Volunteering can be a life-enriching experience whatever age you are. Immersing yourself in another culture while sharing your time, expertise and love with those less fortunate can be the adventure of a lifetime. A recent visit with Tropical Adventures, based in the southern Caribbean beach community of Puerto Viejo, was a fascinating and eye-opening experience.
Executive director Scott Pralinsky, director Isaac García and volunteer coordinator Laura Palomo took two days out of their busy schedules to show this Tico Times contributor a variety of projects and allow her to observe the volunteers working at their daily tasks and meet their host families.
Tropical Adventures was founded in 2005 and is a subsidiary of Casa Milagro, a nonprofit foundation in the United States and Costa Rica that is also funding two projects in the Central Valley. The organization offers volunteer tour packages for individual travelers, families and groups interested in exploring the culture, contributing to the communities, learning the language and exploring the natural beauty of Costa Rica, according to Pralinsky. Volunteers receive an orientation and training program before being placed in projects best suited to their interests or special skills.
“Finding the volunteers is not a problem, but finding suitable homestays and materials for them to use for their projects can be difficult,” Pralinsky said. “We really appreciate it when volunteers bring their own supplies, especially books in English.”
Palomo, a city girl from San José, arrived in Puerto Viejo eight months ago and never stops working. Riding around town on her bicycle with cellular phone in hand, she keeps close tabs on all the volunteers, deals with problems that arise, communicates with host families and schedules meetings and Spanish classes.
“We provide all our volunteers with cellular phones and bicycles; it makes my life much easier,” she said with a smile.
“One has to realize that many volunteers need special attention at first,” Palomo added. “They are adjusting to the cultural shock of coping with a very different lifestyle; however, most of them settle down quickly and love the experience.”
Sunday was the volunteers’ day off, and gave us the opportunity to meet a few at home with their host families. We visited Veronica Gordon-Crooks, who runs a small, Caribbean-style vegetarian restaurant in her home and has been hosting volunteers for 20 years.
New arrivals Eva Jannotta and Tzipora Wagner, high school students from Washington, D.C., are working on two projects: teaching English at the Puerto Viejo elementary school; and helping at the Iguana Farm on the Keköldi Indigenous Reserve, a few kilometers outside of town. They also help with beach cleanup, mandatory for volunteers.
Casey Riesing shares Jannotta and Wagner’s large, airy, upstairs bedroom with private bath. A high school senior from the U.S. state of Wisconsin, she is in Puerto Viejo for three weeks after searching the Internet for volunteer programs. All three were happy campers and said they loved Gordon-Crooks’ delicious food.
We also met Ashley Rhea Labonté, a student at NortheasternUniversity in Boston, Massachusetts. She bubbled with energy and enthusiasm about her host family, Gerardo Taylor, Idalia Solano and daughter Wendi.
“They are wonderful people,” she said. “Idalia makes the best bread in Puerto Viejo. I can’t get enough of it.”
Some volunteers prefer to stay at the comfy, homey volunteer house, which offers shared bedrooms and a communal kitchen, while others pay for their own accommodations in town.
Anthropology student Megan Conners, also from Massachusetts, works at the day care and nutritional center in Puerto Viejo, helping with 25 children, ages 2 to 5.
“It’s a wonderful experience,” she said.
“They love playing games and coloring. I also teach them how to eat at table, wash their hands and clean their teeth.”
The government-managed center, a blessing for working mothers, has one paid teacher and a cook, but always needs help and welcomes volunteers. The center monitors the children’s nutritional needs and provides two meals and two snacks a day, as well as monthly nonperishable food packages for families in need.
At an orientation at the Iguana Farm, Jannotta and Wagner soon realized their job had its hazards. Their chores included cleaning the iguana’s cages and were told rubber boots and insect repellent were a must when foraging in the jungle for the iguanas’ food.
The breeding and rescue center was started 17 years ago on the Keköldi Indigenous Reserve by Bribrí women Gloria Mayorga and Juana Sánchez.
“We wanted to protect and breed iguanas native to the area as they were being killed for eating and depleted by deforestation,” Mayorga said. “Once they’re fully grown, we release them back into their natural habitat.”
A tour of the Iguana Farm, a day hike or an overnight stay at the remote indigenous community on the reserve helps provide income for the families, as does revenue from sales of locally made handicrafts at the Iguana Farm’s small gift shop.
Back in town at the elementary school, Labonté organizes educational activities for second-graders, and slow learners get special tutoring in Spanish and English from Nick Miklowski of the U.S. city of Atlanta, who is taking a month’s vacation to volunteer. Aisha Rowe, on vacation from England, has decided to stay and help tutor indefinitely.
Other projects include working with the Bribrí and Cabécar indigenous communities in the TalamancaMountains, where volunteers assist in community development and educational support. They also help market local chocolate products made by Bribrí women and promote rural tourism projects (see sidebar). For those interested in conservation and wildlife, opportunities include organic and medicinal plant farming, reforestation projects and turtle watching in the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Reserve.
Volunteers must be prepared to work at least 20 hours a week. Program durations are unlimited, but have a minimum of two weeks. The cost for two weeks is $1,195, and each extra week is $195. This includes project placement and training, accommodation with a host family, three meals a day and round-the-clock, in-country emergency services. Volunteers receive a letter or evidence of volunteer service hours.
It’s helpful but not essential for volunteers to have a working knowledge of Spanish. Spanish classes are available and range from 16 to 32 hours ($160-320).
For more information, visit www.mytropicaladventure.com, or call 862-2336 in Costa Rica or 1-800-832-9419 toll-free in the United States and Canada.
Volunteer Opportunities for Ticos and Residents
If you live in Costa Rica, Tropical Adventures welcomes your expertise and knowledge of the country. Age is no problem as long as you are reasonably fit.
Out-of-country retirees are also welcome, particularly if they can stay for an extended period of time.
The initial registration fee of $1,195 does not apply to those living in the country, and the weekly payment of $195 would apply only if you wanted to live with a host family. Most people in the above circumstances prefer to make their own transportation and living arrangements. Puerto Viejo offers a large choice of budget and reasonably priced accommodations, as well as good public bus service from San José and the Caribbean port city of Limón.
For volunteers looking for creature comforts and privacy, the Banana Azul guesthouse at the end of Playa Negra, just north of Puerto Viejo, is highly recommended.
Recently opened, this delightful beachfront, all-wood guesthouse is less than a minute’s walk from the virtually deserted Playa Negra. Canadian owner Colin Brownlee and his Costa Rican partner Roberto Ureña are charming, hospitable hosts who go out of their way to make you feel welcome.
The guest rooms on the second floor are spacious, airy, squeaky-clean and well appointed with ceiling fans and closets, and the tiled bathrooms offer hot-water showers. The large, furnished balconies overlook the tropical garden and let in the sound of the waves to lull you to sleep. A family suite offers two rooms connected by a balcony with a fully equipped kitchenette.
Daily rates including tax are $35-45 for a single and $40-50 double occupancy (weekly and monthly rates are available). A delicious full breakfast is included in the rates, as well as free wireless Internet.
Banana Azul also handles rentals of beach bungalows and cottages in the area.
For information, visit www.bananaazul.com or call 750-0212.
A Bribrí Cultural Adventure
If you are looking for a rural community-based tourism experience, you should visit the DitsöwöùCulturalCenter in the indigenous Talamanca Bribrí village of Bambú (also known as Bratsi).
Sixteen kilometers south of Puerto Viejo, the paved road ends in the small town of Bribrí, and a further eight kilometers west along a good dirt road you will find the cultural center and albergue (lodge), which has become the life work of Bribrí Danilo Layan.
An amazing example of typical Bribrí architecture, the three-story, all-wood structure with intricately thatched palm roof was built by Layan and a single helper.
“The building took a year and a half, but I’ve been collecting fallen trees and wood for years,” Layan said, emphasizing that he never cut down a tree and is totally dedicated to the environment and preserving the Bribrí culture.
Beautifully maintained and spotlessly clean, the lower level has three large, connecting rooms overlooking the jungle and valley below. They are used for meetings, cultural events and celebrations featuring traditional dancing and music. The upper levels are for sleeping; foam mattresses on the floor are covered with mosquito nets and make comfy beds. Each floor has a small bathroom with flush toilet and shower.
Despite there being electricity, Layan’s niece Fluvia cooks traditional food on a wood stove in the primitive kitchen.
“Our biggest event since we opened last year was a visit from a group of Cherokees from the United States,” Layan said. “Ditsöwöù means ‘cultural encounters’ in Bribrí, and their overnight stay certainly was.”
Layan offers day hikes, boat tours and visits to a nearby organic farm. An overnight stay in this stunning, magical place is an unforgettable experience that offers the opportunity to immerse yourself in the Bribrí way of life, but with modern comforts not widespread in indigenous communities.
“We help the community in many different ways by shopping locally, selling their crafts and giving them employment opportunities,” Layan said.
The tragedy about this incredible community-based project is that they desperately need English lessons and help with marketing and promotion. If you are interested in volunteering, contact Scott Pralinsky of Tropical Adventures at 862-2336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.