Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad    
As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine

Ecotourism and Volunteer Conservation in Costa Rica

Monitoring Wild-Release Macaws: Hatched to Fly Free

Feeding Macaws in Costa Rica
Feeding Macaws.

Upon arriving at the San José airport, a 3-dollar ride quickly took my aspiring career as a wildlife biologist to La Casa de Margarita in the Giralda neighborhood of Alajuela. There, I enjoyed Central American hospitality and lived with other travelers while learning the ropes of the Amigos de las Aves captive breeding and wild release program for endangered scarlet macaws. I helped chop mangoes and bananas to feed toucans at the breeding center just down the street, and I dined on the decadent chicken burritos and cinnamon fried plantains that were included with the room and laundry services for $12 a day. Meetings with colleagues and careful study of biological records prepared me to learn about each macaw at the release-site on the Panama border. Starting with a local bus right in front of Margarita’s, I spent an entire day taking three buses, first to San José, then Golfito, and finally down a dirt road to Punta Banco (not to mention a raft across crocodile-infested waters). This exhausting journey covered an area no larger than Maryland, and upon arrival a local helped me through the darkness to get to the jungle area on the Pacific Coast where I would meet my new “friends”. 

Tiskita Jungle Lodge and Conservation Volunteering

Located in the extreme southwest corner of Costa Rica, Tiskita Jungle Lodge is a privately owned, multiple-use property. In addition to plantations of fruit trees and cocoa, there is a wild macaw conservation program, a sea turtle conservation station, a smoothie shop, and even a small library. Managed by Peter Aspinall, who built a home on the property over 30 years ago while reforesting large sections of cleared land, the jungle habitat borders aboriginal lands and overlooks the stunning Pacific Ocean and an all but deserted beach fringed with palm trees. There is a series of trails that serve not only hikers, but also lead to a bird feeding station where volunteers can observe scarlet macaws born at their breeding center in Alajuela. When I arrived, the birds were in the process of courtship following their recent introduction to the wild, and they came to the feeding station once a day on their flying route.

Tiskita Jungle Lodge
Field Site at Tiskita Jungle Lodge.

Volunteers are accepted year-round and on short notice directly through Tiskita. Reintroduction program volunteers are typically first sent to the breeding center and usually stay in Costa Rica for at least 6 weeks. Dry-season tenures (i.e., December-March) are usually more enjoyable, due to the drier weather. Independent studies for university students in biology or other interested parties may be arranged through Mr. Dale Forbes, the biologist for the program, but academic experience is not necessary to volunteer. Living conditions in Tiskita consist of a hut in the jungle with a bathroom and bed. Food can be bought 2 miles down the road for $2/day from a home-based business in Punta Banco. Electricity recently arrived in the area and is included. Phone service and a doctor are available in Pavonnes (1.5 hr walk, 20 min. moped ride); internet service and shopping can be accessed in Paso Canoas (50 km away; takes 4 hrs, 3 buses and a cab), which straddles the Panamanian border.

Unlike at the breeding center, there were only a few volunteers at Tiskita Jungle Lodge, so there was quite a bit of private time. Most volunteers were from Europe, particularly Britain, but there were a few North Americans as well. A typical day in Tiskita consisted of a 5 a.m. wakeup to observe the morning flights of the macaws, followed by a mid-day swim, 2:30 p.m. observations at a feeding station, flight observations at dusk, and watching the sun go down over immaculate beach at Punta Banco. I enjoyed the Costa Rican way of life, and the locals were friendly, even allowing us volunteers to participate in their daily soccer game and helping us learn Spanish.

With my prior experience, watching animals in the field was a routine activity for me, but the task also included strenuous hiking. Note taking and observation in the field were tedious at times, but I was more than rewarded by bonding with individual birds at the feeding station, which provided me with memories that will last a lifetime.  

Ecotourism and Conservation in Costa Rica

Despite its small size, Costa Rica holds 5% of the world’s biodiversity. It is therefore a vital area for conservation, and has a green history involving pioneers in ecology and ecotourism such as Alexander Skutch, Michael Kaye, and Archie Carr. The Tiskita Jungle Lodge collaborates with Amigos de las Aves to protect indigenous wildlife through rescue, scientific research, and public education. Donations and volunteer work are important sources of funding for this coalition.

Aspinall, the owner of Tiskita Jungle Lodge, seems to have succeeded in conserving this thriving ecosystem in Southern Costa Rica by creating a multiple-use habitat that combines protected areas with commercial crops. The diverse local wildlife includes many tropical birds such as toucans, pelicans, hummingbirds, and trogons, as well as mammals such as agoutis, hump-backed whales, peccaries, sloths, variegated squirrels, ant eaters, and several species of monkey. Black iguanas were also common, and I even came upon one in the shack after coming back from the field. Besides plantains, cocoa, star fruit, mangoes, and papaya, many fruits unknown to the New World are also grown at Tiskita for economic purposes, grown from seeds collected during Aspinall’s trips to Asia. Plants used for condiments and beverages are such as vanilla, cardamom, bay rum, and cupuazu are abundant. Be aware that mosquitoes and chiggers are also numerous. Wear long pants at all times and use an environmentally friendly bug spray.  

Monkey in Costa Rica
A Monkey hanging out in Costa Rica


Tiskita is a half-day bus ride away from the Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula. You can also take the bus down the dirt road, transfer, and get back to the capital San José and stay at Margarita’s. San José is the best gateway for further exploration of the Nicoya Peninsula (by bus via Liberia or bus and ferry via Puntarenas), or the famous Tortuguero National Park (probably via Limón). After backpacking the length of the country, the Nicoya Peninsula particularly appealed to me because of the possibility to watch female sea turtles coming to the beach at Playa Grande (by bus via Liberia and cab via Tamarindo) to lay eggs. But when I reached Playa Grande, the biologist at the site told me there were only 48 turtles that had come ashore that year. Having waited patiently at the beach throughout the night for a few days, I left Costa Rica knowing the importance of volunteer work in conservation.   

For More Info

Costa Rica’s National Parks and wildlife are summarized on this site.

Curu National Wildlife Refuge is another release site for macaws from Amigos de las Aves, and the program may send volunteers there for an experience similar to Tiskita.

Recommended Reading

The Wildlife of Costa Rica

The Birds of Costa Rica

Tropical Nature will teach you all there is to know about the rainforest in an entertaining manner.

Related Topics
Responsible Travel in Latin America
Volunteer in Costa Rica: Programs and Resources
Living in Costa Rica: Essential Resources and Articles

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