Planning Our Summer Programs in Costa Rica

Director, Lauren McDowell, takes us along on her most recent trip to Costa Rica where she visits the people and places that make our high school Community Service and Language Learning summer programs in Costa Rica in the country so special.  Read about the villages our students will visit, the projects they will collaborate on, and the amazing contacts that make it all possible.

Our plane touched down after dark.  The night air at the airport in Alajuela was warm and suffused with the scent of diesel, a far cry from the cold that had nipped at our noses when we had left our home in southern Vermont that morning.  On this trip to Costa Rica, we were four; my husband Drew, myself, and our two young boys, Callan and Holden, ages three and 11 months, respectively.  It was the boys’ first trip to Costa Rica.  Our goal was to connect with Putney’s project villages in the southern part of the country.  It was bound to be an adventure.

The next morning, we ate a hearty traditional Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto (cooked and seasoned rice and blackbeans), eggs, and café con leche, and hopped into our rental car.  From San Jose, we headed south to the province of Perez Zeledon via the Panamericana highway which bisects the country, north to south.  For the next few days we planned to stay at a sustainable mountain lodge run by several generations of one Costa Rican family –where some Putney groups will also stay this summer–situated at the edge of Parque Nacional Chirripo which is home to Costa Rica’s highest peak, Cerro Chirripo.  Drew and the boys would have their own adventures while I made day trips to several of Putney´s project villages situated in the surrounding mountains.  What follows is a description of our visits to two Putney villages for the summer ahead:

The stunning mountain landscape in southern Costa Rica.

San Jose de Rivas, Southern Talamanca Mountains, Perez Zeledon

Early the next morning I picked up our local coordinator, Juan Vianey, at his home in the southern city of San Isidro and we headed on dirt roads to a small village, San Jose de Rivas.  The town has roughly 300 residents and is situated atop a long, steep, fold of land with plates of fertile land on both sides.   Here, each of the many creases of land are seeded with coffee plants, and the locals have become experts at navigating steep, terraced landscapes to plant, tend, and harvest their coffee bean crops.  The people of San Jose de Rivas have not hosted a Putney group in the past, but they are eager to learn more.

We parked in the center of town on the only road, opposite the small primary school.  Juan led the way, introduced me to Rigoberto, a respected town elder and president of the town’s governing body, or Asociación, and slowly we began to hike up the dirt road.  As we walked, local people meandered out of their homes and joined our upward migration to the town’s salon communal (community center) which is perched high on a hill, at the road’s end.  In the salon, we formed a circle with long wooden benches.  About twenty men, women, and children from the community turned out for the meeting.   Rigoberto quietly introduced himself and turned the stage to me and Juan.  I have learned through experience that these moments are incredibly important.  The town is opening itself to us, hopeful but uncertain exactly what it would mean to host a Putney group.  Juan and I introduce ourselves and share Putney´s vision of collaboration for the future.  We focus on intercambio cultural, or cultural interaction by means of collaboration on meaningful development projects.

It is clear to me that the people of San Jose de Rivas are humble and hardworking.  They are eager to host a Putney group and determined to work hard to improve their town.  This summer, one Putney group will live and work here—the group’s main project will be extending and rebuilding the cocina comunal or community kitchen, which abuts the town’s gorgeous soccer field.

The vista from our car.

The town’s salon comunal.

The town’s primary school.


Garden at the primary school, where food is grown for students’ lunches.



Las Mesas de Pejibaye, Perez Zeledon

Over the course of the next few days, Juan and I visited several additional Putney project villages, connected with friends from these towns, talked about past summers, and made plans for the coming year.  We saved one village for last: Las Mesas de Pejibaye.   Putney groups have been visiting Las Mesas since 1999, which may be an all-time record.  Much of the credit goes to the dedicated Ramirez family with its seven children (two of whom now have their own children!).  Each year, the Ramirez Family puts a tremendous amount of effort and organization into so many aspects of our group’s stay here.  Many Putney students– and dare I say leaders as well– have profound memories and lasting friendships from their time in Las Mesas.

I have met the Ramirez family on several occasions in years past, and this time I was excited to be able to bring my children to meet theirs.  It was Palm Sunday (Domingo de los Ramos), an important spiritual holiday for many Costa Ricans.  When we drove into the center of town, we saw purple cloths draped over gold crosses and people gathered in front of the church.   We headed up a dusty road to the Ramirez homestead.

Looking back… Yadith, Gato, Juan, and Lauren in 2007.

Juan teaches Callan the basics of futbol.

In previous summers in Las Mesas, Putney groups have built a cancha multiuso (literally a ‘multiuse court’ for sports), constructed a greenhouse, storage shed, refurbished classrooms, painted, and taught at the school, built a classroom and a stone retaining wall at a church, among many more projects.  For the coming summer, our Language Learning program will be based here; Putney students will put their Spanish to the test as they work on projects with Spanish speaking friends from town.  During the third week, each Putney student will join a local family for a one week homestay.  For many Putney students each year, the homestay is a highlight of the summer and an incredible opportunity to dive into Spanish speaking with their Tico family.

To be honest, I can’t help but feel a pang of envy as I think about all of the Putney students who are checking out their packing lists and getting ready for their summer adventures abroad.  (I will live vicariously through all of your experiences as I manage our summer blogs from Putney programs around the world!)  If you come with an open mind, you will undoubtedly learn about a different culture, forge new friendships, and broaden your own perspective at an incredibly important moment in time.  I look forward to the day– in the not-so-distant future– when Callan and Holden will have butterflies in their stomachs as they set off around the world with a group of like-minded Putney travelers.

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