Are you interested getting a sweet taste of the pura vida by immersing yourself in Costa Rican culture and doing an internship in San Jose? This tiny country, home to only about four and a half million people, is nestled in the lush greenery of Central America, and it’s calling your name! Known for its extensive national park systems, access to both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and laid back lifestyle, Costa Rica provides an excellent backdrop for international internships in a variety of fields.
San Jose, as the capital of Costa Rica, is located smack dab in the middle of this vibrant country and offers countless internships in areas varying from ecotourism to healthcare. As if all this weren’t enough, let’s not forget the weather. The enticing tropical climate promises year-round opportunities to get out and enjoy the optimistic, easy-going, and friendly lifestyle that the Ticos so endearingly refer to as the pure vida.
Photo credit: jmenard48.
Depending on what you’re interested in, or your field of study, there’s a good chance that San Jose might be a good fit for your internship experience. That being said, there are certain sectors that offer more internship opportunities than others in the city and its surrounding areas. As a popular internship sector, tourism is a major component of Costa Rica’s economy, as are other areas such as education and healthcare.
Working in the education sector has become a popular field for internships in San Jose for a variety of reasons. While Spanish is currently spoken by over 400 million people worldwide, English is often a hot commodity when it comes to international relations and business. For this reason, there is a huge push in areas like San Jose to have native speakers immersed in primary and secondary school to help with this process.
Extra points for you if you speak Spanish, but remember, the main focus of a lot of these types of placements is to get a native English speaker in the classroom speaking English. Many US universities help set up internships in places like San Jose as part of their university curriculum for education majors. There are also a lot of organizations that help to facilitate such matches between eager interns and local school districts.
This is a popular internship field for people majoring in pre-med or nursing, or those who have already begun medical school. The logistics of this particular type of placement are largely dependent on your background and interests in the field, but can range from working on the administrative side of healthcare to working alongside or shadowing doctors in hospitals or clinics throughout San Jose.
Here’s another place that some Spanish skills would make you more desirable since, well, usually it’s good to be able to communicate with your patients. While that part is true, the specifics of your placement may not require competency in Spanish, so there’s a lot of options to explore in that regard.
If you know anything about Costa Rica, it is pretty clear why it’s the top destination for tourists to Central America. In fact, the tourist industry grosses more money through foreign exchange than the nation’s major agricultural exports. Depending on your area of interest, you may work more on the hospitality side of things, such as at a hotel or restaurant, or you may learn more towards something along the lines of being a tour guide or travel agent.
San Jose offers tourists a glimpse into the rich culture and history of the region, dating back well before Christopher Columbus, but the most popular sector of the tourism industry in Costa Rica is the ecotourism. Sandwiched in the heart of the country, San Jose offers an ideal starting point or home base for tourists who can then branch out and find outdoor adventures in any direction. These range from beaches to mountains, and activities like zip lining, horseback riding, or touring coffee plantations.
Planning Your Trip
The first thing you really need to consider is your main objective in obtaining an internship in San Jose. While there’s no denying that it would just be a sweet place to live and work, if part of that reason has something to do with fulfilling requirements for a university program or degree, you’re going to need to make sure that your internship also checks all of the boxes.
Some universities require internships of certain lengths, through certain agencies, or containing specific experiences. With the wide variety of options in San Jose, this should not be deal-breaker, but it is something to keep in mind from the get-go. Additionally, even more so than domestic internships, things like budget and cultural intricacies are something not to be overlooked.
When and Where to Look for an Internship
Quite frankly, this is contingent upon what sector you’re thinking about dabbling in, but this really does depend on the organization through which you set up your internship. As most internships in the field of education are completed while primary and secondary schools are in session, these will be roughly around the same times as the schools in the US.
The biggest tourism season in the region is roughly from November to April, because the summer months can often get humid and rainy. So, if you’re trying to escape a cold northern winter and want to get involved in hospitality or tourism, lucky you!
While there’s a good chance that that may be the season of your internship, let’s be honest, a place this beautiful has tourists year-round. That means that there are also potential internship opportunities in the summer months, if this may better suit your fancy. Health care internships are also available year-round simply because people need health care throughout the year.
There are countless organizations that help prospective interns setup their experience in San Jose. Other interns choose to contact organizations within San Jose more directly. This is another factor that may be contingent on whether or not you’re doing this for your university degree and what time slot(s) in the year you have available.
Work Culture in San Jose
- Etiquette: In general, the work culture in Costa Rica is quite similar to what you might be used to back in the States. The workplace is usually very friendly and making small-talk is commonplace. As family is a huge priority for Ticos (Costa Ricans), this is often the topic of conversation.
Do keep in mind that there is still a degree of machismo in Costa Rica that may appear in the culture, but that these customs should not drastically affect the workplace. Typical appropriate business dress in the US is suitable for Costa Rica, and handshakes are the common salutation. Punctuality is usually valued in business and there’s a chance that there may be a bit less personal space than you may be used to in the US.
- Language: The requirements for language proficiency are dependent on the nature of your internship and your specific placement. As mentioned above, if you’re teaching English in a primary school, you will likely be expected to speak only in English. If you’re working as a travel agent, you may be more desirable if you can speak some Spanish.
This is something to consider when investigating and pursuing internships. However, some internship organizations even provide or connect interns to Spanish language learning opportunities. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that knowing even a little bit of Spanish will be nothing if not beneficial for everyday interactions and getting around San Jose.
Most internships may not require a high level of Spanish or fluency, but knowing some of a country’s language is a sign of respect and will ultimately make your life easier.
- Networking: One of the best ways to really get a feel for San Jose and the Tico lifestyle is to immerse yourself in the culture and make connections. Above all, Ticos value family and often live quite near to their extended family.
They usually live simply and embrace the pura vida. Pura vida is the national slogan of Costa Rica and it embodies the laid-back, easy-going, life-loving, friendly lifestyle that is epitomized in its people. Embracing the culture and getting to know its people are the best ways to really understand how the country functions and where your field of interest fits into all of it.
Many internship organizations offer placements in a variety of fields and are often associated with volunteer projects or NGOs. If applicable, getting acquainted with your program provider or place of work may open up many doors to future opportunities.
Work and Labor Laws in San Jose
Assuming you’re going to be an unpaid intern, you will likely not be entitled to some of the same benefits as paid workers in your sector. This means that things like health insurance may not automatically be available to you through your employer. Due to visa regulations, you may have to apply for temporary residency if you plan to stay longer than three months or may require a different visa if you are to get paid.
Otherwise, a tourist visa lasts for three months. Some people in this position also choose to renew their visa by visiting a neighboring country and re-entering Costa Rica on a renewed visa. This is something to investigate before entering the country and should be discussed with your internship provider.
Costs & Funding
Cost of Living in San Jose
The bad news is that a lot of international internships are unpaid and that Costa Rica is one of the more expensive countries in Central America. The good news is that it’s still possible to live more cheaply in the region than in the United States.
A typical budget for one person can range from $800-$1,200 per month, but depending on your lifestyle, you may need to factor in a bit more. This, of course, does not include any costs that may be associated with your internship, such as university fees. Some internship placements also set you up to live with a host family, which could also alter the budget.
If budgets are something that make you cringe, fear not! There is always the option of working a part-time job to help finance this experience. English tutors are always in high demand in the city, and there are many public forums advertising part-time employment in a variety of sectors.
Your best bet is to budget out how much money you’re going to need, because you may have to rely largely on your savings while you’re in San Jose. Here’s the thing though, the opportunity to work in a foreign country is priceless. If you can swing it, it’s definitely worth a bit more strain on your budget.
That money could also be made up via better employment prospects in the future thanks to the international experience on your resume. And it may very well be cheaper than living in most major cities in the US.
Contributed by Laura Eikhoff
Internship Programs in San Jose
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