Jumping off cliffs into pristine sea waters, getting up close and personal with sharks and stingrays, hiking up an active volcano – all memorable things.

But for Oregon High School Spanish teacher Tina Halverson, the best part of a recent school trip to Guatemala was seeing her students getting up close with their host families, and learning not only their language, but their culture.

In late June, Halverson, OHS Spanish teacher Whitney Hansen and OHS German teacher Jeff Dyer took 25 students to the Central American country for two weeks. It’s a biennial tradition for the school’s language program, which two years ago visited neighboring Costa Rica.

The trip is a privilege students have to earn as well – literally and figuratively – both covering the costs of travel and writing a paper and filling out an application to be selected to participate. What they end up with, Halverson told the Observer last week, is an unforgettable opportunity to experience another culture and make memories to last a lifetime.

The group stayed in Antigua, Guatemala, a small city of around 46,000 surrounded by volcanoes. They lodged with families who only spoke Spanish, giving them a chance to immerse themselves in the language and culture.

“As an educator, it’s amazing just to see students go and talk to these families and converse and get their point across,” she said. “You can really see their eyes light up when they are able to communicate with their families.”

During a week of travels, the group toured a coffee plantation, went zip lining, bartered in local markets, hiked an active volcano (roasting marshmallows over the hot lava) and volunteered at two schools with high poverty rates.

“Anytime the kids interacted with the other students, you could just see they were getting it,” Halverson said. “They’re having more awareness and a more global view.”

Later, they flew to the northern border of Guatemala and Belize and visited the Mayan ruins of Tikal, canoeing in the underground caves and rivers of the Maya and jumping off of cliffs into the crystal clear waters.

During the final leg of the journey, the group took a water taxi to the island of San Pedro, where they went snorkeling on the Belize barrier reef and “got up close and personal with nurse sharks, stingrays and many exotic fish,” Halverson said.

She said students have been talking about the trip during the first few weeks of school, and are “already asking where you’re going next.”.

“You can hear the buzz around the school,” Halverson said. “We’ll probably start planning for the next trip in May to give them enough heads up to earn money.”

Until then, there’s plenty of time to share the memories of a trip they will long remember, and dream about the next destination.

“The students just did such a good job of representing not only our community, but our country, and we broke down a lot of barriers, and some stigmas were kind of broken, too,” Halverson said. “It’s just a beautiful country and the people were really warm and kind, and I know that a lot of my students are going to want to return there.”

Email Unified Newspaper Group reporter Scott De Laruelle at scott.delaruelle@wcinet.com.