In light of the launch our brand-new Sloth Conservation and Wildlife Experience, I (Leanne, resident word-nerd) would love to share my own experience of this exciting Costa Rican adventure!
It’s been a couple of weeks since I returned from a whirlwind trip to the ‘happiest place on earth’ (don’t just take my word for it: check out this report from the Happiness Index) and ever since landing back on British soil, I have seldom stopped reflecting on what a wonderful time I had in this utterly charming country.
So, what is there to know about Costa Rica? Despite being a relatively small country, this central American haven is home to a wealth of stunning wildlife species: beautiful birds, impressive primates and a slew of majestic mammals can be observed across the land and, as I discovered, the rainforest truly is the best place to witness these animals in abundance.
The Adventure Begins
Beginning my journey on a decidedly gloomy day (England, what’s new?), I prepared to leave my home in Hertfordshire with a combination of emotions. It was the first time I’d be travelling alone without my partner but, ultimately, I would soon be exploring a thrilling new location, full of fascinating wildlife species and divine tropical vistas. Of course, the main purpose of my trip was to scope out a prospective new volunteer experience – but I’m allowed to enjoy the adventure too, right?
After waving goodbye to my bleary-eyed boyfriend and beloved dog (at 3am, no less), I hopped into a taxi and made my way to the airport in London. Here, I bumped into Natalie (one of the wonderful members of our travel team), and together we checked in to our flight, perused the duty-free section of the airport, and celebrated the beginning of our journey by clinking our bucks fizz glasses. We fantasized about what life would be like on the other side of our 11-hour plane ride: would the weather be nice? Would the project site (and its staff) be all that we’d hoped they’d be? What would the wildlife be like? And, most importantly, how would we be aiding these incredible, yet vulnerable, animals?
Welcome To The Jungle
Fast forward to our arrival into San Jose: we had finally arrived, and we were excited. No sooner had the plane doors opened, we could feel the warmth of Costa Rica’s humidity seep through the cabin and, with a deep breath and a touch of trepidation (masked mostly by giddiness!), we made our way into the airport. Here, we were greeted by a lovely gent named Rodney: a friend of the volunteer co-ordinator, Rodney had kindly driven all the way from the project site to transfer us to our location. (Side note: if you too would like a pre-arranged taxi to collect you from the airport, get in touch and we may be able to arrange one on your behalf – just like the project staff had done for us!)
We soon embarked on our 3.5 hour drive to Quepos, home of the Sloth Conservation and Wildlife Experience. Glued to the window of the taxi, I refused to let jetlag get the better of me: there are few feelings that compare to the one you get when you arrive in foreign lands, with tiredness threatening to tug your eyes shut; but the eagerness to observe rolling hills, plunging valleys and the country’s spectacular terrain, somehow manages to spur you on, at least for a little while. I can’t remember the exact point where I let fatigue get the better of me, but shortly after exiting the vibrant metropolis of San Jose and passing through its verdant surrounds, I soon surrendered to the gentle lull so commonly associated with long drives.
Crawling around the corner of a distinctly unidentifiable road, the late evening sun creeping through the gaps of my makeshift blanket (i.e, my jacket), I screwed my eyes shut and raised a hand to the light, golden-yellow rays shining through my fingers and glaring through the cool darkness of the cab. Reluctantly I sat up, wary of how much time had passed, and as my eyes adjusted I soon realised that we were close to our final destination. Grey, gravelly roads soon transformed into lush, emerald canopies which enveloped our vehicle, and as we creeped down a juddering dirt road, I noticed the shape of a towering, rustic building appear through the gaps in the trees up ahead.
Over the next ten minutes, I desperately fought to keep my eyes open – think ‘Tom and Jerry’ style methods of battling weariness – as I wanted to fully absorb the drive through the palms. Eventually we pulled up at the building I’d spotted before, and waiting to welcome us was a kind lady named Michelle. Bidding farewell to Rodney, we followed Michelle up a flight of stairs (or two) to our home for the next few days: a bunkbed-style accommodation, complete with kitchen, two gorgeous balconies, and an impressive rainforest mural filling the wall of the dining area. Here we were greeted by our fellow volunteers: a motley crew of charming individuals, hailing from different corners of the globe and with various levels of familiarity with the project site (the longest-term volunteer being in her third month; the shortest, only one week.) We were unofficially briefed on our expectations of the next few days, with plans being made for the next morning’s breakfast as we simultaneously wolfed down a much-needed plate of delicious pasta, prepared for us by a member of staff. Shortly afterwards, Natalie and I excused ourselves, climbing into our respective bunks and succumbing to the seven-hour time difference that had left us so exhausted.
Flora, Fauna, And Finding Our Feet
It seems that jetlag counts for nothing when you’re in the rainforest. A combination of still-being-on-British-time and the eagerness to explore had me waking from my slumber before the crack of dawn: 4am, to be exact. It wasn’t long before the glorious flare of sunrise broke through the window just behind my head, and as 5am rolled around I soon spotted the soles of Natalie’s feet dangling before my face: she, too, had struggled to adjust to the first morning on this side of the world, and had decided to make the most of this early start to the day. Grabbing her camera, she wandered out onto one of the balconies and began snapping away at our superb surrounds, capturing panorama after panorama of the rainforest around us.
It wasn’t long before the other volunteers began to wake, and by 7am we were all at the restaurant, tucking in to the breakfast that had been prepared for us. As I write this, I can still taste the delicious banana pancakes which were so kindly prepared for us – according to Michelle, these sweet little morsels make the project famous, and I must say that I would give most anything for a plate stacked high with them right about now…
A couple of hours later, we had let our breakfast settle and had also spent time getting to know Michelle. A sweet, intelligent lady, she is a wonderful asset to the project and would make even the shiest of volunteers feel comfortable; something which means a great deal to me as, being socially awkward and shy as I am, the pressure of being in a foreign country without my boyfriend could easily be a little too much to bear. Michelle’s wonderful nature (and indeed, the attitude of all members of staff at the project) is really quite commendable, and something which I feel will be a great comfort to any other nervous travelers, particularly those that travel solo.
By the time 11am had rolled around, myself and Natalie soon found ourselves a part of a tour of the project site. Our little group enjoyed a guided expedition, with Michelle leading the pack and sharing a wealth of fascinating information, from the history of the project to the difference between a two-toed and three-toed sloth. Leading us down into the sanctuary, Michelle took the time to introduce us to a plethora of fascinating species: marmosets, toucans, parrots, capuchins and more zipped past us: some from within the spacious bounds of their enclosures; others, roaming freely amongst the treetops. The difference between those in enclosures versus free-roamers, is the level of rehabilitation they have so far received, and whether they will be fit for life back in the wild. Tragically there are animals who may never experience this, being stripped of their natural skills due losing their parents or being domesticated (or, worse, being severely injured: think electrocution on overhead wires, accidents on the road, or even human abuse.) While it is disheartening to consider that some animals may never be re-introduced to their endemic homes, it is doubtless that the work done here in the sanctuary is incredible. The enclosures are vast and comfortable, with best efforts being made the ensure that the homes here closely represent an animal’s home in the wild: the same leaves are used here as would be used in the wild; there are vines on which to swing and foods to forage; and since the sanctuary is set deep within the jungle, it is the closest thing to natural that one could expect, given the otherwise heart-breaking circumstances.
All of that said, it is clear that a huge effort is made to keep all animals comfortable, and it is endlessly exhilarating to see a troop of monkeys dash by you, pouncing from branch to branch. One of the monkeys here had even had a little baby recently, and it makes my heart swell to think that, despite being born into ‘captivity’ (fate unfortunately leading its mother to need rehabilitation), this baby will be raised with the ability to safely learn the skills that should be innate to any creature in the wild. By the sanctuary allowing Mother Monkey to roam so freely, the baby is experiencing life in the natural way it may not have been afforded otherwise. Of all the things I’ve taken away from my visit to the project, this is perhaps the thought that sticks with me the most.
Thanks to some excellent time-keeping, Michelle then lead us on to a particularly exciting part of the tour: it was time to witness the sloth-walk! On the Sloth Conservation And Wildlife Experience, animal walks are a daily part of the itinerary and, fortunately for us, we were in the right place at the right time. Contrary to the name, a walk is in no way similar to the way we’d walk a dog back home: each animal at the project has its own unique way of being ‘walked’, and in the case of the sloths, a ‘walk’ entails spending time on a jungle gym and…not really moving much at all. That’s just the sloth way – they really, really don’t care for moving around that much, and prefer to just hang upside down for a bit. Fascinating.
All of that said, the sloth that we were about to witness – Patty – was quite a speedy little madam! The reason for her swift transit up and down the jungle gym was, as we soon found out, was that she was due her weekly defecation…nice. While we were all applauding how awesome, courageous, and nimble this little lady was, Patty was determined just to get onto the ground to do her business, hastily snacking on dirt to aid her digestion. It was an…interesting experience, and certainly very unique, but also a little awkward as she sat smiling and winking at us as she did what she needed to do. Anyway. Moving on.
Skipping forward to the end of the day and the tour having ended a good few hours previous, we were soon about to experience what is – to me – possibly the coolest thing in the whole entire world. It is a well-known fact amongst my friends that I am bizarrely besotted with anteaters: any animal with elongated facial features (elephants, tapirs and so forth) can quite easily steal my heart, but ever since I was a little girl, anteaters have had my utmost admiration. Seriously, I love them. Anyway, one of the volunteers on the project had picked up on my love for these minuscule mammals, and invited us along to the anteater walk that evening. With our cameras, tripods and other media gear in hand, we followed our fellow volunteer down to where the anteaters reside, and watched in wonder as they timidly left their temporary carry-cases, nuzzling the grass below their little feet. We watched as one anteater, Lucia, quickly made her way up the tree trunk and up to the highest bough, pushing her nose into any nook or cranny she could find and snaffling on countless ants (sometimes I think of the poor insects in the circle of life – they’re just going about their day, when a giant snout comes down to snort them up, a sticky pink tongue lashing around and capturing every ant-friend they’d ever known. It’s a bit sad, but such is the reality of nature I suppose.) Another anteater, affectionately known as Bean (!!!), stayed firmly rooted to the ground. As our unofficial volunteer guide explained, Bean had had a rough start to life: something had happened to him early on which left him with a limp, near-lifeless tail, which sadly makes it near impossible for him to confidently grab onto branches in his quest to find food. The volunteers at the project commit a lot of time to helping animals like Bean out, helping him to wrap his tail around the tree and therefore having a better shot of learning how to feed (and fend for) himself.
As Bean’s sad backstory was relayed to us by his dedicated volunteer/keeper, something amazing happened: after seeing a delicious looking lemon at the top of the tree, Bean decided that making do with the scraps of old fruit on the ground was no longer enough to satiate his ever-growing hunger. He would do better. He WOULD become as strong, as nimble, and as well-fed as Lucia, his anteater amigo who always seemed to be getting the best pickings of the grub. Full of determination and with his beady eyes fixed on the tempting citrus treat up above, Bean scampered towards the tree trunk, dug his nails into the bark and shimmied his way up to the top. Go Bean, go! You can do it!, I cried with elation (at least, I was cheering him on from inside my own head.) You show that lemon who’s boss!
Sure enough, in the blink of an eye, Bean had hold of the object of his desires. He sniffed, he scratched, and he scooped his way into the flesh of the lemon, his tacky tongue and super-snout quickly demolishing this delectable snack. We stood at the base of the tree in awe, mouths gaping and cameras still rolling: this really was quite the scene, and a major leap in rehabilitation for Bean; a success that was simply unprecedented.
Saying farewell to Bean and Lucia, us three volunteers decided to call it a day. After a filling dinner, we retired to our rooms once more to rest up before another day of activities.
Pura Vida, Costa Rica!
Around the midpoint of our stay at the project, Natalie and I took it upon ourselves to venture out to the nearby marina, before paying a visit to the local beach. I know, right – aren’t we overworked?
Volunteers at the project are entitled to a good amount of downtime, with most days moving at a comfortable pace and work not really stretching you too far (though later on, I assure you, I will be eating my words.) In addition to a relaxed vibe across the board, volunteers also get one day off per week to spend at leisure. There is the opportunity to join the rest of the project members on the weekly trip to the marina: a gorgeous, water-side location overflowing with restaurants and spattered with shops (it’s worth coming here even just to admire the ocean, and the countless boats and yachts docked by the bay!) If you’d prefer to do things on your own accord, however, I would absolutely recommend the beach.
A 15-minute journey from Quepos’ bus station will get you to the local beach and, man, is this a heaven on earth! Pristine white sands stretch for what seems like miles, as the soothing sound of crashing waves blend near-seamlessly with the tropical music that plays in the adjacent restaurants and stores. This music was a siren song to Natalie and me, so we followed the sound of syncopated drums and Caribbean-infused rhythms to a great little diner, where we tucked into some delicious gallo pinto, fried plantain, and some refreshing orange juice. A gap in the trees on the opposite side of the road served as a window to the serenity of the beach, beckoning us to relax by the water with a fresh coconut in hand. As you can imagine, we were quick to oblige.
After some time spent tanning…I mean, reflecting on important business stuff (good save, Leanne!), we picked ourselves up and began the journey back to our accommodation. Along the way, we popped into a few local market stalls to get a bit more of a feel for Costa Rican culture. Hand-made articles of clothing, souvenirs (ranging from cute teddies to carved versions of offensive hand-gestures) and various bric-a-brac lined both tables and walls, and as we ambled down countless aisles stocked full to the brim with merchandise, locals and shopkeepers alike would stop to smile and chat to us, often calling out ‘pura vida’ on our arrival or departure at every stop. ‘Pura vida’, or ‘pure life’, is something of a catchphase in Costa Rica, with the phrase featuring on almost all souvenir items. ‘Pure life’ is a great way to sum up Costa Rica and its laid-back, easy-going vibe: everybody we met was so relaxed, cheerful, and full of zest; from the guy serving us coconuts on the beach, to the countless surfers and jetskiiers calling out this well-known local phrase, back and forth to one another. Pure life, indeed.
Reforestation: A Tale Of 1000 Trees (And Four Tired Ladies)
As our time volunteering on the Sloth Conservation And Wildlife Experience began to draw to a close, the most difficult (and, perhaps, most rewarding) task of our time spent overseas would soon be upon us. On the final day of the project, founder Jennifer Rice invited Natalie, myself, and our fellow volunteer Katie to ride along with her to a plantation 1.5 hours away. There was, of course, great meaning to this excursion: a little while ago, Jennifer had purchased a very large plot of land, with the intention to cover it in saplings and give new life to the area – effectively, it was to be a large-scale reforestation effort, and she needed our help to fulfill her mission.
Reforestation is of huge important to Costa Rica – so much so, that an estimated 51% of the land here is covered in rainforest (that number was once much higher but, due to the destruction of WWII, that percentage dropped from around 75% to just 21%.) The people and government of Costa Rica are highly concerned with being green and, as the project’s backstory makes abundantly clear, reforestation is something the team here do not take lightly.
After spending a large amount of her own cash on this plot of land, Jennifer has enlisted the help of friends and many volunteers before us to plant trees – and the hope is, even after this plot is completely full and bursting into life, another plot will be purchased and ready to be worked on, too. But this was now, and the task laid out before us was a mighty one: our mission was to plant 1000 trees in one day and, with the help of some of Jennifer’s friends and other locals, we were determined to succeed.
Up bright and early and ready to go, we three volunteers bounded down to the project foyer to meet Jennifer, who soon collected us in our car and off we all went. Arriving at the plantation some time later, we were raring to go…only, we had a long walk ahead of us, on top of the drive, whilst carrying numerous tools, tanks of drinking water, and of course the saplings for planting. One thing that we hadn’t considered is that the night before our reforestation mission, we had suffered a tremendous storm: thunder, lightning and rain raged through the night, and despite the hot heat of the morning after, the ground beneath our feet was still unstable, sludgy, and slippery. Add to that the fact that the walk we were about to undertake involved walking up and down numerous steep hills, avoiding potholes and ravines along the way, we knew we were in for a challenge.
When we eventually reached the reforestation site, we were exhausted. But no amount of aching muscles, sweaty bodies or unwise choices of footwear were going to deter us from the task at hand, and no sooner had we set the tanks of drinking water down, every single person grabbed a shovel and a couple of saplings each, beginning to plant them. For what seemed like miles around, through already-semi-grown trees, you could see each respective volunteer working hard under the baking hot sun. Some abandoned their tools early on, preferring to feel the wet dirt between their fingers as they returned the saplings to nature, their true home. We worked, we toiled, and we perspired our way through hundreds upon hundreds of saplings, giving new life to what could otherwise been a desolate wasteland. And although this was probably the hardest I’d worked in my entire life, I can hardly think of a task more rewarding than the one we fulfilled that day. I’m sure the other folk involved would agree.
Sadly, the final day on the project had soon rolled around, which meant that it was time for myself and Natalie to bid farewell to our new-found friends. We spent the morning feeding some of the gorgeous monkeys in the sanctuary, raking leaves and making their enclosures as comfortable as could be, before Katie took us down for one last sloth walk. Today’s sloth, Issy, was less active than Patty (the sloth we’d met previously.) We watched as Katie guided the sweet thing around the jungle gym, encouraging Issy to interact with her surrounds. She also gave Issy a glance-over, checking in on the heath of her mouth, claws, and skin. Finally, she gave Issy a little bite to eat; but not too much, as this was the morning and feeding time for the nocturnal sloths comes later in the day. It was a lovely thing to witness, the relationship between Katie and her small sloth companion – tiny tickles underneath the animal’s chin were met with much satisfaction, and there was a clear understanding from Katie that she was here to provide care to the animal, maintaining a sweet affinity without anthropomorphising or babying her. It’s a refreshing thing to see: many folk simply desire to hug an animal (be it a sloth, orangutan or any other wide-eyed, furry thing); here, however, the volunteers would display great care, while allowing the animals to retain their natural behaviours.
By noon, we were back in the restaurant to say our final farewells. These were given over the course of a delicious lunch, prepared for us by the project staff once more. When a volunteer leaves the project, the team are keen to keep that individual (or group) satisfied for the long journey ahead, and will rustle up a tasty meal of your choosing, We chose to have fish, which was deep-fried and served with chips (almost like a taste of Britain!), and with plenty of salad, vegetables or gallo pinto on the side. By the time our taxi had arrived, we were completely stuffed and confident that we wouldn’t need to eat anything else for at least another week. (A slight exaggeration, but really – you will not go hungry here!)
Giving one last wave to our fellow volunteers (and receiving a huge hug from Jennifer!), we bundled ourselves into the taxi, and set off on our way. The tires crunched on the dirt road beneath us, and the warm sun flickered between the branches of the canopies above us. I left Costa Rica with a smile, comfortable in the knowledge that our time in the country was all worthwhile.
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