17 Kalu Yala Problems You Should Know About Before Applying

a couple of years ago

Hey, Kalu Yala never claimed to be perfect. In a community of students and entrepreneurs building a sustainable town in the jungle, a lot can go wrong.

We asked students about the most common Kalu Yala problems. Here’s what we learned. If these sound like problems you can handle, consider applying to study abroad at Kalu Yala. 


17 Kalu Yala Problems You Should Know About Before Applying


1. “I am completely exhausted.”

Physical, mental, and social exhaustion. Three common Kalu Yala problems. Living in the jungle, hiking through mountains, hopping buses between cities, hauling an oversized backpack. When you’re not moving, you’re probably learning–  engaging in lectures and workshops, or working on projects that promote sustainable living. Throughout it all, you’re surrounded by a close community of students and entrepreneurs–  having great conversation, exchanging ideas, and deepening friendships. Between the constant physical, mental, and social output, occasional exhaustion is inevitable.



2. “Everything I own is disgusting.”

You know when socks get so thick with dirt and sweat they begin to feel like cardboard? You will soon enough. Spend enough time in the jungle, and your laundry will pretty much host its own ecosystem. You can always hit a laundromat in Panama City over the weekend– in the meantime, get used to hand-washing undies with Dr. Bronners.



3. “I would kill to charge my iPhone.”

It’s not like you’re going to call anyone, but you’d really like to download the latest Drake album. Problem is, this place is running entirely off solar energy.  Power consumption is set around the sun’s schedule– no charging at night and, if it’s been a rainy few days, there might be a hold on “non-essential” charging. Pro tip: bring a hand-held solar charging device. Friends will bribe you with treats to use it.



4. “I can’t find this material.”

Students deliver projects and research that explore solutions for sustainable living. Kalu Yala supports these projects, providing instruction, funding, and help procuring materials. Here’s the catch– everything must satisfy the triple bottom line (see below). Materials and resources must be brought to market in a socially and ecologically responsible way. It also has to be affordable, and able to be found in the region within a project’s timeline. High standards might complicate things, but it equips students with creative and conscientious problem-solving abilities that will aid them in any pursuit.



kalu yala business program vinny

5. That triple bottom line.

Kalu Yala uses the “triple bottom line” system to measure financial, social and environmental performance. All projects and ideas pursued at Kalu Yala– including student projects– must satisfy the TBL. As you can imagine, it’s not easy. The TBL requires you to think beyond the confines of traditional business, and engineer a framework with social, environmental, and economic profit. While it’s a hell of an obstacle, the TBL is a marker of how sustainable a project, company, or movement can be. If you can use TBL to solve Kalu Yala problems, you can solve anything.



6. “I don’t speak Spanish.”

Panama is a Spanish-speaking country. You can usually find someone who speaks English in Panama City or the many tourist hotspots. Out in el campo, though, hablas español. While the Kalu Yala Institute is English-language, you’ll hear– and use– Spanish a lot during your time in Panama. Whether you’re navigating the country, tracking down materials for your project, or trying to order a drink on your weekends in the city, you’ll get at least the basics down during your semester. Kalu Yala offers weekly Spanish classes anyway, so there’s really no excuse.



7.“I am a jungle zombie.”

You’re a palette of wounds. Blisters rubbed raw from hiking, bug bites you keep scratching, hands cut from rock climbing at the Paradise Hole swimming spot. Because you’re living in the jungle, scrapes don’t so much heal as they do fashion themselves to your body – tiny red badges of honor. But don’t stress. You’ll marvel at how quickly you shrug these scrapes off as routine life in the jungle, and watch in fascination as they stitch themselves together on your next city visit.



8. “I don’t know what I look like anymore.”

Speaking of civilization, expect to be fascinated by the mirror when you get back. While we have mirrors in the valley, generally you can’t be bothered to use it. You feel at home– comfortable with who you are, and the people around you. Some days you may feel like dressing up, and that’s cool too. Usually, you won’t give it a second thought. Too comfortable in your skin and entertained by life. When you do glance in the mirror, you might not immediately recognize the person staring back- whether a stronger, more confident, or just more peaceful version of you.



kalu yala problems students leaving

9. “Some people leave.”

Kalu Yala is not for everyone. Whether due to the problems on this list or personal, medical, or family issues, about 2.5% of Kalu Yalan students drop out of the Institute each semester, compared to the industry standard of 5%. No, it’s not quite as dramatic as you might have seen on Jungletown, the VICELAND docu-series that premiered in 2017. Most students who leave do so for health or family reasons, or because they’re not digging the jungle lifestyle. It always sucks when someone you care about moves on, but you’ll see them again. Kalu Yalans are friends for life.



10. “I woke up to someone’s foot.”

It’s like a dormitory in the jungle. Student housing consists of open-air ranches, where students sleep on air mattresses above or hammocks below. The space is funky and intimate; you swear you’ll go crazy at first. But by the semester’s end, you wouldn’t trade those hilarious nights and mornings for the world. See more student housing pics in the Kalu Yala property tour.



11. “I got impossibly lost/sunburnt/left my camera in a hostel during Inspiration Week”

Every semester, students get one week off to travel in Panama. We call it Inspiration Week, because it’s all about seeking inspiration for sustainable living through the cultures and nature we encounter. It’s also about letting loose in Panama, an incredibly cool and beautiful country with islands, mountains, and nightlife to explore. While Panama is one of the safest countries in Latin America, if you let a semester of students loose anywhere you’re bound to have some misadventures. Students return from their odyssey with countless tales of trials and setback, and everyone is stoked on sharing them.



12. “I feel out of my league.”

When thrust into a community of bright and passionate people, it’s natural to feel unexceptional. “Imposter syndrome” is a term that gets thrown around a lot here, usually with a nervous laugh and group-wide agreement. The discomfort is real, but it pushes you outward into exploring yourself and your abilities. Soon, you’ll find yourself speaking out more and feeling confident in groups and presentations. By the end of the semester, students smile at the anxiety they once had.



13. “I’m broke.”

Kalu Yala isn’t free. Like most study abroad programs, there’s a tuition to cover instruction, room and board, and project materials. Some students pay their own way, while others get help from their school, parents, or a combination. Luckily, Kalu Yala Institute has a more affordable tuition than most study abroad programs. When compared to nine study abroad and internship programs, Kalu Yala is on average $495 less expensive per week. Besides, you get 3 great meals a day in the valley, and there’s not much to spend money on in the jungle. If you have to be broke somewhere, it’s a damn fine place.



14. “I want to upcycle everything.”

Good luck throwing away anything again. After Kalu Yala, you’ll be forever on the lookout for ways to repurpose the materials around you. You get creative living in the jungle. You have to, unless you want to hike to civilization every time you need something. And with so many cool creations happening around you, it becomes second nature to look at something and think “What could this be?”



15. “You’ve ruined fast food.”

Truthfully, we get a lot of healthy eaters at Kalu Yala– organic, free range, vegetarians and/or gluten-free types. We get a lot of omnivores too, and those with your typical “college kid” diets– fast food and microwave pizza. From the latter crowd, we get some playful resentment as they find themselves– against their best intentions– coming to the “dark side” (or green side) of food. Who knew healthy, farm-to-table meals could be so delicious? It’s hard to go back to an unhealthy, unconscious diet after a semester of mouth-watering and ethical meals.


Panama rainforest jungle

16. “I can pee anywhere.”

Take full advantage of some Kalu Yala problems– they won’t last forever. This one isn’t actually a problem until you leave the valley and it’s no longer the case. Yes, we have bathrooms in the jungle. Flushable, modern toilets, if you must know. But they’re just so far sometimes. Nature’s always close, and you happen to live in a community where it’s socially acceptable to walk 10 feet away and squat by a banana tree. The next time you need to pee badly in public, you’ll be missing Kalu Yala’s lax urination laws.



17. “I don’t want to leave.”

The most inevitable of Kalu Yala problems. Your 10 weeks at Kalu Yala will pass, feeling at times like its crawling and other times flying by. Though your path ahead might excite you, it’ll always be hard saying goodbye. Luckily, Kalu Yalans are Kalu Yalans for life– able and encouraged to visit any time in the future. And for those who really can’t bear to leave– about 15% of students each semester become staff members or start businesses at Kalu Yala.


Can you handle these Kalu Yala problems?

Apply to study abroad at Kalu Yala, or download the program guide.