Volunteers to San José, Costa Rica – the economic and cultural hub of the progressive, Central American country known by most for its biodiversity – experience the best of both of these worlds. Nestled in a lush valley in the central, mountainous, coffee-growing region, the city provides volunteers with year-round, comfortable climate and tropical ambiance. Inexpensive and reliable long-distance buses make for easy weekend getaways to coastal locales or in search of quetzals and cloud forests.
In San José, the natural side of Costa Rica melds with the amenities, everyday bustle, and intellectualism of urban life in Central America’s most cosmopolitan city. Furthermore, as the center of political and social developments, volunteers will find a larger, more diverse pool of volunteer positions than anywhere else in the country.Photo credit: jmenard48.
San José is a large city so there are many volunteer opportunities. The volunteer programs are mostly dedicated to helping children and helping community development. Most types of volunteer programs are separated into short-stay, and long-stay durations. Short-stay volunteers will usually work on projects that are currently underway. In contrast, long-stay volunteers have the ability to start their own projects.
Thanks to an educational initiative which requires English as a second language in the national curriculum paired with a healthy tourism industry, Costa Rica has a high demand for language teachers fluent in (but not exclusively) English, French, German, and Chinese. Many language teaching positions are concentrated in the capitol. A plethora of volunteer and paid positions are open at private San José language institutions, public schools, and community centers.
Underneath the surface of an impressive several decades of material and economic development in Costa Rica remain some unresolved social issues and Costa Rica is hard at work improving the value of life for more vulnerable populations. Volunteers can help promote the rights of women, youth, and elderly by working in orphanages, centers for the elderly or disabled children. Volunteers are needed in these institutions for day-to-day running of the homes/centers, teaching art and computer skills, and improving facilities.
Costa Rica provides universal health care for its citizens and is known for having some of the highest quality of medical care in Latin America. However, volunteers with medical experience are needed in hospitals and clinics throughout San José to help at-risk Costa Ricans. A higher level of Spanish is usually necessary, but depending on fluency and experience volunteers can assist with vaccinations, maternal health and deliveries, suturing wounds, and public health campaigns.
Volunteer Support: San José has a lively expat community and volunteers living in and around San José can link up with other expats for socialization or advice through online organizations such as Internations and the women oriented forum, ExpatWomen. Any paid volunteer program should assist volunteers in finding housing, and most offer language courses as well. The U.S. embassy also recommends registering with their website and will contact all Americans living in Costa Rica in the unlikely case of a national emergency.
How to Save Money While Volunteering: Learn to love rice, buy local and eat comida typica at a Costa Rican soda. Pick up some Spanish and barter in the markets. To cut costs on rent, try volunteering at one of the many youth hostels in San José in exchange for board, or seek cheap housing with university students or in one of the city’s suburbs, such as Heredia. Housing outside of the city center tends to be less expensive.
Where to Live in San José: There are numerous neighborhoods in San José, each supporting their own, unique vibe. Barrio Amón/Barrio Escalante is San José’s historic neighborhood, convenient for those without private transportation, but the center of San José’s sex industry. The posh, western area of Escazú/Santa Ana attracts many expats but is expensive. Close to the airport is the family-friendly neighborhood of Belén while Heredia, also north of the city, is popular amongst university and study abroad students. Universidad de Costa Rica is located in San Pedro/Curridabat and popular for students, English teachers, and those looking for affordable, shared housing. Los Yoses is close to downtown and houses many embassies and a happening nightlife and restaurant scene in Rohrmoser/La Sabana attracts young professionals. More information can be found on GoCentralAmerica.about.com.
How to Make the Most of Your Volunteer Experience: Costa Ricans, or Ticos, are known for their hospitality and clear, easy to learn Spanish. Make the most of your time in San José by befriending locals or living with a host family and working on your Spanish. Volunteering in one of the most up and coming Central American capitals is a great opportunity to develop language skills, learn more about Latin American culture, and acquire professional experience.
Stay street smart: Rape and murder rates are relatively low, but petty theft and pick-pocketing are real problems. According to the United States Department of State, Costa Rica ranks in the top three countries for passport theft. Don’t let the threat of theft deter you from volunteering in San José but be smart. Avoid parks and walking around town after dark, wearing flashy jewelry, and be extra vigilant in downtown to prevent theft.
Health and Safety of Volunteers in San José
Hepatitis B, A, and Typhoid shots are recommended before traveling to Costa Rica. San José is malaria free but antimalarials are recommended for travel to Limon province. Rare cases have been documented in other parts of the country and more information can be found at CDC.gov. San José has a high standard for medical facilities, and while travel insurance is recommended, many expats note “paying out of pocket” as one of the most affordable options for dealing with medical emergencies while living in Costa Rica. In case of emergency, Clinica Biblica is San José’s top private clinic, located downtown and staffed with English speaking doctors, while Hospital San Juan de Dios is the centrally located free public hospital. Be prepared for long waits at San Juan.