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Volunteering and Travel in Costa Rica

Experience the Beauty

Home base for volunteers in Cartago, Costa Rica
Home base for volunteers in Cartago, Costa Rica.

My first experience going abroad and experiencing a culture outside of the United States occurred when I volunteered in Costa Rica last July. It was the summer after my high school graduation and I wanted to do something to make me out of my comfort zone before making the transition to college. I have always loved helping people and traveling, so I decided to attempt to combine the two.

Lots of planning went into the trip — months before the day arrived. After I made the initial decision to go abroad, there were many things I had to consider. In addition to all of the planning that goes in to traveling abroad, I also had to consider accommodations, because I use a manual wheelchair.

Where to go?: With almost 200 countries in the world, once I started looking for places to go, it was hard to pick just one. I wanted to see the world! I narrowed down the choices greatly when I decided to put my high school Spanish to good use. I also knew I wanted to volunteer, and that resulted in picking an underdeveloped country. Safety was also something I wanted to keep in mind, because my mom wasn't thrilled about me going abroad for the first time alone.

Who to go with?: Unfortunately, of all my friends, I was alone in the desire to go abroad last summer. I had to find an organization to go with, since I didn't want to wander aimlessly once getting off the plane in a foreign country. I also had to worry about getting around in a wheelchair. Underdeveloped countries do not have the same accessibility laws as we do in the USA, so I had to make sure whatever organization I chose was willing to work with me. I found the Mobility International USA website, which is a great resource for people with disabilities wanting to go abroad. After talking with one of their representatives and explaining my hope for traveling abroad that summer, they suggested a few organizations that have accommodated disabled people in the past. One organization is called Cross Cultural Solutions, and after exploring their website and talking to one of the Program Advisors, we decided that the volunteer program in Cartago, Costa Rica would be the best option for me.

Going Abroad Expenses

Everyone knows that traveling can be expensive.

Through Cross Cultural Solutions, I paid a program fee that covered these important needs:

  • Housing: I stayed in the CCS home base with 30 other volunteers that also came from all over the U.S. People ranged from 18-50 years old; most of us were in college. The home base was a renovated school, and the classrooms were renovated into bedrooms, which held 4-6 of us.
  • Transportation: Provided to and from the airport as well as to the volunteer placements if they weren't in walking distance.
  • Meals: A cook prepared three meals a day Monday-Friday, which usually contained typical Costa Rican food. We ate a lot of fresh fruit and arroz con pollo (chicken and rice).
  • Travel insurance.
  • Cultural learning activities: These were things that we did in addition to volunteering, including Spanish lessons, dance lessons, cooking lessons, and field trips to places like a coffee plantation and Volcan Irazú.
  • In-country staff: They ran the programs while we were in Costa Rica, and included the program director, cook, housekeeper, drivers, and the night security guard.
  • Out of country staff: USA-based staff that helped with the trip preparation and communication with in-country staff when I was abroad.

Some additional expenses were:

  • Plane tickets: Round trip airfare to Costa Rica from Chicago was around $600. I had a connecting flight in Miami and the overall airtime was about six hours.
  • Passport: Close to $200 with the book, card, and correct picture. It can take up to 6 weeks to receive, so start planning early.
  • Exit fee: There was an exit fee that I had to pay in order to leave the country. You do not need a visa to visit Costa Rica if you plan to stay less than 90 days.
  • Laundry: This was not included in our program fee; there were Laundromats around town, and they could be a bit pricey.
  • Weekend travel: In the program I went on through CSS, we were free to travel around the country during the weekend. Costs for this included staying in hostels, food, transportation, souvenirs, and activities.
  • Phone cards: I paid $10 for 30 minutes on the phone. My home base also had Wi-Fi, which I used to communicate overseas via Skype and FaceTime.
  • Immunizations: I had to get the Hepatitis A and Typhoid fever vaccine.

Money in Costa Rica

The money in Costa Rica is called Colónes. They come in both coins and bills. 500 colónes is equal to $1. 500 colones is a coin, 1000 colónes is a red bill and is also known as 1 mil, 2000 colónes is a blue bill and is known as 2 mil. There is also a 5000 bill, 10,000 bill, and so on. There are larger face value bills, but I never possessed them since I didn't want to carry so much money around.

Many tourist locations took American money as well, since it is more difficult to find. To get money in Costa Rica, there are ATMs all about town. There is a small fee to take out money from the ATMs. You can also get money exchanged from the airport but you have to be careful about the exchange rate.

Banks are very important in Costa Rica. In order to get into the banks, you have to be swiped with a metal detector wand. There are also security guards standing at the front of the bank with machine guns. I remember an ATM stole my debit card one time. It was very hard to get it back since the bank had already closed for the day, and they were reluctant to help us. Since there is no military in Costa Rica, this is one way that they practice security. Another way to handle their security needs is to have bars on their houses to offer a sense of protection from crime.

Accessibility in Costa Rica

As I said, since I use a manual wheelchair, I had to do a lot of extra planning, both in the United States and in Costa Rica. The in and out of country staff tried their best to accommodate my needs, but nothing was perfect because it Costa Rica remains an underdeveloped country in some ways. The home base was pretty accessible because it was all one level, but it was a hassle to get over the gate, so there was a ramp we used, or people had to tip me back. Either way, I had to be accompanied by someone whenever I went anywhere, because I needed help over the gate and because many sidewalks and buildings were not accessible. The sidewalks were torn up, broken, and uneven. Sometimes the sidewalk disappeared completely or had stairs at the very end. There were also many cobblestone streets that made getting around in a wheelchair difficult. For this reason, I always needed someone to help me get around. It was hard to rely on complete strangers to help me, but if I didn't do this, I wouldn't be able to go anywhere.

Planning weekend travels was difficult, as well. We had to plan ahead and make sure the hostels at which we stayed were at least partially accessible. It was also hard to find activities I could engage in while traveling, since many of them included outdoor activities. I have my group members to thank for helping me as much as they could during that trip. I also had a staff member as my assistant during the week, and accompanied me to the Cultural Learning Activities and Volunteer Placement.

Volunteer Placement        

The main reason I went on this trip was to volunteer. There were placements in nursing homes, an HIV facility, schools, and orphanages. We were at this placement from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. when we came back for lunch.

I was volunteering in a nursing home for the first two weeks. While there, I socialized with the residents, played games, and worked on crafts. I also did some painting and laundry to help the staff when they didn't need assistance with the residents. This placement was difficult for me, because there was a lot I couldn't help with due to my wheelchair. There was also a large language barrier because they were very quiet, so it was hard to communicate, but you could tell they appreciated us being there.

The last week I went to a school and helped in a Kindergarten classroom. It took the kids a little while to warm up to me, because they were unfamiliar with my chair, since it isn't a well-known sight in Costa Rica. Once we became friends, I was one popular girl in that classroom. I helped the teacher with lessons and taught easy English lessons such as colors and numbers. We sang songs, painted, and played the days away. During free time, I was often pulled to the kitchen and the dollhouse by the little girls. I asked for helado (ice cream) and las uvas (grapes), and the girls would run and get me the toy food. I have never met kids so carefree and imaginative. They were so appreciative of everything they had.

Outside Travel

While in Costa Rica, I had two weekends to travel outside of the home base. The first weekend we visited La Fortuna and went to the Baldi Hot Springs. These pools are heated by the earth and the volcanoes. On the second weekend, we went to San Jose on Friday night, and Saturday we went to Andalucia to go bungee jumping over a bridge. These are two wonders that I wouldn't have been able to experience in the U.S., both of which I will never forget. For transportation over the weekend, we used private shuttles, which didn't cost  much if there were many people going, or the bus, which did have a working lift most of the time.

Baldi hot springs in La Fortuna
Baldi hot springs in La Fortuna.

Recommendations

  • Bring medical supplies: I tried to get antibiotic ointment when I was there and it didn't work.
  • Bring rain gear: It rained often and the cloudbursts were very spontaneous, especially when you go during the winter season as I did.
  • Know a little bit of Spanish: It makes it easier to get around, plan things, order, and connect with the people.
  • Be cautious: There are bad parts and bad people in every country.
  • Keep an open mind: Don't compare it to home - just take it for what it is.

Conclusion

Going to Costa Rica was one of the most life-changing  experiences I have ever enjoyed. As a result of my trip to Costa Rica, I am planning to travel to South Africa for three weeks in May. If you plan early, keep an open mind, remain open to adventures, no matter where you go you will have a memorable experience. I feel so fortunate that I had the opportunity to go to Costa Rica.

About to bungee jump in Andalucia
About to bungee jump in Andalucia, Costa Rica.
Related Topics
Student Volunteer Service Reports
Volunteer in Costa Rica
Living Abroad in Costa Rica
 
 
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