San Miguel, Costa Rica, Central America
To break up a five-month backpacking trip through the Caribbean and Central America, my partner and I decided we’d volunteer at an animal sanctuary. We spent numerous afternoons trawling websites and tolerating erratic hostel networks, when we finally discovered and settled on the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center.
Upon contacting the owners, we were sent a welcome email, and directions on how to reach the Center. From San José, we boarded a local bus to Alajuela. From there, we changed buses and disembarked in the small, lush village of Turrúcares.
Just as the owners had advised, we hailed a taxi. An old commodore bounced up onto the curb, and the driver hopped out. He took one look at us.
‘Monkey!’ he shrieked, as he started heaving our backpacks into the boot.
We nodded hesitantly, struggling through our bank of newly-acquired Spanish words. Despite being five months into our trip, our Spanish was still extremely questionable. We drove in silence, save for the lively jangle of the local radio.
All of sudden, the driver rounded another corner and slowed, parking in the middle of the road. We were surrounded by lush jungle, and a grand, wrought-iron gate sat poised amongst the leaves. A dirt driveway snaked beneath it.
‘Monkey!’ the driver said again, pointing to the gate.
We paid and hopped out of the taxi. Hauling our packs onto our backs, we crossed the road and pushed our way through the gate.
We wandered onto an enormous property. To my left, a horse was grazing, and a house lay ahead, smoke gently wafting from its chimney. As we approached it, I noticed a bright, blue pool glistening in the distance. Laughter and voices drifted up towards us.
We continued down a stone path, and all of a sudden the Rescue Center opened up before our eyes. Two young women were in the pool, their arms draped lazily over floating rings. They smiled up at us. A large, green building sat in the middle, decorated in splotches of hand-painted art-work. A cluster of people were gathered on the veranda, and as we got closer, we realised they were holding baby sloths, and a young howler monkey.
The group greeted us at once, and we were introduced to Sarita, a compassionate and gentle woman, who was the Center’s leader. She saw us to our dorm room, and then we were told to wash our hands before we were shown around, to reduce the risk of contaminating the animals.
We fell into a methodical routine with the Center almost overnight. We’d wake up around 7.30am to the cawing of birds. Breakfast was at 8am, and duties would start an hour later. We’d spend the morning doing anything from cleaning cages, to preparing food and feeding the animals, to babysitting the young sloths and howler monkey, to gardening, mosaicking and painting. At 1pm, we’d break for lunch and swim. We’d then resume our duties for the afternoon, before retiring to a hammock to read a book, or to join in on one of the ever-competitive card games.
Getting up-close and personal with sloths, spider monkeys, toucans and macaws, was something I wouldn’t have even thought was possible at a zoo. Volunteering at the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center not only improved my knowledge of these exotic species, but I was able to help them, and in some cases, aid in nursing an animal back to health to be re-released into the wild. We were lucky enough to witness the birth of a two-toed sloth, and the pregnancy of a capuchin monkey who had previously been severely abused.
Along with helping the animals, what really made our time at the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center special, was sharing it with a diverse, yet like-minded group of travellers. Many thanks to Sarita, Marielos and Bernal for allowing us the opportunity to help out.
Elle Conway studies Journalism in Canberra. Prior to university, she spent four gap years travelling, working and living abroad. She loves spiced rum, and dreams of one day travelling to Antarctica.