Costa Rica Country Information
Rich in ecological diversity and known for its hospitality, Costa Rica has become a favorite vacation spot for American and European travelers over the past two decades. About the size of West Virginia and with a population of roughly four million, Costa Rica has a wealth of natural resources. Its distinctive microclimates feature beautiful beaches, active volcanoes, rainforests filled with monkeys and colorful birds, the hot "cowboy country" of Guanacaste, and more. Additionally, it is also regarded as one of the most peaceful countries in Central America. Costa Rica does not maintain a standing army, and one of its presidents, Oscar Arias, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. The philosophy of the country can be summed up in the catch phrase "pura vida," ("pure life") which tourists find emblazoned on mugs and t-shirts throughout the country.
Costa Ricans take pride in the high educational level of the country. Free and obligatory elementary school, provided for in the country’s constitution, has led to a high literacy rate among adults. The country boasts a 96% literacy rate and has recently implemented new educational schemes designed to extend opportunities for learning to all its citizens. Students who wish to continue their post-secondary education can choose among four different state-funded universities.
Although Costa Rica dawns over 1,000 miles of coastline, most volunteer placements are in rural inland communities. Volunteers are placed individually as the sole volunteer in their town. While there is no "typical placement" in Costa Rica, most placements have some combination of a plaza (a grassy area about the size of a soccer field), a church, a school and a pulpería (small convenience store). Communication is primarily done through landline phones however cell phone use and reception is increasing daily.
However, what these communities lack in amenities, they make up for with a tremendous amount of heart and soul. Each volunteer is placed with a host family during their service who inevitably become more than just hosts, but true familia.
I think I have learned to slow down. Life here just moves at a different pace and I have learned that you do not have to be connected to the internet, cell phone or the TV to listen and learn. Life moves at a different pace here and all of the things that have seemed so important in the past matter so very little. Meryl Greenblatt, Costa Rica 2010
I think I have learned to slow down. Life here just moves at a different pace and I have learned that you do not have to be connected to the internet, cell phone or the TV to listen and learn. Life moves at a different pace here and all of the things that have seemed so important in the past matter so very little.
Meryl Greenblatt, Costa Rica 2010
Unique Challenges for Costa Rica Volunteers
Isolation: Most placements in Costa Rica are quite spread out and can be several hours from a big city. Some also have very limited bus service, so it can be hard to get out of town or see another volunteer. Feelings of isolation are common, especially in the adjustment phase when volunteers are still learning the language and meeting people in the community. Costa Ricans are very welcoming and most volunteers report truly feeling like a part of the community by the end of their service, but it takes time, patience, and the courage to put yourself out there on the part of the volunteer.
Family: All Costa Rica volunteers live with host families, which contribute to the sentiment that volunteers are truly part of the community. Living with a host family can be a very rewarding experience. Families range from grandparents with grown children, to couples with school aged children, to single mothers. As volunteers are certainly, independent individuals (as proven by their choice to embark upon international service), there are many challenges posed to volunteers as they adapt to living in the home of someone else and navigating through cultural norms that may translate into less privacy.
Chisme: Placements in Costa Rica are in extremely small towns, usually consisting of about 150-200 people. Most members of the community are related and have lived in the same community for their whole lives, many for generations. Most women pass the time in the home and thus, gossip is common. The new volunteer will more than likely be the focus of gossip and no topic is off the table. Volunteers have found that they are talked about for who they spend their time with, their teaching techniques, and even their weight. The validity of what is said is typically not scrutinized, either. Usually not used maliciously, this type of gossip is a part of daily life in rural Costa Rica.
Pura Vida: The Costa Rican saying, meaning “Pure Life,” signifies the beauty and tranquility that defines the country. However, the “take things as they come” mentality can also be very frustrating for volunteers, with class being cancelled often, sometimes without notice, unreliable schedules, and struggling to get anything done on time. The laid back lifestyle is very different from the fast-paced, connected lifestyle to which most volunteers are accustomed.
Web Resources for Costa Rica
- Government of Costa Rica | Official Site (in Spanish)
- Costa Rican Embassy | Official Site
- US State Department | Costa Rica profile
- Ministry of Education | Official Site (in Spanish)
- The Tico Times | English-language newspaper
- La Nacion | Daily national newspaper
- Online newspapers | Extensive list of other Costa Rican news portals
- BBC News Country Profile | In-depth profile of Costa Rica
- Centers for Disease Control & Prevention | Health Information
- CANATUR | Costa Rican Bureau of Tourism
The Economist | Archive of the magazine's articles on Costa Rica