Costa Rica volunteer vacation programs typically involve either cultural immersion or environmental activities, but rarely both. We wanted to expose our children to the pleasure of Costa Rica rainforest reforestation and the excitement of spending a few days in a small village, volunteering to do whatever a few extra sets of hands could do to help. It’s enriching for kids — and adults — to get out of our comfort zones occasionally: This is how we found ourselves spending a late afternoon and evening at the birthday party of Ligia P., an abuelita who clearly loved having many young children scampering around her home and yard. She taught us how to make tortillas, which we then ate with the large crowd of her celebrating family, neighbors and friends. We all initially felt awkward — did she really want us to be there? Were we party crashing gringos? — but this feeling dissipated and was replaced with wide-eyed sheer enjoyment of the party. San Rafael, Costa Rica has hosted many volunteers and travelers through our program. More than just accepted, we were welcomed with open arms. Anyone considering a Costa Rica volunteer vacation should at least consider looking into adding a couple of days of cultural immersion to their service trip.
The next day was also spent in her rural town, helping to paint a small church central to the lives of people in the village of San Rafael, Costa Rica. It was enormously satisfying to start the day staring at raw, unpainted walls, and end it amid the festive blast of colors. My parents were on this Costa Rica volunteer vacation too, and while we’ve traveled with them before, multigenerational service trips add another layer of depth and meaning to a family vacation. My parents clearly loved helping their granddaughters figure out the best ways to paint the outside of the church, and (perhaps because my kids are on better behavior with their beloved grandparents around) everyone happily concentrated on the task without a single whine.
At one point, my younger daughter stepped right into a pan of paint, and she was content to spend the rest of the day wearing only one shoe. La otra zapata never fully recovered from that paint immersion experience; poor shoe. The other kids thought she was pretty funny, but thankfully she didn’t start a trend. I’m not sure how I’d feel if there were a dozen Costa Rican kids running around with only one shoe!
Previous service trips affiliated with our volunteer vacation tour group had done repairs to the elementary school in San Rafael, Costa Rica. Part of our third day in San Rafael was spent at the school, learning (or, to be specific, pathetically attempting to learn) some traditional Costa Rican dances. My kids, and the three children of a Chicago family also on this service trip, really enjoyed flouncing around. They also played jump rope with the schoolchildren. Though the North Americans spoke very little Spanish, and the Costa Rica kids didn’t speak any English, childhood activities like jump rope are universal. Everyone had a genuinely fun time! My daughters still happily talk about this travel experience.
Service trips and volunteer vacations aren’t for everyone; I understand that. Believe me, no one appreciates relaxing downtime in a lovely beach resort more than my family! But there’s something to be said about stretching our own personal boundaries and opening ourselves up to new experiences that enriches our lives in ways that another poolside tropical drink simply cannot. This travel experience widened my own kids’ perceptions of both what a vacation can be and what life is like outside of their own neighborhood. As a parent and travel proponent, I wouldn’t trade that for all the tropical drinks in the world.