Costa Rica is a popular destination for students seeking an educational and authentic cross-cultural Spanish-immersion experience.
Because Costa Rica is peaceful and stable, has a rich history and is a worldwide trendsetter in environmental sustainability, it’s a great country to explore — and is the perfect place to learn more about yourself in the process.
While there are plenty of great regions in Costa Rica, Turrialba is an ideal service-based travel destination. The small city is safe, provides an authentic Costa Rican experience, and gives students innumerable opportunities to immerse themselves in a new culture — from practicing their Spanish to living in a rural agricultural town, to experiencing many of the natural splendors that make Costa Rica so special to so many.
Turrialba History & General Facts
Turrialba, Costa Rica, is a small city in the province of Cartago. Somewhat confusingly, it is located in a canton (the Costa Rican equivalent of a county) that is also called Turrialba. When Costa Ricans talk about Turrialba, they are usually referring to the city, not the canton.
Surrounded by mountains, volcanoes, and rivers, Turrialba’s temperate climate and fertile soil make it ideal for farming.
As a result, Turrialba is one of the largest pre-Columbian cities in Costa Rica. Today, Guayabo National Monument is among one of Costa Rica’s most important archaeological sites and is a testament to its indigenous history.
After European settlement, Turrialba was established as a relatively isolated agricultural town focused on sugar cane, coffee and macadamia farming. Railroads began improving connectivity to the town in the late 1800s, and Turrialba later grew as part of an important road network that links the capital of San José with the shipping port in Limón.
Today, Turrialba is home to about 35,000 people and has all the necessities of a major city — including supermarkets, banks, and a hospital.
At the same time, Turrialba’s geography makes it an excellent destination for lovers of the outdoors. While not near a beach, Turrialba is the gateway to whitewater rafting in Costa Rica, and it sits in the shadow of the 11,000-foot Turrialba Volcano. The volcano means Turrialba has rich soil and creates a welcoming environment for lush flora and other biodiversity.
Costa Rica Explorations’ homestays are located 15 minutes outside the city of Turrialba in the small towns of Pavones and Sitio de Mata. Students have access to the needed amenities and are housed within very safe, small, family-centered rural communities.
Because of the city’s long agricultural history and its relative lack of international tourism, Turrialba overflows with Costa Rican culture. Here you will find coffee plantations, cattle ranches and milk-processing plants — some of the backbones of the traditional Costa Rican economy.
Costa Rican culture prioritizes the family, and that is exemplified in Turrialba, where it’s common to see several generations of a family living just blocks apart. Families gather to eat ice cream together at the Central Park, cook traditional tamales during the Christmas season, and enjoy city-wide Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) celebrations together each year.
Turrialba culture is also influenced by the nearby Bribrí indigenous communities, whose members often visit the city for medical and banking services. And Turrialba’s presence on the highway to Limón sparked an infusion of Afro-Caribbean culture, too; in the city, traditional casados and Caribbean-inspired rice-and-beans can be eaten any day of the week.
Activities in Turrialba
Students will find plenty of outdoors activities in and around Turrialba. The Pacuare and Pejibaye Rivers are two of Costa Rica’s best for whitewater rafting. Turrialba Volcano offers scenic hiking trails where visitors might come face-to-face with toucans, the equisite quetzal, sloth, and agouti in the rainforest and cloud forest areas.
Food lovers will enjoy tours of coffee and sugarcane farms, history buffs will be excited by the indigenous ruins, and nature seekers can explore the nearby botanical gardens and waterfalls.
And just about everyone will savor artisanal Turrialba cheese, a staple of the local diet that has become famous throughout Costa Rica.
What you won’t find in Turrialba are resorts or major hotel chains. Most tourists head elsewhere, meaning Turrialba, Costa Rica, remains an ideal destination for a cross-cultural and educational immersion experience.
Turrialba Schools & Cross-Cultural Experiences
Turrialba has several public high schools and elementary schools, as well as preschools.
Costa Rica Explorations has worked for well over a decade to create service-based learning programs in and around Turrialba, a place where community building, nature, and youth education all come together to create a fantastic cross-cultural experience.
By immersing themselves in a traditional Costa Rican community, students will learn about other cultures, develop self-confidence and leadership, and become better global citizens.
Students can integrate into the schools, help with English classes and learn what it’s like to be a Costa Rican. The country’s motto is pura vida — pure life — and while the saying looks good on tourist T-shirts and baseball caps, it also represents Costa Rica’s commitment to universal human rights and ecological stewardship.
Students will have plenty of fun, too, learning not only in the classroom and through their service projects, but also through their travel. Costa Rica is home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity, and there are few better places to appreciate earth’s finite resources.
And one of the best ways to have a cross-cultural exchange is through pick-up soccer. Bring your cleats, because in Turrialba, Costa Rica, there is almost always a game!
Turrialba is Authentic Costa Rica
First inhabited more than 3,000 years ago by indigenous communities, the Turrialba region has a humble yet rich history.
Over the past several decades, international tourism has changed Costa Rica significantly. Each year, the country sets new records in international tourists who visit Costa Rica. For better or for worse, the world has become a smaller place, impacting cultures and lifestyles.
Yet most of those tourists don’t stop in Turrialba, Costa Rica. As a result, in a country so rich in natural splendor, Turrialba still manages to stand out as an authentic destination for educational immersion experiences, specifically high school and middle school trips.
For its culture and its natural beauty, Turrialba is one of Costa Rica’s ideal cross-cultural immersion destinations.
Molly has 10+ years of experience as a classroom teacher and service-learning coordinator planning student trips to Costa Rica, and has lived and worked in Costa Rica for over 15 years. In 2006, she fulfilled a dream of hers and co-founded Costa Rica Explorations, an authentic cultural-immersion, service-based educational student travel program, that continues to be one of the most respected and trusted High School and Middle School student programs offered within Costa Rica.