Day by Day Itinerary

Small Groups: Never more than 10-16 travelers—guaranteed!

Once you begin your Costa Rica travel, you will discover a country roughly the size of West Virginia with an incredible amount of biodiversity. More than one-quarter of the nation is protected land, and swirling white-water rivers thrill ... thermal mud baths soothe ... tropical forests enthrall ... and colonial cities charm, making Costa Rica an adventure-seeker’s paradise.

In addition to exploring its prime locales by horseback, raft, and trail, we’ll also discover Costa Rica’s other great natural resource—its people—as our small group dines with a local family, visits farmers and artisans, and meets children at a village school. From the rapids of the Río Sarapiquí to the colorful canopy of Tirimbina, from the mountains of Guanacaste to the sun-drenched Pacific Coast, Costa Rica beckons us with countless wonders, all summed up by a popular saying among Costa Ricans: pura vida—this is the life.

San José Pacific Coast Expand All
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    Upon arrival at the airport, an OAT representative meets us and assists with the transfer to our hotel, where we meet our Trip Leader and our fellow travelers, including those arriving from the pre-trip extensions to Guatemala: Antigua & Tikal and Nicaragua's Colonial Cities & Volcanic Landscapes. The evening is free to relax or explore on your own.

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    Explore San Jose during a tour of Costa Rica

    After breakfast and a Welcome Briefing with our Trip Leader, our Costa Rica travel begins with discoveries in San José—Costa Rica’s capital city—founded in 1737 and rich in culture and history. We begin with a walk through the National Park, which is well-shaded by tropical trees and contains the National Monument, a bronze statue symbolizing the bravery of the Costa Rican people.

    From there, we continue through downtown San José to the ornately decorated National Theatre (Teatro Nacional), passing the National Library and Morazan Park along the way. One of the country’s most impressive architectural accomplishments, the National Theatre is proudly regarded as the "jewel of the nation," and we'll explore it today on a guided tour before departing San José on the famous Pan-American Highway.

    From the city, we drive through the beautiful Central Valley to Alajuela, the coffee capital of Costa Rica, where we stop at Doka Estate, a 100-year-old coffee finca (plantation). At this Costa Rican National Heritage site, we’ll learn why locals call the coffee bean the grano d’oro, or golden seed, and find out how this valuable crop is produced. We enjoy lunch at the plantation, and then continue on to Sarapiquí.

    We arrive at our comfortable lodge outside the town of La Virgen later this afternoon. Our eco-friendly lodgings here are situated alongside the Tirimbina Biological Reserve. A lush tropical rain forest teeming with native fauna, this habitat is also a seasonal home to migratory birds from the northern U.S. and Canada. After getting settled, we take a leisurely walk around the lodge’s grounds. This evening, we enjoy dinner at a local restaurant before settling into our thatched-roof rooms, where we may be lulled to sleep by the soothing sounds of the jungle, and awaken to a symphony of birdsongs.

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    Arise early this morning to discover Tirimbina's abundant birdlife on a daybreak nature walk, if you wish. After breakfast at our lodge, we'll enjoy a little leisure time.

    We'll regroup and drive to the nearby Río Sarapiquí. Flowing into the San Juan River and the Lake of Nicaragua, the Sarapiquí is one of several rivers that run down from Costa Rica's mountainous central highlands, the Cordillera Central. The surrounding land varies in altitude from 112 to 9,500 feet, which is a big reason so many migratory birds congregate in the region—more than 300 species of them at last count. Here you have a choice: rafting on Class I-II rapids of the Sarapiquí, or learning about tropical flora and fauna during a walk along its banks.

    Costa Rica is a destination for rafters from around the world, and we surveyed several of its rivers before selecting the Sarapiquí for the quality of its rapids, which are sporty enough to be fun, but mild enough to be enjoyed by first-timers. Those who opt to raft will get a complete introduction to river safety from our professional boatmen, before we board the raft and enjoy the ride while witnessing the diverse wildlife that dwells along the riverside.

    For those who prefer not to raft, a local guide will lead a nature walk through the jungle and pasturelands that surround the Sarapiquí. This walk will provide the opportunity to spot some of the region's more elusive animal species, and to view the rich flora of this verdant environment up close. Both the river rafting and the nature walk last about two hours, after which the two groups come together for lunch at a local restaurant, where we can relax in the mid-day sun and compare notes about our morning's discoveries.

    After a lunch together, you can choose to join us for an optional visit to a local, organic pineapple finca. On this excursion, we'll enjoy an in-depth look at the finca's fields and facilities, learn about pineapple cultivation techniques throughout history, discover how the Sarapiquí region's fertile, volcanic soil nurtures these tropical plants, and enjoy a taste of the "Fruit of Kings."

    Tonight, after dinner at our hotel, we enjoy a presentation on Costa Rica's bats. We'll learn all about these unique flying mammals, which represent more than 50% of the country's mammal population, and have the chance to acquaint ourselves with some live specimens, captured humanely by the research center's nets in the evening and then released back into the wild.

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    After breakfast today, we visit the Tirimbina Biological Reserve, an innovative education and research center devoted to the preservation of this endangered tropical forest ecosystem. We'll enjoy a nature walk along the reserve's woodland trails. During our walk, we'll cross the nearly 860-foot suspension bridge over the Río Sarapiquí. Midway across the bridge, the river flows around a natural island, which we explore in search of local wildlife before continuing along the bridge to the river's opposite bank.

    We have lunch at our lodge, then depart for our hotel in Chachagua, located on a private rain forest reserve. After arriving at our hotel, we'll take an orientation walk around its lush grounds and then gather for dinner at a local restaurant.

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    We can opt to wake up early to take in the sights and sounds of Costa Rica at sunrise, as we go in search of the area's indigenous birds with our Trip Leader. Then, after breakfast at our lodge, we enjoy a unique opportunity to spend A Day in the Life of a Costa Rican village, including a visit to a local elementary school supported in part by Grand Circle Foundation. The children warmly welcome us with infectious enthusiasm, and with their colorful traditional costumes and cheerful demeanor they may leave a lasting impression on all who meet them—past travelers have found this to be a highlight of the trip.

    During our visit, spend some time with the students one-on-one, talk with their teachers and parents, and learn about Costa Rica's universal educational system. Long a national priority—and a focus of government spending following the abolition of its army—Costa Rica's policy of universal education has resulted in a literacy rate of 96%. While successful in educating their students, many school systems in Costa Rica suffer from a lack of funding, and the school we visit today has benefited from a Grand Circle Foundation grant, used to improve and expand the school building and grounds by constructing a new ceiling, classrooms, sidewalks, and even (at the San Francisco School) a self-sustaining microfarm project, which provides the students and their community with much-needed nutrition and revenue.

    Your day also includes a visit to a local village for a Home-Hosted Lunch. Costa Rican cuisine is simple and wholesome, and a typical meal features chicken, beef, or fish (sometimes grilled), served with tortillas and gallo pinto (a zesty rice-and-bean side dish). But whatever's on the menu, you can count on the warm hospitality of your hosts, who may share some of their experiences of rural life in Costa Rica with us.  

    Then, we return to our hotel, where the afternoon is at leisure. You will be able to try your hand at preparing Costa Rican bocas (appetizers) during a hands-on cooking lesson before dinner at our hotel.

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    This morning after breakfast, we enjoy a nature walk along our hotel's trails. Then, our Costa Rica travel continues as we meet one of Costa Rica's more forward-thinking farmers during a visit to the organic farm of Don Juan Bautista, a retired school principal. There, we'll get an introduction to sustainable agriculture techniques, learn about the production of sugar cane, and enjoy an included lunch that features ingredients fresh from his fields.

    After lunch, we depart for the town of La Fortuna, the "front yard of the Arenal Volcano," a town of thermal spas and verdant hills. Our home for the next two nights, La Fortuna offers spectacular views of the beautifully cone-shaped Arenal Volcano when weather permits. Upon our arrival early this afternoon, we’ll have time to relax or explore the grounds of our hotel. Or, you can join our optional tour to discover The Source of Chocolate. We'll hike to a plot in the rain forest where the cacao beans used to make chocolate are grown in the traditional way, then see the whole process of chocolate making and taste the delicious results. In the evening, we all gather for an included dinner.

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    Early this morning, we can elect to join a nature walk led by our Trip Leader on the trails that surround our hotel. We have breakfast together afterward, then travel to the Río Frío, where we board a small boat to explore this complex inland waterway. We’ll likely see wading birds—like Northern Jacanas and Wood Storks—as well as many turtles and butterflies during our cruise. Keep your binoculars and camera ready—we might be lucky enough spot larger animals, like the Spider or Howler Monkeys, sloths, and caimans that live by the river.

    After lunch, we head to La Fortuna, where we enjoy a little time for independent exploration in this picturesque town. Then, we return to our hotel, where the balance of the afternoon is at leisure. Dinner is on your own this evening.

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    Early this morning, our Trip Leader will lead an elective walk around our hotel's grounds. Then our Costa Rica travel continues with a drive to the Guanacaste Province in the northwestern part of the country, a large section of which has been set aside for preservation and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dominated by the Guanacaste mountain range, this region has a distinctive dry tropical climate and is famous for its thermal pools, which we'll enjoy later in our stay.

    Our lodge is situated in the foothills of Rincón de la Vieja Volcano. We'll arrive in the late afternoon and take an orientation walk. From the lodge, local trails lead into wild expanses of tropical dry forest where we may spot peccaries, armadillos, motmots, and Capuchin and Howler monkeys, as well as White-fronted Amazon Parrots, Spectacled Owls, and more than 270 other avian species. We'll have time to savor our lodge's mountain views and explore its lush grounds before we dine together at the lodge's restaurant tonight.

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    Following breakfast, we begin our day with an elective horseback ride that takes us through the verdant jungle and into the remarkable thermal area near our lodge. Those of us looking to travel by horseback will get a safety talk and riding lesson from our Trip Leader before we saddle up and ride through gently sloping pastureland and along the tropical dry forest's narrow trails, while those who prefer a motorized means of transport will enjoy a tractor ride instead. Either way, everyone is heading for the same destination: the thermal baths!   

    We can thank the Rincón de la Vieja volcano in northwestern Costa Rica for creating this rustic, open-air retreat. Subterranean thermal currents produce warm mineral mud pots, hot and warm pools, and even natural saunas. Getting close to nature is part of the Costa Rica experience, as we'll discover firsthand this morning.

    We'll begin by participating in a typical therapeutic mud regimen, starting with a pore-opening sauna near a fumarola, a thermal vent in the Earth's crust. Next, we'll slather on handfuls of warm mineral-rich mud, transported here from bubbling pools deep within the mountain. Finally, when the mud hardens, we'll rinse it off and dip into a warm, relaxing thermal pool to wash the rest of our tensions away. It's a tranquil, rejuvenating, and—when several group members are caked from head to toe in soothing gray mud—hilarious experience!

    This afternoon, you can join us as we fly above the rain forest on an optional Forest Canopy Ride. We’ll begin our optional excursion with a moderate, 20-minute uphill hike, followed by a safety talk. Then, strapped into our harnesses and wearing thick leather gloves, we’ll head to the first of ten platforms high up in the treetops, where we're sent off on the ride of our lives. Whizzing from tree to tree on the zip-line, we’ll witness stunning panoramic views of the forest below.

    Or, spend the afternoon at leisure at the lodge, where you can enjoy a nature walk on your own, relax and write in your journal, or go for another round of birding on the grounds. We'll conclude the day with dinner at our hotel. Please note: Travelers on May-November departures can enjoy today's optional Forest Canopy Ride tour before breakfast, followed by all other activities as described.

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    In the morning, we head south to the Pacific Coast and the province of Puntarenas, stopping en route for lunch at a local restaurant.

    After we arrive at our hotel, you can choose to take an optional tour to Agujas Beach, a beautiful protected cove, to board an outrigger canoe and paddle to Limoncito Beach, where we'll enjoy a snack and time to stroll the  beach before returning to the hotel.

    Otherwise, enjoy a free afternoon to enjoy the hotel's comfortable amenities, explore on your own, or relax on beautiful Esterillos Beach. We regroup this evening for an included dinner at our hotel. Please note: On select departures, the optional Ocean Outrigger Canoe tour will occur early in the morning on Day 11, with the Río Tárcoles crocodile cruise (described on Day 12) following in the afternoon. The visit to Manuel Antonio National Park (described on Day 11) will then occur on Day 12.

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    We spend our morning in Manuel Antonio National Park, one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. One of the smallest—and also most popular—of Costa Rica’s national parks, this lush reserve encompasses four beaches, island bird sanctuaries, coral reefs, and a luxuriant rain forest. Manuel Antonio is also one of only two habitats in the country for the endangered squirrel monkey. As we walk along the nature trails here this morning, we’ll keep an eye out for these friendly primates as well as Two- and Three-toed Sloths, Capuchin Monkeys, Giant Iguanas, and more.

    We spend a full morning at Manuel Antonio, including plenty of time for hiking or relaxing on its beaches before lunch at a local restaurant. After lunch, we'll return to our hotel for time at leisure. Dinner tonight is on your own.

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    • Meals included:
    • Accommodations:

    Today, we board a small boat and drift down the Río Tárcoles, a partially tidal estuary that forms a border of the park, and Costa Rica’s largest habitat for crocodiles. Our naturalist Trip Leader will give us an introduction to these “prehistoric” animals, which can be up to 20 feet long, and we’ll keep our eyes peeled for them as the river carries us along. The mangrove forest of the Río Tárcoles is also home to many other creatures, and the birdwatching here is among the best in the country. Scarlet Macaws are sometimes seen here flying overhead in pairs, and we may also spot egrets, osprey, Frigate Birds, Roseate Spoonbills, and White Ibis during our journey.

    Then, we depart for our return trip to San José, enjoying lunch on our own en route. In the evening, we’ll say adios to our Trip Leader and traveling companions over a Farewell Dinner at a local restaurant in San José. Please note: Travelers on select departures will enjoy the visit to Manuel Antonio National Park (described on Day 11) today, before departing for San José.

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    • Meals included:

    We rise before daybreak for an early breakfast, and transfer to the airport for our flight home. Those travelers taking our optional Tortuguero National Park: Ultimate Rainforest Experience post-trip extension will transfer overland to Tortuguero this morning.


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Questions and Answers

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Weather & Regional

Before you travel, we encourage you to learn about the region of the world you'll discover on this trip. From weather and currency information to details on population, geography, and local history, you'll find a comprehensive introduction to your destinations below.  Visit our “What to Know” page to find information about the level of activity to expect, vaccination information resources, and visa requirements specific to this vacation.

Currency Cheat Sheet: Submit

What to Know

For more detailed information about this trip, download our Travel Handbook below. This document covers a wide range of information on specific areas of your trip, from passport, visa, and medical requirements; to the currencies of the countries you’ll visit and the types of electrical outlets you’ll encounter. This handbook is written expressly for this itinerary. For your convenience, we've highlighted our travelers' most common areas of interest on this page.

Download the Travel Handbook

What to Expect


  • 6 locations in 13 days with two 1-night stays and some early mornings
  • While this is a mobile trip, the pace is not demanding

Physical requirements

  • Not appropriate for travelers using wheelchairs, walkers, or other mobility aids
  • You must be able to walk 3 miles unassisted and participate in 6-8 hours of physical activities each day


  • 2 days at altitudes of 6,000 feet


  • Costa Rica has a tropical climate with high temperatures reaching 90°F, high humidity, and moderate-to-heavy rainfall
  • As a narrow isthmus, Costa Rica is influenced by many meteorological systems, making weather prediction difficult


  • Travel over rural streets, unpaved roads, and rugged paths and trails


  • Travel via 22-passenger air-conditioned minibus, river raft, horseback, and kayak

Accommodations & Facilities

  • Some of our lodgings may be quite small or family-run
  • In rural areas, our lodgings may have limited services and no air-conditioning

Travel Documents


Your passport should meet these requirements for this itinerary:

  • It should be valid for at least 6 months after your scheduled return to the U.S.
  • It should have the recommended number of blank pages (refer to the handbook for details).
  • The blank pages must be labeled “Visas” at the top. Pages labeled “Amendments and Endorsements” are not acceptable.


U.S. citizens do not need a visa for this trip.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, do not travel with a U.S. passport, or will be traveling independently before/after this trip, then you may need a visa. Please check with the appropriate embassy or a visa servicing company. To contact our recommended visa servicing company, PVS International, call toll-free at 1-800-556-9990.

Vaccinations Information

For a detailed and up-to-date list of vaccinations that are recommended for this trip, please visit the CDC’s “Traveler’s Health” website. You can also refer to the handbook for details.

Before Your Trip

Before you leave on your adventure, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:

Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)

What to Bring

In an effort to help you bring less, we have included checklists within the handbook, which have been compiled from suggestions by Trip Leaders and former travelers. The lists are only jumping-off points—they offer recommendations based on experience, but not requirements. You might also want to refer to the climate charts in the handbook or online weather forecasts before you pack. Refer to the handbook for details.

Insider Tips


Main Trip

  • TRYP San Jose Sabana Hotel

    San Jose, Costa Rica

    Just a ten-minute walk from the center of San Jose, the TRYP San Jose Sabana Hotel is ideally located for exploring the city's attractions. On site, the hotel offers a chic lobby bar, an exercise room, and a gift and convenience shop. There are 104 rooms, each featuring a private bath, telephone, flat-screen TV, iPod dock, digital safe, and coffee maker with complimentary Costa Rican coffee.

  • Sarapiquis Rainforest Lodge

    Sarapiquí, Costa Rica

    In the Sarapiquí region, we stay at the Sarapiquis Rainforest Lodge, surrounded by the Tirimbina Forest. Each of the 40 simply appointed rooms is in a thatch-roofed roundel, with doors opening onto a deck where you can observe birds and wildlife. The grounds include gardens and a small pool, and hotel facilities include a bar and a small on-site shop.

  • Chachagua Rainforest Hotel

    Chachagua, Costa Rica

    Located on a working ranch and private biological station—just a short drive from La Fortuna—the Chachagua Rainforest Hotel offers numerous opportunities to experience Costa Rica’s natural beauty, from verdant jungle to fertile farmland. The hotel’s 28 air-conditioned rooms are simple, yet comfortable, and each includes wireless Internet and a private bath with hot water. Hotel amenities include an outdoor swimming pool, miles of hiking trails, and an on-site restaurant serving local cuisine that features ingredients fresh from the hotel’s gardens.

  • Los Lagos Hotel, Spa & Resort

    La Fortuna, Costa Rica

    Los Lagos Hotel, Spa & Resort sits in the shadows of Arenal Volcano with all 98 guestrooms built facing the volcano. In addition to these spectacular views, the resort offers an outdoor pool, two restaurants, a bar, and relaxing natural hot springs. Rooms are air-conditioned and include cable TV, a mini-fridge, safe, and a private bathroom with hair dryer.

  • Buena Vista Lodge

    Guanacaste, Costa Rica

    In Guanacaste, we’ll enjoy the secluded comforts of the Buena Vista Lodge, situated on 1,400 acres of secondary forest in the foothills of Rincón de la Vieja Volcano. The lodge’s grounds offer wonderful bird- and wildlife-viewing opportunities, in addition to other amenities, like a swimming pool, forest trails, four restaurants, and two bars. The Buena Vista Lodge offers 80 simply furnished rooms with private baths.

  • Villa Lapas

    Puntarenas, Costa Rica

    Set in a private, 500-acre rain forest preserve on a riverbank, Villa Lapas has 56 rooms surrounded by tropical gardens. Each room has air-conditioning, a telephone, TV, safe, complimentary wireless Internet access, and a private bath with a hair dryer. Hotel amenities include a bar, on-site restaurant, and an outdoor swimming pool.


  • Villa Maya Lodge

    El Peten, Guatemala

    We spend two nights at the Villa Maya Lodge, located near the Tikal ruins in the heart of the Peten, the dense jungle highlands of northern Guatemala. Built in 1988, this family-owned hotel is built on a sprawling, 67-acre nature reserve. Each of its 44 air-conditioned rooms features a private bath with shower, minibar, and refrigerator.

  • Casa del Consulado Hotel

    Granada, Nicaragua

    Casa del Consulado is located in Granada’s historic section and has an hacienda-like design incorporating enclosed courtyards and a fountain. Each of the nine air-conditioned rooms features cable TV, wireless Internet access, and a private bath. Hotel facilities include a small swimming pool and a spa.

  • Aninga Hotel & Spa

    Tortuguero, Costa Rica

    Located only minutes from the main entrance to Tortuguero National Park, Aninga Hotel & Spa is surrounded by winding canals and lush jungle. Each of the hotel’s 32 bungalow-style rooms features a ceiling fan and a private bath with hot water, while on-site amenities include an outdoor pool, restaurant, and bar.

  • TRYP San Jose Sabana Hotel

    San Jose, Costa Rica

    Just a ten-minute walk from the center of San Jose, the TRYP San Jose Sabana Hotel is ideally located for exploring the city's attractions. On site, the hotel offers a chic lobby bar, an exercise room, and a gift and convenience shop. There are 104 rooms, each featuring a private bath, telephone, flat-screen TV, iPod dock, digital safe, and coffee maker with complimentary Costa Rican coffee.

Flight Information

Your Flight Options

Whether you choose to take just a base trip or add an optional pre- and post-trip extension, you have many options when it comes to personalizing your air—and creating the OAT adventure that’s right for you:

Purchase Flights with OAT

  • Work with our expert Air Travel Consultants to select the airline and routing you prefer
  • Upgrade to business or premium economy class
  • Customize your trip by staying overnight in a connecting city, arriving at your destination a few days early, or spending additional time in a nearby city on your own
  • Combine your choice of OAT adventures to maximize your value

Make Your Own Arrangements

  • Make your own international flight arrangements directly with the airline
  • Purchase optional airport transfers to and from your hotel
  • Extend your Land Tour-only Travel Protection Plan coverage and protect the air arrangements you make on your own—including your frequent flyer miles

OR, leave your air routing up to us and your airfare (as well as airport transfers) will be included in your final trip cost.

Estimated Flight Times

We understand that international travel has unique challenges including fewer airline choices and limited flight schedules. The chart below provides estimated travel times and the typical number of connections from popular departure cities to help you plan for your trip.

Please note that traveling to and from San Jose will require multiple connections, and these flight rigors should be taken into consideration.

Partner since: 1994
Total donated: $634,868

Making a difference in Costa Rica

Simply by traveling with OAT, you support the work of the nonprofit Grand Circle Foundation. Alan and Harriet Lewis created the Foundation with the mission of changing people's lives through travel — which includes both the travelers who journey with OAT, and the local people who welcome us so warmly into their homelands.

Learn more about our work in Costa Rica, and what you'll experience during your itinerary:

A Day in the Life of a Costa Rican Village

Maasai women, stringing beads

Your school visit at San Francisco or Sonafluca is just one aspect of your Day in the Life experience, which is featured on most OAT itineraries. Each Day in the Life is specially tailored to showcase daily life in your destination—in this case, the Chachagua and Sonafluca villages in the fertile farmland near Costa Rica's Arenal Volcano. You'll get to know the local people through conversation and hands-on activities, getting an authentic glimpse of what life is really like here—and not just the typical tourist's version.

Read More

A Day in the Life of a Costa Rican Village

Your school visit at San Francisco or Sonafluca is just one aspect of your A Day in the Life experience, which is featured on most OAT itineraries. Each A Day in the Life is specially tailored to showcase daily life in your destination—in this case, the Chachagua and Sonafluca villages in the fertile farmland near Costa Rica's Arenal Volcano. You'll get to know the local people through conversation and hands-on activities, getting an authentic glimpse of what life is really like here—and not just the typical tourist's version.

"We enjoyed our experience of meeting the families of the village, and found the people to be very friendly, hospitable, and open. We felt we learned quite a bit about their lifestyle, resourcefulness, and love of family."

Susan & Del Krause
Menlo Park, California

Meet the People of San Francisco Village & Sonafluca Village

Maasai women, stringing beads

Both the San Francisco Village and the Sonafluca Village are home to schools supported by Grand Circle Foundation's World Classroom initiative, so we've developed close ties with members of the village communities, including the schoolchildren and their families, who are eager to welcome you into their daily lives.

Your Day in the Life begins with a visit with one of the leaders of the local community at their home, after which you'll head to the local elementary school (when in session). There, the students offer a warm and enthusiastic welcome, after which you'll have time to interact with the students one-on-one, and meet with their parents and teachers. During your visit, you'll learn about Costa Rica’s universal educational system, which has resulted in a literacy rate of more than 95%, and get a firsthand look at the improvements made possible by Foundation support—and the support of travelers like you.

Following your spirited visit to the school, you'll join one of the students for a Home-Hosted Lunch with their family. In addition to sampling the local cuisine—and perhaps lending a hand in its preparation if you like—you'll have a chance to get to know your hosts, and learn about their rural way of life.

Grand Circle Foundation

Supporting a World Classroom: Costa Rica

By funding improvements at local schools, the Foundation's World Classroom initiative is focused on supporting society's most precious resources: its children. In Costa Rica, you'll visit one of two schools funded by Grand Circle Foundation: San Francisco School or Sonafluca School. Our projects have included building a sustainable microfarm, constructing and renovating classrooms, and much more.

Read More

Supporting a World Classroom: Costa Rica

By funding improvements at local schools, the Foundation's World Classroom initiative is focused on supporting society's most precious resources: its children. In Costa Rica, you'll visit one of two schools funded by Grand Circle Foundation: San Francisco School or Sonafluca School. Our projects have included building a sustainable microfarm, constructing and renovating classrooms, and much more.

"We really enjoyed our school visit. The children were so excited to show us around, and we were impressed with both the farm and the school."

Linda & Robinson Langille
Live Oak, California

San Francisco School

Partner since: 2003 • Total donated: $241,670

Children learning how to farm

Since Grand Circle Foundation began partnering with the San Francisco School in 2003, our donations have provided the school with new classrooms (including an ESL classroom), additional restrooms, a computer room, new lighting, and air-conditioning. A portion of our funding has also enabled us to purchase the land for a microfarm, build storage facilities, and plant crops. Under the outstanding leadership of the school's principal, Eulin Chacon, we have already made a tremendous difference. The microfarm not only feeds 184 students breakfast, lunch, and sometimes even dinner, but it also impacts the entire community with its surplus food supply and lifelong lessons in sustainable agriculture. "It's a dream come true," Eulin tells us. "It's the best legacy for future generations."

This lasting legacy is the goal of Grand Circle Foundation's Invest in a Village initiative, of which the San Francisco School's microfarm is a part. When the project is complete, the microfarm will be fully equipped to sustain the community for generations to come—and in Costa Rica, this means more than just providing sustenance. It also means that children will learn how to succeed in a society that relies heavily on agriculture.

Sonafluca School

Partner since: 2009 • Total donated: $82,379

Showing students an ipad

The village of Sonafluca was once home to a large hacienda, where all of the residents worked to earn their living—and when the owner of the hacienda passed away, he left the land to the community. Today, every family in Sonafluca owns a small plot to farm, and while they are too poor to support themselves individually, they all work together in a communal fashion to support the village as a whole. The atmosphere in the community is akin to an extended family, and the people are extremely proud of what they've built with what little they have.

Grand Circle Foundation began our partnership with the Sonafluca School, which serves 209 students, in 2010. Since then, Foundation support has helped replace classroom doors, re-shingle the school's roof, and purchase folkloric costumes for the students. We have also built a protective fence, a community center, additional restrooms, and a covered walkway to shield children from the sun and rain. In the future, we plan to complete several more projects together, including building a gymnasium for physical education classes and sporting events, constructing a presentation hall, and purchasing new library books.

In December of 2010, two generous travelers—including traveler and "gutsy leader" Roy Parsons—made donations of $8,000, resulting in $16,000 for the Sonafluca School.

School in session:

Year-round, with vacation period from mid-December through the end of February

Gifts to bring if you're visiting:

  • Coloring books
  • Board games
  • Notebooks and sheet paper
  • Toothbrushes
  • Pencils
Grand Circle Foundation

Inspirational Stories: Inspiring Others to Give Back in Costa Rica

For Roy Parsons and his late wife, Katie, giving back was always a way of life—and his generous offer to personally match all donations to the Sonafluca School encouraged others to give back, too.

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Inspirational Stories: Inspiring Others to Give Back in Costa Rica

For Roy Parsons and his late wife, Katie, giving back was always a way of life—and his generous offer to personally match all donations to the Sonafluca School encouraged others to give back, too.

A promise, and a proposal

Barbara, California. He was a junior and she was a freshman—and from her very first day, Katie was intrigued by Roy, who drove up to the school with wild, curly hair and a brand-new Ford convertible. They began to go out a few weeks later, though Katie had reservations about getting too serious. Roy, she learned, was a rice farmer's son—and next in line to take over the business when his father retired. Katie, on the other hand, had made a spiritual promise to someday do missionary work overseas.

Roy was aware of her plans—and while he wasn't completely sold on the idea of going overseas, he told her that he'd be willing to do so someday, should the opportunity present itself. This willingness was enough for Katie, and when Roy proposed on Independence Day in 1952, Katie happily accepted. They were married on December 28, 1952, at Katie's home church in Los Angeles.

A dream takes flight

After their marriage, Roy and Katie set their sights on joining Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). MAF was founded in 1945 to help missionary workers reach remote locales that were previously accessible only by foot. To this day, MAF pilots play a crucial role in disaster response, medical assistance, and the transportation of workers and supplies for community development projects. At the time, the president of MAF happened to be a member of Katie's church—yet despite this connection, the couple didn't immediately get the answer they were looking for. Yes, Roy had his aircraft mechanic's license, which was one of the candidacy requirements. But he was about 30 pounds heavier than the ideal candidate, which meant his planes wouldn't be able to carry enough cargo. He was also well shy of the 300 required flying hours.

Undeterred, Roy and Katie persevered until all requirements were met, including the flying hours, which they logged in Roy's father's Cessna. Once again, they contacted MAF. And this time came the response: "How soon can you come in for candidacy?"

The candidacy was a time for MAF to get acquainted with the couple before officially accepting them and sending them on assignment. Roy and Katie dutifully pitched in wherever they were needed, from taking care of farmland to cleaning the offices. Eventually, they were offered their first assignment in Ecuador, and it was decided that they would go to Spanish language school in Costa Rica after helping Roy's family with the annual rice harvest.

As it turned out, however, their MAF plans would be put on hold yet again: Katie was going to have a baby. While MAF wasn't nearly as thrilled with the news as Roy and Katie were, they permitted the couple to forgo language school so that Katie could deliver the baby at home. When the Parsons finally began their assignment in Ecuador in 1958, they did so with a new family member in tow: three-month-old Royson, who they named after his father and grandfather.

Around the world … and back again

The family lived at the edge of the jungle about 160 miles from Quito. There was a little town up the road with a few stores housed in wooden shacks without windows. This was the only place to do any shopping, and the local people emerged from the jungle every morning with items to trade for what they needed—baskets laden with tropical fruits or live chickens held tightly by the feet. While Roy piloted flights, Katie performed various MAF duties on the ground, including bookkeeping and working with local families.

The family returned to Suriname in 1963, and it became the place Katie cherished most of all during their many years overseas. Where their homes in Ecuador and Guyana had had no cities to speak of, in Suriname they had real stores to shop at … and even groceries and restaurants. The Dutch colonists were excellent farmers who knew how to pasteurize—which meant fresh butter, cream, and ice cream. There was a school in town for Royson, who had begun kindergarten back in the U.S. during their furlough. Because two other missionary pilots had flown into Suriname to join them, Roy no longer needed to fly every day, which gave him time to enjoy life on the ground.

They stayed in Suriname quite happily for four years, until 1968, when MAF had a bigger job in mind for Roy: the organization was looking to decentralize operations, which meant assigning separate Vice Presidents to oversee South America, Central America, Indonesia, and Africa—and despite his prior experience in the Americas, Africa was where Roy was needed.

It was a hard decision, considering how happy they'd been in Suriname, but Roy accepted the challenge. He often traveled for weeks at a time, managing operations on seven different bases—which was quite a change from the single bases the family had become accustomed to. Katie, meanwhile, dealt with new complications in bookkeeping, working with multiple currencies and creating reports for operations all over Africa. Life wasn't easy, particularly for Katie and the boys with Roy being gone so frequently, but they grew accustomed to the circumstances and learned to make it work.

Eventually, though, the schedule took a toll on Roy, who realized that his sons were growing fast and he wasn't spending as much time with them as he'd like. He also realized that he'd been quite successful at his duties in Africa: operations were going smoothly, the finances and bookkeeping were in order, and people were happy. Unfortunately, Katie was happy, too, and she wasn't convinced that it was time to leave the Congo just yet … but she came to accept Roy's decision when he made arrangements to retire from MAF and return to the United States. After 16 years overseas, it was time to get used to living in a world where women wore makeup and families could afford five-bedroom houses—even if the Parsons' was a "fixer-upper." Between 1984 and 1986, Roy briefly returned to MAF to oversee Africa operations and start up a program for famine relief in Mali, but life for the Parsons otherwise took on a sense of normalcy—even though, to them, it felt like anything but.

A journey's end

Small wonder, then, that Roy and Katie became avid travelers after Roy's retirement—only this time, their journeys were for pleasure. In 2007, they discovered Overseas Adventure Travel, and visited Peru, Ecuador, Australia, and New Zealand with the company. They climbed Machu Picchu, cruised the Galapagos, and snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef. Closer to home, they explored California in their RV.

Eventually, the local RV trips were the only ones that Katie was able to handle. She was diagnosed with a blood disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), which is manageable at best, but ultimately incurable. Roy and Katie bravely fought the disease with medications and frequent blood transfusions, all the while praying that a cure would be found. On May 17, 2010, Katie passed away peacefully with Roy at her side.

Roy honored Katie's memory in the same way she had spent so much of her life: by bettering the lives of those less fortunate. Years earlier, they had funded the construction of a school for so-called "untouchable" children in India through Operation Mobilization. Upon Katie's passing, Roy funded some of that school's additional needs, and he also joined friends and family in making an additional gift in Katie's name to the Christian Missions Charitable Trust orphanage in Chenai, India (formerly Madras).

Meeting his match

Like many travelers with OAT who explore the world later in life, Roy was eventually ready to take that first trip on his own. And it was this journey that brought him to the Sonafluca School in Costa Rica.

Although it was a Sunday, a group of students and their parents greeted the OAT bus, with each student taking a traveler by the hand and leading their guest on a tour of the property. During this tour, Roy was impressed to see that the school had a computer room—but he learned that it wasn't doing the students much good, as neither the school nor the government could afford to pay a computer teacher's salary.

This weighed heavily on Roy's mind, since he knew that without learning computers, young people these days aren't likely to go very far—in school or in life. So he decided to do something about it. Knowing that many would-be givers can be motivated by the offer of a matching gift, Roy pulled his Trip Leader, Eduardo Caravaca, aside, and offered to match any donation made to the Sonafluca School through January 31, 2011, up to a total of $5000.

By the time Eduardo made an announcement on the tour bus about the anonymous donation, fellow travelers Romaine Conner and her husband had already decided that they'd like to do something for the Sonafluca School—they just hadn't decided what yet. When they learned about the matching offer, they told Eduardo that they'd match Roy's $5000 … and raise him to $8000. Roy quietly increased his contribution to $8000 as well. All told, Roy's generous gesture blossomed into an extraordinary total of $16,275 for the Sonafluca School.

Sharing inspiration

The Conners can't speak highly enough about their fellow benefactor. "He's a terrific guy with a big heart," says Mr. Conner, who has always shared Roy's passion for giving. "We had both wanted to stay anonymous, but during the trip, I was sure I'd figured it out. So one night when we were sitting at a table together, I told him, 'I have a feeling you're the other guy.'"

It came as no surprise that he was right.

And while we may have blown Roy's cover even further, we hope he succeeds in inspiring others by allowing us to share his story—and Katie's story, too. They have certainly inspired everyone at Grand Circle Foundation [GCF] … but we have a feeling that's just the beginning.

The students of Bashay gave the group a hearty welcome. "They were warm and joyful and sang for us," Anne remembers. "We sang for them, too, and the more athletic members of our group joined our guides in playing soccer with them." It was later, as the group talked with the principal, Justine Basso, about his priorities for his 760 pupils, that the school's needs became apparent. "We all expected to hear that the school needed more computers, books, or things of that nature," says Anne. "To our surprise, he told us that the one thing that would help the children most would be to simply complete the school kitchen."

As Mr. Basso explained, the school currently had no refrigeration or sanitation facilities with which to properly store food—either meals to be prepared on site or bagged lunches brought by the students. As a result, the children were required to walk home for lunch and then walk back—a journey of up to 10 miles roundtrip for some. Those students who did walk long distances midday were unlikely to return to school for their afternoon studies. The alternative was to skip lunch and endure an afternoon of hunger. Grand Circle Foundation had begun constructing the kitchen earlier in the year—but at the time of Anne's visit (see photo below), the project was on hold due to unexpectedly high construction and labor costs.

After the visit was over, the group had plenty of food for thought. "We returned to our beautiful and comparatively very luxurious lodge and sat eating our delicious hot lunch with organic vegetables," Anne remembers, "and the stark differences between our lives and those of the Bashay students were on all of our minds." It was group member Christine Keff, owner of the renowned Flying Fish restaurant in Seattle, who came up with the idea for a fundraiser: "How about when we get back, we do a benefit dinner at the restaurant to raise money for the kitchen at Bashay?"

The group greeted the suggestion with enthusiasm, and their plans began to take flight. In February, the group members living in Seattle held the benefit as promised, cooking up an African dinner for 40 (under Christine's expert guidance) and entertaining the diners with a slideshow and video featuring their adventures in the Serengeti. Several travelers spoke about the needs of the Bashay School, and the difference the kitchen and dining hall would make in the lives of the children. "When the dust settled, we had raised $10,000 from 54 donors," says Anne. This was more than enough to complete the kitchen, which had since been funded with additional donations from the Foundation—so the gift will go a long way toward completing the neighboring dining hall.

Anne is quick to credit their Trip Leader, Godliving, and driver-guides, Nixon and Herbie, with much of the inspiration for the Bashay benefit. "Their warmth and wonderful humor, their generosity with their time and energy, and their ability to push us gently outside of our comfort level to interact with the local communities helped provide us with the dreamiest dream trip imaginable," says Anne.

A dream vacation that fulfills the dreams of those in need? It's a dream come true for us.

Grand Circle Foundation

Solo Traveler Stories

Why Travel Solo on Real Affordable Costa Rica

We're proud to offer the best value for solo travelers in the industry, guaranteed, with FREE Single Supplements on your base trip and all extensions. Travel with the leader in solo-friendly travel on Real Affordable Costa Ricaand save up to $970 per person versus the competition.

Our small group size and expert, resident Trip Leaders help solo travelers make personal connections and ensure peace of mind. Here are some thoughts from solo travelers about why this adventure was right for them.

"What really distinguishes this trip from the many other tour companies that will show you Costa Rica’s wildlife is the many opportunities you have to meet with ordinary Ticos and learn something of their lives. The visit to the elementary school (including the coffee breakfast with Rocio and the home-hosted lunch) was a wonderful glimpse into daily life for rural Costa Ricans."

Robert Derose, 2-time traveler
Baltimore, Maryland

Pura Vida: Two Minnesota Gals Step Out of Their Comfort Zones

Lisa McKinley, 2-time traveler, Minneapolis, Minnesota

My sisters and I began traveling with my mom, Dottie, 14 years ago. And although we all enjoy traveling together, my mom and I have discovered that we are interested in exploring the destinations that are a little more exotic … places that take us out of our comfort zones, where we don’t necessarily know the language.

My mom and I live on a farm in Minnesota and that keeps us pretty busy. Every once in a while, we want to step away and enjoy a place different than what we see every day. Since I’m interested in anthropology (and so is my mom), we decided we wanted to see Egypt on our first adventure together. But we also knew that if we wanted to see everything on our list, we needed to go with a tour group—which is where OAT came in.

After that initial trip to Egypt, we knew we wanted to explore again. My mom always wanted to visit Costa Rica because of the wonderful stories she’d heard in the past. But for me, the decision to travel to Costa Rica came on a cold day in January. Mom and I received a catalog with a brightly colored tree frog on the cover announcing OAT’s Real Affordable Costa Rica trip. And with that, we knew where we’d go next.

We went places during this trip that two shy Minnesota girls would never have visited on their own. I felt protected and cherished from the moment mom and I exited customs in Costa Rica and were escorted through the throngs of people at the airport by our wonderful driver, Victor. It was the perfect start to a magical journey that would keep us busy every day.

When I think about our trip together, my favorite memory may seem a little silly. I have this personal life goal to ride as many four-legged creatures as I can. I’ve already been on an elephant at a fair in Minnesota, a horse in Iceland, and a camel in Egypt. And during our adventure to Costa Rica, I was able to add one more to my list. During an impromptu discovery stop at a sugar cane plantation, our group witnessed two men leading a group of steers that were crushing sugar cane. I must have been incredibly engrossed in the moment, because one of the men approached me and encouraged me to get on the steer … and I did!

But our favorite memory from our trip provided my mom and I with another "first." During our stop at Manuel Antonio National Park, we were able to swim in the Pacific Ocean—our first time ever swimming in an ocean. My mom and I tried to body-surf as best as Minnesotans can, but wound up with more sand in our suits than anything else. Mom got caught in the surf and rolled in about three inches of water and laughed longer and harder than I’ve heard her laugh in years. It’s an experience the two of us will never forget.

Although my mom and I live on the farm together, we are busy all the time. Our experiences traveling together give us these special moments to get away and truly enjoy our time together. These new experiences—like Costa Rica—allow us to reconnect in a way that simply isn’t possible back at home in Minnesota. I can’t wait for our next mother/daughter adventure.

Private Adventures—New for 2015

How do you arrange a Private Adventure?

It’s simple: You choose the people you travel with. You choose the departure date. You choose the size of your group. OAT does the rest.

Your lifelong memories are only a phone call away: Call us toll-free at

Group Size Additional Cost
4-6 $800 per person
7-9 $400 per person

Now you can reserve an EXCLUSIVE departure of Real Affordable Costa Rica with just 8 travelers. Enjoy a truly special adventure—starting from only $400 per person more than our published trip price.

The benefits of your Private Adventure …

  • Travel in an exclusive group of friends or family members
  • Work with your Trip Leader to create unique experiences and special memories
  • Tailor the pacing of activities—spending more time doing what interests your group most at the speed that fits your comfort level
  • Enjoy the security of knowing we have regional offices nearby

This program is available on new reservations in 2015 only, and cannot be combined with any offers, including our Vacation Ambassador Referral program. The additional cost of a Private Departure is per person, on top of the departure price and varies by trip. Private Departures do not include any changes or additions to our standard itineraries. Age restrictions may apply to some itineraries and must be at least 13 years old to travel with Overseas Adventure Travel. Ask your Group Sales Team for details. Additional taxes and fees will apply. Standard Terms & Conditions apply. Every effort has been made to present this information accurately. We reserve the right to correct errors.

Costa Rica’s Hard-Fought Peace

60 years without an army

by David Valdes-Greenwood

The grandparents of today’s schoolchildren may still remember when it took bloodshed to bring on this era of pacifism.

On a university campus in Costa Rica, there is a plaque on a concrete wall that might catch your eye if you were strolling by. It bears a simple message only three lines long, but its words are powerful: “Happy is the mother who knows her son will never have to be a soldier.”

If you headed into the countryside to visit a rural elementary school just a few miles away, you’d be greeted by a colorful hand-painted sign quoting Pope Paul VI: “Peace is great; Peace is necessary; Peace is the object of much search and much devotion. It is very difficult—extremely difficult—but not impossible.”

Fighting for peace

From early childhood onward, Costa Ricans—Ticos as they prefer to be called—are taught to value peace and to see the benefits of pacifism. And they don’t have to look far: Their country has no standing army, so funds that once would have gone to the military are funneled into education and social programs instead. The result is that Costa Rica is routinely rated the safest country in Central America, with the longest life expectancy in Latin America, and in 2012, it ranked first among all nations in three different “happiness index” lists.

But it wasn’t always that way. The grandparents of today’s schoolchildren may still remember when it took bloodshed to bring on this era of pacifism.

For more than 120 years, Costa Rica had an army. From the time of the nation’s independence in 1821 onward, the military had been an arm of the government, both for good—such as when it repelled an invasion from Nicaragua—and for ill, including when it supported an early 20th-century dictatorship. But in 1948, when the military backed the annulment of democratic elections, and then surrounded the house where the popularly elected candidate was meeting supporters (one of whom was shot), the nation erupted into a civil war lasting 44 days and killing thousands.

Leading the charge of the opposition was José Figueres, an MIT-trained engineer whose force of 700 volunteers had been undermining the government for the previous two years. With deep support from the citizenry, Figueres earned the endorsement of the United States and eventually expelled the old regime. On his watch, a new, more democratic constitution was drafted, allowing women and black Ticos to vote. But its most famous provision was one in which the standing army was disbanded for good.

This made Costa Rica one of the few independent nations in the world that had no military. The idea of a peace as a national value made it a magnet for pacifists from other parts of the globe. Among them were a group of American Quakers, led by Wilford Guindon, who settled in Monteverde and became successful dairy farmers—as some of their descendants remain to this day.

Preserving pacifism

Remaining pacifist has not always been easy for Costa Rica. During the 1980s, with civil wars playing out in several neighboring countries at once, some wondered if Costa Rica might have no choice but to re-arm. Instead, the citizens elected peace advocate Óscar Arias as president. He went on to draft accords between his country and Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua that stabilized the entire region (and won him the Nobel Peace Prize).

In light of recent provocations from neighboring Nicaragua, Costa Rica’s current president Laura Chinchilla—Arias’ successor and Costa Rica’s first female president— faces fresh doubts about how long the nation’s pacifist status can be maintained. But for now, her opinion is firm. As she said in a recent speech to the U.N. General Assembly, "Peace must go beyond action. To educate for peace is to vaccinate against war."

Photos From Our Travelers

On location in Costa Rica

Here’s how OAT travelers have captured moments of discovery, beauty, friendship, and fun on previous departures of our Real Affordable Costa Rica adventure. We hope these will evoke special travel memories and inspire you to submit your own favorite OAT trip photos.


Ed Franco, 11-time traveler from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, was "having fun with mineral-rich mud brought from Rincon de la Vieja volcano in northwestern Costa Rica. Many women tried the beautifying mud, but Ed tried to beautify his hair," commented photographer Red Sheffield, 12-time traveler from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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How to submit your photos:

Please submit individual photos in jpeg format to:

Please be sure to include the name of your OAT adventure, along with the travel dates. Tell us where you took the photo and, if you’d like, tell us why. And don’t forget to include your name and contact information.

Please note: By submitting a photo, you (i) represent and warrant that the photo is your original work created solely by yourself and does not infringe the intellectual property rights of any party; (ii) grant to Grand Circle LLC and its affiliates a worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, transferable, irrevocable, non-exclusive and fully sublicensable right and license to use, in any and all related media whether now known or hereafter devised, in perpetuity, anywhere in the world, with the right to make any and all commercial or other uses thereof, including without limitation, reproducing, editing, modifying, adapting, publishing, displaying publicly, creating derivative works from, incorporating into other works or modifying the photo and (iii) hereby release and discharge Grand Circle LLC and its affiliates, officers and employees from and against any and all claims, liabilities, costs, damages and expenses of any kind arising out of or relating to the use by Grand Circle LLC of any photo submitted.