How to Survive Volunteering in Rural Costa Rica

I spent the last eleven weeks volunteering at two animal rescue centers in Costa Rica.  The first five weeks were spent just outside the beach town of Jacó; a built up area that caters to tourists and surfers.  Conversely, the last six weeks have been spent in the rural mountain area of Los Ángeles (not to be confused with the major city in California).  In this time, I learned valuable lessons about volunteering in rural Costa Rica.  Being prepared for and adaptive to this new environment can ensure you’re more comfortable during your volunteer project.  These tips can help you survive your first volunteer project in rural Costa Rica (or other Central / South American countries).

Bring Really Powerful Bug Spray

The big bugs are the ones that usually frighten people (myself included), but it’s the ones you don’t see that will cause you the most frustration.  I’ve had more mosquito bites than I can count and I don’t think I’ve seen more than a handful of mosquitoes in my entire time in Costa Rica.  I tried Picaridin but it didn’t do much to stop the invisible blood suckers.  Other volunteers have good results with Off Deep Woods bug spray.  If you don’t have a problem with harsh chemicals, it might be a good idea to load up on some powerful spray or lotion containing a heavy dosage of DEET.  I rolled the dice and lost, learn from my mistake…bring the strong stuff!

The mosquitoes in Costa Rica are nearly invisible, but their bites are not.  I like to call this: Lumpy Leg Syndrome.

Don’t Take Your Cell Phone to the Waterfall, River, Hot Springs, etc.

This is a tip most people will ignore because they want to take photos at some of the beautiful natural wonders you’ll encounter in the Costa Rican rain forests.  Lots of people drop their phones in the water or someone pushes them in not knowing the phone is in their pocket.  Being without your phone while traveling is a hassle.  Don’t risk it, get a waterproof digital camera (like the Olympus Tough TG-4) instead.  You’ll be able to take better photos and won’t have to worry about it getting wet.  Alternative Option: get a fully waterproof case or carrier for your phone.

Accept That Your Diet Will Change

Food in rural areas is usually fairly simple and limited in selection.  Most projects will have limited cooking facilities and cooler space.  Costa Rica is famous for its rice and beans dish, gallo pinto.  Depending on your project, you might end up eating it every day.  You might even end up with at for every meal, every day.  As an American, I’m accustomed to having as much food as I want any time I want.  That’s not always the case here in Costa Rica.  Portion sizes, especially when a special meal is made, are often smaller and may leave you wanting.  Solution: buy snacks!  They’ll hold you over between meals and there is a wide array of tasty treats you can find in any Costa Rican market.

Beware of Ants

The bane of my existence in Costa Rica; ants are the devil here.  They are EVERYWHERE.  Don’t feel like cleaning that plate right away after you eat off of it?  Prepare for the ant invasion.  Dead cicada outside your door?  It’ll be turned to dust in a day under a mountain of ants.  The most painful sting/bite in the insect world is the bullet ant; but it’s very rare that you’ll see them.  It’s the tiny little beasts that will wreak havoc on your feet and ankles.  These little monsters have put more of a hurting on the volunteers here than the rest of the insects we see regularly, combined.  So pay attention and watch where you sit/step.

Remember, the Sun is Stronger Here

So, you’re one of those people who goes out in the sun, burns, and the next day it’s a golden tan.  Us pale folks hate you.  When we burn, it’s for real.  Because of this, we’re usually prepared for the sun.  But closer to the Equator, it’s a whole new ball game.  Fifteen minutes of mid-day sun against some pale skin is enough to fry you.  Be sun smart: use sunscreen, limit your time in the direct sun, wear a hat, and cover up to avoid direct contact with harmful UV rays.

Learn Spanish Before You Arrive

Knowing the local language of where you’re traveling is always a huge benefit.  It’s even more important when you are in a rural area where the locals you interact with may not necessarily speak English (and it’s highly unlikely that they’ll speak any other language).  I don’t speak Spanish.  Actually forming a few sentences here that don’t sound like a toddler trying to talk has been one of the big accomplishments of my journey so far.  Before leaving for your volunteer project, try to learn as much Spanish as you can.  Focus on some basic words, sentences, and grammar before moving on to vocabulary that will be relevant to your project.  For example, you may want to learn the names for some of the animals at the rescue center you’re going to volunteer at.  Or if you’re working on a medical project, maybe learn the words for different body parts and symptoms.

N.E.R.D. — Nothing Ever Really Dries

Costa Rica is tropical.  Tropical equals humid.  Humidity equals wetness.  Even in the dry season, nothing ever really dries.  Take a shower, dry off, and you immediately start sweating.  Your clothes will “dry” but it won’t last long once you put them on.  You’ll experience a new level of swamp ass here.  Make sure to hang up anything that is even remotely damp or you run the risk of mold developing on your clothes.  This goes double for personal hygiene.  Simply put, take care of yourself or you’ll end up with some funk you definitely don’t want.

Watch out for Snakes, Spiders, and Scorpions

The easiest way to scare a new volunteer is to tell them about the venomous fer-de-lance, big spiders that are everywhere, and the scorpions they’ll find in their rooms!  In reality, you just need to be cognizant that these creatures inhabit your new home.  Venomous snakes are dangerous but it’s unlikely that you’ll run across one.  You just need to know what they look like and what to do if you do get bit.  Scorpions and spiders are pretty much unavoidable.  But if you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone.  When you’re walking in the rain forest, just watch out for the webs.  Always shake out your shoes in the morning and check your bags before you go anywhere.  And check your shower before you get in…I have had the distinct pleasure of showering with a huge (and from what I was told, venomous) spider.

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Pack a Small First Aid Kit

Bug bites and small cuts and scrapes come with the territory when volunteering outside.  Just to be on the safe side, bring your own small first aid kit.  Not all locations will have adequate supplies for treating these little issues so it’s good to be prepared.  Little abrasions can turn into big problems if they get infected so it’s better to treat them and avoid any unnecessary issues.

Understand “Tico Time”

This has been one of my biggest struggles in acclimating to Costa Rican culture.  Tico Time is how most things operate here.  Essentially, there is little urgency or attention to being on time.  Don’t expect stores or restaurants to open at the listed times.  Moving quickly, efficiently, and timely is not something that is given much thought.  Tasks can always be done later…or tomorrow…or whenever.  Pura Vida!  Needless to say, as someone who is always early and is obsessed with efficiency, I’ve struggled quite a bit with this aspect of Tico life.

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When you’re on “Tico Time”, there’s always plenty of time to relax and enjoy the sunset

Expect Weak WiFi

Ahhhhhh, the wee-fee!  If your project has WiFi, you can expect it to be fairly weak.  Add in a dozen volunteers all trying to use it at the same time, and good luck getting your Instagram or Facebook posts to update quickly.  I’ve spent hours hitting refresh just to get WordPress to load just so I can post blog articles.  So, you have 3 options when it comes to dealing with the poor WiFi:

  • Get online when everyone else is asleep – i.e. wake up early or stay up late
  • Deal with the slowness and get your internet fix as best you can
  • Free yourself and go offline – you’ll probably be less stressed if you go off the grid anyways!

Pack Light

If you’re volunteering in rural areas, you really don’t need to bring much in your backpack (or suitcase).  I’m a notorious over-packer, and this first volunteering project reiterated my need to bring less.  I’ve already identified a full 13-litre dry-bag full of clothing & stuff that I don’t need.  I’ve compiled a short list of the basic clothing you’ll need for volunteering in rural Costa Rica (or other Central American countries):

  • 2 pairs of shorts – 1 pair to work in and 1 decent pair to wear on trips to town
  • 1-2 swimsuits – it’s hot here, you’ll probably spend a lot of time in the water
  • 3 shirts or tank tops – 1 decent one for trips to town and 2 for working/relaxing
  • Sneakers/boots – for working outside
  • Sandals – for when you’re not working
  • Socks/underwear – obviously
  • Beach or Quick-dry Towel – some projects may provide towels, others do not

Anything more than this and you’re going to have more than you need.  There’s no serious need for long pants/shirts/jackets in the tropics, but you might want to pack one of each just in case.  If you want to travel very light, you can use your cell phone as your flashlight, camera, and entertainment.  Otherwise, I recommend bringing a good waterproof camera and a laptop/tablet or books/e-reader to help keep you entertained.

For additional packing suggestions, check out my post 9 Things to Pack in Your Travel Backpack


Volunteering abroad always has its challenges and Costa Rica is no exception.  It’s not an overly challenging country, but it does require some adaptation and understanding.  Things move slower here while the climate and wildlife require additional attention to ensure your comfort and safety.  If you can speak Spanish and are looking for a laid back, hot climate with interesting wildlife; volunteering in rural Costa Rica might be the perfect choice for you!

2 Comments

  1. I’m also currently volunteering in Costa Rica and I definitely agree with all of your points. Sadly I haven’t been out in nature often (besides a few weekend trips) because I don’t volunteer at wildlife projects. I work at the office at an NGO called TECHO in San José. Thus I experience Costa Rican city life more than rural life. But I’d really like to also see this part of the country. Maybe you can recommend me some places to volunteer? Also, how do you find them?

    1. I found my 2 centers through Love Volunteers. I asked to be transferred from Neo Fauna because it was sool small and didn’t have enough for me to do. Paraiso Carlisa was bigger and much more rural. You can work there via Workaway as well if you want to go for free (instead of paying thru a volunteer company). It’s about a 3.5 hour bus ride from San José on the way to Parrita. There’s also a huge rescue center that some other volunteers went to but I’m not sure of the name. It has 100s of animals and usually like 40+ volunteers if that’s your sort of thing.

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