Ailish Cronin - Tropical Dry Forest Conservation & Community in Costa Rica
Whilst browsing the internet for something to do over the summer I came across the Projects Abroad website. Reflecting on my trip I can honestly say that I am extremely pleased to have chosen the 2 Week Special, a little taste of both worlds - conserving our precious environment one week and caring for people in need the next.
Even as a child, I remember being acutely interested in travel and cultures, often immersing myself in my treasured encyclopedia and atlas. Volunteering had appealed to me for many years; however, before I discovered Projects Abroad, I thought it was restricted to the older and more mature.
From early on in the process it was apparent that I was in good hands. I was given endless amounts of information and advice on how to prepare for my journey while I found the staff to be very helpful, always willing to answer any questions I had.
Even before I set off they called me from their office in Costa Rica a couple of times to formally have a chat and ask about any concerns I might have - something that stood out to me. Since I had only ever flown to Ireland on my own I thought it would be best to ask if they knew of anyone else on my trip that would be leaving from the same airport as me. Right away they got back to me with another girl’s email and I was able to make contact with her prior to travelling. I would definitely recommend this approach. It’s a good way of making friends before reaching your destination and at least in my case it made my first encounter of connecting flights less daunting without the guidance of my parents.
The journey to Costa Rica
One of my many embarrassing memories happened at the start of the trip. Whilst at the airport I found myself lugging my two hiker’s backpacks around, because there were no trollies left. I had packed a smaller one for my hand luggage and another much larger one, so between holding people up from my inability to walk faster than a tortoise, watching their pitying facial expressions and having my arms strained under the colossal weight, it left me in a torturous position. Both pieces of luggage were designed to be carried on my back but with only one back and two of these sorts of bags it didn’t quite add up!
The weirdest experience has to be my first night in the country. Upon leaving the airport we were greeted by a friendly member of Projects Abroad staff who drove us to a nearby hotel where we would spend the next three nights, a cozy place near a large square decorated with traditional masks. Once there we met the first volunteer, a girl who had travelled all the way from the Netherlands. After introducing ourselves the four of us split into pairs so we could each share a bedroom for the night. It was odd, knowing that I was going to spend the next night sleeping in the same room, far away from home, as someone I had only just met but that’s just one of the many quirks that will make your trip so unique.
Meeting others from different background and places certainly made for an interesting experience. Even if you’re not the most talkative of people, don’t let it put you off. I found it to be such a comfortable environment. It becomes so natural to the point where you’re not even aware you’re transforming into someone that isn’t afraid to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Unbeknown to yourself, you have become less self-conscious.
The following day we visited InBio (Costa Rica’s National Institute of Biodiversity) where we went to a butterfly park and got to see lots of wild iguanas wondering around the grounds. Furthermore, I got to see several sloths, a creature I had been very excited to get a closer look at.
Afterwards I got my first taste of a Costa Rican meal and I have to say, it was delicious. Over the weekend more and more volunteers arrived from all over the world, including France, Belgium, USA and Canada. By talking to the rest of the volunteers it quickly became apparent that they were all incredibly friendly. Mostly it was nice to talk to people that genuinely showed a mutual interest in what I had to say and where I came from throughout the course of the trip, something which I found to be very humbling.
On the Monday we travelled to Diria National Park in Guanacaste Province, our first glance at a dry forest. When we arrived we were greeted by Richard, Lisa, Eduardo and Jose, all of whom worked at the park and would be looking after us for the next week. At lunch, we indulged ourselves in the food that our talented chef, Prima, provided. Rice and beans are the staple diet, in Costa Rica and so it is very normal to be welcomed by a serving of rice and beans instead of the usual cornflakes or toast in the morning.
Without phone signal or internet access, recreational time was often spent playing card games. Torches, toads and fireflies, also provided my friend and I with endless hours of fun as we made up all these games off the top of our heads. You soon improvise when you’re phone isn’t working! These may not sound like you’re typical activities of choice but it really made for some of the funniest memories.
We were kept busy pretty much from dusk until dawn. On our first night we went on a night walk where we saw critters ranging from a boa constrictor about a metre away and less than a minute into the walk, a baby tarantula and an armadillo, to name just a few. The following included a long walk to a waterfall. We went through a river, across rocky terrain holding on to vines, like a scenes from an Indiana Jones movie. A word of advice for futures volunteers - make sure you test your waterproof shoes prior to leaving, otherwise you’ll have very wet feet.
Over the next few days we carried out a bat study and a butterfly study where I caught a rare butterfly, after many failed attempts of only catching moths and that was kept for the park’s census - a very proud moment! We also witnessed a magnificent tropical lightning storm.
On the second weekend we drove to our next destination, Liberia, where we met our hosts, Ana-Cecilia and her husband who were both very warm and welcoming. We did lots of activities including Costa Rican horse-riding, tubing, rock-climbing and zip-lining. We also went to hot springs and mud baths generated by the geothermal energy of the Arenal volcano. All in all, it was certainly a worthwhile afternoon.
On the Monday we were separated into smaller groups where I got to work with my friends at a day care center just outside the town. As soon as we arrived we were greeted with hospitality by members of staff and with open arms by the children who couldn’t wait to know our names and show us around. We helped out with the distribution of food, washing and drying dishes, raking leaves, constructing a play area and playing with the children. Although it was very tiresome I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. These children were the most incredible little souls and it was a beautiful experience to be greeted by their joyful faces every day.
On the last day we showcased a play for them which was mainly made up of mime, something we had been practicing in the afternoons with an actor. We also made them lots of pretty handcrafted gifts. The children loved it and it was a great way to take the edge off saying goodbye as we knew that it was our last day yet it made the whole situation lighthearted and fun even though we knew we would miss them dearly.
If you are still wondering whether to do this project I have one last piece of advice and that is to just go! Projects Abroad are so supportive and you’ll not only meet wonderful new people but make friends for life. Costa Rica is a beautiful country from its mountainous landscape to its people that live by the saying ‘Pura Vida’ meaning pure life. I know that if I had another chance to go back, I wouldn’t hesitate and you can hold me to it when I say you’re guaranteed to leave feeling the same way.