Alumni Spotlight: Thijs Claes


A young biologist eager to gain new skills and understand the bigger picture of nature conservation. Also a passionate amateur photographer and volleyball enthusiast.

Why did you choose this program?

I met partners of GVI on a Volunteer Abroad Fair. Back at home, I had a look at their website and realized this was a company with lots of expertise and a variety of projects. Among their projects, Jalova stood out to me because of the location. Costa Rica is a paradise for everyone who loves wildlife, and in Jalova, you actually live IN the park! Furthermore, the variety of the projects in Jalova and isolation looked perfect for a long stay.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

However GVI offers a travel insurance, I arranged my flights and insurance myself. Once I arrived in the country, they organized everything to the smallest detail. Every meal and transport towards the base was covered and organized for me. Once in base, you follow a very flexible schedule on a daily basis. Throughout the whole booking process, there are multiple ways you can get in contact with the country expert or people in the field to ask for more information.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Although it is not really necessary, learning even just the basics of Spanish is a good way to be more comfortable, and you will be able to order the food you actually wanted! Don't cheap out on your binoculars and/or camera either. You will be submersed in an incredible show of colors and sounds in Jalova, so make sure you can enjoy it to the fullest by having the correct gear. Quick drying clothes for surveys and thick socks and sweater for the evenings were essential for a comfortable stay in Jalova for me.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

Because of the great variety of projects in Jalova, not a single day will be the same, even if you plan to stay for a couple of months. The first week is different from the rest. As you get familiar with the base and its surroundings, you receive training in First Aid and the various projects. From then on, you can expect an average of two surveys a day, either in the morning, afternoon, or evening.

Everyday you will have some leisure time that you can spend on the beach in a hammock or in the common room with a book. Self-made card or board games also make the evenings pass by pleasantly. As an intern, this is also the time you can work on your assignments.

The surveys vary from monitoring surveys walking in the forest, camera-trapping or checking nests on the beach, bird canoe surveys on the canals, and measuring turtles at night. There are many more projects however, including a community project and butterfly project.

Keep in mind that most of these projects are seasonal. A month in Jalova will never be the same as the one before or after. About once a week, you are in charge of the kitchen with some other volunteers. A fair deal considering you get your dishes served for you every other day of the week!

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

I was wondering if I could get a job in conservation. It was kind of scary to commit so much money and time to just find out if something was right for me. However, in Jalova, I realized that I actually did exactly what I needed to do. I saw the global environmental problems that drove me to come in the first place. It gave me even more motivation to start a professional career in conservation. Also, the staff members currently working in Jalova were very inspiring and helpful. I am now confident I have the skills and experience to become a conservationist.

How long should you go to the project?

Everything less than a month will make you leave with a strange feeling. One month is just enough time to realize what all the possibilities in Jalova are! To take full advantage of it, you should come for at least two months, in my opinion. If you stay longer, you can enjoy and learn from even more of the projects. You also see the environment change slowly throughout the year. Every month, you are able to leave base for a few days to visit some of the other beautiful places in Costa Rica as well. Ideal to recharge the batteries and dive into the jungle for another adventurous month.