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Kathleen Wilson - Tropical Dry Forest Conservation in Costa Rica

Working at night

I am an 18 year old student from the United States who finished high school last spring. Before I started university, I wanted to take some time off to explore the world and see what environmental conservation looks like in the field.

I found Projects Abroad online and it seemed to be a safe and trustworthy organization that could combine many of my interests and would provide a very worthwhile experience. I had fairly high hopes going into this project, but this programme completely blew my expectations out of the water, exceeding them in nearly every way. Spring

My Conservation project

I came to Costa Rica with the hope of working with and studying plants and animals, and I was not disappointed. Throughout the year, there are several different wildlife research projects that occur at Barra Honda. While I was there, most of the animal projects focused on birds and bat studies.

Several times a week, volunteers and our Projects Abroad biologists conducted bird surveys; which either took place at a viewpoint or along trails in the tropical dry forest. We had the opportunity to observe and record many different species as part of a bigger research project on collecting an inventory of birds for the park. I learned so much about different migratory and residential bird species from our biologists and I was lucky enough to see some of our key flagship species, like the scarlet macaw, on several occasions.

We also had bat project once a week, which was incredible. The volunteers and biologists set up tents to collect bats in the evening, either in the forest or near the caves, and then we examined them and recorded data to try to learn as much as we could about the diet, behavior and lifestyle of these extremely important creatures. I am now a huge bat fan and I am trying to educate my friends and family about the reality of bats and how amazing they are.

Conservation in Costa Rica

In addition to wildlife projects, volunteers worked on other assignments too, including environmental conservation programs and park maintenance jobs. We all worked on projects like recycling, building bio-gardens for the local schools, working in the nursery garden, and helping prepare materials for environmental education projects. Additionally, I spent a good deal of time working on the new terrace structure for the volunteers with our Projects Abroad engineers.

I had the opportunity to practice and learn a good amount of Spanish with our head engineer, who didn’t speak any English, but somehow found a way to communicate with all of us. We rotated through assignments so that everybody experienced everything, but there really isn’t a bad project. You are either in the forest, or you are spending time working with other volunteers and staff, all of whom are extremely friendly and fun to be around, so you can’t lose!

Weekend activities in Costa Rica

While we have work assignments in the mornings and afternoons Monday to Friday, we get the weekends off. You can stay in Barra Honda if you wish, but many volunteers like to take advantage of this time to travel around Costa Rica.

On my weekends here, I went to volcanoes, beaches, cloud forests, marine reserves, waterfalls, wetlands, and other national parks around the country. The weekend traveling is not included in your payment to Projects Abroad, but it is relatively inexpensive to travel, eat, and stay at hostels around the country. We traveled in groups of several volunteers, if not the entire group, for extra precaution and because it was so much fun to explore other parts of the country with these new friends!

My accommodation in Barra Honda

A cave in Bara Honda

Living in a national park is such a gift; even when you are eating or just relaxing you are constantly surrounded by butterflies, iguanas, occasionally black howler monkeys, birds, and lots of insects. It is amazing and a biologist’s dream.

The accommodation is simple, but it is really quite comfortable and all you need. The girls and guys have separate rooms, and you can have 2-6 people in one room at any given time. While I was there, I shared with girls from the UK, Italy, Germany, and Finland!

Each room also has its own bathroom and cold shower. We have an open dining area, where all of the staff and volunteers eat, and a common living area, with picnic tables and games and books. We spent a lot of our free time in between work assignments playing cards or reading or just talking there. The kitchen staff were very kind and accommodating; I was the only vegetarian and they always substituted the meat for vegetables or gave me an extra portion of something else.

I came to Costa Rica in the off season, so while I was there, probably 10-15 volunteers passed through, but there was still an incredible diversity of people from various European nations, Canada and USA, and China. All volunteers spoke English, however, some of them spoke an additional language and they came from different backgrounds and cultures.

One thing that we all quickly realized is that no matter how different our backgrounds or what languages we speak, we are also incredibly similar in so many ways. Of course, all of us wanted to be there, so we were already an adventurous bunch seeking new global perspectives. Everyone was so open to making new friends and learning about each other that we had a wonderfully supportive atmosphere that allowed everyone to just be themselves.

Fun activities in Bara Honda

There really is no hiding from your true self when you eat, sleep, work, and travel with the same people for weeks at a time, but for me that’s the best part. You can have those authentic conversations with people and be silly or serious and create deep friendships that last long after you leave. I am still in contact with several of my friends from Costa Rica and I am trying to go to Germany this summer to see some of them!

Projects Abroad staff

Living in Barra Honda would not be the same without the support of the Projects Abroad staff members, who are also a very important part of the experience. All of the staff members in the park are from Costa Rica and live by the Costa Rican motto, “Pura Vida”. You will have to see for yourself exactly what that means when you get here, but it shows appreciation for life and demonstrates the kindness, love and friendliness of the people here.

There are two biologists at the park who are both very enthusiastic about their work and are more than willing to share everything they know about bats, birds, insects, the forest and how everything fits together. The other staff members also make all of the work very entertaining and it is easy to form strong bonds with them, too. It is great to have the Projects Abroad network in place for safety reasons, as well; if you ever need help, the staff will do their best to support you and get you what you need.

My final thoughts

Volunteers in Costa Rica

I arrived in Costa Rica in mid-August, with the intention of staying for 5 weeks. Looking back on my first diary entry, I was worried about traveling alone and whether or not I would be able to last the whole time in a foreign country, where I didn’t know anyone, didn’t speak the language fluently, and didn’t know if everything was going to work out. After about two days in Barra Honda, all of those fears and worries dissolved.

The day before my scheduled return flight home, I realized I couldn’t leave just yet; I had become so attached to the place and to the people. I ended up extending my stay for an extra 3 more weeks, which was a real treat. If you have the chance to go to Barra Honda, I would highly recommend you take it and start an adventure of your own. It is one you are not likely to forget. Pura vida!

Read more about Conservation in Costa Rica.

Kathleen Wilson

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