Not knowing what I had got myself into I arrived on the south Caribbean coast of Costa Rica at the beginning of July 2017 after a long night of traveling. From the reading material provided by the project before hand, and the additional reading I had done on the area, I was expecting the project to be off the beaten jungle path, to be working long days and to be spending a fair amount of time by myself. All of these proved to be true and were just a few factors that had me feeling anxious before leaving Canada. My thoughts had been consumed with ‘what ifs’, “What if it’s too secluded?” “What if I don’t make friends?” “What if I get sick or injured?”. I consoled myself knowing that any experience I had would be worth the time spent here, even if it wasn’t what I expected. In the end, six weeks in the jungle was not long enough, and it wasn’t anything like I expected.
I decided to go to Manzanillo and work with the Ara Project because I wanted to gain work experience in a novel way. I have a background in biology and have worked in avian conservation before, and thought this would be the perfect opportunity for me to learn about conservation efforts in Costa Rica and about an amazing species, the Great Green Macaw (Ara ambiguus). I chose to go to Manzanillo over Punta Islita because there was an emphasis over working with released birds versus captive birds, and I wanted to be in the rainforest! I think I chose the right site for me, but I am sure Punta Islita is equally amazing in it’s own way.
I want to emphasize that my experience is unique to me, and the fact that everyone will have his or her own experience here. I am someone who can spend time with myself or with people and feel content. I found beauty in the silent moments taking in the view and watching the birds, as well as spending time with friends and sharing the experience. But this isn’t for everyone. During my time with Ara I ended up being the only volunteer at the site for 10 nights - that meant 10 nights sleeping in the volunteer cabin, alone, with all the jungle noises. This was a terrifying thought to me at first because it happened about 10 days after my arrival. Over the course of those 10 nights not once did I feel alone. This set the stage through out the entirety of my trip, I never felt alone or unsafe here. My experience would have been completely different if it weren’t for the team at Ara Manzanillo. It is small but mighty! Everyone always had each other’s backs.
I went into the experience expecting a lot – mostly hard work. But it was what I didn’t expect that made the trip so amazing. There are opportunities around every corner of the Ara Project and it was hard not to be involved. Whatever your interests and passions there is likely something for you to work on. Expecting that most volunteers are passionate about birds and conservation there are also a variety of other opportunities within the organization to get involved with. You can guide tours and teach people about the project and how important conservation is, you can join staff Tirza in local presentations and community outreach activities, you can get staff Duaro to teach you everything you want to know about the plethora of fauna in the area, or entice staff Mario into teaching you about the flora of Costa Rica, and if your thing is maintenance I’m sure Luis would like some help around the site. There are also opportunities to learn how to climb trees, handle sick or injured birds and care for these birds in the aviary if necessary.
Not only were there opportunities to be involved in during work hours, but also in your free time and I think it’s important to take advantage of these. There are many beautiful beaches just short bike rides or bus rides away for surfing and snorkeling. You can get to Puerto Viejo easily by bus for groceries, eating out and having a couple drinks and there are many stops along the way if you are interested in doing more touristy things. The Jaguar Rescue Centre is something everyone should see, as well as one of the chocolate tours.
I arrived at the Ara Project during the peak of fledging season so a lot of the work we were doing centered on making sure the chicks were fledging as healthy and capable young birds. During my stay two fledglings were found on the ground. One was put back in the nest and successfully fledged again following his first attempt, and the other had to be taken into our care because it was too weak to fly. This chick became known as ‘Maple’ and a lot of time and effort by the whole team during my stay, and after I left, was directed at getting Maple healthy enough to be re-released. Maple was a difficult case and wouldn’t accept food from her parents nor from us, and she eventually became weak and needed veterinarian care. The amazing people working at the Jaguar Rescue Centre helped her healing process and she is now back on track to being released at the field station despite her setbacks.
A typical workday at the site looked something like this, but more often than not a day was less than typical – sometimes more personal time or special activities…
|6 AM||wake up and feed the birds|
|8 AM||cleaning and planning for the day|
|9 AM||supply hanging feeders near nest boxes|
|10 AM||collect wild beach almonds|
|1 PM||clean and prepare beach almonds|
|2 PM||feeders at nest boxes|
|3 PM||feed beach almonds|
|4 PM||guide tour and observe birds/ look for fledglings|
|5 PM||make dinner|
My stay at the Ara Project ended mid-August, 2017 and I left feeling like I got a lot more out of the experience than I had expected. I made some amazing friends and got to experience so much. I will forever be grateful to Emily and Enrique who work hard to make sure every employee, volunteer, and macaw is taken care of. I will go back in an instant and would tell any one interested in macaws and conservation to consider volunteering with the Ara Project in Manzanillo. I would also urge anyone interested in volunteering here to ask a lot of questions before going and reach out to previous volunteers for advice. It is hard work, and it isn’t for everyone, you have to be okay with working by yourself or with a small group of people everyday (and okay with sharing your living space with an assortment of geckos and insects) but if you think it could be for you than seriously consider it because the experience is more than worthwhile. The most important advice I could give to a future volunteer would be to get involved in everything you can, keep an open mind, and go with the flow. There are a lot of bugs (sometimes big ones), some dirt, and some really loud jungle noises. You will have to walk up and down a big hill many times, you will have to be alone sometimes, and you usually can’t watch Netflix. But you can expect to see some amazing wildlife and seascapes, to make some friends (both macaw and people), and to gain some cool experience in an amazing place.