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 serious doses of adventures. Think scuba diving in Mexico, dolphin spotting 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, kayaking 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 boring 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 doing dives from a boat and nourishing our exhausted bodies on white sandy beaches.
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 spend a few days 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 at a local school. We will help out in whichever way we can, whether that means getting hands-on with paint work, building a concrete ramp, or just about anything else.
We head south to set off on a 3-day sea kayaking adventure. This will include sea kayak training, rustic beachside campsites, and a 26 kilometer kayak journey. We will be treated to rainforest-covered hills, sunsets to die for, and a hike that leads into the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve. Don't worry if you have no kayak experience, we will be taken by professional guides, given training, and will be going at a pace that will mean we can take everything in. At the end of the kayak expedition, we will head to little islets in Mogos where you will have the chance to see dolphins!
After this workout for our arms, we settle down in Drake Bay to take in the sounds, smells and sights of an untouched jungle right by the beach. With this majestic rainforest full of exotic wildlife and the warm ocean waters on our doorsteps, it’s hard to not feel at peace and connect to nature. We will have some free time here, and spend a day exploring nearby Corcovado National Park, which is the home of an amazing 2.5% of the biodiversity of the world. We might encounter a tapir on the beach or watch a herd of peccaries while we learn about the ecosystems found along this National Park. Tides, moons and seasons all have a say in what we will experience, but it’s sure to be a wild adventure!
We start the week working and learning at a permaculture farm and community center rooted in environmental sustainability. We will be working alongside the local community, advancing our permaculture education and learning skills such as fermentation, bamboo landscaping, making soaps, and natural building. We’ll learn that green building with native and unprocessed materials is an empowering experience and can make an enormous impact on our carbon footprint.
It is also time to go on a surf camp! We will be learning how to surf and hone our skills on the Pacific swell in the world-renowned surf mecca Jaco, in between exploring the area’s breath-taking beaches. Give your mind a well-deserved rest and kick back on the beach with a coconut.
In between surfing time, we’ll get the chance to hike to the tallest waterfall in the central pacific of Costa Rica, and fly through the jungle like Tarzan! We’ll zipline through the rainforest along 12 cables and experience the raw feeling of freedom, leaving us ready to conquer surfing again the next day.
Costa Rica is a safe haven for so many of the exotic animals our world is home to. We travel straight to an animal rescue center which 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. During our stay we’ll 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 by the end of the week you’ll feel as at home at the center as the spider monkeys and won’t want to leave!
After a week of hard work and 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!
We’ll spend some extra time by the lake doing various activities in Panajachel, a charming city on the shores of Lake Atitlan, to stretch out our sore hiking muscles and maybe go for a dip in the lake. Wind down and connect with nature amongst jaw dropping surrounds.
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. A yoga and meditation retreat in paradise will open up our eyes to relaxation, meditation and the need to slow our lives down. The daily yoga sessions treat us to panoramic views of the lake, volcanoes and mountains all around, and provide us with new ways to reset from the stress of everyday life.
Knitted in between the yoga retreat, we will have the chance to stand up paddleboard (SUP) on the lake as well as explore villages by boat. 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
Medium Activity Level: Anyone with an average 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 camping for a couple of nights 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.