Whether your version of Pura Vida includes surfing or scaling mountains, howler monkeys or hummingbirds, coffee or cocoa, camping or canyoning -- alright, you get our point -- well, you'll find it here in Costa Rica. A worldwide leader in ecotourism, Costa Rica is known for its rich biodiversity, myriad ecosystems, and not to mention its warm and welcoming people.
While this incredible environmental richness is a national treasure, it also brings with it some interesting social and economic challenges, such as an increasing percentage of regional immigration. Costa Rica's reputation for social stability, along with its free education and universal healthcare, has drawn the attention of international trading partners, as well as immigrants from other Central American countries seeking better lives. As the economy changes, so do traditional social structures, which abandon vulnerable populations and leave them little access to healthcare, education, or social services.
- Costa Rica
What You Get For The Fee -
Professional staff of local nationals, lodging, language lessons, personalized volunteer assignment, meals, local phone calls and international incoming phone service, comprehensive travel medical insurance, a toll-free emergency hotline to the U.S., ground transportation, free online language lessons prior to departure, in-country cultural activities.
I learned the true meaning of "Pura Vida"11/10/2014How could this program be improved?
I would not change anything about this program accept for the possibility of lowering the cost as it is a bit high compared to some of the other volunteer organizations I had researched. Although it was worth every penny, I struggled to save and fund raise for my program fee.
Why did you decide to enroll with Cross Cultural Solutions in Costa Rica?
Alyssa: I decided to enroll with Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) in Costa Rica because I had completed a service trip a year prior through YUDA Bands, and I wanted to make an impact again.
Through very thorough research, I found that CCS offered everything I was looking for in a service abroad program. It was flexible in timing, which was necessary as I am a student.
They were also very helpful in funding my trip, with fundraising tips, extending my deadlines, and offering me a scholarship. Most importantly, CCS was safe and reputable, which was significant to me as a teenage girl traveling abroad alone.
Do you feel like you made a significant impact on the local community? Why or why not?
Alyssa: I was only able to stay in Costa Rica for a week, so I doubt my efforts in that short of a time made a lasting impact on the school and students I volunteered with.
However, I know that each day that I spent at that school made a difference in those teachers and students' days, which I think is still significant. Those teachers were highly understaffed and discouraged from not being able to spend enough time with each student.
During my time there, I was able to work on fixing the school gates, a job the teachers would've had to do on their own time, which gave them more time to teach their students. I was able to spend extra time focusing on a troubled student so the teacher could spend tend to the rest of the class.
I was able to keep the kids entertained at recess so the teachers could have a moment to breathe. I know these things made their lives a little easier that day, and the students' school day a little more meaningful. I believe that is significant.
What did you wish you knew before going to Costa Rica?
Alyssa: I felt very well prepared going to Costa Rica.
CCS has their volunteers go through several training sessions that cover the basis of everything you need to know, from the program specificities to the Costa Rican culture and volunteer placements.
They even have you virtually meet other volunteers traveling at the same time as you. Your Program Site Specialist quickly answered any question you may have had before your trip.
I also found that the program was very transparent about everything you should expect from them and the country.
Because I had traveled to Guatemala the year before, I felt comfortable with the language, transportation system, and other cultural aspects of Costa Rica.
There isn't anything that stands out to me that I wish I had known before taking my trip.
Tell me about one person you met.
Alyssa: Traveling alone to Costa Rica, I was very unsure about the people I would meet while I was there, going in with low expectations.
However, as I waited at the airport for the other volunteers to arrive, I found that I connected quickly with four other volunteers who were girls around my age. They came from California, Texas, New Jersey, and Delaware.
We became close almost instantly. It's amazing how a foreign experience can bond complete strangers. Throughout our trip, we volunteered together, explored together, shared stories, and took excursions together.
I learned so much from those girls in such a short amount of time. I found how easy it is to befriend others who have the common passion of volunteer abroad. I still keep in touch with some of them, but even those who I don't, I will never forget.
There is an indescribable value in forming connections with people from different parts of the world with entirely different backgrounds in the name of a positive cause; it is a lesson I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
What was the best moment of the entire trip?
Alyssa: The best moment of the entire trip was my first day volunteering at the elementary school. I had a few butterflies in my stomach before hopping out of the van, not sure if I had what it took to make an impact at this elementary school.
We arrived just in time for recess, and right away a sweet little boy in Kindergarten ran up to me with no reservations, grabbed my hand, and pulled me along for an adventure. The rest of the week he was attached at my hip, ordering me to give him piggyback rides and insisting that I admire the cool leaves he picked from the tree.
In class, I got to teach him English and during recess he helped me (somewhat impatiently) with my Spanish. We brought each other so much joy throughout that week, and for me, it will always come back to that initial moment when he grabbed my hand.
What led you to choose Cross-Cultural Solutions' program in Costa Rica?
Ari: CCS was selected by my company as its partner for our Volunteer program. WE chose CCS because it has a good reputation of working with organizations and of being very structured as to volunteer safety, selection of needy organizations, and providing meaningful experiences.
What was your favorite moment of the trip?
Ari: Making paracord bracelets with a ten or eleven year old at the orphanage, and watching him interpret the English instructions in the book more skillfully than I did, even though he didn't speak English -- he produced bracelets for lots of the kids.
What did you find most surprising about your experience?
Ari: The generosity of people who had so little, their willingness to share what little they had as gestures of friendship and appreciation for what we did for them.
If you could go back and do something differently, what would it be?
Ari: Try to arrange a program where I got to do more work, as our time was split between work and cultural immersion. I would also learn more Spanish and be more language proficient next time.
How has this experience impacted your future?
Ari: It actually makes me want to volunteer more. I realize that I don't have to go overseas to find people in need, but the combination of cultural and language challenges with the work was really rewarding.
Why did you decide to volunteer with CCS in Costa Rica?
Denise: At the age of 41, after 13 years in a corporate job, I was down-sized and wondering "now what". I was part of the first wave of "gappers" - displaced employees wondering how to restart their career in a down market. I realized this was finally my opportunity to re-group, take a breath, and do the volunteer work that my job always made impossible.
Searching for local volunteer opportunities on VolunteerMatch, I ran across a listing for CCS programs. Volunteering abroad seemed like the perfect combination of "service" and "vacation" that could help redirect my restless soul. I had always wanted to go to Costa Rica, as well as some of the other CCS locations listed. In the end, I chose the location based upon the timing, availability, and ease of getting to Costa Rica with direct flights from my home in Pennsylvania.
The CCS staff was extremely helpful in streamlining the registration process. I had a counselor available for questions - who actually spent time with me on the phone. And I was offered the opportunity to connect with former volunteers via phone to truly prepare myself for what was to come. We were also given lists of other volunteers who would be joining the program at the same time. I was a little daunted to see that I was among the oldest of the volunteers - which ultimately was irrelevant. Volunteering requires a mind-set, not an age - and success comes with an open heart and a willingness to share.
Describe your living conditions as a volunteer.
Denise: Upon arrival at our CCS "house", it turns out that much of the staff spoke only Spanish, and many of the volunteers spoke only English. We enjoyed some comical "charades" learning to communicate with one another, which was actually a great ice-breaker. The rooms were small, dorm-style with 6 bunk beds per room and a shared bathroom. Hot water is almost non-existent, and really a non-issue in the muggy air. The food is simple, hearty meals, made of local fresh ingredients. I wish the cook spoke English as I would have loved to learn more about her cooking.
Describe your daily activities as a volunteer.
Denise: We woke up at 6:30, had breakfast at 7:30 and headed to our "placement" - a short walk - by 8:15. My task - spending time at a local nursing home run by nuns. Our job was to spend the next 4 hours coaxing the seniors into the community room and getting them "active". I, and the 2 other assigned volunteers, would enter each morning and start setting up the community room. We would get a large group of regulars who wanted take advantage of contact with the outside world, and the opportunity to interact with people who were dedicated to filling their time.
Getting Personal: From about 8:45 to 9:30 we do exercises or calisthenics to music (generally a cumbia CD playing in the background). I struggled over the course of 2 weeks to add more and more Spanish words so that I could describe the motions I wanted them to follow (las olas! as I wave my hands over my head). The seniors found my efforts amusing. We then moved on to other activities like playing a round robin game of ball - passing back and forth to those in wheelchairs, a balloon toss, bowling (in which I did the equivalent of 1000 lunges a day resetting the pins as they knocked them over). We created new games , and took a few seniors outside for more strenuous games of ball when possible.
At 11:30 they headed to lunch and we cleaned up from our first round of activities. At about 12:00, some would drift back in for quieter activities like painting or bingo. This is where I learned to count to 100 in Spanish calling bingo numbers! We also created some paper crowns to honor our "reine or reina" (bingo King or Queen) for each round so that there was some visual reward for playing (mini bragging rights!).
Around 12:30 we cleaned up and headed back to our house amid hugs and kisses from our new "friends" who tell us to "go with god" and offer wishes for our good health. We head back to the home base for lunch and the rest of the day is ours. Some days an activity is planned for us - a trip to an organic farm, a Spanish lesson, a trip to a coffee plantation - or we can wander the town, go to the local markets (for our own private stash of after hour snacks), visit an internet cafe to communicate with friends and family, but mostly we take the time to chill with other volunteers, talk and get to know each other.
Dinner is at 5:30, and once a week there is an evening dance class to teach us local dances like cumbia. Many volunteers brought musical instruments and we listened to them play as we played cards, wrote letters, etc... My one free weekend, I and a group of 11 other volunteers rented a van and driver and headed 4 hours north for a weekend at the Monteverde Cloud Forest. The younger crew stayed in hostels, the rest of us treated ourselves to hotel rooms with our own bathrooms/showers, and we explored the area. Ziplines, canopy tours, flora, fauna, dinner and relaxation.
How has this experience impacted your future?
Denise: After arriving home, for the first week I would find myself looking at the clock, subtracting 2 hours, and wondering what the other volunteers, who were still there, were doing. "Gee, it's 8:30, Jennifer must be in the middle of calisthenics - I wonder if Benedicto came to participate?" Being bombarded by newspapers, tv, and phones after 2 weeks of isolation was disorienting.
On the other hand, after 2 weeks in Puriscal, I also had a new view of life. Having spent time with another volunteer that was an ESL instructor in Canada, I found a new passion as a volunteer ESL tutor in the US, which I pursued for 2 years after my return until a new job schedule intruded. My last student passed her citizenship test and I couldn't have been more proud! I probably would never have developed that passion had it not been for my CCS experience.
As I go back to my journal from my time in Puriscal, I find that I wrote the following: "What did I learn? I learned that I am an amazing person; that I can rise to the occasion; that I have insecurities - but I don't need to be defined by them. Whatever new job comes along will be wonderful if I want it to be. And in many ways I wouldn't start over again even if I could. I just need to move forward the way I want things to be. Find love, be happy and live life to the fullest..."
If you've been a volunteer, you'll never forget the experience. And if you are just thinking about volunteering - stop thinking. Just do it.
About the provider
The Cross-Cultural Solutions Volunteer Abroad experience allows students and travelers to gain valuable experience overseas while working side by side with local individuals and communities to make an impact.
Since 1995, over 35,000 people have volunteered with Cross-Cultural Solutions, providing meaningful and sustainable volunteer services to international communities, and contributing responsibly to local economies.
Volunteers gain valuable experience working in areas such as education, healthcare, and social services. Visit the Cross-Cultural Solutions website to learn more about how we're changing everything.