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Centro Panamericano de Idiomas’s Three Campuses Provide a Variety of Options

The most appealing aspect of the language school Centro Panamericano de Idiomas, or CPI, is surely the variety of programs it has to offer. With as many program options and ideas as Costa Rica has ecosystems, CPI seems to have covered all the bases. They are currently the only language school in Costa Rica (and one of the only in all of Latin America) to offer studies at three different campuses— each one offering a unique slice of the diverse Costa Rican culture. I just returned from a lengthy visit to each, and here’s what I learned.

About the School

CPI was founded in 1991 and has since grown to be one the premier language immersion schools in Latin America. With 15 years of formal experience, they seem to have gained a professional edge over most other non-university schools in the region. Their website will speak for itself in this regard: www.cpi-edu.com. Each campus boasts a unique blend of experienced teachers from all over the country (and a few from neighboring countries). Teachers’ ages range from 19 to 45, male and female, with differing degrees of education. Students’ ages range from 18 to 99 (younger kids are welcome too) and they come from all over the world. In addition to the students and teachers, each campus has a school director and an activity coordinator who work to make your ride smooth, and your activities many. Be sure to befriend both—they are the key to making things happen, both extracurricular and in class.

Students may begin classes any given Monday and continue for as many weeks as they like. On their first day, students are orientated to the local culture and town and given a host of useful information about the region. All the good restaurants and activities will be highlighted, providing a welcome relief from the usual research that comes with traveling. But don’t get the wrong idea; there are no mandatory, tourist-trap packages. After orientation, a written and oral test will help determine class placement. Classes are no more than four or five students, and each week students are assigned a new teacher. I found this particularly effective for learning a variety of expressions and accents. Generally, the strongest emphasis is put on developing speech—a welcomed change from university language courses.

The normal program runs from eight until noon, and at 10 a.m. there is a 20-minute break with fresh fruit, juice, and snacks. A super-intensive program is offered for those looking to study hard— it offers 5.5 hours of class a day—but I wouldn’t recommend it. The extra class time is in the heat of the day when most are either cooling off in the ocean or pool, or taking a siesta. And for those looking for more personalized instruction, private classes are offered for an additional small fee. However, if you stay long enough (like I did), you’ll eventually be talking like a Tico, and they’ll be forced to put you in a class by yourself. CPI is also a great option for the university student looking to study abroad. For tips on reducing tuition costs, refer to the article I wrote called “Cut Your Semester Abroad Tuition in Half” in Transitions Abroad Student Guide fall 2006.

The Campuses

My favorite, and it seems to be the common preference, is the Playa Flamingo campus, which happens to boast views of the Pacific Ocean. Your homestay here will be quite rural, but for any beach lover who enjoys simplicity, it’s a no-brainer. Surfing, snorkeling, diving—any water activity you can imagine is within reach. A school shuttle is even offered three days a week to take you to the nearby tourist hub of Tamarindo, and two bays to the south is the renowned white sand beach of Playa Conchal. Go exploring and you’ll find plenty of beautiful beaches in the vicinity. The school itself is set on the peninsula in Playa Flamingo which is a bit ritzy (it even has a casino), but you most likely will stay in the town of Potrero to avoid pricy accommodations. All homestay families are in Potrero, a 20-minute walk around the bay. Please take note that you will be living an oldfashioned way of life. The chicken you see out back might be the pollo on your plate for dinner; don’t worry vegetarians, you will be well accommodated too. I ate like a king for the entirety of my stay, and I’m vegan. A homestay here is definitely recommended, but if you choose to find your own accommodations, I would recommend Cabinas Cristina or Cabinas Isolina. Both have beautiful grounds and offer discounts to students. The pool at Cabinas Isolina doubled as the student hangout while I was there, so that might be the best bet for the more social traveler. Prices for longer stays are negotiable at both places.

The campus in Monteverde is perfect for the eco-traveler. Your afternoons will be spent exploring the two rainforest preserves that border the school, birdwatching, hiking, or relaxing to the sounds of the jungle. Don’t expect too much in the way of modern attractions though; the town here is a bit sleepy. To make the most of your time, I would look into one of the local volunteer opportunities the school coordinates—get practical with that new language you’re learning and lend a hand. It will be well worth your time. A homestay here is also recommended, but if not, look into Casa del Toro, a neat place discounted for students.

The oldest campus is located in San Joaquin de Flores on the outskirts of Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose. If you’re looking for the more institutional feel, this is the place. The campus seems just the right distance from the city—far enough to avoid the hustle and bustle, but near enough to enjoy the big-city benefits. Additionally, your homestay and lifestyle here will be quite different than the other two campuses; host families will typically be with middle-class Costa Ricans with suburban homes. If you’re looking to stay elsewhere, the school associates with several apartment complexes in the area that offer good rates. This is not the spot for those looking to walk barefoot into class (like at the other two campuses).

Regardless of what suits you, one perk of the program is that you can split your time between schools however you wish. If you hope to see what each has to offer, I would recommend flying into San Jose and spending some time at the San Joaquin campus, then heading to Monteverde, and finally to Flamingo. As far as timing goes, the summer program seems to be the most popular, but fall and spring will keep you distanced from the more tourist-laden times in Guanacaste. Finally, I would avoid both Monteverde and San Joaquin during the rainy season.