Conservation with Youth Challenge International, Costa Rica

Unfulfilled with her time at a Danish university Jade Johnston, of travel blog Our Oyster, decided to join a volunteering project abroad. Here she shares her experience of volunteering on a conservation project with Youth Challenge International in Costa Rica.cooling-off in Costa Rica (c) Sarah Jackson 

Not keen on facing a winter semester in Denmark with no friends to speak of, I turned on my computer, and started researching volunteering opportunities abroad. I didn’t really know where to start. Most volunteer programs I found charged exorbitant prices for volunteering terms that were much shorter than I was looking for. After living in Denmark for seven months, one of the world’s most expensive countries, I only had a limited budget. Eventually, after following what seemed like a never ending trail of links (there was no Goodtrippers back then to help me in my search! – “Thanks Jade!” – Ed.), I came across a program called Youth Challenge International (YCI).

The program which is based in Canada accepts volunteers from Canada, America, and the European Union. There is also a partner organization in Australia called Youth Challenge Australia (YCA) which partners with some of the same organizations.

Where Does YCI and YCA Operate?

YCI works in a variety of countries, mainly in Latin America and Africa. YCA also has indigenous Australia programs as well. The programs vary in length from four to 12 weeks depending on what location and type of program you choose. There are usually at least two departure dates per location, although this does vary depending on the partner organization. What originally drew me to YCI is that is offered a long term volunteer program, but at a reasonable price. I had to pay my own airfare but my program fee covered all my in country expenses – the only extra money I needed was for pocket spending money.

I chose to go to Costa Rica. The program start date nicely coincided with the start of the next university year (it was my “I need time off from school excuse”) and it also would give me an opportunity to learn Spanish, which is something I had recently become interested in.

Group Living

Another factor which drew me to YCI is the fact that it is a group project. Our group had 14 members from Canada and Australia, including two team leaders. This helped lesson the culture shock as we had a large support network. It also helped ease day to day living as two members would stay back from work each day to do all the group cooking and cleaning. The only disadvantage of living in a large group of English speakers is that we didn’t get a total Spanish immersion experience. Those of us who chose to study Spanish did learn quite a bit, but others who didn’t probably went home with only a few basic words.

The volunteering work

Conservation work in Costa Rica (c) Sarah JacksonIt’s important to note that everyone’s group will be different. Projects change constantly, and the work that I did in Costa Rica may be completely different than the work you will do. Even groups going back to the same project at later stages have different experiences.

Our group lived together in a house that a member of the community donated to us to use. But the group who went the next year lived separately in community homestays as the original house had been sold to a new owner who was now living in it. Their experience will have been completely different from mine, even though they were working on the same project.

It’s also important to research what type of volunteer work you want to do. In Costa Rica at the time that I participated, most of the work was infrastructure based in national parks, or developing ecotourism opportunities in small communities. Our project was in a small community in Juanilama de Poco Sol where we helped save a community-owned patch of rainforest from deforestation for agricultural land, by developing it into an ecotourism destination. Now tourists from around the world can venture to this small village, join farm stays in extensions that villagers have built onto their homes and experience the rainforest and local culture. This is of direct economic benefit to the community members.

It was hard manual labour. We used machetes to clear walking trails, pickaxes and shovels to level out ground, and carried cement bricks deep into the rainforest to stabilize steps built into the hills. We also taught the locals basic English and wilderness first aid, but the majority of our work was hard graft.

Community Ownershipvolunteers in Costa Rica (c) Sarah Jackson

One thing that I really enjoyed about this project was the emphasis put on community ownership. Not just any village can get a group of YCI volunteers in. They need to go through an application process and prove that the group will really benefit them in reaching their goal. This means that the community really, really wants to have the volunteers there. Also it means that the project is something that the community itself has decided it wants, and not just something that a group of outsiders has decided would be good for them.

Since the community really wanted this project to succeed, we always had lots of engagement with the local people. We worked alongside the local young men, got taught how to salsa dance by the school children, and always had people there ready to help us when we needed it. We attended weddings and dinners, and really felt welcomed by the whole village.

Recommended for… Those who are looking for a long-term project and prefer working alongside lots of other volunteers for support.

Be aware that… This programme is probably not suitable for those looking for short-term projects, or for individual travellers passing through the area. The application process was quite long and there was no guarantee I would be placed where I wanted to be. Also, I had to attend an orientation day in Canada and then fly out with all the other participants (which was particularly annoying since I lived in Scotland at the time, and had to fly back to Canada just for the day). This is the sort of program you need to decide on and plan out in advance.

‘Good’ credentials:frog in Costa Rica (c) Sarah Jackson

  • Delivering projects the community itself has chosen and needs
  • Creation of ecotourism facilities to help the community develop a sustainable source of income
  • Protection of community-owned rainforest
  • Immersion in local, community life


For more information visit Youth Challenge International at or Youth Challenge Australia at

About the Author: Jade is a Canadian expat now living in Australia. She writes a blog at and blogs about budget travel, slow travel, destination and tour reviews, and family travel. Her next project will be a three month road trip across her home country of Canada, and she has just finished a similar epic road trip across Australia. Visit, connect via Facebook or follow on Twitter @Our_Oyster


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Boats, Elephants and Community Work in Kerala, India

Fort Kochi, Kerala, India

Through i to i Volunteering

E: / T: +44(0)1892 886123

(Review by Rachel Watson)

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The Boats, Elephants and Community Work two-week tour does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s a jam packed two weeks in South India’s beautiful Kerala, with boat trips, elephant interaction and eight days of community volunteering with delightful children in a special needs school.

You’ll be met at the airport and transferred to the homestay accommodation which will be your base for the two weeks. First up it’s a full orientation and “get to know each other” session with the rest of the group and co-ordinator Rakhi, a local lady who knows everything there is to know about Kerala and will bend over backwards to help you enjoy your time in her home state. Then it’s time to get stuck into the itinerary – starting with a full tour of Fort Kochi, taking in St Francis’ church, the Presidential palace, ornate Jewish synagogue and traditional Chinese fishing nets. The nets are still in full working order, and you can stand by and watch the fishermen at work. If you’re lucky (like I was) they will invite you to lend a hand, and you can help reel in a catch – mine was sent off to market to be sold!

The journey to school is made by bus – it’s a hot and cramped 20 minute trip by bus (a crazy experience not to be missed in India!) then a lovely ten minute stroll along the sea front, past the fishing nets (and once during my stay, a Bollywood film set) and through the front gates to school. The first time you make the journey (and more if you need it) you’ll be accompanied by a member of Rakhi’s team, and introduced to the teachers. The school is based at a convent and run by dedicated, hardworking and loving sisters who will make you feel very welcome at their school, and the children are beautiful – very fun loving, playful and trusting, and willing to work (and play) hard at any games, lessons or songs you introduce.

The weekends are no time for relaxing after a busy time at school – there’s a traditional Kerala arts show to enjoy, and trips to the famous Backwaters, an elephant village and the stunning Arirapally Waterfalls. I was most excited by the elephant trip, as I’ve always loved the majestic animals and was looking forward to getting up close with them. I wasn’t disappointed – invited by the mahouts to help with the bath I waded into the river to help scrub the elephants and was able to chat to the mahouts about their lives, and stroke the animals as much as I liked. We then headed straight off to the awe-inspiring waterfalls – you can get so close to them, and enjoy cooling off in smaller pools as well. Our trip also included lunch at a fantastic restaurant, with an infinity pool and fabulous views – the perfect end to an amazing day.

The trip includes two fantastic backwater cruises. The Kerala Backwaters are one of the natural wonders of the world, and – cruising through the lush green plants and trees, waving at local children running alongside your boat – it’s not hard to see why. Our first day on the Backwaters was spent on two different boats – a larger one with a sun deck for relaxing, and a much smaller boat, which was able to cruise down the smaller, less populated backwaters and take in even more of this gorgeous part of the world.

The second Backwater trip is an overnight stay on a houseboat, and was for me the perfect end to a perfect two weeks. My group – by now firm friends – spent a fantastic night cruising through the riverside villages, exotic birdlife and stunning scenery. We drank, laughed and reminisced about the fantastic, chock full two weeks we’ll remember for a lifetime.

Work: You’ll be spending eight days volunteering in a special needs school run by the sisters of the convent the school is based in. The children age from around 7-years upwards, and there are also adult students who participate in life skills classes and help the nuns with the smaller children. Activities are varied and very much down to the individual – you’ll need to use your initiative and get stuck in, there’s no place for wallflowers so come prepared with ideas for songs, games, lessons and activities you can do with the students. If you’ve got a particular skill or interest, use it!

Accommodation: It’s homestay accommodation here, staying in volunteer quarters of a family home. Rooms are based on twin share, and there’s a western-style toilet and warm water shower. Facilities include a microwave, kettle, toaster, fridge and television, and there’s a hand wash laundry service available for a (very) small fee. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Food: All meals are included and most of them are home cooked by the homestay family’s cook. Meals are amazing – traditional South Indian fare (fish curries are a speciality) but different tastes and requirements can be catered for easily – just ask.

Recommended for… People who want to do and see the best Kerala has to offer in a short period of time, while giving something back with volunteer work alongside the “touristy” activities. Also great for solo travellers, as you’re part of a group of like-minded people.

Be aware that… This is a fully supported trip with a planned itinerary in place for you. I loved that I could leave the organisation to someone else and know everything was planned for me to get the most out of my two weeks’ annual leave – but if you’re the sort of person who prefers more independent, “do it yourself” trips, it may not be to your taste.

Remember too, that if you don’t get stuck in right away at school, you could leave feeling that you’ve not achieved as much as you (or the kids) would like. Preparation is key – hit the ground running with ideas and a plan for what you want to do in your short time (I planned “In The Jungle” and “Under The Sea” arts and crafts projects – one for each week – and also swotted up on the kids in my class by reading through the journal left by previous volunteers).

‘Good’ credentials

  • All the accommodation, food, trips and in country staff are locally sourced – boosting the local economy and providing jobs
  • The children at the school benefit from one-on-one attention from volunteers, and the extra pairs of hands allow the permanent staff more time to concentrate on physiotherapy and speech therapy sessions for children who need them


Date of Visit: January 2011


About the author: Rachel Watson caught the travel bug during her gap year in 2002, and has no plans to stop exploring! She works in Customer Operations and blogs about her travel experiences in her spare time. Visit Rachel’s blog at or follow her on Twitter @RacheyRoo183




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