Planning a Volunteer Vacation
Volunteering abroad provides a wonderful opportunity to immerse yourself in a foreign culture, learn new language skills and give something of yourself in return. Costa Rica's volunteer opportunities run the gamut in terms of length, cost and area of work. Students, adults and seniors are welcome to help in areas such as wildlife rehabilitation, sea turtle nesting, sustainable farming, orphanages, womens' cooperatives, elementary schools and rural community development. Before committing to a particular project or organization, it's important to address the following points to ensure a successful and rewarding volunteer experience.
1. Establish your time commitment. Do you want to immerse yourself in a two-month project or are you looking to squeeze in a couple of days at the end of your holiday? Knowing exactly how much time you can give will narrow down your search. Most Costa Rica volunteer programs run 2-12 weeks.
2. Match your interests and skills with the right position and agency. Take your TEFL certification to the classroom and teach English, help rehabilitate animals at a wildlife refuge, work with children in an orphanage, or hone your gardening skills on a permaculture farm.
3. How much does it cost? Read the fine print as many agencies, though reputable, have tiers of costs depending on the living arrangements, duration and time commitment. Volunteer positions can be costly undertakings, so make sure you understand what is not included in your arrangement. Most organizations include accommodations, language classes, and 2-3 meals per day. Always bring extra cash to pad your budget.
4. Research your volunteer organization thoroughly. Ask to speak with both past and current volunteers who can provide useful feedback about their experiences. Reading online reviews can be insightful as well. Make sure that an orientation is provided upon arrival and ask what type of support system the organization provides its volunteers.
5. Understand the position's terms and guidelines. Read and reread all the information about your selected position to make sure it's the right match. Are you comfortable with dormitory lodging, rustic living conditions, or limited electricity throughout the day?
6. Weather is another crucial factor to consider. Can you handle 95 F temperatures and high humidity for long periods of time? If you are particularly sensitive to the sun, you might want to pursue an opportunity in the mountains or cooler Central Valley area. Costa Rica has many micro-climates and is geographically diverse, so try and find a destination that suits your weather preferences.
7. Prepare for a dose of culture shock. If this is your first time abroad and you're volunteering in a rural area, your living arrangements may be very minimal and rustic. Learning some basic Spanish and arriving with an open mind are your best bets for easy acclimation.
8. Know your physical limits. Some projects such as wildlife rehab or sustainable farming involve moderate to heavy physical labor, while others, such as turtle tagging, require long evening hours.
9. Review your suggested packing list, but remember that most items can be purchased in country as well, so pack light. Consider investing in decent quick-dry clothing and a good pair of hiking shoes before your departure.
10. Bring a sturdy, waterproof camera. A small, point-and-shoot will serve you best when traveling or performing tasks on the job.