I first learned about volunteering in Costa Rica through the international volunteer organization, IVHQ. Based in New Zealand, they offer volunteer programs all over the world. When you first look into volunteering, it can be extremely overwhelming, because there are literally hundreds of volunteer organizations to choose from around the world ~ some doing great work, while others aren’t always doing what they say they’re doing. Choosing the right organization to volunteer with can prove to be a daunting decision.
I was attracted to IVHQ for several reasons: 1) Great website with easy navigation, 2) Stellar references & reviews from over 65,000+ volunteers worldwide, 3) Great locations for volunteer projects in 30+ countries, including Argentina, Bali, Italy, & South Africa, 4) Easy-going, helpful staff who provide ample help in preparing you for you trip, as well as a thorough FAQ section on their website, 5) Responsible, sustainable projects, that work right in the heart of the community, & 6) Much more affordable than most other volunteer programs.
So ~ check, check, check!
Then it was a matter of choosing which project to join. In Costa Rica alone, IVHQ has eight volunteer programs to choose from, including sea turtle conservation, eco-agriculture/coffee plantation work, working with children, & several more. Though I really wanted to work with sea turtles, I eventually chose the coffee farm project ~ which I’m so glad I did! (Though I still want to do the sea turtle project…)
After speaking with them on the phone & trading several emails back & forth, I felt 100% confident in moving forward with my decision to volunteer in Costa Rica with IVHQ.
So here’s what happens next: you book your flight to Costa Rica (or whichever country you choose), IVHQ arranges pick-up for you at the airport, and transports you directly to your accommodations with a local family. Super easy. You’re in good hands right from the start.
How much does this volunteer opportunity in Costa Rica cost? Here are my exact expenses for two-weeks at a coffee plantation in Costa Rica: First, I paid $279 to IVHQ directly, for handling all the initial paperwork & set-up. This fee goes solely to IVHQ for their clerical, staffing, & office expenses ~ & not to the project itself. The money that goes to the project directly is $750. What does this money cover, for you the volunteer? That $750 covers two weeks of accommodations, three meals per day + coffee (at the project), transportation to & from the project, as well as airport pick-up. You are basically covered from the beginning to the end of your trip ~ all you’ll need is a bit of spending money for extras or excursions (like zip-lining, volcano hunting, or surfing).
In Costa Rica specifically, IVHQ has partnered with a local, Costa Rica-based volunteer organization called Maximo Nivel. They are based in downtown San Jose, about 30 minutes from the San Jose International Airport. I absolutely love everyone I met at Maximo Nivel. From Tarek at the front desk who heads the organization, to Andrea who coordinated our work at the coffee project, to Ninoska from their sister organization in Peru, who develops content for their website ~ everyone I encountered at Maximo was awesome.
After arriving in San Jose & settling in with my host family (& having delicious some fricking home-made tacos!), I attended a “Volunteer Orientation” session at Maximo Nivel HQ in downtown San Jose. My host mom rode the bus with me to Maximo, to make sure I didn’t get lost! I felt like a kindergartner on her first day of school ~ just add 30 years or so! ; )
There were about ten other volunteers at orientation, late on a Sunday afternoon (most projects start on Monday). Volunteers ranged in age from their early 20’s all the way up to their 50’s & 60’s ~ which surprised me. For some reason, I had assumed that volunteering was a “younger” thing. I was pleasantly surprised to see such a wide variety of ages present.
Orientation lasted about an hour, & was led by Nina, another one of Maximo’s volunteer coordinators. She provided us thorough overviews of each projects, answered questions, & gave us practical information & guidance regarding travel in Costa Rica. Afterwards, we were free to ask questions, chat with other volunteers, or simply use their wi-fi (which is very fast)! Maximo’s facility is quite large & located right in downtown San Jose. In addition to having great wi-fi, they also have numerous computers for use, a small cafe, & new & old volunteers constantly coming & going. Overall, its got a great vibe & is a great place to come & work, chat, or prepare for your trip.
After orientation, I returned to my host family for dinner, & met another volunteer staying with us ~ a sweet gal from Britain. We shared a laughter-filled night on bunk beds, trying not to wake our host mama! The next morning, I said goodbye to my family, & Uber’ed over to Maximo with all my luggage (a 10-minute Uber ride cost $3). We had one more orientation session at 9AM, specifically to discuss the coffee project. I met the volunteers I’d be traveling & working with ~ Ron, Melanie, & Samuel. We also met our volunteer coordinator, Andrea, who led the orientation & would be traveling with us to the project.
Originally, we thought the coffee project was located in or near Monteverde, Costa Rica, which is quite a well-known, popular area for coffee production, & quite popular with tourists. This turned out not to be the case. It turns out, we were going to be volunteering in a tiny little town called San Jeronimo. It was so tiny, in fact, that we couldn’t even find it on the map! In our “Volunteer Paperwork,” Maximo had provided us with a map of this tiny little town called San Jeronimo. It featured landmarks such as “House of Luis,” “House of Martin,” & “Iglesia.” Holy crap! I thought. What exactly was I getting myself into here?!? Just how small was this place?
Andrea told us that San Jeronimo was a 90-minute bus ride from San Isidro, a fairly large town in southern Costa Rica. From there, the bus would be heading up into the mountains ~ & San Jeronimo was the last stop on the bus route, close to the top of Parque Cerro Chirripo, Costa Rica’s highest mountain.
Needless to say, wi-fi would be practically non-existent in this town, high up in the Costa Rican highlands. Two weeks, with no wi-fi?? My family’s going to think I’m dead, ha! Hurriedly, I rushed off some texts to family & friends, so they didn’t freak out if they didn’t hear from me for two weeks! I also forwarded my email from IVHQ, with contact numbers for IVHQ as well as cell phone numbers for all of our Maximo Nivel volunteer coordinators.
After orientation, the four of us volunteers headed off to bus station with our Andrea ~ she would be with us for the first few days of our project. And this particular project, in San Jeronimo, was so new for Maximo Nivel, that even she had actually never been there before. I soon learned that tourism was a fairly new thing for San Jeronimo, & helped them bring in money when coffee season ended.
So, off we headed to the bus station together, to board our bus for San Isidro ~ about a 2-hour ride. With our big luggage stowed in the undercarriage, we were off, heading up into the green mountains of Costa Rica.
The drive was stunning ~ gorgeous views, mountain vistas, small towns, & a pleasant breeze coming through the windows for the duration. Click here for video of the journey.
Read “Volunteering on a Costa Rican Coffee Farm” to hear Part Two of this amazing journey ~ the actual work on the coffee farm! And if you have any questions about volunteering or about this project specifically, please contact IVHQ, Maximo Nivel, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!