After I finished high school in 2022, like most of my friends, I wanted to travel. Seeing the world, meeting new people, gaining new experiences, and doing something different was very important to me after 13 years of school.
I wanted to work and live in a different country for a while. Volunteering abroad at social or environmental projects is a good way to earn experience in practical tasks and become self-dependent. It also helps to improve your ability to communicate in all kinds of languages and ways. Also, working with exotic animals in rescue centers was very appealing to me as a biology and nature lover.
Some projects commercialize volunteering as a type of tourism and offer a kind of “adventure vacation” for young people from Europe and the USA. I started to question whether “volunteering” was a fitting way for me to fulfill what I first imagined – to experience moments to remember for the rest of my life. For me, that is worth paying money fo
After I finished high school in 2022, I wanted to travel. I learned about Ara Manzanillo from my ex-teacher’s friend who had lived in Costa Rica. The project is a small NGO fighting for the survival of the nearly extinct Great Green Macaw by reintroducing them back into their natural habitat and supporting wild birds with nest boxes and supplemental food. Their station is located near Manzanillo on the South Caribbean coast of Costa Rica in the middle of the jungle, not far from beautiful beaches.
I lived and worked in a very remote place with only a few international volunteers but mostly locals. There was some hard and repetitive work, but also amazing interactions with animals and fun tasks. The project charges a monthly fee to cover expenses and volunteers are provided with basic food and a basic cabin near the station to live in. The money and work go directly to the project and the protection of the birds.
After I was accepted for a period of 3-months, the project supported me with all kinds of info for my trip to Costa Rica. As it was my first time traveling alone abroad, it was very helpful to know that I had someone there to support me. I really appreciated that. I was first met by staff Marcelo, who took me up to the station, briefed me about the work and later we went into town for groceries.
The work I did was very diverse depending on needs. I worked with two Costa Rican internship students from a local high school during my first month and later was joined by other international volunteers with whom I lived. Duaro, the station manager, coordinated our daily work plans. Cleaning, providing the aviary with fresh plants and food for the rescued birds, or going into the forest to plant and care for reforested young trees were regular tasks. Also maintaining the station and the lookout deck was an important daily routine. At 3 pm we offered public guided tours to explain the efforts and strategy of the project and to observe the free-flying birds from the lookout. There were a lot of German tourist visitors and the team was happy when I decided to lead those tours.
Even after months at the station, the tours were a great way for me to take a step back to observe and remember what magnificent birds I was working with! It never got boring to work with those smart and charismatic birds. Whenever I thought I’d seen it all, they did something unique and impressed me every time, especially how the parents feed their young chicks: They grab them by their beaks and shake them so that the chewed food transfers from the parent’s beak into the youngling. Hilarious to watch! Observing them use their beaks and tongues for climbing and watching them complain about something always filled me with joy.
When we climbed up to the nest boxes installed high up in the trees, to clean or check them, there were always birds around watching us. Climbing up the trees was the most fun task for me. Of course, it was physically exhausting and at first also mentally very challenging. I was a bit afraid of heights but in these situations high up in the jungle trees with a great view surrounded by all the plants and animals, I just forgot my fears.
The work environment became pretty relaxed once I got into the “pura vida” and understood “Tico-time”. A normal day would look like this: In the morning we would feed the birds and after everyone arrived, do some maintenance work or other tasks. At times, we would go to the beach to collect beach almonds (the macaws’ favorite food) for the birds inside the aviary. Depending on the day we could spend the rest of the day at the beach after midday if we weren’t needed for the tour in the afternoon. Most of the time when I did a tour I stayed at the station as we would be finished around 4:30-5 pm and an hour later the sun would set.
The station is located remote from the touristic town of Puerto Viejo (with all the bigger stores and parties), up a steep hill deep in the jungle. I was provided with a bicycle to use but I still had to walk about 1 km up the hill to the station every time I went out, whether to collect groceries, go to the beach, or at night coming back from partying. I occasionally spent money on Tuk-tuks or taxis to take me back up to the station but that gets costly over time, so I decided my daily fitness routine is to walk up and down that hill (the fastest time was 6 minutes, the average was 10 minutes).
Be prepared to live in the jungle with wildlife – spiders, geckos, ants, and other insects inside the house – and monkeys, raccoons, or other mammals outside making noises at night. You will learn to live with them and when you do it’s kind of cool! I enjoyed living somewhat isolated (at least most of the time), I learned a lot about myself and to be self-dependent.
The team I worked with during that time was great: Duaro taught me all kinds of cool stuff like climbing trees, and picking up poisonous snakes with a stick, and took me on fun work ATV rides. Marcelo, who I worked with regularly, became a really good friend during my stay. We went to parties together and he showed me around the region – places only the locals can show you. He always called me “Faultier” (sloth in German) which I taught him because he wanted to learn German words and about German history. Jewinson, the forestry professional, taught me a lot about local plants and practiced his English with me. Enrique and Emily, the founders of the project, were available and invited the volunteers into their homes. To me, it felt like a small family after those months!
I warmly recommend the Ara Project to everyone. This project and the environment are perfect for meeting new people, learning new things (like living independently with other people), getting involved in active wildlife protection, and practicing English and Spanish. The team is very caring and was always by my side whenever help or advice was needed.
If I ever have the chance to come back I will! GRACIAS!