Challenge yourself on this Central America gap year program journeying through the ancient ruins and spectacular land and seascapes of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Costa Rica.
Join us on an epic journey witnessing the cenotes of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and the tropical islands of Belize, through the rich highlands of volcanic Guatemala and down to the black sand beaches and exotic animals of Costa Rica. Our 70-day semester offers you an enriching and insightful fusion of environmental and animal rescue volunteer projects, cultural immersion, surfing, scuba diving, rafting, Spanish langue study, and, of course, non-stop adventure!
These four Central American countries may be close in geography, yet they could not be more diverse in nature. 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, camping under the stars, and healthy doses of mountains and beaches.
This gap semester program is perfect for high school graduates, college students and graduates, and gap year students, ideally 17 to 22 years old. Optional transferable academic credit is available to all participants.
**This is a guide to what you can expect to do on Program. The order in which the activities occur might vary**
With a rich and diverse indigenous history, Mexico is a melting pot of color and culture. We balance island living and cultural immersion during our time in the fascinating Yucatan Peninsula.
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 crushed-coral 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, learn to Salsa dance, start the day of right with a couple of morning yoga classes, and head inland to a Mayan ruin and one of the new seven wonders of the world, Chichén Itzá. We will also take classes at a Spanish language school 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. Considering this language is more widely spoken than English, it’s worth your while to get acquainted!
After leaving Tulum, we’ll meet our diving instructors and get into the headspace of the underwater world. During this immersive week you will be living and breathing diving. You will be doing your learning with your peers online and in the pool, ensuring you have all the skills for a lifetime of safe scuba diving ahead of you. Following this, you will spend your time out on the sea doing dives from a boat and nourishing your exhausted body on white sandy beaches.
After spending the rest of your time on Cozumel exploring ruins and riding your bike to find white sandy beaches, we depart Mexico by ferry to the famous port of San Pedro on La Isla Bonita, Ambergris Caye in Belize. We then take a boat to Caye Caulker where we’ll depart on a multi-day catamaran adventure which will allow us to snorkel through some of the lesser explored parts of the reef in between camping on beautiful, remote Caribbean islands.
Guatemala is widely considered the hearth of the Mayan 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.
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.
We cross the borders to Tikal in Guatemala, where you will spend your day exploring ancient Mayan temples in the midst of the jungle. We take a flight to the mountains and by the evening you’ll be dining on corn tortillas in Antigua! Take a few days to absorb this new environment of cobble stoned, European-style streets, homemade leather goods and cool cafes. The trendy town also happens to be the gateway to adventure.
Antigua is also known for its remarkable volcanic landscapes nearby, so we will embark on two multi-day hiking adventures 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! On this overnight hike, you will be stunned by the night-time views of flowing lava and the sunrise over Volcano Fuego as you step out of your tent.
After a day of rest and relaxation in Antigua, you will start another, shorter hike at the foothills of the active Pacaya volcano. Expect to get some incredible views of the northern volcanoes throughout the entire hike!
Once you’ve gotten your fix of hot lava views, 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!
At Lake Atitlan, we rise early to watch the sunrise over the surrounding volcanoes in the small village of San Marcos. We’ll spend a couple of days on the lake doing various activities to stretch out our sore hiking muscles, like taking yoga classes, having a swim in the lake and kayaking.
You are in for a real treat! Wind down and connect with nature amongst jaw dropping surrounds. Knitted in between the program there are chances for you to Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) on the lake as well as explore villages by boat. Each day will bring a further exploration into self-reflection, development and empowerment. You will most likely relish the opportunity to slow down at this point halfway through the program and feel refreshed before we pick up the pace again in Costa Rica. On a couple of days, you can practice your language skills in the afternoons.
Welcome to one of the happiest countries on earth, perhaps stemming from the laid-back Tico outlook combined with the incredible model of eco-stewardship Costa Rica boasts.
We will spend some time in 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 center rooted in environmental sustainability. We will be working alongside the community, advancing our permaculture education and learning skills such as fermentation and natural building.
It also time to go on a surf camp! You will be learning how to surf and honing our skills on the Pacific swell in this world-renowned surf mecca, 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.
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. Get hands on experience connecting with the animals and help them recover from both physical and psychological wounds that have arisen from their past suffering. We’re sure that by the end of the week you’ll feel as at home at the center as the animals and won’t want to leave!
Take an adventurous journey to Tortuguero National Park, where we will conduct marine conservation work. The days will be spent at the tide pools catching sea turtles, identifying fish, and collecting biological data.
We will also go on a 3-day rafting trip on the Pacuare River, which is of the best places in the world for white water rafting. What an amazing way to spend our last days in Costa Rica! This unique journey has you rafting the country’s most exciting rapids, exploring the surrounding rainforest and splashing in waterfalls.
Afterwards, we head back to the San Jose station to debrief. This unique conservation experience will stay with you for a lifetime. Your last days will be spent wrapping up the program, reflecting on your experiences and sharing your final beach days with your fellow participants. Celebrate all your accomplishments at the final dinner before packing your things and departing this fabulous country.
*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.
This gap year program is perfect for high school graduates, college students and graduates, and non-students, ideally 17-22 years old. You don’t need to previous experience with travel or any of the activities offered, but it is important you have a positive attitude. You need to be prepared for some physical work during the volunteer projects on the program, like tree planting, gardening, trail-building; and challenging physical activity whilst diving, trekking and surfing. You 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.
The program is a shared group experience. Join this 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 lodges and camping with shared facilities, to hotels and guesthouses with private bathrooms. Laundry and Wi-Fi will be available frequently, 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