About Costa Rica
The phrase “pura vida” literally translated means “pure life,” but its nuanced meaning of living life to the fullest is as rich and complex as the country itself. Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse and socially contrasting places in the world. Teeming with life of every kind, Costa Rica is a land of vibrant natural wonder. Its warm and welcoming people as well as its wildlife and ecosystems are found nowhere else in the world. Yet, in the same way that its differing ecosystems coexist in the same land, there are people in great need living among those who have much. In these places, ISL participates in volunteer work led by our Costa Rican staff.
The Brief on Costa Rica:
Costa Rica is a Central American country bordered by the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, Nicaragua, and Panama. Costa Rica has become one of the most stable, democratic, prosperous, and progressive nations in Latin America. It permanently abolished its army in 1949, becoming the first of very few sovereign nations without a standing army. In fact, one of Costa Rica’s nicknames is the “Switzerland of Latin America” because of its neutrality. While Costa Rica is known for its coffee and tropical fruit exports, tourism is now the largest industry. Twenty-five percent of the country’s land area is protected—one of the largest percentages in the world.
ISL’s Milestones in Costa Rica
1994 – While traveling, Michael Birnbaum, ISL’s founder and president, witnessed a humanitarian tragedy in Sarapiqui, Costa Rica, that left him deeply moved with compassion. Wanting to return and bring sustainable support for those in need, the idea behind ISL emerged.
2010 – An ISL Physical Therapy program was implemented, a first in the history of ISL.
2011 – ISL Costa Rica, Marymount University DPT School, and Manos Abiertas Foundation signed a tri-party cooperation agreement to benefit the residents of Manos Abiertas.
2012 – ISL Costa Rica implemented a Chiropractic Program, a first in the history of ISL.
2014 – ISL Costa Rica implemented a Sports Medicine Program.
2015 – University of Tennessee, Knoxville celebrated their 10th anniversary of traveling and serving with ISL in Costa Rica.
2015 – ISL Costa Rica hosted all ISL country coordinators and US staff for a meeting.
Where We Serve in Costa Rica
ISL works with Costa Rican and Nicaraguan populations in a variety of communities and organizations in Costa Rica, from rural communities without easy access to urban conveniences to urban “precarios” where homes are constructed with non-permanent materials, nursing homes, homes for disabled persons abandoned by family, and wildlife and environmental conservation centers.
ISL works in all seven provinces of Costa Rica. Many of our partner communities and organizations are located in the Great Metropolitan Area (GAM) in the capitals of Cartago, San Jose, Heredia, and Alajuela. Our Hike for Humanity program has been successful in bringing healthcare services to indigenous areas in the provinces of Puntarenas and Limón.
The Need in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has a social security system that, unfortunately, is oversaturated and only covers public and private sector employees and self-employed people that contribute most directly to the economy. The unemployment rate is very high with a large population of immigrants living in poverty.
“My ISL trip to Costa Rica was a truly life-changing experience. Being able to learn about a country and their poorer areas is eye-opening and makes you truly appreciate what you have. By working with the wonderful communities, not only was I able to assist in providing medical care but was able to meet some amazing people. Part of my heart has been left in Costa Rica, and I will always fondly remember my time there. I am so grateful to ISL for providing me with this opportunity.”— Kelly H., Indiana University
As with any great work, it takes great relationships to get the job done. That’s why ISL Costa Rica has partnered with nonprofits, NGOs, governmental and religious groups and institutions to better serve the people of Costa Rica.
Asociación Divina Misericordia
Asociación en Pro de la Calidad de Vida Jireh Alajuela y Guanacaste
Albergue La Posada de Belén
Casa Hogar San Lázaro
Desarrollo Humano Vital (DEHVI)
Fundación Hogar Manos Abiertas Alajuela y Tres Ríos
Asociación Asilo de la Vejez Cartago
Asociación de Atención Integral Tercera Edad Alajuela
Asociación Hogar de Ancianos Santiago Crespo
Fundación Hogar de Ancianos Alfredo y Delia González Flores
Hogar de Ancianos Banquete Celestial
Schools and Universities
Colegio Rincón Grande de Pavas
Escuela de Enseñanza Especial El Llano
Taller Protegido Alajuela
Escuela Lomas del Río Pavas
Universidad de las Ciencias Médicas
Universidad Internacional de las Américas
Universidad Latina de Costa Rica
Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica
Comité Cantonal de Deportes y Recreación de Alajuela
What to Expect as a Volunteer
You’ll arrive in Costa Rica via the Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO), which is located 12 miles from downtown San Jose. After going through customs and retrieving your luggage, you will be met by an ISL staff member, and then transported by taxi, van, or bus (arranged and paid for by ISL) to your hotel or guest house in the province closest to your work site. Airport to hotel travel time varies from 10 minutes to 2 hours. Daily travel time from housing to work site varies from 15 to 45 minutes. On your recreation day, travel may take up to a maximum of three hours. Housing locations may change as your team moves to a new work site or as you travel to your recreation day location. Volunteers serving in the northwest area of Costa Rica can arrive at the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIB) in Liberia, Guanacaste, especially if you are participating in our two-country program (Nicaragua-Costa Rica).
With ISL Costa Rica, you’ll get to volunteer and experience the culture of those you serve. Here are some of the many possibilities:
Learn how to make one of many famous and delicious Costa Rican dishes.
From Salsa to Cha Cha Cha, this is an excellent opportunity to learn the basics of Latin dance.
Walk around the city and explore parks, old colonial-style buildings, theaters, and museums.
Some markets are open during weekdays and offer a variety of fresh fruits and veggies, as well as typical Costa Rican dish stands. Enjoy the vibrant colors of the many tropical fruits and vegetables grown in Costa Rica, and have a taste of the season’s latest harvest.
Indigenous Craft Making
Learn from an indigenous artisan how to make handcrafts to take home.
Prices depend on the season (some of them are free), but the authentic Costa Rican experience is priceless either way.
You can learn about the coffee production process from the seed to the finished product and taste for yourself why Costa Rican coffee is world famous.
Discover a wide range of collections from Pre-Columbian gold and jade to rare currency. Explore art galleries full of historical and contemporary Costa Rican art.
When you’re ready to let loose, Costa Rica has it all.
Zipline through the natural wonder of Costa Rica
The Vista Los Sueños Canopy property boasts spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. Fly like a bird over the Costa Rican jungle, spotting wildlife in their natural habitat and get a look for yourself at why Costa Rica is one of the most biologically diverse places in the world. – $65
World renowned surfing and views that give the Rich Coast its name are what await you at Jacó Beach. Close to Central Valley, it’s one of Costa Rica’s most popular beaches. Watch the macaws in flight at sunset and walk to one of the many restaurants and nightlife destinations that line this famous strip.
Home to wild jungle cats, howling Spider Monkeys, vibrant tropical birds and butterflies that land on your shoulder, the Peace Waterfall Gardens are your access to the Costa Rican rain forest. A true nature lover’s dream, The Peace Waterfall park is paradise on earth. Only an hour and half drive from Alajuela Province, the park is great way to unwind and recharge in nature. – $40
Los Chorros, Tacares de Grecia
Los Chorros is one of Costa Rica’s best kept secrets. Located in the small town of Tacares de Grecia, and more known to Costa Rican natives than to tourists, this is a great spot for an afternoon hike or swim through crystal clear jungle water. If you’re feeling ambitious, try rappelling down a 200-foot waterfall during one of the many guided tours available each day. – $4 – Dry Season Only
Poás Volcano National Park
This park gives you the rare opportunity to witness the natural wonder and fury of an active volcano at safe distance. Considered by most to be the most breathtaking view in Costa Rica, Poás Volcano National Park also holds one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. On a clear day it is possible to see both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts from its rugged volcanic-formed mountains. – $15 entrance fee
This vitally important nature reserve is home to protected birds and wildlife as well as transitional forests found nowhere else on earth. A bird watcher’s dream, this area includes 330 migratory and native bird species, including the rare scarlet macaw. The 750 acres refuge is virtually unknown to the masses and offers a glimpse at the true wild heart of the nature of Costa Rica. – $50, includes lunch.
Baldí Hot Springs Tour Package
Start your adventure gliding across the top of a rainforest on a zipline canopy tour and end with a relaxing dip in the volcanic heated Baldí Hot Springs. There are 25 pools, each rising in temperature with the elevation. Soak in the relaxation with view of the Arenal Volcano. This package includes lunch and dinner at the hot springs.
– $43 day pass (Lunch and dinner included)
– $35 Zip-lining San Luis (optional)
Manuel Antonio National Park
Widely regarded as Costa Rica’s best national park, the Manuel Antonio National Park is also its smallest. Within the park’s three square miles, you’ll find untamed beaches, secluded coves, nature trails, as well as a dense, natural rainforest. Walk out along the park’s coastline or wander along one of the many walking paths to spot rare birds and camouflaged iguanas. You won’t have any trouble spotting monkeys. There are so many of them that the park built suspension bridges to give them free reign through the area. – $16 entrance fee
Whether a hacienda on the beach of the Sea of Cortez in Puerto Penasco, Mexico, a walled convent in the heart of Alajuela, Costa Rica, or an apartment situated above the bustling metropolis of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, ISL’s volunteer lodgings are unique and carefully chosen based on very important criteria. Accommodations are safe, clean, and within a reasonable driving distance to service sites and recreation opportunities. Volunteers are provided their own bed, easy access to restrooms and showers as well as meeting spaces for team training and fellowship. Many ISL accommodations are unique and may include retreat houses, guest houses or home stays, all of which provide a distinctive cultural experience. ISL country coordinators will provide a description of your team’s lodging in every Welcome Letter that goes out prior to your departure.
My experience in Costa Rica was an ideal opportunity for my first medical mission trip. The experience of cultural immersion is something so valuable, it has truly transformed my outlook on life and my own culture. I traveled with 15 intelligent, strong, and confident health care professionals (RN’s, RN students, NP’s, NP students, Nurse educators, and nurse education students) and with all we have to offer, I would argue we took home more than we gave.— Lauren Stacy, Rivier University
Costa Rica's Staff
We love our staff and we are positive that you will too! Each staff member is professional, courteous, and has the same passion as you do: to serve others.