‘I found a croc,’ called Arthur with glee. We all looked up from scanning the tide line and saw his grin as he held up a washed-up shoe, a Croc, aloft. We were joining the monthly beach clean on Playa Tortuga in the southern Pacific region of Costa Rica. The beach sits between two river estuaries, perfect crocodile conditions. A part of me was relieved he’d merely picked up a discarded, plastic shoe; but there was a small part of me that was disappointed not to see one of these majestic reptiles. This is what volunteering with kids in Costa Rica looks like.
On planning our family sabbatical we kept a lookout for places where we could volunteer with kids. It formed an important part of the ethos behind our trip, to open our kids minds about the world. We wanted to find a way of contributing to the communities we travelled in and felt that joining an organised volunteer programme would be a good, and safe, way of doing this.
Volunteering with kids
We connected with the company, Working Abroad, to identify suitable volunteering opportunities in Costa Rica. Reserva Playa Tortuga stood out as a place where we could get involved in wildlife conservation. Many of the programmes they run have activities that are suitable for kids too, and they are mindful of volunteer safety, whatever their age. During our seven days with the reserve, we monitored bats and monkeys, counted macaws, planted coconut trees, took part in a beach clean and helped to start an inventory of reptiles, amphibians and insects.
Planning to go volunteering with kids meant that we sought more information about the experience than we would have done had we been volunteering as solo adults. Working Abroad were patient with our many questions during the booking process. We were reassured about the accommodation, flexibility, food and the activities we might be involved in. They connected me with the reserve manager when I requested more detail about what activities we could expect the kids the be involved in.
Reserva Playa Tortuga
Arriving at the reserve we were welcomed by one of the researchers, Graciela, who showed us to our rooms and gave us a brief tour of the main station. The research station and accommodation is near the town of Ojochal, but sits in the middle of a large reserve, mainly made up of secondary forest. There are jungle trails which run from the station itself, and other trails which are accessed from the track which leads to the beach. For our family of four we had two rooms, a double and a room which could sleep up to four. We took the double and put the kids next door. They slept on the bunk bed – the lower bunk is a double. Shared bathrooms sit directly across from our rooms.
We shared our volunteering week with five British gap year students. It’s recommended to stay at least a week, but many people choose to stay longer. We booked seven nights thinking that this was just the right amount of time with kids. Spending a week there gave us the opportunity to get involved in many of the reserve’s projects, though I imagine staying longer means that you may get the opportunity to see how a project develops.
Volunteering daily life
Life at the Reserva is run to a strict timetable. A whiteboard in the common room lets you know which activities you are booked to do throughout the week. On average we had two activities a day, most lasting around two hours. We found we had a lot of downtime so asked if there was more work we could get involved with. They were happy to oblige, giving us a few more tasks.
They provide all the food you need for the week. Each weekday lunch is cooked and served for everyone at the station at 12pm. For breakfast and supper we were welcome to help ourselves to the ingredients in the well-stocked larder, fridge and freezer and make up our own food. One of the week’s highlights was cooking a Venezuelan feast of arepas (small maize breads which are filled with a variety of savoury fillings) with Graciela and the other volunteers. Gaby, a biologist, made us her signature rice pudding, flavoured with palm sugar, cinnamon and cloves, which was out of this world.
When we weren’t working, we spent our time chilling in the hammocks and chatting to the other volunteers, cooking, writing our journals and keeping the kids up to date with maths and spelling. We also popped down to the beach and, on one fabulous morning, we were taken on an outing to a nearby waterfall.
Reserva Playa Tortuga is probably best known for the work it does with Olive Ridley turtles who come to the beaches of the local area to lay their eggs. They do this mostly in wet season. We were there in mid-April, just before the season kicks in. There is a hatchery on site which eggs are placed in to keep them safe from poachers, but also for the researchers to study (effects of temperature and environment). The hatchery is used throughout the year – there were three active nests while we were there – and it needs to be kept clean, an endless task in its jungle setting.
Bats and Monkeys
We went on walks on the jungle trails where we looked out for bat tents and watched the resident monkeys (howlers and capuchins) in their natural habitat.
Reptiles and Insects
We were led on jungle trails with the task of looking out for reptiles and insects. We loved the reptile walks, especially when we spotted basilisk lizards racing across the water. We noted which reptiles and insects we saw, and Neil took plenty of pictures which we are sharing with the Reserve for their records.
Early one morning we were took part in a monthly beach clean organised by local ex-pats (mostly Americans living in and around Ojochal). It was hugely rewarding work, but very depressing to see how much rubbish lands on these shores – from countless plastic bottles, to shoes, fishing nets, polystyrene, broken dolls, and so many tiny bits of plastic. This was a great activity to include while volunteering with kids as they, more than many adults, are so knowledgeable and passionate about plastic pollution.
As part of their coastal management plan the Reserva is planting new palm trees on the border of the secondary rainforest and the beach. I would love to revisit this coast in a year’s time to see how our coconuts are doing.
Monitoring Camera Trap Footage
Up to three camera traps are in place in the Reserva. One of our additional tasks was to go through the footage and make a note of every animal the camera caught. Armed with reference books, and within shouting distance of Oscar, the reserve manager, we got to work. The kids excitedly worked through the books to identify each animal we saw, and we called on Oscar to help us out when we couldn’t quite work it out. By far the most thrilling spots were a jaguarundi and a crocodile.
Not every task was thrilling. We weren’t always out on jungle trails seeing animals in the wild or making a clear and positive impact on the environment. Sometimes we were given grunt work to do. Sifting sand was a particularly repetitive, dull task! We had pots of earth taken from different land crab habitats around the reserve. The task was to break the sandy earth down into its smallest components, taking out any sticks, leaves and stones we could find. The earth was then weighed before being sifted through five different gauges of sieve. The resident biologists were then able to identify what components make up the crab’s chosen habitats. This was the beginning of a new project in which they plan to see how healthy the local blue crab population is. In other countries, such as Ecuador, regulations are in place restricting the amount of blue crabs that can be caught and sold for food. No such regulations exist in Costa Rica, and as yet it is unclear whether the population is in danger or not. This project hopes to find enough evidence to help decide whether new regulations are needed or not.
Our week spent volunteering with kids at Reserva Playa Tortuga was a wonderful experience. Our highlights were seeing animals in their natural environment. Unlike some of the busy national parks in Costa Rica, these animals haven’t adapted to human visitors. We learnt how to behave so we could observe the animals without scaring them. Seeing capuchin monkeys at rest and howler monkeys at play was a privilege. One of my favourite memories is of Charlie asking Graciela if basilisk lizards could run across ‘rough’ water (rapids). Before Graciela had a chance to answer Charlie watched a basilisk race across a rapid section of the river. That surpasses searching for answers on the internet.
In our normal lives we don’t get many opportunities to work as a family team. At home the kids have chores, and when we go camping they are given jobs to help out. Volunteering with them gave us a chance to really work together, an experience I would highly recommend to any family. The boys put as much effort in as any of the volunteers working with us that week, and were always full of chatter and questions. We were so proud of the way they got involved and always with a positive attitude.