Michelle is from California and is studying Biological Sciences in college. She volunteered on the World Endeavors Wildlife Conservation volunteer program in Costa Rica, where she was assigned to a project focused on sea turtle conservation.
How was your experience in Costa Rica?
My experience in Costa Rica was absolutely incredible! During my trip I was able to see the natural beauty of Costa Rica, volunteer for a cause I deeply believe in and experience traveling on my own for the first time. This trip helped me discover my true passion for wildlife biology and gave me an idea of how I want to go about attaining that.
Did you have any reservations before leaving for Costa Rica?
Yes, I was a little nervous about traveling around in Costa Rica because my Spanish is sub par and I didn’t really know exactly what to expect from this adventure.
What surprised you about Costa Rica?
I have been abroad before, but this trip was my first time being out of the country and traveling alone. I had been to Costa Rica once before, so once I got there it was refreshing and exhilarating to be back. I was surprised by the towns in Costa Rica; I guess I didn’t really know what to expect from them, but they are very different from cities in the US. One of the things that I thought was really cool was that they typical animals that were around my homestay or the turtle camp were these exotic birds, iguanas, butterflies and monkeys, instead of the basic crows, raccoons, and such as home. By the end of my trip, I had grown accustomed to the thunderstorms we had almost everyday and the environment around me. In fact, one of my favorite things was falling asleep to the combined sounds of frogs calling to each other, waves crashing on the beach and thunder in the distance out at sea.
What was a typical day like at the sea turtle conservation project site?
For me, typical day would start off about 5:30 in the morning because that was when the sun rose, and as a light sleeper, it was difficult to sleep later than that. I would then chat with some of the other volunteers that were also up early or on the morning hatchery shift and hear about the events of the night before: how many nests did we get, how big were they, and what species of turtles came up? Breakfast was served by our cook at about 8 am, and then after everyone had finished we would start our work for the day.
This work included clearing the path, exhuming nests that had already hatched, and then removing the sand from that area, and replacing it with new sand to keep the hatchery clean. We also had two cleaning days a week and helped with the upkeep of the camp. We usually finished work by lunchtime at 12, and we were then left to our own devices. Since we could only go to town on Sundays (our day off, as well as Thursdays on occasion), we had to find things to do at the camp or on the beach. We usually spent a lot of time playing in the waves, reading (bring lots of books on your trip!!), or talking and playing games with the other volunteers. Every night there was dinner at 5 or 5:30 (just before dusk), and most people went to bed around 7 or 8 after a couple of card games so that they could get enough sleep.
We each had a 2 to 3 hour day and night shift watching over the hatchery. This job included walking among the nests every 15 minutes, checking each one to see if there were any signs of hatching, as well as getting rid of any crabs that had made their way into the hatchery. If the baby turtles hatched out of their nest, then you got to release them back into the ocean. The shifts were on a rotation, so every once in a while you were put on patrol rather than a hatchery shift. When you go on patrol it is a 3 to 4 hour shift with another staff member and you walk up and down the beach with red lights looking for any female turtles coming up to lay their eggs. When you find one you help take certain measurements and count the eggs, which are then taken back to the camp where the person on hatchery shift will dig a new nest for the eggs in the hatchery. I personally found patrol to be very exciting because that was the only time you could see the mother turtles. Although it seems like it would be hard to wake up in the middle of the night to go on shift and then go back to sleep, it really wasn’t that difficult and you got used to it fairly quickly.
What was a favorite thing about your volunteer placement? The most challenging?
My favorite thing was working with the turtles and learning more about the different types of turtles and the challenges that they face. It was also interesting to learn about the challenges biologists face with trying to protect and help this ancient species. I must say releasing the baby turtles was an inspiring thing as well, and I could only hope that I had made some difference in their lives by helping them get a better start to theirs (the odds for a baby to survive is one in one thousand – it’s pretty bad). One of the more challenging aspects of my volunteer placement was living long term (3-4 weeks) without electricity and hot or pressurized water. Also, we were living in close quarters, with limited privacy, with a bunch of people from all over the world with all sorts of personalities, and we all had to get along to maintain the peace at camp. For the most part it wasn’t too bad, but it takes effort on everyone’s part to stay positive and not annoy each other too much!
How did you choose this program?
I wanted to volunteer because I thought that it would be an interesting way for me to spend the second half of my summer, and I was sold once I saw that there were volunteer projects with sea turtles. I chose Costa Rica because I had loved it when I had last been there and I wanted to see more, and also because it was one of the only places that offered the program with sea turtles. I chose World Endeavors because it was one of the cheaper programs to do what I wanted to do and it seemed to give a lot of support to its participants, which was exactly what I wanted for my first trip abroad alone.
Did you find any challenges with the language barrier?
There were some challenges with the language barrier, mainly when I was staying at my homestay because my host family could only speak Spanish and my Spanish was extremely rusty, but we made it through. At the sea turtle camp, most of the staff members spoke some English, but they explained a lot of things in Spanish, so some things were unclear until I started working. One of the staff members was actively trying to learn English, so we had many conversations that were a mixture of the two languages, which were a lot of fun!
How did you get around?
While staying in Atenas I mostly walked to town and sometimes took a taxi. While at the camp, we didn’t go very far, but we would walk to town on our days off. When I was traveling around Costa Rica, I mainly took the local buses which weren’t too hard to use once you figured them out and could talk to the locals for help when you needed it.
How was your host family experience?
My host family was extremely nice and they always fed me well and took interest in what I was doing. Once when I was leaving very early in the morning to catch a bus downtown for my weekend trip to Volcán Arenal, they made sure I had a taxi to come pick me up and that I got a safe, good start to my trip. It was so nice because they did all of this without me even asking and it really showed me that they cared.
What did you do in your free time?
My weekends/evenings changed depending on what I was doing or where I was. I traveled my first weekend in Costa Rica while I was staying with my host family and taking Spanish classes, but it was difficult to travel once I was at the turtle camp because we got very little time off and it was difficult to get around quickly. Most evenings I had an early dinner and then relaxed by chatting with other volunteers/travelers or reading, and then going to bed fairly early. On occasion I went out with some of the people that I had met as well.
One funny travel day I had was when I was leaving Playa Buena Vista, Sámara (the turtle camp) and heading to Montezuma with 3 other volunteers. It started with us first walking 1 km with all of our bags over sand to get to the river, then crossing the river via kayak, and taking a taxi to town (sitting in the back of a pickup truck). Next we caught a bus that was heading back towards San Jose (the capital), but we had to get off at a little town called Baranca, but in Costa Rica, they have no signs for towns or announcements for the bus stops, so we were sitting at stop with only a bar to show that there was something there and some locals told us that this was the Baranca stop. We quickly grabbed our heavy bags and got off and found our new stop towards Puntarenas. We caught that bus and made it an hour early for our ferry, so we were able to stop for lunch. Then we took the ferry across the Gulf of Nicoya, and caught another bus which took us over this extremely bumpy dirt road and finally to Montezuma. We had left at 7 AM from camp and got to Montezuma at 5 PM. We were all incredulous that we had actually made it there all in one piece!! If you look on a map the distance between Sámara and Montezuma it really isn’t that far, but we had to take an extremely roundabout path to get there, but it was fun and part of the adventure!
What was the food like in Costa Rica?
A typical meal is always some combination of rice and beans. My host mother did a great job of mixing in some seasonings or vegetables in order to change things up from time to time, while at the turtle camp, it was basic rice and beans with a vegetable. At restaurants, a typical meal was called a casado, which consists of a little of everything: rice, beans, meat (fish, chicken, beef) and some tortillas. Very delicious!
What are you doing now?
Right now I am back in school at UC Davis. My time abroad has helped me clarify my life goals and aspirations, as well as inspire me to travel more and just get out into the world and do the things that I love and want to do!
Did your time in Costa Rica impact your future career goals?
Yes, it has really helped me see that I want to go into wildlife research in exotic places. This trip showed me that I have a strong passion for animals and adventure, and I am not satisfied with work solely in an office or lab. I need to be out of doors exploring the natural world and learning more about its inhabitants. This trip has also shown me that I can make things happen if I really want to do something, so I am going to find a way to do more research abroad in the future.
What advice would you give to someone traveling abroad?
While traveling abroad just go with the flow. If something doesn’t happen the way you think it will, then don’t worry, it will turn out all right. Also, it is the things that go wrong on a trip that create the great stories that you will always remember! But also, always keep your wits about you and make sure to appear confident to all outsiders (especially if you are a girl!) because it is also easy to be taken advantage of or tricked.
Number one story you love to tell about your time abroad:
After I left the turtle camp, I traveled to Montezuma with some of the volunteers I had met while there. My friend, Julia, and I decided that we wanted to go on an adventure and we had heard that there was a popular hike to these two waterfalls that wasn’t too far away from the town of Montezuma, so we decided to go. We packed ourselves some lunch and water into our backpack and set off walking from our hostel. We made it easily to the first waterfall, but it hadn’t been that long of a hike, so we decided to go find the second one. However, the path that we were taking soon started to look less used, but it still seemed like we were going in the right direction. The path became increasingly difficult to transverse with rain forest all around us and we had to clamber over roots and rocks to make our way. Suddenly after hiking for about an hour and a half in the humid jungle we came upon this pool with a rope swing. We quickly realized that we had found our way to the pool just above the two waterfalls by looking over the edge. We stayed there to rest for a bit, swim and eat our lunch. Then we decided to head back because we could see the afternoon’s thunderstorm rolling in and I did not have any desire to be stuck in a rainforest during a thunderstorm. We managed to find a more worn path on the way back, but it suddenly dead-ended near the very first waterfall we had come across, but on the opposite side of the river than we needed to be on. We had to carefully cross the river taking care to keep our boots and backpacks dry! Once we made it across, we had an easy trail home and we celebrated making it through the jungle by ourselves! That was the best adventure I have ever had!
Number one challenge about being abroad:
Figuring out how to safely and logically get from one place to another cheaply.
Most important thing you gained from your time abroad:
Confidence to travel alone and make the things that I want to do happen, as well as inspiring my passion for world travel!
Anything you learned about yourself or US culture while abroad?
This trip was a great reminder that not everyone lives the way I do at home and that most people don’t have the same opportunities that I have been fortunate enough to have. It has restored my sense of humility.
It was also extremely interesting to see the differences in political attitudes in Costa Rica versus the US, because although they are both democracies, there are some key differences in how things are run. I liked hearing about what other people thought of the US and Americans from an outside perspective as well.
Anything else you wish to share?
If you are going on a turtle project, make sure that you leave an extra week or two for just traveling around the country because you can’t go anywhere while at the camp. I would have regretted it immensely if I hadn’t gotten the chance to explore Costa Rica on my own some as well.
Also, if you are not O.K. with roughing it some (kind of like camping), don’t go to the turtle project. It would be a drag to have someone who doesn’t want to be there at the camp. Make sure you know what you are getting yourself into before you go!