Turtle Conservation at Tortugas de Pacuare Volunteer Camp

Amongst a boatload of volunteer programmes that you can find around the world, it can be difficult to decide whether or not to get involved. Is it a challenge that you’re up for? Is it worth the money that you’ll have to fork out? And most importantly, does the programme actually make the difference that it claims to?

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Well, I can’t give you all the answers, but from my experience volunteer experience at Tortugas of Pacuare I can give an insight to living in the jungle, turtle conservation, and the general ‘must knows’ of volunteering that maybe you wouldn’t have thought about. Hopefully this might inspire you to sign up yourself, and you’ll have all the tips and tricks to have the best experience and pack everything that you need. Either that or you’ll run for the hills.

HOW DID I CHOOSE MY VOLUNTEERING PLACEMENT?

I found Tortugas de Pacuare through Volunteer World, a free to use website with volunteer programmes all around the world (I’d like to think that you got that from the name). They advertise programmes from teaching English, to building in rural communities and, of course, nature conservation. Unlike some other volunteer sites like World Packers or Workaway, there is no membership fee. That being said, the programmes advertised on volunteer world are for a cost, but often provide food and/or accommodation.

Volunteer world, in my experience, has great customer service with a quick response online chat option so you can ask any questions. The application process is as easy as choosing a programme, writing a message as to why you would like to be chosen for the placement along with some dates and other info, and once you’re (hopefully) accepted, you pay the deposit to secure your place!

Keep in mind that some specialised programmes may have more requirements, such as a science degree for vet work or teaching experience. Of course some also have the standard age requirements, abilities (for harder physical work), and some allow families/couples and others don’t!

WHAT TO EXPECT AT TORTUGAS DE PACUARE (OR PERHAPS WHAT NOT TO…)

The most important thing to prepare yourself for is the remoteness. The camp is on the beach, next to a jungle, on an island. In other words, in the middle of nowhere.

So you will be walking through this jungle, every single day. Both during the day, and in the dark. If you’re scared of animals, creepy crawlies, and noises in the dark, I do not recommend you to go to Pacuare.

Pacuare Jungle Walk

But, who am I to say what you should and shouldn’t do? Here are the ins and outs so you can decide for yourselves:

Electricity and Wifi

  • The electricity is solar powered, so if it’s cloudy you might not have any. It was very normal to be eating in the dark with only the light of our phone torches, or spend an annoying 10 minutes fumbling through your things with a head torch on trying to find something.
  • Each day was different, but generally we could only charge our things in the morning, and mainly from the larger charging port outside.
  • As you might imagine, the WiFi is pretty abysmal. Don’t bother getting a Kolbi sim card as suggested, it doesn’t work. Dependent on how many people are connected at the time, you might send a Whatsapp or two. The odd person managed a facetime call but that was a very lucky rarity.

My advice: If you want to listen to music or podcast, download an e-book or watch Netflix – which you will on the days when it rains – download it all before you go. Otherwise, you will find yourself up at 3am to get the best WiFi, and waiting a lifetime to get one episode downloaded.

The Facilities

  • Warm water is but a myth in Pacuare (in Central America on the whole honestly). So be ready. That being said, I was a scalding hot shower person before, and now I prefer a cold one. *Personal growth*
  • Both the showers and toilets are outside. The toilets are actually great as far as jungle loos go. And once you get used to the cold and the occasional frog friend in there with you, the showers aren’t so bad either. If you’re lucky, a monkey might run through or jump on the roof and scare the living daylights out of you.
  • Sometimes the water runs out, so you might be covered in soap waiting for it to come back on.
  • You’ll also be washing your clothes in a bowl by hand, and hanging them up on the line, and then almost definitely running out in a mad dash to collect them all when it starts to rain.

My advice: Truth be told, this is something you just have to get used to. All I can suggest is showering during the day when you’re hot after work, not later when it’s cold and the water might run out.

The Food

  • The food is mostly vegetarian, and 98% beans and rice. By this I literally mean that rice and beans are on almost every plate, no matter which meal of the day.
  • There are no fridges, so everything you eat will be things that don’t need to be kept cold. There’s a lot of miscellaneous vegetables in miscellaneous sauces that all taste almost the same. Some better than others…
  • Hot sauce will be your best friend, and so will crackers and syrup.
  • There are honestly some really good meals, and my body felt really good from it. You get coffee, filtered water, porridge for a snack, pancakes and delicious empanadas. And you’ll try things you’ve maybe never had before, such as papaya, patacones, and beans for your brekkie.
  • There is also a ‘bar’, the only place on the island where you’ll get cold drinks, snacks, and cigarettes. Even in the jungle there’s bonding through one too many cervezas… Just remember that there’s nowhere to hide once you’ve embarrassed yourself.

My advice: Take snacks, and when I say snacks, I mean SNACKS. It’ll take you a week or so to get used to the food/lack of snacks. So, make your life easy, take cookies, sweets, crisps… Anything. You will regret it when someone is munching Pringles and crisps are a mere distant memory. I’m telling you this from experience. All in all, just keep an open mind and try not to dream about home food too much.

The Work

  • A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that this volunteer programme is just a cheap Costa Rica beach holiday – don’t be that person. In saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that it is extremely difficult work, but honestly only come if you really care about the wildlife. It’s very obvious to the assistants who are there for the right reason. 
  • What will you do? There were 3 main parts to the volunteer work to do when I was there, which could be season dependent: 
    • 2 Hour shifts of morning and afternoon work, consisting of: Beach clean up and plastic organisation, work on the jungle path & animal observation, camp clean up, building of different things, and turtle talks. 
    • Night patrol. 4 Hour shifts from 8pm-12am / 12am-4am. During these shifts you will patrol up and down the beach, looking out for mother turtles nesting. If you’re lucky to experience a nesting mother, you will help to dig up the eggs and move them to the hatchery.
    • Hatchery shifts. 1 or 2 hour shifts chilling on the beach, guarding the eggs. This shift was honestly my favourite when you just needed some ‘you time’ – which you will. 

My advice: The work overall isn’t so difficult, the main thing is that it can very much mess with your sleep schedule. If you have a night shift, it can be hard to catch up on sleep the day after if it’s really hot. So, bag yourself a hammock, and sleep the afternoon away. My only other comment is that walking at night in the heat can be tough, and some of the work in the day can be tough if it’s really hot. So, just stay hydrated, and let the assistants know if you’re not doing too good. 

The Animals

  • I’m sure that everyone that volunteers in animal conservation are there for the animals, and they will make it worth every second. The first day I woke up, I left my dorm and the camp was full of white faced capuchin monkeys. And until they start stealing all the camp food and terrorising the dogs, you’re going to love them.
  • The jungle path near is filled with sloths, monkeys, iguanas, crabs (lots of crabs) and more – depending on how good at spotting you are!
  • What part of the turtle nesting you will see will depend on what time of year you go. I went at the start of the nesting season (early/mid March) and I was lucky enough to see a leatherback turtle nesting and it was the most amazing experience that I’ve ever had.
  • Lastly, the pesky insects. The mosquitos and sand flies at Pacuare are ruthless, and they will stop at nothing until you are covered head to toe in bites. It’s not a look, and it itches… A LOT. But you’re all in the same boat, unless you’re one of those lucky ones that bugs don’t like. So, you’ll get in the habit of telling each other to quit itching.

My advice: Go at the start of the season if you can. I know baby turtles sound enticing, but if there’s one thing you should trust me on, it’s this. There are tonnes of places travelling that you can release baby turtles, whereas seeing a mother nest is something you will only get to see if you volunteer. And it’s magical.

PACKING LIST:

Tortugas de Pacuare provides you with a packing list, but some things are missed out/unnecessary. So, I’m here to help:

Here is the packing list provided by the camp, with some extra very important additions

  • Mosquito repellent – LOTS OF IT. As well as itch relief cream for your bites – it’s gold dust at camp, so keep it and hide it (unless you’re feeling lovely).
  • Sun protection & aftercare
  • Bed sheet – I bought a cheap bed sheet inside cover from Amazon, and it was the best thing. It hardly took up any space, and some people use them in hostels too. You don’t need a big sheet, it doesn’t get cold. 
  • Pillow 
  • Mosquito net – This is a MUST. I bought mine from Mountain Warehouse, make sure it’s one that will be able to hang up to a bunk bed.
  • Towel – Microfibre towels are truly annoying, but essential for travelling. Of course I bought mine from Mountain Warehouse.
  • Shampoo, etc. (Personal care) – I would advise a bar of body soap in a soap holder. They take up way less space and are often better for the environment too!
  • Comfy shoes for patrolling. I bought some crocs as recommended by the camp, but truth be told I didn’t wear them for patrolling. I ended up wearing my hiking boots with thick socks, so that the sand flies couldn’t get to my ankles. But I wouldn’t take boots just for that. You just need some comfy, dark shoes. 
  • Bottle for water – I recommend Chilly’s Bottles to everyone. Mine is my baby that comes everywhere with me. And it keeps the water cold.
  • Head torch with red light – These are absolutely essential. You can’t use white lights with the turtles so make sure it has the right function, get a battery operated one, and bring some spare batteries.
  • Dark and long clothes for patrolling – The more baggy the better. It sounds awful being in long, dark, thick clothes at night when it’s 30 degrees. And, it is. But the only thing worse is being covered in bites the day after (you can’t wear bug spray on patrol). I wore black cargos, a long sleeve baggy sports top, and my cargos tucked into thick socks. I was hot, but the pests can get through leggings. 
  • Raincoat – It’s a rainforest/jungle. It’s going to rain. A LOT.
  • LOTS OF SNACKS – I know I already mentioned it, but it’s very important.
  • Long, baggy, comfy pants for the evening. 
  • Card games
  • A journal
  • A small packet of washing powder – everything is hand washed and hung on the line
  • If you smoke, take your cigarette of choice because you definitely won’t find it there

DO I RECOMMEND TORTUGAS DE PACUARE?

At the start of this blog, I asked the all important questions: If I thought this camp was worth the money, and if I think it really makes a difference to the animals etc. Which arguably is a sticky question to answer.

I paid around £450 for 3 weeks of volunteering, which includes all your food and accommodation whilst you’re there. It doesn’t however include your transport to get there, which generally I wouldn’t mind. BUT, you have to pay around 25 USD for a taxi from the town to the river bank, and 50 USD for a 30 minute boat ride into the camp, and there’s no other option. Which for me is frustrating. Other than that, I think the value for money was substantial enough. Another thing to consider is that if you don’t enjoy it and want to leave early, even if you’re leaving weeks earlier, you won’t get your money back. Not a penny.

To the animals; I honestly think it makes a difference. You may or may not know this, but turtles have a pretty bad track record of survival. Only around 1 in 1000 turtles make it to adulthood, particularly in the leatherback species. Human intervention can and has increased this stat. With poachers of eggs continuing to be a problem, even the simple act of guarding a hatchery can give a few more eggs the chance of survival. Mother turtles that come to the beach are also tagged, tracked, and checked for injuries or potential pieces of plastic and dangerous items tangled around them. The locals that help out at the programme are also very knowledgeable about the species and how to help them, and teach about them, as well as the assistants that work there.

So, yes, I would say that the programme sets out what it intends to do, but unfortunately, like a lot of volunteer programmes, I do feel that there is an element of financial gain. That being said, I would still recommend volunteering at Tortugas de Pacuare, for these very simple reasons:

  • Being a part of the nesting process was one of the most unforgettable, amazing experiences I have ever had in my life. Without a single smidge of exaggeration. If you’re an animal lover, it is undeniably a must.
  • Living in the jungle was a totally new experience, that was tough at first, but once you’re used to it, spending every day surrounded by animals and wildlife is completely magical.
  • You will meet the most amazing people, volunteers, assistants, and locals alike.
  • And last, but definitely not least, you are sure to see the most amazing sunsets and starry skies that you will ever see.
Pacuare sunset landscape

FINAL GENERAL VOLUNTEER ADVICE

  • It’s really important that you read the requirements thoroughly on Volunteer world and the programmes own website. Community help programmes can be strenuous. Physical work and lugging heavy materials around in 30⁰ might not be your cup of tea. Even turtle patrolling for hours in the middle of the night can be a challenge. Make sure you know exactly what you’re signing yourself up for.
  • With the last one in mind, ask questions and lots of them. It can feel a little annoying asking over and over, but you will be better off for it. No question is a silly question.
  • Research the company and their impact and what their goals are. You don’t want to pay to work somewhere that isn’t really making a difference. The sad truth is that volunteer programmes have become somewhat of a money making scheme, don’t fall victim to it.
  • Be prepared to make the most amazing friends and have to say bye to them. Equally, be prepared to spend time with people that may not be your speed. By that I mean, odds are, there’s going to be at least one person you can’t stand again, I’m telling you this from experience. If you could be confined with the same people for an extended time, with no space, and get along with EVERYONE, you’re a better person than I am.
  • Finally, write a diary, keep track of what you’ve done, who you’ve met and how you’re feeling. All the days mush into one sometimes and as cliche as it sounds, you will hopefully change and learn things. It’s important to remember that process.
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Check out my other travel posts for more inspiration and information! And keep an eye out to follow more of my Latin American adventure.

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