Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Costa Rica
- 1 Communications
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Personal Safety
- 10 Rewards and Frustrations
Airmail to and from Costa Rica takes one to two weeks. Volunteers in more remote areas of the country have an additional delay. You can receive mail at the Peace Corps office both during training and as a Volunteer. The mailing address of the Peace Corps office is:
“Your Name,” PCT
Cuerpo de Paz
Apartado Postal 1266
1000 San José
Once you have completed training, you will be responsible for sending the address of your new site to friends and family. Most sites are near post offices, and Volunteers can rent a post office box or have mail delivered directly to their home.
We discourage you from having people send you money, airline tickets, or other valuable items through the mail. Items mailed in “bubbled” manila envelopes have a better chance of arriving at your site without being delayed by customs. Larger packages have to go through customs and sometimes mysteriously disappear in transit. Retrieving packages from customs is time-consuming and often requires payment of duty fees.
DHL, Federal Express, and other couriers have offices in Costa Rica. If your friends or relatives want to send you something by courier, they should send it to the Peace Corps office, for which a phone number and directions to a street address are usually required. The Peace Corps/Costa Rica office phone number is 011.506.231.4122; the fax number is 011.506.220.3275.
International phone service to and from Costa Rica is good. One can make direct calls to the United States at phone centers located throughout the country, using a calling card (e.g., from MCI, AT&T, Sprint, or the Costa Rican telephone company) or calling collect. During training, most of the host families that Volunteers live with have telephones; if they do not, there is likely to be a neighbor with a phone or a public phone nearby. Telephone service is more limited at a few rural sites. The Peace Corps issues a beeper to Volunteers who live with families that do not have phones.
Fax service is also available in most cities, usually at the local post office. The post office charges a fee for both sending and receiving faxes. LOL. Once you are at your assigned site, you can send a fax number to your friends and relatives for easier communication.
You do not need a cellular phone to carry out your work in Costa Rica. Most U.S. cellphones are not compatible with the cellular technology in Costa Rica, although there are plans to change this in the near future.
To reach you in an emergency, your family can call the Office of Special Services at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., at 800.424.8580 (or 202.638.2574 during nonbusiness hours). The Office of Special Services will contact Peace Corps/Costa Rica as soon as possible to relay the information.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
You will have access to computers and the Internet at the Volunteer resource center at the Peace Corps office in San José. Because these computers are shared among all Volunteers in-country, access depends on demand. In addition, Volunteers in the children, youth, and families project have limited access to computers at the local child welfare office. Bringing a personal computer to Costa Rica increases your risk of being a victim of theft. Nevertheless, some Volunteers bring laptop computers with them, which they find useful for work purposes, but access to the Internet may be limited.
Housing and Site Location
Currently, there are Volunteers in all parts of the country: the Central Valley, Limón on the Caribbean coast, Puntarenas on the Pacific coast, as far north as Los Chiles near the Nicaraguan border, and as far south as Paso Canoas on the Panama border. While sites vary in size, climate, and distance to downtown San José (from 20 minutes to eight hours by bus), each has been preselected by the Peace Corps in consultation with relevant host country agencies as being a community where a Volunteer will find plenty of work opportunities and support.
Volunteers in the children, youth, and families project live in urban, semi-urban, or rural communities. While Volunteers in the community development and micro-enterprise development projects will live in rural/semi-rural communities. Volunteers in urban sites usually have access via a short bus ride to services such as banks, post offices, and hospitals. Volunteers in more rural areas have to take a longer bus ride to the nearest large town to mail letters or cash checks. Some sites are converted squatter settlements made up of a combination of tin and wood shacks, but most sites have recently built two- or three-room cement block buildings with corrugated steel roofs. All Volunteer houses have cold running water and electricity, and most have phones. In all communities, you will find a church, a school, and general stores (pulperías) that sell staples such as rice, black beans, tuna, soap, soft drinks, and snack food.
During training, you will live with a family selected by the training staff in one of several training communities. During your first year of service, you are also required to live with a family in your assigned community. This promotes your integration into the community, increases your language skills, and helps ensure your safety. The families are recommended by community leaders and approved by your program manager. Requests to live independently during the second year are approved on a case-by-case basis.
The family you stay with, which is likely to include children, will probably have a home modest in size and comfort. While the Peace Corps requests that Volunteers be given their own room, you may find that its walls do not reach the ceiling or are very thin. It is important to remember that the concept of individual space in Costa Rica is different from that in America. While some Volunteers find living with a family frustrating at times, they also concede that it is an enriching way to experience a new culture and develop an awareness of its values.
While you will find most Costa Rican people to be kind and good, communities also have members with a variety of problems, including substance abuse and alcoholism, low income, single parenthood, child abuse, high unemployment, and delinquency. Therefore your safety is of major concern, and you will have to adjust and conform to different norms of behavior and take continual precautions to maximize your safety. (The Health Care and Safety chapter provides more information on this important issue.)
Living Allowance and Money Management
During pre-service training, the Peace Corps will open an electronic debit account (in colóns) for you at Banco Naciónal, to which you can gain access from any of the bank’s automated teller machines throughout the country. (Most ATM cards from U.S. banks can also be used at local banks.) The debit card can also be used at most larger businesses. The Peace Corps pays host families a set amount to cover your food, lodging, and laundry during training and deposits a small “walking-around allowance” in your account for other expenses.
When you become a Volunteer, the Peace Corps will begin depositing a living allowance in your account every month, along with a one-time settling-in allowance (about $200) to purchase items to set up your home. The amount of the living allowance is based on an annual cost-of-living survey of current Volunteers and is intended to cover all of your essential expenses, i.e., rent, local travel, food, and entertainment. You will negotiate the rent you pay your host family using guidelines provided by the Peace Corps.
The Peace Corps encourages you to maintain a lifestyle similar to that of the people with whom you live and work, so you do not need to bring additional money. Nevertheless, many Volunteers bring at least one major credit card in case they need to make a major personal purchase or for out-ofcountry travel. If you choose to bring extra money, we
recommend that you bring traveler’s checks or open a local bank account in dollars to minimize the risk of loss or theft. There is also a safe at the Peace Corps office in which Volunteers can store cash, credit cards, traveler’s checks, and important documents.
You will also accrue $24 per month of Volunteer service for a vacation allowance, deposited monthly in your account in local currency. Some Volunteers regularly transfer their leave allowance into a dollar account to prevent losses resulting from devaluation of the local currency.
Food and Diet
During training, your host family will prepare all of your meals. Once you are a Volunteer, you can arrange to have all or some of your meals with your host family or buy and prepare your own food.
The availability of fresh fruits and vegetables depends on the season and the region. Costa Ricans tend to eat few green vegetables, favoring root vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassavas, etc.). Volunteers sometimes comment on the lack of diversity in the local diet, which relies heavily on rice and beans and starchy foods fried in oil or lard. Many families do not eat a lot of meat because of its cost. Although almost any specialty food can be purchased at supermarkets in San José, these imported products are not part of the local diet and are well beyond the economic means of most host families.
It is relatively easy for vegetarians to maintain their diet in Costa Rica, since rice and beans are the staple foods. However, Costa Ricans often prepare their vegetables with meat or in meat broth, so you will have to make special arrangements to maintain a strictly vegetarian diet.
The country has an extensive road system of more than 18,600 miles (30,000 km), although much of it is in disrepair. The main cities in the Central Valley are connected by paved, all-weather roads to the Caribbean and Pacific coasts and to the Pan American Highway, which goes to Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica’s neighbors to the north and south. Unfortunately, the rate of traffic-related fatalities is one of the highest per capita in the world.
Volunteers travel mostly by public bus. Costa Rica has an extensive and dependable bus system that operates in most of the country. The service is inexpensive and usually runs on a set schedule several times a day. In the San José metropolitan area, however, traffic jams often extend travel times.
The Peace Corps recommends taking “official” taxis at night; the red cars with yellow triangles on the front doors are easily identifiable. Most fares within the San José area are determined by using the meter (called the María), but longer distances are usually set at a fixed rate.
Volunteers are not allowed to drive motorized vehicles except during an official vacation. Many Volunteers request and receive bicycles from the Peace Corps to facilitate travel around their sites. Volunteers who are issued a bicycle must receive safety training and wear a bicycle helmet provided by the Peace Corps.
Geography and Climate
There are two distinct seasons in Costa Rica, rainy and dry. In much of the country, the rainy season lasts from May to November, but parts of the Caribbean coast receive rain year-round. And when it rains, it really rains, with heavy afternoon downpours resulting in flooded or muddy streets. The driest months in San José are December through April. The southwestern plains and mountain slopes receive more rain, averaging only three dry months a year. Temperatures vary little between seasons—the main influence on temperature is altitude. San José, at almost 3,800 feet (1,150 meters), has temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The coasts and lowlands are much hotter, averaging 72 degrees at night and 86 degrees during the day.
Training takes place in several communities in the Central Valley (near San José), so be prepared for warm days and cool nights. You will need a warm jacket or heavy sweater, especially during the rainy season, when the dampness and wind make it quite chilly. A blanket (easily purchased in Costa Rica) is necessary for sleeping even at lower altitudes.
The climate in your future work site will depend on where you are located. You should be prepared for a location that is very hot, somewhat cooler, or anything in between.
Since your assignment will entail working with people, much of your “work” time will be spent socializing and getting to know community members by drinking a cafecito (coffee) with them. This time with community members is important to building the trust necessary to work effectively with them. The Peace Corps expects Volunteers to spend most evenings and weekends working or socializing in their community, except when they work in another community on integrated programming efforts. In fact, Volunteers may spend only one weekend night per month away from their site for non-workrelated reasons, unless they have requested vacation time.
Most Volunteers celebrate birthdays, weddings, and holidays with their host families. Other activities depend on the size of the community. Smaller sites have activities at the community center, local school, soccer field, and churches. Larger communities may also have restaurants, a movie theater, a dance hall or disco, and special cultural activities. When you are in San José, you will find a variety of movie theaters, music and theater performances, art galleries, museums, and sports events. In addition, you are likely to discover places of incredible natural beauty close to your site and throughout the country.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
As a novelty in your community, you will be noticed, and your dress and behavior will be commented upon. Therefore, to minimize any unnecessary obstacles in your work and personal relations, you must respect local cultural norms. To help ensure that you serve as a positive role model by working in a professional and ethical manner, you will be asked to sign a copy of the code of behavior that governs the Peace Corps program in Costa Rica.
Personal appearance delivers a message, whether intended or unintended. As in the United States, dressing appropriately in Costa Rica can enhance your credibility, since it reflects your respect for the customs and expectations of the people with whom you live and work. Inappropriate dress, like inappropriate behavior, is something that can set you unnecessarily apart from your community. Until you become well-known by Costa Ricans, your dress will be an important indicator to them. From the biggest city to the remotest village, you will be judged, especially initially, on your appearance.
Costa Ricans dress very neatly and take great pride in looking good in public (i.e., clean with ironed clothes, polished shoes, and groomed hair), even on informal occasions. “Dressing down” as a personal statement does not occur to most people, since they are still struggling to better their lives. For example, it may be confusing and offensive to them to see a “rich” North American wear dirty gym shoes when dressier shoes are appropriate. A Volunteer who looks “young” can gain greater acceptance of his or her ideas by wearing the right outfit, which generally means wearing what Costa Ricans wear in the same situation. For example, in schools, Costa Rican women tend to wear skirts, dresses, or pressed pants and men tend to wear collared shirts with pants. When visiting with neighbors, however, you can wear casual clothes. You are expected to observe these guidelines for dress during pre-service training as well.
On the coast and in the big cities, shorts are acceptable for doing household projects and for recreational or sports activities. Shorts may not be worn at the Peace Corps office or in other professional settings (long culottes are acceptable for women). In hot areas, women often wear tank tops, sundresses, and dressy sandals for work.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers, especially women, experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Costa Rica. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
The Peace Corps is not for everyone. You will have to cope with the frustrations of working in a new culture with different norms and behaviors. You may be made fun of because of your difference from Costa Ricans. You must be willing to live with a family, even it makes you feel like a child again or makes you feel like you never leave your work. You will work with government employees who are often overworked and underappreciated. The work can be mentally and physically stressful because of Costa Rica’s complex social problems. Resources may be limited and facilities inadequate.
You will need to find inner reserves of strength to continue your work with enthusiasm, new ideas, and much patience. In most cases, you will structure your own time. You must possess the self-confidence and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without always seeing immediate results.
You will find that the key to satisfying work as a Peace Corps Volunteer is the ability to establish successful human relationships at all levels—with your host family, the community members with whom you work, counterpart agencies and school officials, and your fellow Volunteers. You can expect Costa Ricans to be friendly and interested in having you in their community. You will acquire a sense of accomplishment when small projects are made effective because of your efforts. In addition, acceptance into a foreign culture and acquisition of a second or even a third language are significant rewards. If you have the personal qualifications needed to meet the challenges of two years of service in Costa Rica, you will have a rewarding, enriching, and lasting experience. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you have had a positive impact on other people’s lives while making much-needed contributions to the goals of Peace Corps/Costa Rica. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers, the rewards are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave Costa Rica feeling that they gained much more than they sacrificed during their service.