Forging a New Trail in Costa Rica
Is voluntourism for you? Jennifer Krissilas discovered her perfect style of volunteering, and was transformed from trail hiker to trail blazer in Costa Rica.
After weeks of snorkelling, hiking and whitewater rafting in Costa Rica, it was time for me to cool my heels, literally, in the blustery mountain town of Santa Elena, home of the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. And what better way to end my trip than by volunteering in the protected forest, where, after a few days of chipping in, I no longer felt like a tourist but like a part of the community.
That’s because the reserve truly embraces community: the “little sister” to the much larger and more touristed Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve down the road, the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is one of the country’s first community-managed conservation areas, with proceeds going to the reserve or the local high school. Plus, people of any age are invited to volunteer for any amount of time.
That last part is muy importante. I like volunteering, but I’ve little desire to spend my entire vacation volunteering. Does that make me a bad volunteer? Not at all, for I’m a roving consultant volunteer.
Before you Google “roving consultant volunteer,” let me explain. When I recently took Volunteer Canada’s Volunteer Quiz, which helps people to figure out their volunteer type, I learned that a roving consultant prefers contributing his or her specialized skills for a specific short-term project, rather than, say, twice a month for a year. That’s me to a ‘T’! Not breaking news, but nice to hear it’s a legit form of volunteering.
And from the moment I stepped into the reserve’s wee office, I felt like part of the Santa Elena family. No one made me feel guilty for signing up for only three days, and after I lost the first two days to a nasty fever, the staff was equally happy to have me for one day.
They even arranged my homestay (US$15 a day, including meals). Spending time with my “mom,” Lidia, and her kids and grandkids was such a wonderful experience. At the farmers’ market, I watched as Lidia chose a pineapple (my fave fruta) I could eat that night. At her house, she’d slowly speak Spanish to me, using simple vocabulary, while her youngest daughter, who didn’t speak English, would eagerly point at the door and the TV and the fruit, trying to pull Español out of me.
The reserve’s tour guides and maintenance staff also welcomed me into their fold, and that sense of family was integral to the volunteer work itself. My fellow volunteers (a teacher from the U.S. and a student from Switzerland) and I were doing trail maintenance, which I’d imagined would be clearing debris off the trails, but the reality was much more labour-intensive.
True, we spent the afternoon raking leaves, but all morning we hauled heavy sacks of rocks along the trails to our worksite—a stretch of trail eroded by rain and use. As a team, we figured out the best way to efficiently load our sacks, lift them onto our shoulders and carry them without injuring ourselves. The three of us soon got into a rhythm as we silently trekked through the forest and, with a sigh of relief, emptied our sacks onto the trail. By lunchtime, I felt like I’d walked 15 kilometres in those five or six trips, but we only finished a few feet of trail! No wonder they welcome volunteers—trail maintenance is hard work!
And it was with honour that I’d answer questions from tour groups who’d ask what I was doing when we’d cross paths on the trail. Just a few days before, I’d been one of them, on a guided tour of the cloud forest, excited to see a sloth and the famous resplendent quetzal. But that day, I felt like I was a part of the reserve, building the very trails I’d walked on as a tourist.