp, and she sent me a delightful voice message in which my new siblings – two younger girls and a toddler boy – introduced themselves. Whenever I felt stressed or nervous about leaving, I would replay it and smile as “hola Yena, cómo estás, te amo” filled my ears.**

My tica sisters made me welcome cards that they gave me when I arrived, complete with glitter.

Posing with my tica sisters and cousin, with plenty of Valpo gear to go around!

When people ask me about my first impression of the country, I talk about its natural beauty. It’s an easy thing for me to talk about in Spanish, but it’s also my natural first reaction. I chuckle to myself every time my tica mom asks if I need to grab a jacket whenever the temperature dips below 75 degrees Fahrenheit. I take advantage of every opportunity to study, have class, or walk around outside. And I will never get tired of the mountains. We’re located in the Central Valley, which means the mountains surround us. To locals, they’re unremarkable, background, but I will never get tired of gazing at them on my walk to class, at sundown, or while driving around the city.

Beautiful cloudy mountain views on our drive to Longo Mai.

While I’m very grateful for how lovely my time here has been so far, it hasn’t been without its mishaps. One morning was particularly trying – first, I couldn’t leave my house because I couldn’t figure out how to unlock the front door and no one was awake. Upon leaving my house, the neighborhood dogs jumped on me and chased me down the street. After shooing them off and arriving at Casa Adobe, the front door, which I don’t have a key to, was locked! But for every unfortunate occurrence, there have been many more joys, from swimming in the river and singing old songs with locals at Longo Mai, to playing and laughing with my tico siblings, to trying and loving new foods. I’ve learned so much in class already, and arguably even more in my everyday life.

We went for a swim in a beautiful river while at Longo Mai.

A quick explanation of what my study abroad program looks like, since it’s pretty unusual: while I’m a part of a Valpo study center program, I’m the only student from Valpo in Costa Rica this semester. Thankfully, the Valpo study center is based out of a house called Casa Adobe, the hub for several volunteer and educational programs, and the residence for families, volunteers, and employees from around the world. Like previous semesters, I’m taking an introductory history course with the program coordinator, Heidi, but we are joined by two Casa Adobe volunteers who arrived here around the same time I did – Juliana from Bolivia and Andrea from El Salvador. I was very nervous about studying abroad alone, but now I feel lucky that I get to do my first class, a few trips, and orientation activities with a unique international cohort.

From left to right, my cohort – Andrea, me, and Juliana – at El Museo de Arte Costarricense.

Some Costa Rica things I’ve googled so far:

  1. san jose airport map: Preparing myself so I wouldn’t get lost immediately after arriving!
  2. how to ask for check costa rica: I went to lunch alone in a restaurant for the first time. Unlike in US restaurants, the waiter doesn’t rush to give you the check right after you eat, but I wasn’t sure how long I had to wait. After waiting and watching, I realized that I was supposed to go up to the counter to pay. Good thing there were other people in the restaurant, or I may have waited forever!
  3. incofer train schedule: Figuring out how early to wake up in order to catch the train to go to San José with my cohort on Saturday (turns out – very early). It’s the same train that I’ll take to my Spanish classes at the University of Costa Rica in February.
  4. how to add minutes kolbi: Here, instead of phone company contracts, you prepay for phone “minutes” on your Costa Rican SIM card. I knew that most stores were able to help you add more minutes, but I wasn’t sure quite how to ask.
  5. pupusa recipe with squash: While in Longo Mai, Doña Edit taught us how to make pupusas, a delicious Salvadoran corn flatbread stuffed with cheese, squash, and beans. I knew immediately that I would want to make them again.
  6. costa rica earthquake: There were two earthquakes while we were in Longo Mai! As I’m from the Midwest, I’d never experienced an earthquake before. Both of them were of moderate intensity, causing little to no damage, but they occurred in the middle of the night, and I slept right through them!

A phrase has been knocking around in my head ever since I heard it last week. My tica family and I went to see Frozen 2 in theatres. In Spanish, instead of singing “Into the Unknown”, Elsa sings “Mucho Más Allá”, a phrase that colloquially means “far beyond.” If each word is literally translated, it sounds like “a lot more over there”, which made me laugh. But the chorus of the song has been stuck in my head ever since, which makes sense, as I am “mucho más allá” from my home, my family and friends, and everything that’s familiar. Still, I’m grateful to be here, and can’t wait to see what more adventures this semester holds.  

The view in our backyard from the garage stairs at sunset. San José is just below the mountains in the center left.

*The word for Costa Rican is tico, and for brevity’s sake, I will use tico/a to refer to the members of my host family.

** The “J” sound is different in Spanish than in English, so my name sometimes ends up with a Y instead of a J in spoken and written Spanish.

Coming Home: A Study Abroad Reflection

Author: Mia Casas

Location: San Jose, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

It has been officially over one month since I have returned home from my Study Abroad Program in Costa Rica. Unlike some of my peers, I was super excited to finally come home. Others had mixed emotions. On the other side of the spectrum, one of my friends was really upset and sad about the idea of returning to the States. This perfectly exemplifies how each person experiences circumstances differently, and processes their emotions differently.

Although I loved Costa Rica, I was ready to be home. I was anticipating reverse culture shock with excitement, oddly enough. Heidi advised us that we would come back to our country and culture with new, fresh eyes. She recommended that we keep a journal to note our observations about the world we live in. Our new vision would fade fast as we became accustomed to US living again.

It’s true that most Americans are known for their hustle and bustle in daily life, and this is even more accentuated during the holidays. The Christmas season, though, is my favorite time of the year and I was eager to come home to spend time with my family and friends, and catch up on all the holiday festivities. Undoubtedly, my relatives looked forward to my return, but the overwhelming feeling of sadness hit me unexpectedly when I realized I didn’t have the same support system as I did in Costa Rica. I knew that a period of grief would hit me eventually, but I never expected it to happen when it did. It happened one weekday when I felt like I didn’t have the support system I needed. I had realized how busy and run down my family was with work, practices, appointments, etcetera, leaving me feeling neglected, in a sense, as if they didn’t have time to spend with me. Meanwhile, I was so enthused to be home and wanted to engage more frequently than what my friends and family could offer me.

I hit a low that night, but realized it was just a part of the cultural adjustment process, same as in Costa Rica. In due time, I found clearings in my friends’ and family members’ schedules to catch up and enjoy their company, and eased my way back into my routine here at home. There are still times I wish I could take a break from all of it to embrace the Pura Vida spirit. Yet, I still count my blessings for all the things I missed while I was away. And I count my blessings for all the wonderful memories made in Costa Rica.

Los Chorros Waterfalls: For our last cohort trip, we traveled near Grecia to see this magnificent waterfall, in addition to hiking some life threatening trails, (the usual in Costa Rica). This sight was magical, as we were able to swim under the waterfall, and bathe in the river without being disturbed by tourists.

International friends: We said goodbye to our friends from Norway and the Netherlands. I am thankful for having the opportunity to have met them.

Everything You Need to Know About The Costa Rica Study Program: Culture and Recreation (Part 2)

Author: Mia Casas

Location: Santo Domingo, Costa Rica

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

Here is the second piece of everything you need to know about Costa Rica. In this part, I will review some cultural aspects of the Pura Vida country and provide an overview of recreational activities in Costa Rica that are tuanis.

Where am I going exactly? How do I get around?

If you want to scope out in advance what area of Costa Rica you are heading to, the exact location is Santa Rosa de Santo Domingo de Heredia. Santa Rosa is the smaller neighborhood, Santo Domingo is the city, and Heredia is the province (but there is also the city of Heredia). It is a pretty good location because you are about 20 minutes from San Jose, in one direction, and 20 minutes from Heredia, in the other direction. Santa Rosa has a train stop right in the neighborhood, and there are plenty of bus stops nearby, too, that can get you around easily. The routes can be intimidating to navigate at first, but don’t be afraid to learn by trial and error. Worst comes to worst, you can always call an Uber or taxi, (or DiDi! — a new app similar to Uber) to come to your rescue.

What do I do with all my time in Costa Rica?

Aside from classwork and internship, you will have plenty of time to experience the culture of Costa Rica by engaging with your host families, being involved with activities hosted by Casa Adobe, and travelling! I recommend creating a bucket list of all the places you want to see and things you want to do in Costa Rica early on so you can adequately plan for each item. If you start feeling restless, branch out and visit local activities in Santo Domingo’s park, like bailles (P.S. everyone dances in Costa Rica) or conciertos. You can also venture out to San Jose or Heredia. San Jose has a larger nightlife, but the city isn’t really all that pretty, let’s say. Some locals prefer traveling to Heredia, which is more recently developed and has a cleaner look. Keep an eye out for cultural activities going on locally and nationally. The advantage of being so close to San Jose is that you can go to sporting events or concerts for famous Latin American artists (think Marc Anthony)!

During Fall break, my brother visited me and we visited several landmarks in Costa Rica, one of them being the Irazu Volcano, which features a lagoon inside the crater.

Where do you get to visit while you’re in Costa Rica?

There are a ton of websites and blogs online that give recommendations about the top places to visit in Costa Rica. For transportation, this website was very useful for getting around. Truthfully, there’s so much to see but you can really make the most of your time if you plan properly. Here is a comprehensive list of all the places I travelled to for my own leisure:

In San Jose/Heredia Provinces:

1. Barva Volcano

2. Irazu Volcano

3. San Jose Central Market

4. Oxigeno (This is just a mall, but it has a very cool mirador of the Central Valley)

5. Zoológico y Jardín Botánico Nacional Simón Bolívar Park

6. Jade Museum

7. Museums of the Central Bank (Pre-Colombian Gold Museum/The Numismatic Museum/Other Temporary Exhibits)

I found this from the website. “Admission is 2,000 Colones for citizens and residents, and 5,500 Colones for foreigners. Admission is free on Wednesdays. Admission is 2-for-1 on Sundays for citizens and residents with Costa Rican I.D. Admission is free for children under 12, students wearing their uniform or with school I.D. and retired citizens.”

8. Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels in Cartago

9. National Theater of Costa Rica — Guided Tour and a show (1001 Noches)

10. Estado Nacional // La Sabana Park

Tip: Have the UCR issue you a student ID, and you can get student discounts at certain locations.

In Other Provinces:

1. La Fortuna, Alajuela — Arenal Volcano

2. Manuel Antonio, Puntarenas — Manuel Antonio National Park

3. Jaco, Puntarenas

4. Santa Cruz, Guanacaste

5. Puerto Viejo, Limon

The National Theater is one of the many gems of Costa Rica. In the guided tour you learn that the theater is used for many important, national events, like the President’s inauguration.

It is also ranked as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

As a cohort, the group goes sightseeing. Here are the places we went in Fall 2019 in Costa Rica:

  1. National Museum
      5. Cahuita, Limon       
      2. National Monument (and more)      6. Bri Bri, Limon
      3. Contemporary Art Museum       7. Tortuguero, Limon
      4. Guayabo National Monument        8. Tacares Waterfall

With Heidi, students also visit untraditional tourists locations like indigenous communities and refugee communities. They may not be glamorous areas, but they are very eye-opening and experiences for personal growth. (Bolded items are my favorite locations.)

At this site, visitors can enjoy walking across hanging bridges in the National Park, bathing in hot thermal pools, or zipline through the jungle.

At this site, visitors can enjoy walking across hanging bridges in the National Park, bathing in hot thermal pools, or zipline through the jungle.

Random pieces of advice for those planning on going abroad?

While I would like to say that everything about studying abroad in Costa Rica was perfect, the reality is that you experience some growing pains while here. The best way to maneuver any uncomfortable situation is to ask for help and open up to someone you trust, whether it be Heidi, a fellow peer, someone in your host family, etc. Some lessons are bigger than others, but here’s some tidbits that may be useful.


In the Central Valley, it gets chilly at night. If you are traveling to Costa Rica in the fall semester, make sure to bring some sweaters or light jackets. Even during the day, you won’t want to wear summer clothes, like flip flops or shorts because it is not beach weather in San Jose. The fall semester coincides with the rainy season, so ALWAYS have an umbrella with you, that’s the number one rule before leaving your house in the rainy season. You may also want to bring other attire that is water-resistant.


You will do a lot of walking throughout the semester, so bring walking shoes that are supportive, and it may be smart to leave behind any shoes you don’t want to get dirty or ruin. The sidewalks and streets are not that great here, so the most important element is functionality. Also, if you wear sandals on a cold, rainy day, you will stick out as a foreigner. Most people wear closed-toed shoes here, which is also good to keep in mind when you go to your internship.

Host Families

One major culture shock may be living with a host family. Not only is it a family that is not your own, the “parenting” of parents in Costa Rica is very different than US parenting. Some people love the experience, whereas others may find it difficult. In some ways, it is like being in highschool again, where you have to be conscious of how frequently you go in and out of the house, what time you come home at night, eating all the food on your plate, etc. The best way to prevent any uncomfortability in a homestay is to, first, be clear in your application what your hobbies are, what kind of food do you like and don’t like, what kind of environment do you prefer, all the details that will help Heidi pair you with the right family. Second, open communication is best, especially with Heidi. She will always help you navigate any situation relating to cultural cues, to arranging a doctors visit, to handling difficult conversations… with anything you need help with.

Costs of Living

In relation to other neighboring Central American countries, Costa Rica is very expensive. I love going to the malls but I never buy anything because everything is overpriced. Be smart and save money where you can. Opt to make lunch at home, don’t buy things in touristy spots where things are overpriced, use the bus versus Uber; this will help you save money to spend on experiences like going out with friends or travelling. Beware that some tourist activities are pricey and foreigners often get upcharged a ton versus residents.

Manuel Antonio is known for having some of the most beautiful beaches in the country.

he National Park is extensive and has many breathtaking views.

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