It seems like there should be lots of volunteer opportunities in Costa Rica
If you’re willing to work hard all day setting fence posts to keep cows out of a wildlife refuge or teaching English to indigenous children it seems reasonable to expect a clean dry place to sleep and three square meals in exchange.
But are you willing to scrub toilets and fish hair out of shower drains or clean dog puke from between the couch cushions?
The Difference Between Volunteering and Serfdom
Opportunities to work without pay in Costa Rica range from releasing tiny turtles on the beach at sunrise to waiting tables in a bar at sunset. Similarly the terms used to describe the positions range from “volunteer” to “work exchange” but there’s no clear boundary between the two.
Shoveling muck and breaking rocks with a sledge hammer to improve trail drainage is obviously volunteering when it’s done for free in a National Park. The term might not seem quite as appropriate when applied to the same unpaid job at a luxury resort that charges clients $120 for a bird watching tour along the newly improved trail.
If you’re looking for meals and a bed as compensation for working then sites like WorkAway and WorldPackers charge around $50 a year for membership and access to hundreds of listings in Costa Rica (and thousands around the world) for jobs like hotel maid, maintenance person, house/pet sitter or farm laborer. Although enforcement is nearly non-existent you should be aware that it’s technically illegal for non-residents to work in Costa Rica whether they are paid money or some other form of remuneration.
If you want a more fulfilling volunteer position like feeding animals at a not for profit wildlife rescue or reintroducing endangered Macaws to the rain forest the economic reality might demand that you pay a small fee to cover your room and board while you volunteer.
Managers of Costa Rican refuges and other eco-projects have told us the same thing over and over, “volunteers can be more effort and expense than they are worth.”
Economics and Practicalities
If you add up the value of room (a dorm bed in a hostel costs $15-25) and board (breakfast $4, lunch $6, dinner $8) it comes out to about $33-$43 a day. Add in the time and money spent on publicity, providing information, scheduling, training, and supervising it can seem like a full time job arranging and managing “free” labor to do what you could have done yourself in half the time.
Volunteers frequently overestimate the value of their skills (for example teaching English is not a rare skill), underestimate how hard it is to dig post holes for ten hours, like to have time off to explore, and have unrealistic expectations of comfort.
When things aren’t to their liking volunteers quit leaving projects half finished and the manager starting over with training etc.
The total cost of local laborers is $8-15 for a ten hour work day or about half what it costs to house and feed a volunteer. Paid workers already know how to dig post holes and what it’s like to do it ten hours straight. They can’t afford to quit, move into a tent on the beach and surf if they don’t like the job.
For many projects it’s cheaper, more convenient and reliable to pay someone than arrange for volunteers. If you’re a potential volunteer reading this you’re probably thinking “oh, that wouldn’t be me. I’m committed and responsible.” which may be true. If you also have a number of other qualities you might find a position.
Pay to Volunteer
Googling turns up a number of programs that will charge you between $20 and $150 a day to place you in a volunteer situation. What you pay supports the projects, covers your food and housing and includes a profit for the placement program.
We have not tried paid volunteering so we won’t comment on any individual programs but we will recommend that you contact previous “volunteers” to ask about their experience and whether they believe it did any good. We’ve heard very good stories and very bad.
If you don’t want pay for a volunteer placement then it helps to be well qualified
- You should be fluent in Spanish and English. Additional languages are probably a bonus.
- You should be available to work for at least a month.
- Flexible schedule. Low season (the rainy season) is a better time to look for volunteer positions. Tourism is essential for many wildlife and ecology projects so they reserve their accommodations for paying visitors in the high season and usually do maintenance and improvements in the off season.
- A skill. M.D.s, veterinarians and concrete workers are in high demand
- Physically fit and capable. The most requested volunteer positions involve wildlife or ecology and are mainly located in undeveloped areas. Carrying a backpack eight or ten miles a day on rugged trails could be a job requirement.
- An obligation to fulfill. For example, if volunteering for 6 weeks is a requirement for a degree program you’re enrolled in then you’re more likely to stick around and complete the six weeks.
- Previous volunteer experience and letters of recommendation.
Recommended Volunteer Opportunities in Costa Rica
We’ve visited, contributed to and worked with a number of volunteer projects over the years and some of the best opportunities include Turtle Trax (Sea turtle research and rescue) and the Ara Project (Macaw reintroduction).