Not Your Average First Day of Class

a couple of years ago

First days can suck. You finally get to your new school, job, semester, and find yourself sitting through seemingly endless orientation stuff.

Systems and protocols. History and hierarchies. Cautionary tales about that one student who tried to buy weed from an undercover cop and had to sit in a Panama holding cell for 2 days. (#FreeMartin2015.)

We do need some orientation. We’re in the jungle, remember?  Off-grid, solar powered, insane biodiversity. We’re drenched in sun and rain, surrounded by all things dangerous and beautiful. There are things to be covered here. Don’t cross the river when it’s raging. Here’s how the water system works. Don’t mess with the Wandering Spider, but this Rainbow Boa is fine…

Sebastian, our Design Thinking instructor, is gifted this shirt for being bitten by a snake after someone ensured him, “This snake doesn’t bite.”


Even with onboarding, the first day at Kalu Yala is still pretty wild. An intense mountain hike, a parade of new people, a town to understand and a jungle to explore. We want to walk you through a typical first day at Kalu Yala.  If this sounds like your kind of place, consider studying abroad with us.

The Hike.

Almost 5 miles up, and then down, a rocky red-clay mountain, the hike into Kalu Yala is rough. It’s also a rite of passage for students, who are expected to hike for most of their departures and returns to the Kalu Yala valley.

What’s cool about the hike is charting your physical and mental progression over the semester. Your first hike, you struggle. Your last hike, you triumph.

You scale summits in one go that required 3 stops a month prior. You take steps mindfully, noting the leaf-cutter ants and judgemental cows. You trade pleasantries in Spanish with a passing campesino, and you’re almost sure what was actually said. You bond with new friends in nature, without WIFI. You stand against backdrops of mountain grandeur, and take photos to upload later when you get WIFI again. You get weird calf muscles you’ve never had before.

Love the hike or hate it, few can deny its impact.


The Property Tour

For these students, “home” for the next 10 weeks is a young eco-village in the Panama jungle. The town sits on about 5 acres of rehabilitated cattle land, formally stripped of its nutrients from years of overuse. Since its inception in 2010, Kalu Yala has been planting, rehabilitating, and building– figuring out how to create a socially and environmentally responsible town.

Today, the ecosystem is thriving. The town is growing too, and each semester brings a new wave of additions and improvements. Poke through the photos below to get to know the place. For a more thorough walkthrough, check out the Kalu Yala property tour.


 Jimmy’s Talk

We’re figuring out how to build a town based on social and ecological capitalism. How do you do that? One: It must be founded on education; that’s why we have the research institute, that’s why every town we build or help redevelop will start with a research institute campus.

Jimmy Stice is Kalu Yala’s founder and CEO. He’s sitting in that photo below because he’s actually a pretty chill guy– a self-proclaimed introvert who balks at the idea of public speaking and prefers candid discussions to grandiose speeches. Jimmy kicks off each semester with an uncensored, big picture view of Kalu Yala. He talks about the company’s origins, values, business model, and its mission. Students and staff are invited to ask questions and drill deeper into any aspect of the company or institute. In Jimmy’s words, “No topic is off limits.”

A self-described introvert, Jimmy prefers to sit and converse with students over giving a grandiose speech.

Amongst other topics, Jimmy and students discussed Kalu Yala’s mission as a town-building startup, budgetary breakdowns, growth projections, and the institute’s role within the Kalu Yala framework. He also encouraged students and staff to sign up for weekly “dine with Jimmy” dinners hosted at Nueva Vista, Kalu Yala’s gourmet farm-to-table restaurant. Besides being awesome, these dinners give students a chance to connect and share ideas with Jimmy and other company leaders.

Jimmy hosts weekly “fine dining” dinners at Kalu Yala where students are invited to ask questions and explore topics about the institute and company.

The institute helps us keep our compass pointed to its True North. Students don’t care about investors or our profits, they care about the mission– they keep us accountable. They also produce amazing research and projects that help us to build this place.


You’ll never eat better than you do at Kalu Yala. Fresh farm-to-table ingredients. Creative and diverse meals. Omnivore, vegan, gluten-free options. And of course, everything tastes amazing. I honestly don’t know how the kitchen team does it.

Lunch is always entertaining the first day. Probably because 1. the students are strangely impressed at the food, as though they were expecting spam and goldfish crackers and 2. lunch is when the new community first comes together and begins that weird and beautiful dance that is human bonding. From this day and throughout the semester, some of the best conversations are had at meal times.


Introduction to Panama

Can a group of students living in the jungle have an authentic cross-cultural experience? Kalu Yala thinks so– if efforts are made to incorporate that culture into curriculum and everyday life.

Currently, the main operation at Kalu Yala is a study abroad program. Since that gives the community a relatively young population, Kalu Yala is intentional about facilitating cultural immersion and awareness.


On this first day, Luis Guillen, our Director of Research and Panamanian Partnerships, delivered the first in a series of talks on Panama history, culture, and its modern global context. Panamanian staff members, from directors and leadership to farm and construction crew, discussed their perspectives and experience.

Obviously, cultural fluidity is something cultivated over time. We don’t claim to instill students with all the aptitude of active global citizens on day 1, but hey, it’s a start.

After the talk, students have a foundational understanding of the cultural, historical, and political environment in which we operate. From there on, the onus is on students to incorporate cultural immersion into their experience– whether through the Spanish classes, home-stays, workshops, and field trips offered by Kalu Yala or by seeking out cultural immersion on their own terms.

Sustainability at Kalu Yala

Have you ever stayed awake at night thinking about your– or society’s– ecological footprint? If yes, you should stay up late with Clare Bassi, our Sustainability Director.

Clare’s job is to assess our ecological impact at Kalu Yala– everything from resource consumption and waste output to our impact on the land and people living around us. What better person, then, to deliver an informative, only-somewhat-terrifying seminar on sustainability at Kalu Yala, and the role each of us plays within it?

“We can confidently state we live with less than 1/10 of the footprint of an average American.”

Clare walked students through our current sustainability measures at Kalu Yala, our goals, and our areas of improvement. Students learned how sustainability is measured at Kalu Yala and actions they can take to reduce their individual footprints. Clare also challenged students to think critically about possible solutions and improvements to everyday processes, not just at Kalu Yala but wherever they go.

One hour and a tangle of takeaways later, Clare concluded her talk with a quote from David Orr, a celebrated environmental science professor and journalist:

Apply now  to study abroad at Kalu Yala. Or…