My recent trip to Costa Rica was the first of my three summer adventures planned, and it started way back in October. A lot of people ask how I came upon it—it really isn’t much of a story. I knew I wanted to volunteer abroad this summer, so I started googling different opportunities and realized that one of the most popular types was eco-volunteering in Central America, particularly in Costa Rica, with beach preservation and sea turtle conservation. It seemed like the perfect way for someone with, at that point, little experience in international travel to dip her feet into volunteering in different countries. The program I chose to volunteer with—a nonprofit called Tropical Adventures—was incredible; they were helpful and fast to respond to my emails, and they planned out everything for us. All I had to do was follow the itinerary.
The most experience I’d had with Latin America was a resort in Mexico, so the culture shock definitely hit me immediately upon leaving the San Jose airport. It took some time to acclimate to an entirely different way of doing things, but it was so wonderful to get to know this beautiful country and their hardworking, proud people. Costa Ricans (or Ticos and Ticas, as they call them there) are undoubtedly the most welcoming people I’ve ever come across; they all went out of their way to make us feel comfortable. And it wasn’t just the locals whose kindness and compassion stood out; the wide array of other travelers we met were always quick to strike up a meaningful and warm conversation. From Scandinavian surfers, study abroad students, an English teacher-slash-Yoga instructor, to an elderly expat man with an eyepatch who helped to translate Spanish for us, I was truly impressed with everyone I met.
Of course, the natural beauty was astounding. Stunning beaches, diverse rain forests, rolling mountains, green, green everywhere. We lived and worked at the Romelia Wildlife Refuge, located on the absolutely picturesque Playa Grande, about a 45 minute hike from the small surfing town of Montezuma on the Nicoya Peninsula. Our rustic volunteer lodge was farther back from the beach, surrounded by lush green jungle. We would work hard during the day doing beach cleanup, building the turtle hatchery, and maintaining the jungle, with breaks in between to enjoy the sun and waves and hike to the freshwater pools in the nearby creek. At night we would patrol for turtles, and I’ll never forget how amazing it was to watch a large Olive Ridley lay each one of her 129 eggs.
It’s strange how quickly we got used to life there—little electricity, no hot water or (perish the thought) wifi, iguanas that run around like squirrels, and howler monkeys so loud they woke us up at the crack of dawn every day. All of this, though, added to the appeal of our little escape in the Costa Rican rainforest. Unlike on my cruise the month before, when I’d constantly craved wifi, I found that here I wasn’t wishing for that connection. I didn’t need to hear what was going on in “civilization,” not while I was happily encased in my bubble of wilderness. A trip into town for Costa Rica’s final 8 World Cup match (which, by the way, was amazing—there is nothing like watching the World Cup in a country that cares so much about soccer) was our only taste of it for the week at the refuge, and that was plenty for me.
Costa Rica changed my perspective on life in numerous ways, and not just the natural change in perspective that comes from being suspended hundreds of feet in the air on a zipline over the rain forest. It taught me to appreciate simplicity a lot more. It taught me that, with some small changes in our lifestyles, we can live in harmony with nature rather than at odds with it. It taught me that all work—even something as small as picking up 200 lollipop sticks that washed up on a beach—is important in the grand scheme of things. It taught me that you meet the best people traveling. And above all, it taught me that pura vida, or pure life, is the way to live.
Pura vida, Costa Rica. I miss you already and I’ll be back again someday.