Adventure. Immersion. Service. This whirlwind journey is packed to the brim with transformational experiences.
In Mexico, investigate otherworldly Tulum, perched above the crashing surf. You will find out why Chichén Itzá is one of the new seven wonders of the world as you step into the fascinating culture of the Mayans.
From a dive course in Belize where you participate in marine wildlife research to learning to surf the Pacific swell at Playa Gigante, Nicaragua, the adventures are endless. Push personal boundaries and develop leadership skills as you explore the lost temples of Tikal, soar above the Guatemalan jungle canopy, explore caves, watch Volcan Fuego spew lava from a base camp above the clouds, and take a dip in the majestic Lake Atitlan.
You will participate in several permaculture and sustainable development projects across the region… Drink delicious coffee and help with the harvesting process in a small Nicaraguan farming community; eat breakfast with baby sloths on a rescue ranch; explore sustainability, food systems, and natural building in biodiverse Costa Rica.
Facilitated by our supportive and experienced Program Instructors, this is an excellent choice for students wanting to immerse in Spanish language study, develop independence, challenge themselves, be immersed in unique environments, learn about sustainability, and reflect on their place in the world.
This gap semester program is suitable for high school graduates, gap year students, university students and graduates, ideally 18 – 24 years. Optional transferable academic credit is available on this program.
This program can be combined with Summer, Fall, or Spring program options in other regions of the world (New Zealand & Australia, South America, Southeast Asia, Nepal & Tibet) for an in-depth and enriching global gap year experience.
After meeting each other in the 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 Maya. While we enjoy its brilliant turquoise-blue waters and coral-crushed white sands, we’ll spend some time getting to know each other during our 3-day orientation. Our time will focus on getting to know each other and creating a positive and reflective group culture to support us in realizing our program goals.
In Tulum, we’ll also explore the incredible Mayan ruins along the coast, take a dip in some Cenotes (limestone sinkholes), and head inland to a Mayan ruin and one of the new seven wonders of the world, Chichén Itzá.
Our second week in Mexico, we take classes at a Spanish language school every morning Monday-Friday (20 hours) and stay (in pairs) with host families. Combing a homestay with language lessons allows you to put your new skills to use while gaining insight into the culture. You will live as the locals do – including enjoying the delicious comida at the local taquerias!
We will then depart Mexico by ferry to the famous port of San Pedro on La Isla Bonita, Ambergris Caye in Belize. Known for some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling in the world, we’ll complete our 5-day PADI Open Water Diver Certification course. Once certified, we will then participate in important marine wildlife research while exploring the underwater world’s second longest barrier reef.
A 3-day catamaran adventure will allow us to snorkel through some of the lesser explored parts of the reef in between camping on beautiful, remote Caribbean islands.
Back on the mainland, we’ll visit the Belize Zoo, a humane and educational halfway house and rehabilitation center for injured, orphaned and rescued jungle animals. No trip to Belize is complete without a cave adventure: touring stalagmites, stalactites, Mayan cave paintings and ruins, human sacrifice remains, and swim-hiking through the underground network.
Towering pyramids erupt above the jungle’s canopy to catch the sun, revealing the ancient Mayan world of Tikal. This major Pre-Columbian political, economic and military center is one of the most important archaeological complexes left by the Mayans. We will explore these magnificent temples and plazas starting at sunrise, glimpsing into a culture that is thousands of years old and a modern-day UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From there, we’ll fly south to Antigua, where we’ll take a tour of the city and the surrounding towns to learn about its rich history.
We’ll hike the steep and majestic peak of nearby Volcan Acatenango, spending a night at base camp above the clouds and watching the lava cascade from the ever-active Volcan Fuego, before heading to Guatemala’s second largest city, Quetzaltenango.
Quetzaltenango is big, like its name – which the locals kindly shorten to Xela (shell-ah), itself an abbreviation of the original K'iche' Maya name, Xelajú. Nonetheless, it is an orderly, clean, and safe city. We will spend a week here living with host families (in pairs) while attending daily Spanish lessons.
After a fulfilling week, we’ll farewell our families in Xela and set out on a 3-day trek to Lake Atitlan, meandering through cloud forests, streams, corn fields, and small pueblos along the way.
At Lake Atitlan, we rise early to watch the sunrise over the surrounding volcanoes in the small village of San Pedro de la Laguna. We’ll spend a couple of days on the lake doing various activities, including yoga to stretch out our sore hiking muscles.
Our next stop is Niucaragua! After a short flight, we’ll head to a small farming community of Finca La Corona. Here, we’ll spend time working on the farms with our host families and learning the coffee process - how it goes from being a berry on a branch to a delicious caffeinated beverage, along with all of the steps in between.
Once we’re coffee maestros, we’ll move South to the beautiful lakeside colonial city of Granada. We’ll learn about the rich history behind its colorful structures and tiny isletas, along with the story of the Revolution in the surrounding area. A visit to an artisanal craft market and a spectacular lagoon will lead to a stop at the active Volcan Masaya to watch the erupting lava.
In rural Nicaragua, we work with a local organization whose mission is to work with the upcoming generation’s leaders to realize needed change. These projects usually focus on health, safety, and education. Their projects are defined by the communities with whom they work.
We will spend a week working alongside them on the farm learning about agroforestry, permaculture, and the importance of their projects while lending a hand in whatever way is most useful to them. Some of their current work includes supporting a local primary school to build composting toilets and implementing a waste management program in the community. We’ll also have time to take a dip in Lake Nicaragua and enjoy spectacular views of Volcan Maderas and Volcan Concepción, the two majestic volcanoes that make up the isthmus of Isla Ometepe.
Surf’s up! We’ll spend this week learning how to surf and honing our skills in this world-renowned surf mecca in between exploring the area’s breathtaking beaches.
Once we master the waves, we’ll head south to Heredia, Costa Rica to visit the Toucan Rescue Ranch. Here we’ll encounter baby sloths and monkeys, and learn about the other rescued exotic birds and creatures and their stories that brought them to the ranch.
We base ourselves at an education center in the rural farming town of Mastatal situated on the edge of the last remaining virgin rainforest of Costa Rica’s beautiful Puriscal County. It is a working permaculture farm, lodge, and community rooted in environmental sustainability, meaningful, place-based livelihoods, and caring relationships. We will spend our last week here working alongside the community, furthering our permaculture education and learning skills such as fermentation and natural building.
We'll then finish our adventure on the gorgeous beaches of Esterillos, along the Pacific Coast. After reflecting on our 10-week journey and enjoying some spectacular beach sunsets, it’s off to San Jose to fly home. ¡Buen Viaje!
The program is open to high school graduates, university students and graduates, ideally 18-24 years. This program is challenging and rewarding and participants need to be interested in engaging with local people, pursuing new experiences, pushing personal boundaries, and have an interest in learning Spanish - or at least be open to discovering this rich language. You do not need to be proficient in Spanish. This program is suitable for both beginner and experienced Spanish speakers. You don’t need to have had previous experience with travel or any of the activities offered, but it is important you have a ‘can do’ positive attitude. You need to be committed to, and prepared for, some physical work whilst on the service learning components of the program ie. tree planting, gardening, trail-building; and challenging physical activity whilst diving, trekking and surfing.
The program is a shared group experience. We expect you to join the program with an open mind and a willingness to work together with your group mates to make the program an amazing experience for the whole group. Additionally, the program will be as much about the inner journey of personal growth and learning about yourself as it is about what you will experience in the outer physical journey. We expect you to be open to learning and challenging your ideas and assumptions.
Our accommodation will vary from welcoming homestays, lodges and camping with shared facilities, to hotels and guesthouses with private bathrooms. Laundry and WiFi will be available frequently, except while at our service learning 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. All meals are included in the program cost.
Visas are not required for most nationalities.
The Pacific Discovery Central America Gap Year Semester is an inspiring 10-week journey through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, experiencing incredible cultural and environmental diversity. The program combines immersive Spanish language study, hands-on service learning projects, and amazing educational adventure travel.