Saturday, 29 March 2014

Voluntourism in Costa Rica

After spending a couple of weeks in Mexico City feeling out of sorts...partly emotionally having had to say goodbye to a couple of people in recent weeks and partly physically having come down with a nasty flu like bug that wiped me out for a few days, I finally got my act together and realised I needed to go somewhere or do something. Sitting around in the city without a plan was doing me no good so I did the only logical thing I could do...I booked a flight for the next day to Costa Rica.

My last night in Mexico City I stayed in a nice little hostel right in the city, only a block north of Zocalo and two blocks from the metrobus line that runs straight to the airport for 30 pesos. There I met Celeste, a girl from California who was in pretty much the same position as me and so over a few drinks we cheered each other up. It was nice to be back in a hostel again with random people to talk to and bounce ideas off.

My flight to San Jose was earlyish so I found myself wandering through Mexico City at 5am. It was interesting to see the place sans people. I'm not sure I've ever seen so many police cars patrolling. As soon as one reached the end of the block, another appeared around the corner. How the city is considered to be so unsafe is beyond me.

The flight was uneventful, only about 20 people on the plane which surprised me, but also explained the relatively cheap price of the flight. Upon arrival in San Jose I met a woman from Kitchener as she was waiting to leave, who reinforced yet again that Canadians are my favourite people by giving me her unneeded Costa Rican SIM card with $20 credit on it for nothing. It also turns out that cell phone use here us incredibly cheap...nearly a month later of almost continuous data use and I've used less than $5!

After a couple of days of sitting around in San Jose and a few emails enquiring about possible volunteer opportunities, I found myself on a bus headed for San Gerado de Rivas to stay for a while at a hostel at the foot of Mount Chirripo. Casa Mariposa is without a doubt the most beautiful hostel I've ever stayed at. With six private rooms and half a dozen dorm beds, this place is pretty remote as far as hostels go. An hour and a half on a bluebird bus from the nearest large town, the last few kilometres of road into San Gerado are unpaved and rocky. When the bus ends its journey next to the soccer pitch and the general store (pretty much the entirety of the village!) there's still another 1.2km to walk up a very steep hill to reach the hostel. Climbing 600ft in that distance, the altitude rises quickly.

What awaits at the top is truly beautiful though and I always enjoy seeing new guests walk into the place, most instantly forgetting the hike it took to get there. The place is situated in the forest adjacent to a privately owned reserve that is open to the public for free. Cloudbridge is an area of rainforest at the foot of the Talamanca range with a variety of trails and a huge variety of wildlife. I haven't explored it fully yet, but I'm looking forward to doing so over the coming weeks. For now I'm just happy to be stopping somewhere for a bit and not to be packing my bag and moving every few days and I couldn't have found a better spot to do so.

Which leads me to what I want to talk about: voluntourism.

Having moved around a lot over the last couple of months, I knew what I needed to pull myself out of this rut was to find a place to call home for a while. Therefore as soon as I got here I had a look through the HelpX lists for Costa Rica and talked to some people at the hostel in San Jose about possible opportunities and within a few hours of sending some emails I had four offers of places. Three straight offers of work exchanges (bed with or without food) and a fourth that I'd failed to screen out of the 'voluntourism' kind.

In recent years volunteering has clearly become fashionable. At a risk of generalising, it provides a way for gap year students and people going through a mid life crisis to go on holiday but at the same time feel like they're doing something worthwhile with their time and money. This has led to some of the places providing traditional volunteering opportunities trying to turn it into big business. Now, rather than being grateful for the help of a few hardworking people in return for some food and a bed as part of an honest work exchange, they've realised that there are people who are willing to not only work for free, but they're willing to pay for the privilege. Companies have sprung up all over the world, for example, offering a weeks work in an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, a snip at $1500 including a hammock to sleep in and a couple of meals. All the advertising gives the impression that you'll be contributing to a worthwhile cause, but the reality is often very different.

I decided to ask some questions of the place that offered me a paid-for volunteering position. I explained that I was willing to give my time freely and work hard, but that in return I required a place to sleep and my food provided. I also explained that I could not afford to pay for the 'privilege' of working and that I was prepared to give far more of my time in value than a bed and food would cost.

The reply I received didn't surprise me. They explained that they ask their 'volunteers' to work only 4 hours a day and that most volunteers didn't really work at all. They also pointed out that they can pay a Tico $8 for the same amount of work and get five times more output. They admitted that their 'volunteer' programme was really just an option for a cheap holiday and that the income from this benefitted a private business.

I politely replied explaining that this was not what I was looking for and asked them to reconsider their use of the term 'volunteering'. I also pointed out that there are many people out there, like myself, who are happy to work hard, want to learn and do not consider it a cheap holiday and that it's insulting to be lumped in with all the holidaymakers who choose to slack off whilst on their 'volunteer holidays'. I also pointed out that it's a catch 22 - I've spoken to many genuine volunteers about this and the consensus is that as soon as someone is paying to be somewhere they feel less valued and less like they have to earn their keep and therefore productivity will inevitably be lower.

I fully respect that, in this case, local people are being employed and that should always be top priority. Volunteers should be adding something to the community they're working in, not taking jobs from local people. It's just a shame that genuine volunteers are losing out so often now to the voluntourism sector. To be asked to pay to work goes against everything I believe in. It devalues your efforts and leads people to expect to have to pay in the future. This sector unfortunately is growing though, with more and more extreme examples. I've heard stories about child daycare centres in Asia for example, being touted as 'orphanages' to attract paying volunteers.

It is of course admirable that so many people are willing to give their time freely to help organisations and I'm not putting those people down. I guess what I'm asking is that before you consider one of these types of holidays, please do your research. Find out where exactly your money is going and what it us being used for. Make sure that by volunteering you aren't taking a job a away from a local worker. There are many charities and organisations that would love to have your help in return for providing you with food, a bed and a wealth of knowledge. Check out HelpX, Wwoofing and Workaway for genuine work exchange opportunities in the country you plan to visit. There you'll find plenty of opportunities to do something worthwhile and to fully experience a place by living and working with local people and truly experiencing the place.

Next trip to Corcovado National Park!


  1. I really enjoyed reading this and other posts ..thank you Pippa from NZ.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. More coming soon :)

    2. Thanks for commenting! I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. More coming soon :)