Our Story

John Culqui art

written by SOTW founder Zach McDuffie

Swells are formed by wind blowing over an area of water, consistently in one direction until ripples or formed. Those ripples of circular energy roll along, gathering momentum and absorbing other ripples and growing until they finally arrive on a distant shore to spill that energy in the form of breaking waves. Living dreams are formed much the same way; an intangible force pushes you in a direction until you get organized, grow, and ultimately create something inspiring and beautiful.

Surf TripMy first trip to Costa Rica was exactly the same scenario that thousands of others have experienced. I was part of the backpacker brigade, ready to explore the beautiful little country’s beaches, rainforests, and volcanoes. I had everything but the kitchen sink on my back, guidebook in hand, and the meager Spanish vocabulary of a grunting cave man. I had an amazing time, as almost everyone does; I took at least fifty photos of the first monkeys I’d ever seen, witnessed the awe inspiring beauty of an erupting volcano, hiked to waterfalls in the jungle, met amazing people, and caught my first wave. More than seventeen years have passed since that trip, but I’ll never forget it. Partly because it was my first big international adventure, partly because I get to constantly relive it through the excitement of so many travelers that come through the School of the World, and partly because I get asked at least five times a week “So what brought you to Costa Rica?”

A more accurate question would be “What brought you back to Costa Rica?” Like every young backpacker, that first trip I stayed until the last dollar was spent and went home to the reverse culture shock of what is referred to as “the real world”. I plotted my prison break from the rat race by working two jobs, saving every dime I could. Then one night I had a dream so vivid that I woke up and bought a plane ticket back to Costa Rica. It was a dream about…. waves… clean, beautiful, empty waves! It is amazing to me now that I can trace so much of my path and the paths of countless others to those images flashed on my subconscious mind that night. My initial plan, if you can call it that, was to spend two months learning to surf, learning Spanish, and making art. Two months flew by and I returned home, but just long enough to sell my car, give away my winter clothes, and get my dog Bimini! I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do for a living, but I was healthy, happy, and inspired in Costa Rica and that was enough of a start for me. Five months after that, with just $3,000 left in the bank, I came up with the idea that would become the School of the World.

building plans

showing the construction plans for the main building to a friend in 2001

The original concept for the School of the World was based in my curiosity about the world around me. My own desire to learn everything about life in Costa Rica grew into the idea to combine elements of a surf camp, language school, photography workshop, and yoga retreat. School of the World was unique from the beginning, as it was the first vacation school in the world to offer surfing and Spanish as a combo vacation (back in 1997), and these two programs still form our core. I’m an artist and photographer so I added our photography program just a few years later. Yoga was added around the same time, by the request of many guests and was just a natural fit. Our latest addition, the GoPro program, is another first- we are the only vacation school offering GoPro courses like this year round. We’ve been working directly with the good people of GoPro on this one and I think it is going to be really popular.

School of the World in 2001. The empty lot is where the main building now stands.

School of the World in 2001. The empty lot is where the main building now stands.

The location has evolved quite a bit over the years. That $3000 I had when I started went to buying a laptop and paying the deposit on renting the cabinas where we started (the side of the school with the pool). As soon as I had the keys to the place I had to hop on my bicycle and go to the bus stop to start inviting backpackers to come and stay. That first year we only had 2 students, and the rest of the time we rented rooms to travelers from around the world. The place became a magnet for great people, and as word spread the school grew exponentially. By 2001 I had saved enough to buy the adjacent lot and start construction on what is now the main building. I designed all the details and oversaw the construction while an old friend of mine from college (Brian) ran the day-to-day operations of the school. Along the way we gathered an all-star staff and made constant upgrades to everything. After 3 years of construction I finished the building and Brian and our amazing staff had things so under control that I began to travel and learn again. I’ve spent the last decade splitting time between Costa Rica and traveling, and became one of the leading experts in the world on the learning vacation genre of travel. I learned another language (Brazilian Portuguese), trained with world champion free diver William Trubridge in the Bahamas, studied advanced portrait photography in the US, and fashion photography in Paris, just to name a few. I maintained a popular blog on the topic and I even met my wife Natazha in 2011 while filming a pilot for a travel TV show about this type of travel. I mention this because everything I learned from my experiences on the road went into making School of the World even better each time I came home.

From its humble beginnings to the beautiful destination that it is today, the School of the World is and always has been a collective dream. In other words, it is what it is thanks to the people that have worked here and the travelers that have been here over the years. Most of our crew has worked at the school for years and our family of repeat guests extends to over 40 countries worldwide. We are all really proud of our history and the shared experience, and if you haven’t been a part of it yet we look forward to meeting you soon!

Some of our wonderful family at a holiday staff party in 2013

Some of our wonderful family at a holiday staff party in 2013