My Experience in Costa Rica for 6 weeks while Volunteering

I came to Costa Rica with no expectations but left as a completely different person. I had heard the entire buzz surrounding volunteering in other countries on how “life changing” the experiences are but I really had no idea what I was getting in to. I came across the company International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ).  The pricing is extremely low cost. The fees include accommodation, meals (breakfast & dinner), transfer to and from the airport and program related fees. It also includes discounts on language lessons, flights and travel insurance (which is essential).

My flight was about $400 round trip from San Francisco. I use Skyscanner or Skiplagged for most of my flights.

Upon preparing for my trip, I did not receive any shots because I didn’t plan to travel outside the touristy areas and to any remote locations. However, if you plan to go off the beaten path, it is better to be safe than sorry. Zika Virus was huge in Costa Rica when I went but despite my millions of mosquito bites I received, I came back Zika-free. Save money on a visa as they are not necessary in Costa Rica since volunteering is considered tourism. If you want to volunteer in Costa Rica, it is much cheaper than visiting. Costa Rica actually means “Rich Coast.” It is not cheap! Prices are around the same as USA prices. Volunteering gives you the opportunity to practically live in Costa Rica for less than $2,000, which includes flight, accommodation and the program itself.

My bags were packed and I was ready to go. As I mentioned before I was a completely different before the trip. I was a complete princess. My bags for 6 weeks were way over packed. I ended up having to pay $80 each way for my bag because it was so overweight. Man have I changed since then! My original plan was to go with one of my best friends. However, I received a devastating call as she landed in Central America that she would not be joining me any longer because her uncle just passed away. My heart broke for her and I suddenly realized that I would be in Costa Rica by myself. I had never traveled solo to another country at that time and was scared of the unknown. I even contemplated cancelling the whole thing but something called me to that Pura Vida lifestyle. Pura Vida is a Costa Rican term for “pure” or “simple life.” Also, on a side note, people that live in Costa Rica refer to themselves as “ticos” and not Costa As I arrived to the beautiful Costa Rica, I was picked up by a IVHQ representative and dropped off at my host home. At first, I felt so out of place. I actually cried that night as looked up at the ceiling, thinking to myself, “What did I get myself in to?” I was young and afraid of the unknown. I was afraid of being pushed out of my comfort zone. I’m a very organized person that has to have things in order. I had a set way of how I wanted my personal space to be and this host home was just not it. I woke up the next morning and was greeted by my loving host mom. She didn’t speak a lick of English and is possibly one of the most sweetest souls I’ve ever encountered. She would make the same breakfast everyday of gallo pinto, which is beans and rice, some sort of fruit and bread with jam. She would pray over me every day before I left for my project. The first couple weeks I grew bored of the food but little did I know that I would later crave that breakfast once I returned home. The food in Costa Rica was so unprocessed that it was hard to adjust to the food back in America after eating such whole food.

The first few days consisted of orientation and training. I signed up for a Spanish course and would go to Spanish class each day for two hours and then head to my project. My first project was to teach English in a landfilled slum. A representative showed me how to get there. I had to take a series of buses to my project that took a little over an hour each way. At first I didn’t pay much attention on how to get there. I didn’t know how to get around. Even in my small hometown, I used GPS to get anywhere. I would just ride with the other two volunteers who had the same project. It was all fine and dandy until they finished their project and I had to go to the project site by myself. I remember the first time I had to completely rely on myself to get to the project. I’ll admit that I got lost and about had a breakdown. It is crazy to think how much we depend on GPS and you don’t even realize it until it’s gone. There were a couple times I didn’t get off the bus at the right moment but I eventually learned the route. I owe all of my direction skills to this trip. It forced me to become far more aware of my surroundings. Adventures are the best way to learn.

Adventures are the best way to learn.

My project changed my life. My project site was located in a family’s concrete home near a landfill. I taught English to all ages including adult refugees from Nicaragua. Every day they would offer me candies or little gifts. I was shocked on how generous they were despite the fact that they did not have much to give. On their table held a sign of something I’ll never forget. It said something along the lines of how grateful they were and how much God has blessed them. How could that be? They lived in the trash. Here I am complaining about how I broke my nail or that I put too much in to my suitcase and these people are GRATEFUL. I was never the same ever again. Things I stressed about seemed miniscule and not worth my time. I had an attitude of gratitude after that day.

I began to get tired of the long commute to my job. I also often showed up at my project site after the long commute to find that no one came to my class. I asked IVHQ if I could switch projects and they let me. I worked for the rest of the two weeks in an orphanage. I’m not a huge kid person but I’m a sucker for babies. It was really sad to see the children that were in the orphanage for a long time. This one little girl had been there the longest. On adoption day for a separate child, the orphanage had an ice cream party. The little girl got all dressed up and acted on her best behavior for the parents that were coming in to adopt the other child. She kept calling the parents “mommy and daddy.” Finally, when they left with the other child, she bawled at the top of her lungs. It was heartbreaking.

There was also this baby named Santiago. He was the sweetest, most quiet baby in the orphanage. He’d look up at me with these big brown eyes as I pushed him in his swing. Tears streamed down my face as I asked him, “how could anybody not want you?” I often think of that baby Santiago and wonder where he is now.

My project was Monday-Thursday so I had nights and weekends to explore. I would often go to local clubs/bars with fellow volunteers during the week. Disclaimer * Be careful of Uber here. I once got in to an Uber and stated my name. The driver nodded and kept driving. My fellow volunteer friend ran after me and pulled open the door and pulled me out of the Uber screaming “This is not an Uber!” Who knows what that man would have attempted to do if I would have stayed in there.

When I wasn’t out with volunteers, I would travel to other parts of the country on the weekends. Most of the destinations on other side of the country are accessible by bus. Buses run cheap. The longest bus ride I took was 5 hours long. Make sure you keep your return ticket or you will have to buy a new one. I learned this the hard way….

Manuel Antonio is a beautiful place to hike, spend time on the water and to explore. Make sure you snag a coconut freshly chopped from the tree with a splash of rum in it! You literally get to pick which coconut you want from the tree. If you hike, be careful that you keep your belongings zipped in to your backpack because monkeys are aggressive and will try to steal your stuff!

Also, as a rule of thumb for travel ALWAYS keep extra credit cards and a picture of your passport & ID back at your hotel. I also learned this the hard way. I spent one magical evening skinny dipping and swimming in the ocean under the stars in the warm water of Manuel Antonio. I felt so blissful in that moment, looking up at the stars while the waves pushed me back and forth. As I got out of the water, I realized the tide had come up and took my credit card with it. My phone was thankfully still in the sand but unfortunately, the screen was completely water damaged.

I wasn’t planning on returning back to my host home until Sunday. For the rest of the days there, I literally had to eat bananas off the tree and bum money from my volunteer friends. Although, I swore I would pay them back, they were not happy about having to spot me and it made me feel uncomfortable to ask to help pay for meals. When I finally got back to San Jose, I had to print out directions to a local phone repair to fix my phone. I stumbled upon a random house. The man fixed my phone within an hour for $160. I had to have a friend wire me money. I had another credit card back at my host home but I could not pull cash from it. I didn’t even bother to ask my parents. I didn’t want to worry them or to have them think I wasn’t responsible.
Another must in Costa Rica is to bungee jump at Monteverde. It is a plunging jump of 143 meters. In my opinion, bungee jumping is 100x harder than sky diving because you actually have to force yourself to jump. I almost chickened out but the guide actually gave me that push I needed (LITERALLY). I screamed as I fell towards the rainforest trees. I could hear monkeys crying in the distance. Tears streamed down my face as I shouted out loud “Thank you! Thank you God and the universe for giving me this experience.” That experience brought so much joy and gratitude in to my life.

SOME OTHER DESTINATIONS I VISITED INCLUDE:

Poas Volcano is an active volcano with a breathtaking view. It is easily accessible to get to.

poas volcano

 

Arenal Hanging Tree Bridges: It is $25 to explore the bridges at your leisure.

Santa Teresa – hands down the prettiest beach I saw in Costa Rica. The town is picturesque and has crystal blue water. We stayed in the cutest Airbnb here.

Jaco Beach – Although most people visit here, I would recommend that you save your time for other beaches. Jaco is more of a party town and the beaches are not very clean.

Arenal Volcano – A must see. You can actually hike to the inside of the volcano. I stayed at Costa Rica Backpackers, which has an awesome resort style pool that makes you forget that it is a hostel.

Territorio de Zaguates, the Land of the Strays – A wild experience of hundreds of stray dogs that live on a mountain. It is a non-profit organization built of volunteers who help take care of the dogs. You actually get to go on a hike for free with the dogs. It is a spectacular experience! As of 2019 it is closed to the public but is expected to reopen in 2020.

Puerto Viejo – Explore the Caribbean side of Costa Rica! This side of the country will make you feel like you’re in a rasta town.

The lifestyle of Costa Rica is very laid back and very welcoming. In fact, they do not have a military. They live for tourists. Most of the people that I met live on the beach or near it. They make most of their income from selling excursions or knick knacks. It truly amazed me how these people lived such a carefree lifestyle. It made me think that if all else fails, I could come to Costa Rica to do the same.

I left Costa Rica with a full heart and a changed mind. I will value the lessons I learned and will hold on to them forever. If you are debating on volunteering here, I highly recommend it. It is safe, beautiful and will leave a lasting impact.

 

Would you rather experience tours in Costa Rica with a local guide? Check out Contiki! Contiki is a different way to see the world, with expert local guides and new friends to share it all with. Come solo, with friends or a partner – leave with memories that’ll stay with you forever.

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