Costa Rica offers a huge number of volunteer opportunities, by both local and expat organizations. Word of mouth is a powerful influence on future volunteers, so a majority of programs in Costa Rica are very conscientious about pleasing their volunteers. Almost all placements require a commitment of two weeks or more.
Exit the baggage claim at the international airport in San José and you’ll be welcomed by a sign that reads ‘In Costa Rica sex with children under 18 is a serious crime. Should you engage in it we will drive you to jail.’ For decades, travelers have arrived in Costa Rica in search of sandy beaches and lush mountainscapes. Unfortunately, an unknown percentage of them also come in search of sex – not all of it legal.
Prostitution by men and women over the age of 18 is perfectly legal. But the tourist juggernaut of the last few decades has fueled illicit activities at its fringes – namely child prostitution and, to a lesser degree, human trafficking. To be clear: having sex with a minor in Costa Rica is illegal, carrying a penalty of up to 10 years in jail. But child prostitution has nonetheless flourished. In fact, a number of aid groups, along with the country’s national child-welfare agency (Patronato Nacional de la Infancia; PANI), estimate that there may be as many as 3000 child prostitutes in San José alone. In turn, this has led to women and children being trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, as documented in a 2008 report issued by the US State Department.
Alarm over the problem has crescendoed steadily since 1999, when the UN Committee on Human Rights issued a statement saying that it was ‘deeply concerned’ about child-sex tourism in Costa Rica. Since then, the government has taken a number of measures to crack down. They’ve established national task forces to combat the problem, trained the police force in how to deal with issues of child exploitation and formed a coalition against human trafficking. But enforcement remains weak – largely due to lack of personnel and funding. On its end, the USA – the principal source of sex tourists to Costa Rica – has made it a prosecutable crime for Americans to have sex with minors anywhere in the world.
There are also countless challenges in fighting the problem. Tourism remains one of the country’s primary sources of revenue – and, unfortunately, that includes the countless travelers who arrive specifically to seek sex. Along with Thailand and Cambodia, Costa Rica is one of the most popular sex-tourism destinations in the world, according to Ecpat International, a nonprofit dedicated to ending child prostitution. The phenomenon has been magnified by the internet: there are entire sex-tourism websites that chronicle – in grotesque detail – where and how to find sex or, in the words of one, how to find ‘18-year-old girls for less than the price of a good steak.’ In all of these, Costa Rica figures prominently. While these sites are not necessarily illegal, they do promote a permissive image of the country – one that can lead some travelers to think that child sex is acceptable.
Various organizations fight the sexual exploitation of children in Costa Rica, which you can contact to learn more about the problem or to report any incidents you encounter. See the websites of Ecpat International (www.ecpat.org) and Cybertipline (www.cybertipline.com).
Many travelers in Costa Rica are extremely keen to learn and/or perfect their Spanish, but there are English teaching opportunities for people of all backgrounds.
Despite its relatively small size, Costa Rica is home to an impressive number of national parks, a good number of which protect some of the most pristine rainforest on the planet. If you’re interesting in helping to save this threatened ecosystem, and perhaps gaining a valuable skill set in the process, consider a placement in a forest-management program.
Costa Rica is certainly at the forefront of the sustainable food movement. Home to virtual living laboratories of self-sufficient farms and plantations, Costa Rica is perfectly suited for volunteers interested in greening their thumbs.
If you’re interested in sea turtles or rehabilitating rescued animals, Costa Rica is one of the best places in the world to get hands-on experience with wild animals. Whether you’re an aspiring veterinarian or just concerned with the plight of endangered species, there are some programs that can help you get a little closer to some of Mother Nature’s charismatic creatures. See also Fundación Corcovado.
It is difficult for foreigners to find work in Costa Rica. Labor laws favor Costa Ricans. The only foreigners legally employed in Costa Rica are those who work for their own businesses, possess skills not found in the country, or work for companies that have special agreements with the government.
Getting a bona fide job necessitates obtaining a work permit which can be a time-consuming and difficult process. The most likely source of paid employment is as an English teacher at one of the language institutes, or working in the hospitality industry in a hotel or resort. Naturalists or river guides may also be able to find work with either private lodges or adventure-travel operators, though you shouldn’t expect to make more than survival wages.
If you’ve ever thought about living and working in Costa Rica, then why not teach English as a foreign language (TEFL)? It could be the key to funding your travels and experiencing new cultures in a totally new way. You don’t need teaching experience or even the ability to speak the local language – although you might learn it while you’re out there.