Volunteering is a great way to really get to know a new country. Costa Rica encompasses only 0.03 per cent of the earth’s surface, but it boasts 6 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. Volunteers come here to help protect and preserve this precious heritage.
A clan of howler monkeys walks calmly along the electrical lines at the side of the road. Excited, we stop the car to stare, but they ignore us. These are just one of four species of monkey that live in Costa Rica. Two days later we manage to see a second as we zip line through the forest canopy. Impish, white-faced capuchin monkeys provide a background chorus of screeches but scamper away before I can get my camera out.
Stories abound about the thieving activities of these pint-sized pickpockets of the Central American jungle. Capuchins will apparently even open backpacks.
Monkeys are just a small part of the wildlife in Costa Rica. This tiny country which encompasses only 0.03 per cent of the earth’s surface, boasts 6 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. Protecting that heritage has become a critical job for both the government and many non-governmental agencies who recognize the importance of this task. And it has also become the mission for hundreds of travellers who visit Costa Rica every year. These visitors are a whole new breed of tourist. They’re coming to volunteer.
At Ostional, on the Pacific coast, I meet Shami Sindayigaya, a Toronto student taking a gap year. “I wanted a change, and to see if I really wanted to do eco-management.” She has come to help with the turtle rescue program here.
Just two days earlier, Shami tells me, she watched as thousands of turtles came ashore to lay their eggs on this 13 kilometre stretch of beach. It’s an event that is repeated several times throughout the laying season and the volunteers are here to protect them as well as track the numbers.
The last arribada, as these arrivals are called, brought an estimated 278,000 turtles over six days! “It’s an awesome sight!” is the oft repeated comment from the volunteers.
“It was very exciting but we were very busy. We count turtles actually laying because many come, but not all lay eggs. And we monitor nest density,” Shami explains. “In the morning, we check activities from the previous night.”
There are currently 15 volunteers helping here, the youngest is 18 and the oldest is 65. Some stay for two weeks, others for six months, and most live with local families.They gather for meals and for relaxation, like the card game in progress when we visit.
The most common comment we hear is, “It’s a life-changing experience.”
It certainly has been for Connor Koblansky. The Tuscon, Arizona student is taking a year off after high school and his experience here has guided his future career. “Now I want to major in biology and get involved,” he says. “It’s been an incredible experience working here – cleaning beaches, collecting data, making sure everything is okay for the arribada.”
Barra Honda National Park
At nearby Barra Honda National Park, Heloise, a volunteer from France, is working with local naturalists to track bat populations in one of the 42 caves. Nature has carved these out of the soft limestone remains of ancient coral reefs, pushed upward by tectonic faults 60 million years ago and delicate and beautiful stalactites and stalagmites formations decorate the caves. Thus far, only 19 have been explored so there’s still much work to be done.
The protection provided by Barra Honda has permitted many animal species in the surrounding forest to recover from the brink of extinction. Apart from spelunking enthusiasts, volunteers are needed here to help with everything from maintaining the forest and facilities, to working with the naturalists on data collection.
Accommodation includes bunk rooms within the park as well as opportunities to stay with locals. Meals are communal and Costa Rican style with occasional North American favourites (like hamburgers). On their two days off, volunteers can visit local towns and beaches or enjoy attractions like zip-lining or boat tours.
A favourite activity is visiting the local school to work with the children, says Andrea Prendas, volunteer program coordinator. “The volunteers fall in love with this place. It’s so different than being in the city,” she explains. “You might be woken by a howler monkey. You can hear the birds, the animals, the rain on the trees. ”
As if to illustrate her point, a sudden tropical shower thunders against the roof of the dining area. From the veranda, we can hear it splashing on the forest leaves. It’s a heavy downpour but it lasts only a short time, leaving the air refreshed, scented with earth and vegetation.
“We’ve had volunteers who have never touched a shovel, but it’s an experience and they love it,” she adds. “Many contact us and come back several times. And they send us letters asking about the kids at the school.”
FYI Want a sustainable holiday in a unique hotel in Costa Rica? Visit Macaw Lodge.
Volunteering has become big business. There are many agencies offering volunteer opportunities but it’s important to vet these carefully. According to Prendas, many agencies charge $3000 or more for a single week’s volunteer experience (airfare not included), but when I visited Barra Honda was paid just $16 per night to house and feed these volunteers.
A few volunteers at Ostional are here with Volunteer Base Camp (VBC). David Morrison began VBC because of his own bad experience volunteering in Nepal. They charge $250 to register and $620 for all in-country costs and programs, including some basic language training where required.
The cost of transportation to the country and visas are not included with most volunteer agencies, though some include medical and travel insurance (VBC does not). Transportation to and from the airport is often included. In-country support and some training for longer term volunteers is usually part of the package.
Another option in Costa Rica is Fundecodes, the local non-profit agency that promotes the culture of sustainable rural development in the Nicoya Peninsula. Prendas suggests those interested in volunteering at Ostional or Barra Honda contact Fundecodes directly.
Costa Rica information: A good starting place is www.visitcostarica.com
Fundecodes: For project and volunteer information: www.fundecodes.org
Volunteer Base Camp: www.volunteerbasecamp.com