College students are increasingly taking gap years in lieu of a college semester, summer break, or school year. Whether it be for professional or academic development, you no longer have to be in the confines of a traditional classroom to learn. In fact, gap year programs are considered an effective way to hone key skills needed to jumpstart a professional career and may even put you ahead of the class!
So if mastering a new language and getting involved in developing communities is an important part of your growth but you don’t want to sacrifice adventure and outdoor exploration, consider dedicating your gap year to a program in a region like Latin America. You’ll learn Spanish, work directly with locals, and experience a hosted homestay while surrounded by some of the best sights in the world.
You may be thinking, “Latin America is huge! Where do I start?”
There are many countries to choose from in Central and South America and we know selecting the perfect program can be difficult. That’s why the Go Overseas community makes sure to thoroughly review gap year programs based on real experiences.
To aid in your research, we’ve sifted through all Latin America gap year programs on Go Overseas to give you the top ten organizations to consider booking with, according to students who actually took part in the programs.
1. Global Citizen Year: Gap Year Program in Ecuador
If you are seeking deep cultural immersion and learning tools you can use for life, Global Citizen Year’s gap year program in Ecuador may be right up your alley.
Considered one of the best gap programs in the country (and Latin America, overall) by the Go Overseas community, it offers language immersion and community building experiences with plenty of opportunities to enjoy the country’s biodiversity.
Our Go Overseas community of alumni who’ve reviewed this gap year experience praise it for being supportive and fun (with a 97% rating for both), and thwart any first-timer worries with a reassuring 95% safety rating.
Here are some review highlights from GCY’s gap year program in Ecuador:
- “I won't ever forget about all of the love and care I received from the staff in Global Citizen Year from my host families, my apprenticeship supervisors and teachers at the schools I worked along side with, and the family whose farm I worked on.” -- John
- “This program gave me the opportunity to travel to another country for the first time in my life, and not as a tourist, but as a part of a local community where I formed real relationships and genuinely came to think of it as a second home.” -- Florin
- “The bonds I have developed with the other fellows continue to impact me as I start my first year of college.” -- Kevin
- “The work I was doing […] provided a meaningful platform for my university coursework that has provided me with a deeper interest, understanding, and outlook on the material I'm learning.” -- Joan
2. Quest Overseas: Villa Maria Gap Year Program in Peru
For a transformative introduction to Latin America at a great value, our Go Overseas community adores the Villa Maria Gap Year Program in Peru. Quest Overseas alumni give nearly perfect scores across the board when asked about whether they found the program to be fun, supportive, and valuable -- and you may too!
The special thing about this Latin American program is it offers opportunities to explore more than one country while taking home new experiences and new skills. You kick off the trip perfecting your Spanish in Ecuador and follow up practicing the language in hands-on service programs in Peru.
The one- to three-month program’s shorter duration doesn’t fall short of excitement and motivation, either. Read what some of the program’s alumni had to share about their summer break experiences:
- “Not only did I have more fun in two months than I previously knew possible […] I was forced to question my own values and think about the kind of adult that I want to be.” -- Molly
- “When else will you have the opportunity to mount a Bolivian peak, get to know some amazing Peruvians, and build your Spanish skills in a cloud forest?” -- Zoe
- “It has helped me build my confidence and I would trade anything to do it all over again!” -- Hannah
3. Thinking Beyond Borders: Latin America Gap Semester in Costa Rica
While some gap year programs are created to give you a small taste of everything about a country, others thrive by focusing on niche objectives. Thinking Beyond Borders, for instance, provides mentors and leadership for gappers who want to learn more about creating global change.
Their gap semester program in Costa Rica makes our top ten list because of its thorough 13-week program: exploring change with an objective lens, critically exploring global issues and the realities of change, and providing experiential immersion that leaves a lasting impression on students.
With orientation and a sustainability unit in Guatemala, followed by an excursion in Nicaragua and a five-week empowering education unit in Costa Rica, Think Beyond Borders weaves language classes and fieldwork opportunities with adventure treks and immersive homestays.Read some of these highlights from 19 alumni reviews on Go Overseas:
- it is immersing yourself in and learning about cultures in a way you probably never could without a program like this.” -- Mariah
- “The overarching theme of the program is international development [...] In order to explore these themes, we had an extensive reading list and ten seminars in each country.” -- Markita
- “No college course could compare. The program is experiential learning at its best. The home-stays were safe and supportive; the service projects were compelling; the seminars were challenging; the program director and leaders were always communicative.” -- Sarah
4. LEAPNOW: LEAPYEAR Latin America in Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua
College students looking to explore beyond the beaten path during their school year should consider joining LEAPNOW’s gap year program in Honduras, Guatemala, or Nicaragua.
Paired with adventurous group excursions throughout Central America and a three-month solo internship to follow, this gap year program receives perfect support and fun scores of 100% from six alumni reviewers -- that means they felt comfortable to try new things and had a blast doing it. Other perks you might love? A full year of college credit, additional internship placements, and unlimited access to annual reunions after the program!
LEAPYEAR is known for fostering personal development, interactive learning experiences, and supportive communities along the journey toward adulthood. These review highlights perfectly describe how life-changing their Latin America program is:
- “Through my time in Latin America, I found my whole world growing larger, both inside and out. I was able to connect deeply with the locals, learn Spanish, realize where I stand in the world, build bridges, step out of my comfort zone, and travel with incredible people.” -- Shanti
- “I had an incredible safety net of people that gave me the confidence to push my comfort zone knowing I had support if I needed it. I learned more in a year than I could ever have known.” -- Cameron
- “This program does so much more than just filter you from country to country. I was able to really dive deeply into the cultures of each place we visited and really get to know some amazing cities and people.” -- Elianor
- “From scuba diving in […] Honduras to trekking through the Guatemalan Mountains. Traveling in a small group creates bonds that last beyond the end of the program.” -- Alexa
5. High Mountain Institute: Semester in Patagonia
Nature lovers, conservationists, and adventurers unite for an incredible journey around Patagonia in Argentina and Chile. This wilderness-focused gap semester program explores environmental studies through outdoor projects as well as backpacking, climbing, and trekking expeditions.
Why do we consider it one of the best programs in Latin America, according to the Go Overseas community? Between its high rating of 97-98% in program support, fun, and value scores and Patagonia being well... magical, it is a no-brainer! Be prepared to be both challenged and rewarded among glaciers, glowing lakes, and towering mountains.
Read these highlights from some of the reviewers who’ve experienced the program for themselves:
- “The expeditions were not easy--but completely rewarding and the places I hiked are some of the most beautiful places I've ever been. I really liked that an environmental studies course was also incorporated because it brought us awareness about what was going on and being said about the places we were backpacking through.” -- Alexandra
- “The instructors are more your friends than anything else and you really get to know your body and its capabilities in a way I didn't think was possible. I have never seen anything more beautiful than Patagonia and I honestly don't know if there is anything more beautiful that exists!” -- Caitlin
- “Climbing in Chile and Argentina was definitely a highlight, however one of the most special experiences for me was working on the approach trail to Castleton Tower with the Front Range Climbing Stewards.” -- Owen
- “One of the most important parts of this semester program is the personal growth. The group is small enough that you really get to know each other and about yourself.” -- Olivia
6. Carpe Diem Education: Experiential Education, Community & Intercultural Exchange in Central America
Central America is a wonderful place to spend an immersive semester visiting scenic destinations, volunteering on a local level, and experiencing authentic intercultural exchanges.
Carpe Diem Education’s experiential education, community, and intercultural exchange programs in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica focus on just that -- and according to reviews, does a great job at it. From SCUBA diving, mountain trekking, turtle conservation, and sustainable agriculture education, you'll find there is much to learn during your semester.
Out of nine reviews from the Go Overseas community, alumni will agree that Carpe Diem Education is best at providing genuine support to students, enjoyable itineraries, and an engaging view into local life. For a preview of what an experience with this top Latin America gap program would be like, read these review highlights from users, themselves:
- “I felt completely safe the entire time I was away and got to experience things that most people never get to experience. From living in a hut that has no electricity and running water to scuba diving in the beautiful waters of Roatán, I loved every second of it.” -- Meinda
- “After Carpe Diem I could confidently say that I can backpack and hike mountains, hold conversations in Spanish (which I had never spoken previously), live with a host family and bond with them, and even scuba dive.” -- Lexi
- “My semester taught me so much, especially how to work with 12 people who were really different from me and turn them into a family.” -- Kaitlin
- “Carpe Diem Education gave me the most incredible semester […] I did service projects, took Spanish classes, lived with home-stay families, hiked volcanoes, made chocolate, went SCUBA diving, helped with sea turtle conservation, went surfing, and experienced the beautiful nature and landscapes of Central America.” -- Emmy
7. EF International Language Campuses: Language Courses in Costa Rica
Learn the true meaning of Pura Vida in one of Latin America’s most popular surf towns. With a laid-back vibe and some of the best waves on the northern Pacific, EF International Language Campuses offers a flexible gap program in Costa Rica that can be personalized to suit your interests.
Our Go Overseas community loves this program because it offers the option to study from two weeks up to a full year, provides access to outdoor adventures and service opportunities, and even has its own dorm (for an additional fee) if you’re not quite ready to stay with a local host family -- though we wholeheartedly encourage you to stay with a host family because #homecookedmeals.
At a great value (with a score of 96% from nine reviewers), the Instituto Cervantes-accredited language course is definitely deserving of a spot on our list of top gap year programs in Latin America. But is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet all it’s hyped up to be?
Read these highlights from alumni reviews to find out:
- “Not only did I learn significant conversational Spanish, but I made lifelong friends, surfed a lot and explored the beautiful country of Costa Rica.” -- Henry
- “My family treated me like a member from the first day, and even though rice was daily served, the dishes were still varied and so delicious.” -- Svenja
- “It was one of the best time I ever had in my life, really! I met great friends from all over the world and I had so much fun during this experience!” -- Sébastien
- “The classes, the school, the people, all made Costa Rica a welcoming and inclusive place to study and live!” -- Charlotte
8. Amigos de las Americas: Nicaragua Gap Year
The last program on the list is a unique program that undoubtedly deserves recognition. The AMIGOS program focuses on gap years or semesters that provide community development internships for students seeking leadership development, cultural immersion, and fun excursions.
Based in Leon, Nicaragua our community of reviewers raves about the safe environment and supportive program, rating it 100% and 98% respectively. What AMIGOS alumni say sets the program apart from other similar internship gap years is the ability to explore independently during your free time (as opposed to sticking to a full group itinerary), fully immerse in the Spanish language in a work environment, and establish stability by staying in one location for the duration of the internship.
Read highlights from some of our most useful reviews:
- “AMIGOS pairs you with a host agency in-country, where you have the opportunity to help with […] existing initiatives and receive funding for your own project from AMIGOS.” -- Sam
- “AMIGOS is more than a program of tourist activities and volunteering on a surface level, from this program and directly living and working with a host family and agency I have learned more Spanish and more about the culture than I think I ever could have from a vacation or simply traveling through Nicaragua.” -- Madison
- “What is different about doing this with Amigos is that you are given the tools and the framework for integrating into the community, and unlike traveling on your own or with a group-tour type program, by being a part of this program, you already have a relationship with the community.” -- Lauren
- “I have never felt so safe and at peace then [sic] I was with this program.” -- Rosalinda
Which Latin American Program Will You Choose For Your Gap Year?
There is something special about every Latin American country and you’ll receive valuable experience no matter where you visit. If you are feeling overwhelmed with all of the options, closely review this list of top programs and their accompanying reviews, and reflect on what you'd like to take away from the program.
Whether you want to improve your Spanish skills, kickstart philanthropic work, or simply take advantage of surfing gnarly waves and hiking breathtaking mountains, you can trust that programs on this list are all highly rated by real program alumni, vetted by the Go Overseas community, and known for prioritizing your experience and safety.