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Spanish learners hit stride in Heredia

From the print edition

HEREDIA – The Central Valley city of Heredia lacks the typical attributes of a tourist destination. It has no beaches or jungle resorts, nor mass-marketed adventure tours – just authentic Costa Rican living.

In recent years, Heredia also has found a niche in the academic world. Foreigners looking to learn Spanish, science and many other vocations have found a home in Heredia. 

“People want to come to Heredia because it’s a college town,” said Adelita Jiménez, director and co-founder of Intercultura, a language institute. “And it’s a very young city. There’s a lot of business and a lot of activity from the morning through the night.”

The city began evolving into an academic center after the Universidad Latina opened a campus there in 1997, joining the National University, which was founded in 1973. 

The schools act as the region’s answer to San Pedro, a university town east of San José, home to the first Universidad Latina campus and the country’s collegiate standard-bearer, the University of Costa Rica, among others. Heredia is the second largest city in the country with a population of 200,000, a fifth of the size of the capital.

The canton of Heredia also hosts some of the country’s renowned bilingual grade schools. The American International School of Costa Rica, European School, Lincoln School and the Pan-American School are all in the area.

A coffee-growing region with spectacular scenery, Heredia maintains a more tranquil environment than San José. The city is flanked by tall green hills and lively suburbs. Its language schools offer students the opportunity to study and interact with local residents in a thriving community. Advanced students can study at world-class universities and be immersed in a multicultural and dynamic learning environment. 

Wes Diehl, who runs International Spanish School of Costa Rica with his partner, Rafael Borbón, said he’s had students start out thinking they wanted to study at  the beach. The sand and sea ended up being too much of a tourist setting for learning. Heredia worked as a more serious match, and places like the International Spanish School offer one-on-one instruction.

“A lot of people go to the beach and they’re not really focusing on the Spanish,” Diehl said. 

Students in Heredia are not monks in a monastery. Like any respectable college town, Heredia has its share of bars, clubs and fast-food chains, along with the Paseo de las Flores Mall.

Spanish schools stage cultural activities including dance lessons – where students learn Latin steps like salsa, merengue and cumbia – cooking classes or trips to the movie theater. Homestays are available with Costa Rican families.  

In addition, institutions operate with tourist companies to arrange the usual trips to the country’s prominent surf and swim spots, rain forests and other attractions.

Attendees seem to follow a schedule, Jiménez said. The majority of college-age students take Spanish classes in the summer. Professionals take crash courses in the fall through Christmas time, and the snowbirds, looking to escape the winter freeze, show up between January and March.

Summer school students arrive in the largest numbers. Attendees can study specific curriculums, such as medical Spanish for doctors looking to improve their versatility through vocabulary.

Some schools are looking to Asia to attract business students interested in picking up one of the world’s most widely spoken languages. Diehl said economic crises in the United States and Europe have resulted in a downturn in students arriving from the more-established countries. Asian students, especially from East Asia, could be an attractive way to fill that void.

Classrooms in Universidad Latina and the National University also associate with study-abroad programs in English-speaking countries. 

International Studies Abroad opened a site in Heredia in 2008 that puts U.S. students looking to learn Spanish in Universidad Latina classes. Heredia is the smallest city in which International Studies Abroad has created a foreign-language site. The organization has spots throughout Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Justin Maniar, Heredia site specialist, said in an email that in addition to Spanish courses, participants can enroll in university classes with local students, a “unique” opportunity when compared to the company’s other study-abroad campuses.

“We find that our student groups [in Heredia] really immerse into the local culture and environment, as it is much more accessible and friendly than a much larger destination might be,” Maniar said. “For a student who is leaving the U.S. for the first time, or who may not be ready to live in a huge city, Heredia is a great location. I tell students that Heredia is a way to experience true Tico life, without many other tourists around and without the hustle and bustle of San José. It is accessible and friendly.”

Where to Learn Spanish in Heredia:

Language Schools and Facilitators

Academia Columbus


Amistad Institute


Centro Cultural de Idiomas


Centro Panamerica de Idiomas


Intercultura Costa Rica


Institute for Spanish Language Studies



Instituto Pacífico de Idiomas


International Studies Abroad

U.S.: 512-480-8522

International Spanish School of Costa Rica


IPED Language Plus


Grade Schools and High Schools

American International School


American International School


Lincoln School


Pan-American International School



Universidad Latina – Heredia


Universidad Nacional


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