Join us on this journey, witnessing the cenotes and Mayan ruins of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, down to the black sand beaches and exotic animals of Costa Rica and through the rich highlands of volcanic Guatemala. You will absorb, explore, interact with, and understand the beautiful diversity of these locations. Your days will be as varied as the countries you visit, with a fusion of hands-on volunteer work, connecting with locals, learning the Spanish language, camping under the stars, and a serious dose of adventure. Think scuba diving in Mexico, rafting and surfing in Costa Rica, volcano treks in Guatemala, and standup paddle boarding on Lake Atitlan to name a few!
This gap year program moves organically from the Caribbean to the forested highlands of Central America and across to the Pacific. You get to see it all and make a difference while you're at it! Through a community volunteer project at a local school, some hands-on work at a permaculture farm, helping out on coffee plantations, and caring for endangered wildlife (and sloths!) at an animal rescue center. You will work alongside local communities and truly immerse yourself in their cultures, while learning more about this part of world and its complex ecosystem.
✓ Would love to live like a local and experience homestays
✓ Are interested in learning a new language
✓ Love activities like scuba diving, hiking, ziplining, rafting and surfing
✓ Are enthusiastic about animal welfare and conservation
✓ Want to explore impressive Mayan ruins near jungles and beaches
This may sound cheesy, but it truly was a life-changing experience. I changed so much on this program, and all for the better. I’ve become more active, more confident, more social, and more grateful. I am going back home knowing I am a better person than when I came. I have so many stories of experiences on the outside as well as experiences on the inside. It’s worth it, trust me.”
- Jonathan Mount, 2021 Student
Our newest Program Quiz can help you find your perfect Program match! Or get the full Fall Program run-down in our catalogue. This catalogue provides information about Pacific Discovery's values and program design, as well as program descriptions and testimonials!
After meeting each other in Cancun airport, we’ll head south down the spectacular Caribbean coast to the ancient Mayan city of Tulum. Perched atop a cliff overlooking the sea, it is one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Mayans. While we enjoy its brilliant turquoise-blue waters and crushed-coral white sands, we’ll spend some time getting to know each other during orientation. Our time will focus on creating a positive and reflective group culture to support us in realizing our program goals.
In Tulum, we will also explore the Mayan ruins along the coast, learn to salsa dance, swim in the crystal clear waters of a cenote (a natural cave system filled with fresh water), and head inland to a Mayan ruin and one of the new seven wonders of the world, Chichén Itzá! We will also get Spanish language classes and put our new skills to use while gaining insight into the culture. The lessons are specific to your level of Spanish and the experienced teachers will help you with relevant conversational Spanish for the journey ahead. We will hear, see, and feel the Spanish language in its natural environment. Considering this language is more widely spoken than English, it’s worth your while to get acquainted!
Based in Tulum, we will start the week by exploring the sublime natural beauty of Sian Ka’an. This Biosphere Reserve is composed of a delicate balance of ecosystems, complete with tropical forest and coral reefs, blue lagoons, hundreds of bird species and other animal life, and untouched beaches. We will visit the ancient Mayan ruins of Muyil before enjoying a boat ride through the turquoise lagoons, mangroves and Mayan waterways. On our way back, we will float back down through these clear, fresh water canals using our life jackets as a floating seat!
The next few days, we wake up the mind and body with morning yoga classes in preparation for our continued daily Spanish lessons. Don’t worry, we won’t be stuck in a classroom for this, but are instead being taught outside in the shady garden. After a few hours of absorbing everything we possibly can, we delve deeper into the culture by learning to cook authentic Mexican food and having a cultural exchange with local children. Every day has something new in store for us!
After leaving Tulum, we will meet our diving instructors in Cozumel and get into the headspace of the underwater world. We will be living and breathing diving for a few days! We will be doing our learning in the pool first, ensuring we have all the skills for a lifetime of safe scuba diving ahead of us. Following this, we will head out on the sea to do dives from a boat.
Our time in Mexico has unfortunately come to an end. After spending our final day in Mexico relaxing on the white sand beaches of Playa Del Carmen, it’s time to fly to one of the happiest countries on earth, Costa Rica! This might stem from the laid-back Tico outlook combined with the incredible model of eco-stewardship Costa Rica boasts.
We will go on a 4-day rafting trip on the Pacuare River, which is one of the best places in the world for white water rafting. What an amazing way to start our trip in Costa Rica! This unique journey has you rafting the country’s most exciting rapids, swimming, exploring the endless tropical rainforests, planting a tree to reduce your carbon footprint, and splashing in waterfalls. Tents will serve as our homes for the nights as we fall asleep listening to the roar of the river and the endless songs of the jungle’s countless inhabitants.
By the end of the week, we travel straight to an animal rescue center that is dedicated to protecting and helping endangered Costa Rican wildlife with all means available. This rescue center is home to a variety of animals that were rescued from the illegal animal trade, which is unfortunately still functioning in parts of the country. The goal is to help the animals recover from both physical and psychological wounds that have arisen from their past suffering.
We continue our stay at the Animal Rescue Center, where we support the center with volunteer work such as working in the animal kitchen, assisting with the sloth garden, helping with the compost, and enriching their homes. We’re sure that after a couple of days you’ll feel as at home at the center as the spider monkeys and won’t want to leave!
We then make our way to Monteverde, right next door to the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. We will fully immerse ourselves in the culture of Costa Rica by living under the same roof as local families for a few days. This homestay gives us the opportunity to live and breathe the local culture, make friends as well as memories, and explore destinations in a truly authentic way.
While in Monteverde, we will experience the coffee culture and learn about the process of sustainable coffee farming. We will also head out for a hike through the Cloud Forest Reserve, where we keep our eyes open for the incredibly diverse flora and fauna on offer. This is also home to what we know as The Great Divide, meaning that as you stand on the separation between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, we will be on two continents at once!
During our third week in Costa Rica, we will spend time in an education center in the rural farming town of Tinamu, situated on the edge of the last remaining virgin rainforest of Costa Rica’s beautiful Puriscal County. While we experience the peace, serenity and authenticity of the real Costa Rican culture, we will be working alongside the community on a local project. We will help out in whichever way we can, whether that means getting hands-on with paintwork, building a concrete ramp, or just about anything else. In our free time, we can admire a nearby waterfall, go for a hike, or venture into a mysterious underground cave.
After this workout for our arms, we enjoy a deserved resting day on Uvita beach. Playa Uvita is a spectacular beach surrounded by lush, sweeping mountains, infinite fresh streams and rivers, and a healthy reef offshore that hosts an enormous population of whales for several months each year. Here, we can relax at the long and wide beach, swim in the warm ocean and appreciate the great views. What a great place to call our home for the next week!
It’s time to surf, a true highlight for our students! Surfing is a unique activity that brings us closer to nature, offering an opportunity to connect with the ocean. We will be learning how to surf for three days and hone our skills on a beach in Costa Rica, located within the gorgeous Marino Ballena National Park. After class, we can give our minds a well-deserved rest and kick back on the beach with a coconut.
Yoga and meditation lessons will open up our eyes to relaxation and the need to slow down our lives. There is no better setting for this than the amazing and fantastic Uvita beach where we will be rewarded with a place of peace and tranquility on top of new taught ways to reset from the stress of everyday life.
On our transfer back to San Jose we will visit the famous Manuel Antonio National Park. It contains a charming combination of the rainforest, beaches, and coral reefs. These beaches are one of the most beautiful in the country, lined with lush forests. The forest is home to sloths, iguanas, adorable squirrel monkeys, white-faced monkeys, and millions of colorful little crabs. The trail that winds around Punta Catedral also features some spectacular views.
After a week of hard work an animal snuggles, we head to Guatemala. Guatemala is widely considered the hearth of the Maya civilization. Mayans ruled the area that is now Guatemala until around 1000 AD. Today, nearly 40% of the population of Guatemala is indigenous, with the vast majority of those being of Mayan descent. We suggest you take a keen interest in the Mayans, because they were the ones who invented chocolate. We take a flight to the mountains and by the evening we’ll be dining on corn tortillas in Antigua! Take a day to absorb this new environment of cobble stoned, European-style streets, homemade leather goods and cool cafes.
After a day of rest and exploration in Antigua, we will start an overnight hike at the foothills of the active Pacaya volcano. Expect to get some incredible views of the northern volcanoes throughout the entire hike, and roast marshmallows over the geothermal hot spots we encounter. We will see active lava flows light up the night sky after sundown, and enjoy sunrise views of volcanoes Agua, Fuego and Acatenanga the next morning.
Guatemala isn’t only known for the volcanoes though, coffee might even be a close second. That’s why we make our way to a small Mayan community, where local farmers work together to grow and process their own coffee for export. We will learn about the work it takes to cultivate coffee, get involved in each step of processing from bean to brew, help out on the coffee plantations, and of course take a sip of the coffee we produced ourselves.
Antigua is known for its remarkable volcanic landscapes nearby, so we will embark on another multi-day hiking adventure in search of volcanoes and high-altitude lakes. Climbing Volcan Acatenango is on the bucket list of most travelers in Guatemala, and you will see why. We will be stunned by the sights and sounds of the evening fireworks from the nearby active Volcan Fuego as we step out of your tent. While the Pacaya volcano from last week was one of the easier hikes in the area, this 3-day hike up Guatemala's third largest volcano will challenge us. But it will all be worth it, we promise!
After arriving in Quetzalteco, we get to fully immerse ourselves in the culture of Guatemala by living under the same roof as Guatemalan families while we further our study of the Spanish language. This 5-day homestay is the perfect way to improve our language skills by getting the opportunity to talk with the families at least three times a day during meals, and on other occasions during the day. We will also participate in social, cultural and sports activities in the afternoon to provide us with extra practical learning opportunities and to get a better understanding of the culture and traditions of Guatemala. This can range from playing football with the children or getting a dance class to visiting a local mayan community or water springs nearby.
Once we’ve gotten our fix of hot lava views and Spanish lessons, we will join the dots from village to village in the highlands of Guatemala meandering through cloud forests, streams, corn fields and small pueblos. Every village has their own subtle differences in clothing, language and food. The hiking adventure comes to a close as you see the sun rise over the crater Lake Atitlan, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Let us know what you think when you see it!
It is now time to take a bit of time for ourselves and reflect on all we have experienced and learned over the past 70 days.
This week we will have the chance to stand up paddleboard (SUP) on the lake as well as explore villages by boat. Hike in the cloud forest early in the morning to spot Quetzal birds in nature and we will also take part in a Temazcal ceremony, which is a complete cleansing experience for your body, mind and spirit in a traditional Mayan sweat lodge and natural sauna. Each day will bring a further exploration into self-reflection, development and empowerment.
Sadly, the time has also come to begin processing the once-in-a-lifetime experiences that the program has taken us on. We are sure that you will reflect on how amazing it was to have a chance to take a break from everything, learn about ourselves, but also prioritize time to experience and have gratitude for our own beautiful and historic culture and environment.
*Each week there will be some designated free time so that you can catch up on email, laundry, rest, and explore independently with others in the group.
**Pacific Discovery reserves the right to alter and/or change the order of the itinerary, the focus of the projects or the activities themselves due to dates, availability, and safety precautions.
✓ All in-program travel and transport, excluding flights
✓ All accommodation
✓ All meals
✓ All expeditions, activities, excursions, volunteer projects and entry fees as described in the itinerary
✓ Experienced Program Instructors and local guides
✓ Informal lectures from resident experts on conservation and eco-tourism
✓ Experiential core curriculum that pushes students to reflect and ask questions of themselves
✓ Certificate of Program Completion
High Activity Level: Anyone with an average to advanced fitness level and an enthusiasm for the outdoors and new experiences will have a great time on this gap semester! You will need to be prepared for a couple of multi-day hikes in Guatemala and some physical work during the volunteer projects on the program, like trail building or the removal of invasive plants.
Medium Camping Level: You will be doing some camping on this program, mostly during the multi-day volcano hikes, but you will spend most of your time in comfortable hostels and lodges.
Medium Service Learning Level: You will be able to make a difference to the local community during your stay. Be prepared to get your hands dirty and do some hands-on learning about local issues.
Our accommodation will vary from welcoming lodges and camping with shared facilities, to hotels and guesthouses with private bathrooms. Laundry and Wi-Fi will be available some days, except while at our volunteering projects, trekking trips and community stays. Accommodation is diverse, comfortable and carefully chosen to fit our needs.
Meals are fresh, tasty, healthy and varied. Special dietary requirements and vegetarians are catered for. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the program cost. Any snacks are at an additional cost, which we recommend budgeting around $12 per day for.
Meals are a mixture of eating out at restaurants and food preparation shared by students. An average day on program would consist of the following:
Camping meals will be adjusted to the cooking equipment at hand
To make things easy for you, we partner with a full service travel agency that can arrange flights, appropriate travel insurance and post program arrangements for our students.
They have access to a "Cancel For Any Reason" or CFAR travel insurance for US citizens in participating states. This optional travel insurance product allows travelers to cancel for any reason whatsoever up to two days prior to departure and still receive a significant refund. This allows you to keep planning for the future while avoiding the stress and the financial worry of canceling a program if you need to.
Our program locations and itineraries have been carefully selected and modified to minimize risk of exposure to anyone outside the group with most being located in rural areas. This allows for a more focused learning environment, as well as a safe haven from the stress of our modern world.
We've been working hard and watching closely to any CDC recommendations about group sizes and testing requirements to come up with options that will allow you to have a safe, healthy, and stress-free Gap Year experience. We do the hard work so you can come and enjoy the fresh air, adventures, and new friends!
We have been running successful Central America programs in Spring and Fall 2021. The students shared their experiences in testimonials and wrote their stories down in blog posts - feel free to have a look.
Check out the information on our COVID-19 page to find out more about our Covid-19 policies, procedures and updates.
We have answered the most frequently asked questions in the FAQ Section. If you still have any other questions, feel free to schedule a call with our admissions team for more information.