Costa Rica Volunteer Projects
Some people think of vacations as a time to relax, but my family enjoys traveling and volunteering when we travel. Not only are we helping, but we also have a great experience. Twice, we spent part of our summer volunteering in Costa Rica. In 2015, our focus was turtles and in 2018, we focused on birds. We gained valuable experience eating like the locals (beans and rice for every meal), sleeping on plywood bed frames with only an inch of foam between us and an active termite path, and waking up at 4:30am to net birds. Below are some of the highlights from our trips.
Monteverde Bird Research
On our trip in 2015, we met a PhD bird researcher at the University of Georgia’s satellite campus in Monteverde. When we made plans for Costa Rica in 2018, we asked him if we could help with his research. For a month, we rented a small house at the end of a long dirt road, nestled in a beautiful valley in the cloud forest. Every morning before sunrise, we opened the mist nets (very fine nets that birds cannot see), checked the nets every hour to untangle birds, and put them in cloth bags to take back to our banding station. There, we would weigh and measure the birds, put ID bands on their legs and release them. If we caught a Toucanet or a Motmot (larger tropical birds), we put a GPS tracker on their tail to track their movements for the next few days. Being awake as the tropical dawn bird chorus woke up was amazing (even if waking up early is not my thing) and the number of brightly colored and beautiful birds we encountered was incredible.
I have never been anywhere with such a cacophony of bird sounds! We spent a week volunteering at Natuwa Wildlife Preserve helping care for wild birds and mammals that had been confiscated by the Costa Rican government from the illegal pet trade. Natuwa tries to rehabilitate and release them back into the wild. With a crew of locals and volunteers from around the world, we spent our days chopping and mixing food for the animals, feeding them, cleaning cages and planting trees. The layout of the grounds was confusing. Using a GPS to record all the trails, I created a map to find my way around. The owner saw the map and asked me to use his computer and drawing tablet to create a printable copy for new volunteers.
Water, water everywhere! We arrived at Pacuare Reserve by boat through banana canals after a heavy rainstorm which had us wading to the main camp. Pacuare is a reserve working to protect sea turtles from poachers and other threats. Despite being primitive (scorpions in the bathrooms, termites under our thin mattress and not always enough food) it was a great experience. We spent nights patrolling the beach to keep poachers away and hoping to see momma leatherback turtles (nearly 7 feet long) laying eggs. Our days were spent helping researchers excavate turtle nests that didn’t hatch to assess what went wrong. One of the highlights of our week was helping to release baby turtles. We made friends with 3 inspiring researchers and I practiced Spanish with the locals who managed the reserve. Comfort-wise this was the most difficult volunteer project we have done, but that made it all the more memorable.
Butterflies, birds, snakes, caimans (related to crocodiles), scorpions, trees, scarlet macaws but no turtles. It might have been too early for turtles at Playa Tortuga but there was no shortage of wildlife. We volunteered at Playa Tortuga, a wildlife sanctuary on the Pacific cost, helping with the butterfly garden, bird surveys, caiman surveys at night, and helping a local school plant an amazing local species of tree that is becoming rare. We also built puppets to help with presentations at local schools. While we were there, we met researchers and locals and by the end of the week we knew them well enough I was crying as we sat at the bus stop on our last day.