Last summer, in June of 2012, I embarked on one of the most rewarding trips I’d ever been on. I traveled to Costa Rica for 10 days to volunteer at a Leatherback sea turtle research station on the gulf coast called Estacion Las Tortugas with a group organized by EcoTeach. This trip forever changed my life.
After a long flight, a layover, a delay, and then an even longer flight, the plane touched down in Costa Rica. There, a bus and tour guide met me to take me to the hotel where I would be staying. By the time I arrived late that night, my roommate was already in bed asleep. I picked one of the many beds in the large room, put on my pajamas, and laid down, exhausted from the full day of travel and yet excited for what was to come on this trip. The next morning, I officially met my roommate, a woman around 30, who was an interesting character. Covered in seemingly meaningless tattoos, her first time out of the country, and hardly any education paired with a know-it-all attitude that would prove to be obnoxiously annoying.
The rest of our group consisted of a family of four, the parents well traveled yet used to more luxurious dwellings and the two little girls with an endless list of food allergies and intolerances. There were also five more people who all had gone to college together or worked together. They were the closest to my own age, ranging from 23 to 27.
After breakfast that first morning, a preview to what fresh foods Costa Rica had to offer, we loaded our bags onto an old stick shift bus and began the nearly full day drive to the research station. The driver didn’t speak english and the guide spoke a broken english. On the way, we stopped at a small school where the children demonstrated some dances and we joined them for lunch.
School children performing cultural dances and songs for us.
Eventually, after traversing some windy roads through the Cloud Forests, small towns, and pineapple orchards, we ended up at a dirt road dead end by a small sinking dock. Our bags were unloaded from the bus and we were to wait for a small motor operated boat, slightly larger than a canoe, to take us through the woods and water channels the rest of the way to the station.
After what seemed like an unbelievably long time, the wooden sign emblazoned with “Bienvenidos Estacion Las Tortugas” appeared. We carried our bags a little way to the completely isolated and self sustaining station. There were a couple of buildings with “dorms” for volunteers. The word dorm gives you a skewed idea of what they actually were but I don’t know what else to call them. The only electricity was for solar powered lights in the buildings. There were small huts where permanent residents of the station resided. There was an open air dining building and kitchen, an open air educational pavilion, a garden with fruits and vegetables, and free range chickens running around the property. The dorms had two bunk beds with mosquito nets each, able to sleep four people. Luckily there were only two people in each room because it was a tight squeeze with just that. All water came from tanks on the top of the buildings roofs and were only refilled once a week. The water all came out cold, which I thought would be an issue with showering, but as the days wore on turned out to be a blessing.
From my room, you could see the beach we would be patrolling each night and the hatchery where Leatherback nests were transplanted to protect them from poachers.
We were told we may not see a nesting leatherback while there because it was near the end of nesting season, but we would definitely see hatchlings. During the day, we explored and helped around the garden. At night we were divided up into shifts to patrol the beach for nesting turtles and hatching nests. It rained a couple of nights and our patrols were cut short, but finally, on our last night at the station, we saw a nesting female.
Every night for five nights we patrolled without flashlights and only the stars to guide us. The night sky on that beach was the most bright beautiful thing I had ever seen. Because we were in such isolation and so far from any towns, there was literally no light pollution. I had never seen so many stars. We counted falling star after falling star to pass the time. We always wondered how we would know if we saw a turtle because it was so dark on the beach that every shadow may have been one. The resident researchers told us when we saw a turtle, there would be no mistaking it. Sure enough when we saw that turtle, we could tell from far away. It was huge, the size of a compact car. It was the most awe inspiring site I’d ever seen.
Each evening, we would release babies that had hatched during the day when the sun was too hot for them to make it to the ocean. We’d stand behind them and encourage them along, trying to deter crabs who would make dinner of the hatchlings.
Me measuring one of the hatchlings from the day
Releasing a hatchling
One day, we were able to help excavate a nest that never hatched. We counted which eggs were eaten by crabs, which had succumbed to bacterial infections, and which were never fertilized to begin with. At the end of our time at the research station, I was sad to go and wished I could stay longer. From there we traveled next to an area where one of Costa Rica’s only indigenous communities was located. We spent the day with a family group. It took us a couple of hours to hike to their home in the wooded mountains. They told us all about their history and culture and fed us the most delicious foods. Their simple life style seemed idilic to me.
Indigenous family’s home
Our last day was spent traveling back to the hotel we stayed in that first night. By then I was exhausted from the trip, enlightened from the experience, and sad that I would soon be leaving this magnificent country. All this being said, I was happy and ready to be going home again. I would love to go again someday and explore more of the country and visit it’s Pacific coast.
This was the first time I had participated in a trip that would fall into the category of voluntourism. This is definitely the way to travel. I met some amazing people, experienced an amazing culture, ate some great food, and was able to help make a difference in conservation efforts. I recommend voluntourism to all the travel lovers out there and there are many great programs you can go through to do this, especially students.