• travelsbykatie

Volunteering in Costa Rica with IVHQ and Maximo Nivel.

Why, when, and how to volunteer with IVHQ.

I have done a few volunteer projects and I am always sceptical about paying to volunteer. However on this occasion I decided to try it rather than arranging everything myself and I am really glad I did. The projects are really worthwhile, it's so well-organised and I made some life-long friends from all different parts of the world! Yes, you can easily contact similar projects, stay in a hostel, do it cheaper and still make a difference, but if you are short on time and want to be part of community of likeminded volunteers with the option to travel together afterwards, then IVHQ is the way forward. IVHQ have destinations all over the world but I chose San Jose as it fitted in well with my travel plans. Costa Rica is warm all year round and I actually went during rainy season (UK summer) but the rain would never last long and clear up pretty quickly. There's not all that much to do in San Jose but it's a good hub to get around to other places in the country and there are hundreds of international flights to other destinations. You pay a registration fee before you go, to secure your place and this is discounted if you are a returning volunteer, which I definitely hope to be in the future! You then pay per week which is cheaper the longer you stay. This includes your airport transfers, accommodation, home cooked meals, and access to Maximo Nivel HQ which is great for meeting other volunteers, using wifi, travel services, Spanish practice and daily activities such as salsa and cooking classes. You have to fill in a short application form but it was pretty quick to find out if you have been successful and staff were very fast getting back to me and were especially helpful when I needed to change my dates. The next step was to join the Facebook group and find out who would be there on the same dates and what projects everyone would be doing.

How the children get the mangos for snack time.

Day one

I'd been travelling through Mexico and Belize with Elliot before we got to San Jose so after waving him off to the airport, I just had to jump in a 10 minute Uber to headquarters for orientation, although most volunteers made use of the free airport transfer.

So there I was was, all fresh and ready to make friends, forgetting that literally everyone else around me was jet-lagged, some having travelled over 30 hours to get there! I was not going to let this stop me on my first day of being a solo traveller. As the girl in front of me was checking in I recognised her name from the FB page, so once she was done I introduced myself and reminded her we had already been chatting on Facebook. But no, she didn’t even know there was a group chat and was probably very weirded out by my stalking techniques. Great start. At this point I was more set on making friends than feeling embarrassed so like a true stalker I asked if she wanted to go for lunch as our orientation was in about 3 hours. We picked up a few more volunteers on the way and headed out to La Pataconeria a restaurant that had been recommended to us by the IVHQ team. Coincidently, one of them was going to be my housemate and I was relieved to find his Spanish was marginally better than mine. Outside the major tourist areas it’s quite difficult to get around with absolutely no Spanish.

This was also my first life changing experience of the trip: patacones: Savoury fried plantain with fillings I went for mozzarella and tomato on this occasion to be safe but I ended up trying probably every combination there is during my 3 weeks in Costa Rica. After lunch we went off to orientation and found out what projects we would be working on. Mine was teaching English in a place called La Carpio and if you get placed there whatever you do don’t google it! It’s looks terrifying online but is really not that bad when you’re there (during the day at least) we also found out where we would be staying and directions on how to get there, a bit of information about the family etc. But on the first night IVHQ provide a taxi as everyone has a lot of luggage etc. 

The home stay 

So I arrived in one of the suburbs at a small gated house and was first of all greeted by the cutest dog and then by the warmest friendliest hug! My ‘host mum’ had already welcomed me and was asking me hundreds of questions in Spanish, she was not dumbing it down for me at all, I really struggled to keep up! My Spanish is limited to GCSE and a few seasons abroad in exotic Magaluf, and of you don’t know what that is, again please don’t google it all you need to know is that it is in Spain, but absolutely no one speaks Spanish. So, wanting to be a good guest on my first night I throw a few words together to resemble the sentence: 'Can I help with dinner?' I think what I actually said was something closer to 'Can I work kitchen?' but close enough right? That was it, she thought I was fluent and started to go into some in deep instructions on how to cut this huge vegetable I’ve never seen before in my life it looked a bit like a green pumpkin. So with my basic Halloween decorating skills and very large knife, I did my best at recreating what I imagined the hand actions she had done would have represented. It was not half bad to be honest. I mean nothing on patacones of course but yes. I had held a Spanish conversation and cooked a Spanish meal. Day one of my solo travels was not going so bad after all. After dinner we sat around for about an hour chatting, and by chatting I mean listening and trying to nod and smile in the right places. An hour is a very long time to not have a clue what was going on and I was starting to wonder if she actually thought I knew what she was saying. This could (and did) get me in trouble later on when she needed to tell me something important. I thought I had got the basic idea of what she was saying the end of it, but after she went to bed, me and my new housemate traded translations and came back with totally different stories! Oh well! Watched some Netflix (narcos of course) and went to bed ready for our first full day at the project tomorrow. 

The project 

The project in La Carpio is hard to explain... basically there are 5 big families living in different rooms of a squat. One of the communal rooms has been made into a classroom and lessons take place there and in other rooms around the house. The classes are split by English level rather than age so some of the really young children were in learning tenses with the adults and some of the adults learning colours and days of the week with the younger kids. One thing I do wish I was told in advance is that there is no planning for these lessons! You need to create everything yourself, although there is a resources cupboard at Maximo Nivel HQ with books and toys etc that the volunteers can use. The idea is that each volunteer leaves a copy of their plan for the next person so you can see what has already been taught but realistically this was not the case. So my advice would be to come prepared at least with a few ice breaker games before you get to know the kids you’re teaching and their level of English. 

Typical day 

Each morning we would get up and have breakfast with the host family this could be anything from rice and beans to cake! 

We would head out the project around 11 as the journey could sometimes take a while! We’d work at the project for about 2 hours and then hang out with the kids in the courtyard for about an hour after that. Then we’d usually head back to HQ to use the stronger WiFi and sometimes join in with the activities there such as cooking classes, salsa lessons and my favourite: Spanish tandem. To keep costs down rather than paying for lessons, you can sign up to this and be paired with a Spanish speaker learning English. You chat for half an hour in English and half an hour in Spanish and there’s a conversation starter sheet with questions if you get stuck. For the English speakers it’s easy to find a partner but be aware some of the Spanish speaker wait weeks to be paired up to practice their English so if you do sign up make sure you make the effort to go and to get there on time, although it feels like a casual arrangement for us a lot, of the people I spoke to had traveled quite far for the experience and are usually very grateful for your time! (One of my tandem partners even brought me cupcakes!) 

After tandem I would usually head home for dinner with the host family and then either chill out there or head out with some of the other volunteers. 

Nightlife in San Jose

Most of the host families are out in suburbs but Uber’s are cheap to get into the city centre. I'll mention a few of our local places in case you get placed around the same area as a lot of the volunteers are, but make sure you head into the city for at least one of the nights! A few places I would recommend at that are popular with volunteers are listed below:

Local: Bar Corsario - very cheap, amazing local food and beers.

Bar Chicago - Only open certain nights- very popular with volunteers (less local)


Barrio Escalante is the best area for bars and restaurants (not as cheap as the suburbs) my favourite was Aguizotes.

La Flota - Bit of dive bar but very local and staff so friendly we didn't even pay for drinks!

La Concha - Best night I had in Costa Rica, lots of pop up bar with a big dance floor in the middle with DJ's mix of locals and travellers (bring ID)

La Teta - Bit of a creepy club but free entry and free drinks for girls so a good place to start!

Not night life and not Costa Rican but one of the best Italians I've had out of Italy: Sapore Trattoria - get the pasting tasting menu!

End of project and travel

It was hard to say goodbye on the last day, and although I was only there for a week I really did feel that I had made a difference, the kids would sometimes go weeks without a teacher and rely on volunteers to learn English giving them a much better choice of jobs when they grow up, I only wish I could have stayed longer.

At weekends and at the end of a project, pretty much everyone is looking to travel to other parts of Costa Rica so it is easy to arrange group travel to keep costs down. I travelled with 3 girls I met throughout the week to Manuel Antonio before making my own way to La Fortuna while they returned to San Jose.I will probably have to write a separate post about that because this one is already so long! IVHQ have their own travel service. Being an ex travel agent, I always try and book things myself online and find the cheapest ways of doing things. But this place actually had access to things I was unable to book myself online for example a transfer from Manuel Antonio to La Fortuna without going back through San Jose. I also found the prices of the other tours to be the same price and many people made use of the local trips as well such as white water rafting, coffee plantation tours and the sloth sanctuary!

Tips for Volunteering in San Jose

  • Don't flush the toilet roll

  • Be prepared for cold showers

  • Carry cash as a lot of places won't take card

  • If you don't like rice and beans, you are in trouble!

  • The coffee is amazing! Drink it black!

  • Eat Patacones!

  • Try out the classes at HQ

  • Practice your Spanish!

  • If you don't understand what someone is saying 'Pura Vida' will usally always make sense.

  • Wifi is not always available, if this is a problem get a sim card.

  • Make an effort with your host family.

  • Nothing is on time, but always be on time especially for meals.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! For more info on volunteering with IVHQ head to their website and for hotels in Costa Rica Booking .com is my go-to and you can use my affiliate link here! - https://www.booking.com/region/cr/san-jose.en.html?aid=1720944&no_rooms=1&group_adults=1