Costa Rica is a wonderful destination for both first-time and seasoned travelers. It's home to beautiful beaches, tropical rainforests, exotic animals, and some of the friendliest people on earth. It's no wonder that over 1.7 million people visit the pristine beauty of this small Central American nation every year.
However, for those who want to see another side of Costa Rica and actually immerse themselves in the culture and language for a longer period of time, there are plenty of opportunities to go as a volunteer. While volunteering, you will get the chance to see a side of Costa Rica that few tourists ever do. Costa Rica's unofficial slogan is Pura Vida, which means "pure life." As a volunteer, you will learn just how much ¡Pura Vida! can change your life.
Costa Rica has no shortage of exciting volunteer opportunities. The hardest part might be simply choosing what type of project you want to take part in.
Every year, over one million tourists visit Costa Rica especially to see its amazing animals, but few get the chance to work side-by-side with these creatures. While volunteering at an animal rehabilitation center in Costa Rica, you can get up close with sloths, monkeys, parrots, and maybe even a jaguar who needs your help. Many of these animals are rescued from illegal animal traffickers or injured as a result of habitat destruction. In these programs, you’ll be feeding animals, building enclosures, cleaning living spaces, and getting these animals ready to be released back into the wild.
25% of Costa Rica is designated as protected conservation land. This provides ample opportunity to get outside to help conserve the country's impressive wilderness and protect the plants and animals that call it home. Whether you're monitoring sea turtle nests on the coast or removing invasive plants in the jungles, you can be confident that this type of work directly contributes to protecting Costa Rica's pristine wilderness.
Many people flock to Costa Rica to practice yoga in a beautiful tropical setting. If you want to hone your sun salutations under a jungle canopy without paying the steep price of an all-inclusive yoga retreat, consider volunteering at a Costa Rican yoga center. Sometimes this involves teaching classes or doing a simple work exchange. In exchange for helping with the everyday operations, you’ll be provided with accommodation, food, and yoga classes.
Human Rights Programs
Unfortunately Costa Rica has long been wrestling with problems concerning domestic violence, human trafficking, and labor exploitation. Volunteers are often needed to help with numerous programs that provide awareness and counseling to the community, or even to assist in administrative tasks like data collection. As a volunteer in a program working towards improving human rights issues in the country, you will get to know local communities and people that few visitors to Costa Rica ever interact with.
Where to Volunteer in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a relatively small country, but don’t let that fool you -- it still boasts a remarkable amount of diversity. You can find volunteer opportunities in small fishing villages, the capital city of San Jose, deep in the jungle, on remote beaches, or in cloud-shrouded mountains. Be sure to inquire about transportation to and from your location. Some parts of the country are well-connected by buses, but others may require private transportation.
Housing & Accommodation
Your living arrangements will vary depending on the type of program you select, but expect them to be quite basic. You may be set up with a host family, which is a great opportunity to get to know Costa Rican culture and hospitality. Alternatively, you may be bunking in communal housing with other volunteers. If you take part in wilderness conservation programs, you will likely spend at least some of your nights camping out in remote places to be closer to the ecosystems you’re protecting.
Language Requirements & Tips
The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish. In many communities where there are a lot of tourists, English and French are spoken more widely but don’t count on it. Despite being known for their laid-back lifestyle, Costa Ricans speak very formally, almost always using the formal usted instead of the familiar tú as the second person pronoun.
Costa Ricans have their own unique take on the Spanish language, mixing in their own slang and vocabulary. Knowing some of the regional expressions will get you feeling like a "Tico" in no time. Drop a ¡Que Tuanis! (Cool!) or ¡Qué guava! (How lucky!) into your chats and you’ll fit right in.
Although Costa Rica makes up less than 0.1% of the planet’s land mass, it contains a whopping 12 different climate zones! Therefore, where you go will determine what you should pack. Ask your program if they have any special suggestions of what to bring.
Most likely, you’ll want to pack clothing for warm and humid tropical weather. However, it can get surprisingly cool in the mountains, so consider packing layers if you’re heading to a higher altitude location. A rain jacket will be useful, not just for wet weather, but also as protection against the many biting insects you’ll encounter. If you’ll be going anywhere other than the beach, bring closed-toed shoes to keep your toes safe from pests like bullet ants.
Visitors to Costa Rica get a 90-day stamp in their passport. This can be easily renewed by crossing into neighboring Panama or Nicaragua and crossing right back. Costa Rica is very strict with their requirement that visitors have proof that they will be leaving the country. This can come in the form of a plane or bus reservation out of Costa Rica before your 90 days are up. If you don’t have something to show before boarding your flight, you may be turned away at the airport.
Costa Rica has decent cell phone coverage. Your carrier from home will likely work in the country, but you may find hefty roaming charges applied to your next bill. Many travelers opt to get a sim card from a local service provider, such as Kolbi or Movistar. These companies have affordable pay-as-you-go plans that can be purchased at just about any corner store.
While less expensive than North America and Europe, Costa Rica is the most expensive country in Central America. Imported goods are particularly pricey. Many restaurants and services in touristy areas may even be more expensive than those you’d find at home. Eating at local diners, known as sodas, is an economical alternative.
Currently, no vaccines are required for travel to Costa Rica. However, the World Health Organization and CDC recommend vaccinations against typhoid and hepatitis A. If you’ll be working closely with animals, you may want to consider a rabies vaccination.
Zika, chikungunya, and dengue fever are also present in the country. With these mosquito-borne diseases, the best medicine is prevention. Apply insect repellent when outside and wear long pants and long sleeves in the early morning and evening.
Your greatest safety concern in Costa Rica will be road accidents. Illegal passing on winding roads is a common occurrence, and sadly, so are deadly accidents. Always wear a seatbelt, drive defensively, and limit driving to the daytime whenever possible.
Petty theft is also a concern. Keep your valuables in a safe place, don’t leave anything unattended on the beach, and never carry large amounts of cash. Locals will have a good idea about the safety of a particular area, so ask before heading out on an empty beach or trail.