10 Things You Should Know Before Volunteering Abroad in Costa Rica

by Laura Jelich
Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio National Park

As the eco and adventure-tourism capital of Central America, choosing to volunteer in Costa Rica will be a decision you won’t regret. Beating out its six neighbors for the titles of most peaceful and highest literacy rate in all of Central America, not to mention hosting over five percent of the world’s biodiversity with 801 miles of coastline and over 121 volcanic formations, there are countless volunteer opportunities in Costa Rica to choose from.

But before you take off to volunteer in Costa Rica, whether saving sea turtles, gaining medical field experience, or working to improve the lives of children, there are a few things you should know:

1. “Pura vida” is an appropriate response to anything.

Literally translated as “pure life”, the use of this phrase can often be compared to the Lion King’s “hakuna matata” ideal in the way it reflects a “no worries” or “all is good” attitude. Pura vida means living each day to the fullest, being thankful for what you have, and not letting insignificant stressors get the best of you. Ticos (native Costa Ricans) embody pura vida to the core, which volunteers will notice immediately in their laid-back, friendly, and genuinely happy demeanor.

Not only is pura vida a way of life, but it is also a phrase volunteers will hear used often in everyday conversation. Pura vida can be used as a greeting, in response to the question “¿Cómo estás?” (How are you?), or as an exclamation. It won’t be long before volunteers find themselves adding this catchy little phrase to their own vocabulary!

2. It rains. A lot.

The tropical weather in Costa Rica follows two seasons: wet (winter) and dry (summer), and it is almost always humid. The dry season lasts from December to April (though “less wet” may have been a better season name), with the rainfall picking up in May and lasting through November. Individuals volunteering in Costa Rica during this time will want to invest in a quality raincoat and pack cover. Luckily, the bright and cheery personalities of Costa Rica’s people can cast away any rainy days blues!

While the country’s average rainfall lands around 100 inches over an average of 170 days per year, it varies from one location to the next (as does the geography), with mountainous regions often getting as much as 25 feet! Although the rainy season storms bring the best surfing swells, flooding is a very real hindrance to transportation. Rural roads can become impassable, making it essential to either plan ahead or embrace pura vida and make the best out of any situation.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica

La Paz Waterfall Gardens

3. You will learn to love rice and beans.

There is never a bad time for rice and black beans. A country staple, this A-list combo plays a part or featuring role in Costa Rican most dishes. Gallo pinto is the breakfast version, and it is considered to be the national dish, consisting of rice and beans mixed with spices and veggies, and most often including onions, peppers, and cilantro. It was given its name as a result of the multi-colored blend of ingredients, similar to a “spotted rooster”, for which it is named.

The good news for volunteers is that not only is gallo pinto extremely tasty, and surprising difficult to get sick of, it makes life easy for vegans volunteering abroad in Costa Rica and is a reliable option in any situation. Additionally, it provides the protein and nutrients needed to complete a long days work volunteering in Costa Rica, a truly peaceful paradise.

4. Sea turtles are a big deal.

No matter where you volunteer abroad in Costa Rica, it is important to be aware of plight of sea turtles and your own personal impact. Those volunteering in Costa Rica in sea turtle conservation on the coast will experience a more direct relationship with the turtle populations, but those volunteering inland should also take precaution when choosing what to eat or purchase as souvenirs.

Taking into account the alarming pace global sea turtle populations are declining, their extremely slow reproductive rates, and their already slim chance at reaching adulthood (one in 5,000), extinction is a very real threat. Since poachers are the most direct (and preventable) threat, eating or purchasing souvenirs made from any part of a turtle or their eggs is not only extremely unethical, but in most cases also illegal.

In 1959, as the green turtle population neared extinction, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) was established. Originally constructed in partnership with the Costa Rican government to study and protect green sea turtles in the Caribbean, the CCC has since grown to include sustainable solutions that benefit both the turtles and the Ticos in order to not interfere with the customs and income of locals. Some tips volunteers can follow to give sea turtles a fighting chance include:

  • Do not support illegal sea turtle poaching by eating or purchasing turtle parts or eggs
  • Do not disturb or make sudden, loud movements near nesting turtles
  • Do not use bright lights on nesting beaches at night (including camera flashes)

It is worth mentioning that turtles are not the only conservation buzz-word in Costa Rica. With greater biodiversity than Europe and the U.S. combined, Ticos are very proud and passionate about preserving their pristine ecosystem. Since over one-third of Costa Rica makes up protected environment, volunteers should take extra care to travel sustainably and respect local laws.

5. You will get used to living on “Tico Time”.

Along with the laid-back vibe of Central American culture comes the lack of emphasis on punctuality. “Tico time” is often used to refer to the realistic timeframe schedules run on, which is always later-than-whatever-was-originally-planned. While some volunteers used to chronic promptness may be frustrated at first, they may also find out it is kind of nice not stressing about things outside their control like rides running late. That being said, it is still always best and most professional to be on time whenever it is within your control.

Boats docked in a beach in Costa Rica

6. Sodas are not just for drinking.

If you like eating ethnic foods, directly supporting the local community, and getting a tasty and filling meal for rock-bottom prices, you will love eating at a Soda Tipico. These small, hole-in-the-wall eateries can usually be recognized by a Pepsi or Imperial sign out front, and often serve their traditional Costa Rican dishes buffet style, giving customers several different options to choose from.

The most common Costa Rican dish, the casado, includes your choice of meat alongside abundant amounts of rice and beans (shocker), veggies, some sort of salad, and fried plantains. A typical vegetarian option includes substituting fresh cheese or eggs for the meat.

7. If there is one time to be early, it is to catch a bus.

Buses are cheap, convenient, and surprisingly timely (most of the time). The nicer, local buses operate mainly within larger urban and outlying suburban areas. If venturing further outside the city however, the closer you get to the more rural destinations, the more rugged the bus will be as well. Don’t be surprised if your bus lacks air conditioning and comfy seating!

Since many Ticos hold jobs in the city but live in the surrounding areas, it is not uncommon for there to be a long line of passengers waiting to board a bus (usually the longer the distance it travels away, the more people it needs to carry) at the end of a long days work. So unless you enjoy standing on a sweaty, bumpy bus ride, plan to arrive a bit early. Pro-tip: bring dramamine.


8. You'll need a daypack.

Oftentimes, you will end up taking a bus to your volunteer placement in Costa Rica each day, whether working with children in San José or spending hours on the beach doing excavation digs if on a turtle conservation project. In either case, you will think just how convenient it would have been if you had thought to bring a smaller pack in addition to your giant suitcase or backpacking bag that currently holds absolutely all your stuff (most of which you probably didn’t need anyway).

Costa Rica is pretty small (comparable to West Virginia) making in-country exploration relatively cheap and easy for volunteer, but difficult without a way to carry snacks and supplies. San Jose is the most popular location for volunteering in Costa Rica, and serves as an ideal jump-off spot since its central location puts it no further than a nine hour drive from anywhere else in Costa Rica. Volunteers placed outside city limits will also not lack for adventure and will enjoy exploring secret waterfalls, rocky hideaways, and neighboring beaches with their new tico and volunteer friends on weekends off.

9. Mosquitos are no joke.

Mosquito bites will happen while volunteering abroad in Costa Rica, but they don’t have to be a trip downer. Since Dengue Fever is transmitted by mosquitoes, and there is currently no vaccination against it (and mosquito bites are just plain unpleasant), taking preventative measures is key. Volunteers can be prepared by packing light but covering clothing, such as long sleeves, long pants, and shoes as opposed to sandals. A good insect repellent containing DEET will prove a worthwhile investment, and bug nets to hang over bunks may be beneficial for volunteers in some rural destinations. Generally, your volunteer program provider will let you know if nets are necessary or you will be in area of the country where Malaria vaccinations are recommended.

10. You will never want to leave.

Even if you somehow miss the only bus stop on the only (20-mile long) road that leads to Samara, carrying all of your belongings (and possibly some of your ill-prepared friends) across muddy rivers that used to be roads, you will enjoy every second of it. And you will never be the same after volunteering abroad in Costa Rica.

The Ticos are definitely on to something, and the pura vida life is something you don’t have to and probably won’t be able to leave behind you when you return home. It doesn’t mean you always have to be late, or eat rice and beans for every meal, or even add sunscreen and bug spray application to your daily morning ritual. But, figuring out how to enjoy each moment and not let insignificant things stress you out, is a lesson worth hanging onto.