In late February, I made my way to the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center (CRARC) in Alajuela, Costa Rica. I was excited to be volunteering my time to such a great cause as looking after Costa Rica’s native animals, and had heard great things about the Center from many other tourists. Within a day of beginning my 8-night stint there, I understood all the great things I had been told. Within three days, I understood some of the negative things I had been told; and by the end of my stay I had discovered new aspects of the Center – some that will make me smile for years to come, and some which cast a dark shadow over my time there.
Given how many people volunteer at the Center every month, I thought it might be a good idea to write about what you should really expect when heading there. Don’t get me wrong – I loved most of my time at CRARC and if I could redo my trip, I would definitely still include my volunteering there as a top priority. I met some of the most amazing people I could imagine and have formed what I hope will be lifelong friendships; and I was able to in some small way help some of the animals, whether it be by feeding them, sitting with them to provide them companionship, or even just with the money I paid to be there.
Cost & Organising Your Volunteer Experience
Every volunteer pays USD$30 per day for their bed and three meals a day, with no further payments required, which is quite reasonable in comparison with some other volunteer organisations in Costa Rica. As I mentioned in my post about getting to the Center, you should know before going any further that you do not need to organise your volunteering through any organisation other than CRARC itself. I have heard of several other volunteers who paid one of the many organisations you can find online to send them to CRARC. In every instance I have heard of, the volunteer pays significantly more than they need to, for nothing extra, and the money goes straight to the organisation rather than to CRARC. To save yourself wasting money, all you need to do to volunteer at CRARC is contact Bernal Lizano at “email@example.com”, telling him the dates you want to volunteer (at least one week is required).
You will have to buy your own travel insurance before you leave your home country – make sure it covers any out of the ordinary activities you might be doing on your trip. Although it is highly unlikely you will fall ill or get injured during your time at CRARC, it’s not worth the risk. As my mum always told me, “if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel”.
Before you sign up to volunteer at CRARC, it’s important to know that there are a few rules, though nothing out of the ordinary. Once you arrive and commit to the amount of time you will be staying, you won’t get a refund for changing your mind partway through. You can usually extend your trip easily though, if you find yourself enjoying your time too much to leave. You can’t drink alcohol on the premises, but there is a bar not too far away. You obviously are not permitted to take illicit drugs on premises, and you should only smoke in designated smoking areas. You are meant to be back at the Center by 10pm every night, as the gates are meant to be shut and locked at that time. This doesn’t always seem to be the case, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. You can find more guidelines on the CRARC website.
What to Wear and What to Bring
When I arrived at the Center, I quickly noticed that, contrary to the website’s instructions, most volunteers were wearing flip-flops and shorts, rather than proper work boots and long pants. I don’t recommend wearing flip-flops; even though it’s warm, there are plenty of ways you could injure yourself without proper footwear and you should do what you can to protect yourself. That said, you don’t need anything more than your normal everyday runners or sneakers; work boots aren’t necessary so don’t bother lugging a heavy pair to Costa Rica just for your time volunteering. As for long pants, they’re only necessary to avoid the incessant biting that you will undoubtedly receive from one bug or another. A few volunteers told me that the strange bites I was getting were from grass flies, and there are of course mosquitos around as well. Given the heat, most of us just put up with the bites and wore shorts every day. You don’t feel the grass flies, but you will end up covered in unsightly bites, which look like a circle of discoloured skin with a spot of blood in the middle. I have now been away from the Center for almost a week and most of my bites have faded away to nothing, so I would definitely recommend wearing shorts instead of long pants, at least in the dry season. I can’t speak to the wet season as I haven’t met anyone who volunteered at CRARC during that time.
Another tip – you’re not allowed to wear sunscreen or insect repellent into the animal cages, for their safety; so if you burn easily, definitely consider bringing long-sleeved very lightweight tops and pants. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t bring sunscreen and insect repellent – you’ll still need them during your time off; the sun in Costa Rica is unforgiving and so are the mosquitos!
Don’t forget a hat, either! Bring your own towel, you will need it; and a water bottle you can easily refill and bring with you on your tasks throughout the day. I also brought two battery packs to charge my phone or camera overnight; the dormitories and common areas do have power sockets but not enough for everyone, or not conveniently located for your night-time charging needs.
The CRARC website has a list of what they recommend you bring; most of it is good advice, although I recommend at least factor 50 sunscreen, and a head torch with a red light would be much more useful than an ordinary torch. Check out their list here.
What to be Wary of
On to a more serious topic – there are no lockers at the Center, so you need to protect your valuables however you can. Make sure you bring a lock for each of your bags. I can’t stress this enough. When I arrived at the Center, I was under the impression that every volunteer was there for the same reason, and would all respect each other and the animals immensely. It turned out that this was not the case, much to my extraordinary disappointment. Several volunteers smoked marijuana both on and off the premises; and got drunk every couple of nights, resulting in loud late-night returns from the pub, and rough hangovers. Some volunteers didn’t bother showing up to their shift at all, and stayed in bed all day instead. Now, I don’t care what people do in their time off – if you want to have a few drinks or mellow out with some recreational drug use, that’s your decision; but when it starts to affect other volunteers and the Center in general, it’s gone too far.
Most abhorrently, and the gravest show of disrespect amongst volunteers, was the theft. A few days after I arrived, two fellow volunteers had some of their belongings taken, including watches and sunglasses. Some items were returned later, some weren’t. Over the next week or two, there were quite a few further reports of money (hundreds of dollars in total) and personal effects being stolen, sometimes while their owners were in the shower or asleep. It seemed clear that the thief or thieves were volunteers, though to my understanding little action was taken to determine who was responsible and ensure the return of the stolen items. There are currently no lockers at the Center, so if you are so unlucky as to volunteer at the same time as someone selfish enough to steal from others, it is completely your responsibility to ensure your belongings are always locked up securely.
This all said, and my complete disappointment and anger at the actions of this person or persons adequately expressed, I am not saying that you should not volunteer at CRARC. Apart from this dark cloud, the rest of my experience was blue skies.
During my time at CRARC, I was lucky enough to be able to enter the marmoset enclosure and sit with Evo, who will sadly never be released as he was kept as a pet and is not native to Costa Rica. I sat quietly and offered him company if he wanted it, which it turned out, he did. He came curiously over to me, and jumped on my head. After a time he came down onto my lap and tried nibbling on my camera case. We had a lovely time together, and I will never forget this incredible opportunity. This inspired me to join the task another volunteer had set for himself; finding out the back-stories of each of the animals in order to make it clear to future volunteers which animals need socialisation as they will never be released, and which animals should be left alone so that they have a better chance of being released. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of confusion at the Center at the moment in regards to this, and other things; hopefully over time everything can become more organised and clear, and the time volunteers are donating can be put to the best use possible. The Center could do with some improvements in efficiency and clarity of instructions, but I was inspired daily to see fellow volunteers taking initiative and beginning much-needed projects themselves, in their time off.
I should also mention that many of the volunteers I had the pleasure of becoming friends with had expected there would be more animal interaction during their time volunteering at CRARC. The “Volunteer” page on the CRARC website states that volunteers will have the opportunity to help with physical therapy for a one-armed sloth, or teach baby marmosets how to climb; it also infers that volunteers will be able to touch baby sloths by helping to weigh them. It’s important to know this is not accurate. Some members of the vet team are able to take part in activities like these, but everyday volunteers without veterinary experience are not able to touch sloths at all (for the animals’ own health), and interaction with other animals is kept to a minimum. Sometimes while cleaning the howler monkey cage the monkeys will jump on you and tug on your hair, but you are never to instigate contact with them. The same goes for any other animal. Salima, a beautiful female porcupine, loves people and will often climb on you when you go in to change her water or feed her in the evenings; Evo, a marmoset, might jump on your head and check for food, or run along your arms (he also bites, so be careful!). However, any interaction you do have with animals is strictly on their terms, so don’t expect to touch any animal while you are there. You may well finish up your time without having had any physical animal interaction at all, so prepare for this, and just be happy in the knowledge you still get to get closer to a sloth or a howler monkey than any of your friends have been!
At the Center, volunteers do almost everything. They cut up food for the animals, feed them, check their water, clean their enclosures, even build new enclosures and create enrichment activities. They help the lovely kitchen staff to prepare meals for everyone at the Center, they sweep up piles of leaves to add to the compost pile, they round up the chickens at the end of the day. The veterinary team is largely made up of volunteers, who help the animals in ways regular volunteers can’t – they feed orphaned baby opossums and squirrels, they take infant sloths out for daily exercise, they heal wounds and medicate sick animals. If you have medical experience, particularly veterinary experience, feel free to ask the veterinary team if they need help – they often do. This said, please don’t pretend you have experience you don’t, just to get closer to some of the baby animals – this has happened before, which resulted in the deaths of several animals who were incorrectly taken care of by inexperienced people.
As a reward for your hard work (and the USD$30/day payment), you are given accommodation in one of five 12-bed dormitories, which are comfortable enough and certainly more comfortable than some other dorms I’ve stayed in during my travels. You are given three meals a day, and can use the pool whenever you have time off. Breakfast usually consists of pancakes and fruit, or gallo pinto, eggs and fruit; and always coffee. Lunch is usually pasta or rice and beans, with some form of sauce, and salad; always with delicious freshly made juice. For dinner, there is often rice and beans with sauce, or sometimes burgers, nachos, or pasta. With every meal there is a vegetarian option, but make sure you tell the volunteer coordinator when you begin your time of any dietary requirements you have. Most volunteers end up getting snacks for the time in between meals, as hard work often results in hungry people! There are a few shops, one within a half-hour walk, and the others a short taxi drive away (which you can arrange through the Center).
On your days off (one per week), you can hang around the Center if you like, or take a trip away. You can organise trips through the Center, which can work out relatively inexpensive if enough of you are going. I was lucky enough to be a part of a group of five women who all went out on a day trip together to Poás Volcano, Doka Estate Coffee Tour, and a beautiful waterfall. The minivan cost us USD$220, which we split between us; plus the entry fees to each place (USD$15 for the volcano; USD$22 for the Coffee tour, or USD$14 for a student; USD$8 for the waterfall). We had our driver for the whole day, so we were able to stop off at the bank and shops when we wanted or needed to, too. Don’t be afraid to look up things online yourself, if you don’t want to do one of the activities CRARC offers; they can call you a taxi to go wherever you need to go and you can do whatever you like from there. If you are staying more than a week, I believe you are normally free to put all of your days off together and take a longer trip rather than just one day away at a time.
Overall, I wouldn’t take back my time at CRARC. I can’t believe how exciting it was to be so close to such exotic animals, and have the time to watch them interact with each other and sometimes people. I enjoyed every activity, even shovelling the animal waste, because it is crucial for the animals’ happiness and wellbeing. I am, however, so very glad that I had locks for each of my bags, and that I was put into an incredible group filled almost entirely with people just as enthusiastic and motivated as I was, and with only good intentions. My whole experience there would have been very different in a group with different dynamics, and I feel very lucky to have worked with the people I did. I can only hope that the people going there with any intentions other than good ones are somehow screened out and denied the possibility to volunteer there; or asked to leave once it is clear they don’t intend to put in the work they signed up for, or are violating the agreement they signed on entry.
If you have any questions about volunteering at the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center, don’t hesitate to contact me.
For more information about the Center, including how to get there, check this out.