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ACE in Costa Rica

Gandoca, Costa Rica
Dates June 16 to July 7, 2023
Program Focus

*Location and community partners updated 12/20/22.*

Contributing to the long-term management and conservation of Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge and working on conservation-focused projects with local community members in the Costa Rican village of Gandoca to promote wildlife and ecosystem conservation and sustainable resource use.

This program is organized by GVI Programs.

Note: Participants will arrive in Costa Rica on June 16 and depart on July 7. Dates subject to change until point of departure.

Program Leaders
  • gym access 3x a week; gym includes weights; outdoor running available

Program Overview | Service Opportunities | Program Requirements |
| Program Details

Program Overview

ACE will be working with a local organisation called IRA Tours and Volunteering. IRA’s goals are to integrate the community into a united environmental conservation effort by conserving the local sea turtle population and conducting community projects in the local schools and communities focused on sustainable agriculture and the overall ecological health of the area. IRA focuses on bringing job opportunities to the local community within the environmental conservation and education sector. Their long-term goals are to conserve more species and to train and educate even more conservationists local to the area.  IRA is a prime example of how conservation can be conducted within a sustainable business model while supporting a local community.

Further information around the service projects will be provided during the interview process. A draft itinerary will be shared in early March once the ACE in Costa Rica team is confirmed.

During the three weeks in Gandoca, ACE participants will work with GVI and alongside IRA Tours and Volunteering to contribute to GVI’s long-term objectives in conservation and community in areas where IRA, along with the Gandoca community, have identified specific needs. The program will primarily be focused on conservation and sustainability projects but will likely include a combination of different types of service work depending on the needs of the community at the time of the program. Participants will spend their first and last day in the city of San Jose before traveling to Gandoca.

While Costa Rica accounts for only 0.03% of the world’s surface area, the country contains more than 5% of its biodiversity! GVIs conservation programs in Costa Rica assist the Costa Rican government with understanding the health of the ecosystem and assist them with managing conservation efforts in the region. Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge is a key area for conservation efforts. It’s a popular nesting area for vulnerable and endangered sea turtles. It is home to three species of monkey, two species of sloth, and three species of turtle. The different landscapes within the park are a haven for multiple bird species. The park is home to several species which have been identified as important for the health of the local ecosystem and global diversity by the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (ICE).

GVI Gandoca’s long-term objectives include:

  1. Increasing scientific knowledge of Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge.
  2. Increasing awareness of GVI’s Gandoca projects and the ecological value of the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge.
  3. Building local capacity to support long-term conservation of biodiversity and sustainable community development in Costa Rica.
  4. Minimizing our environmental impact on Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge and raise awareness of environmental issues amongst volunteers and visitors.
  5. Integrating the community into the environmental conservation effort by supporting the sea turtle conservation project and working with the local schools and organic farms to promote sustainable agriculture and the overall ecological health of the surrounding ecosystems.

Service Opportunities

In Costa Rica, GVI’s partner, IRA Tours and Volunteering, works with the following organisations:

  • Ministerio Nacional de Ambiente y Energía (MINAE) -National Ministry of Energy and the Environment
  • Asociación de Desarrollo de Gandoca
  • Costa Rican Alliance for Sea Turtle Conservation & Science (COASTS)
  • Gandoca Elementary and High School
  • Santo Tomas Elementary School (Sepecue)

Students taking part in the ACE program may contribute to the following programs:

  • Conservation: Observe Costa Rican wildlife species in their natural habitats. This may include patrolling along the shore for sea turtles and their nests and observing monkeys, sloths, neo-tropical birds, and amphibians in the canopies. ACE participants will get involved in ongoing conservation efforts and will also be provided with the training and experience to grow professionally by mastering both transferable and technical skills to engage in these conservation projects safely. These skills will also include teamwork, intercultural communication, and best practices for recording biodiversity data.
  • Sustainable farming: Contribute by promoting sustainable farming and assist with farming and habitat maintenance.
  • Community Engagement: Promote the need for conservation and sustainable land use and have the opportunity to learn or practice your Spanish in the process.
  • Education: Support in  local schools with sustainability projects while also assisting with conservation education.

During their time in Gandoca, ACE participants will get involved in a variety of service projects. Further details on specific ervice projects will be provided closer to the time per the timeline given in the “Program Overview” section above.

Students will work together as a team throughout their time in Costa Rica. Students will not be placed in individual assignments; instead, they will use their skills and experience to organize and implement various service projects as a team. There will be numerous opportunities for students to hone their leadership skills and to take point on various aspects of the program.


Program Requirements

Language Suggestions

Local community members will have differing levels of English language and English language skills may be limited with some of the younger children that you may be working with. If possible, it is recommended that participants try and learn some basic phrases in Spanish before arrival. Some of the GVI staff speak Spanish and act as translators where necessary throughout the program. Please see “Suggested Resources to Learn More” for specific language training recommendations.

Other skills

No prior experience in conservation or teaching is necessary; however, students with these skills or at least an interest in them will be highly beneficial to this program.  Previous coursework in biology, sustainable tourism, Costa Rican history, culture, music, and literature is not required but is strongly encouraged. All participants will be required to complete a Criminal Background Check prior to their arrival on the program.

Personal competencies

Ideal participants will be flexible, enthusiastic team players with the following competencies:

  • Commitment to honest and ethical behaviors:  actively seeks to understand and adhere to the values, policies, procedures, and protocols of ACE and their host organization/community; lives up to commitments and promises they make to others
  • Ability to manage stress in a novel environment: seeks to recognize and regulate stress reactions in themselves and calmly practice coping strategies that work for them; seeks help from others when they feel overwhelmed
  • Self-reliance and self-confidence: understands and meets their own physical and emotional needs in new environments with an age-appropriate mixture of optimism and realism
  • Empathy and cultural sensitivity: effectively and respectfully communicates and interacts with people of different ages, races, religions, and cultures; demonstrates curiosity about the lives of others without judgment
  • Problem-solving and goal orientations: possesses strong analytical skills and an interest in producing deliverable end-projects for a community partner organization, e.g., construction of buildings or physical structures, etc.

Program Details

Costa Rica is filled with jungles, huge amounts of biodiversity and wildlife, national parks, and has miles of coastline on the east and west. The country is an oasis of calm and security in the politically volatile Central American region. The end of its civil war in 1948 resulted in a massive boom in tourism, subsequently making Costa Rica the most visited nation in Central America with eco-tourism being one of the largest attractions boasted.

Costa Rica is also a stable country, both politically and economically, thanks to the abolishment of the national army in 1948. Following this, the national budget allocated to armed forces was shifted to the education system and to supporting the arts in the country. Costa Rica is arguably the most literate population in Central America, boasting of a 93% literacy rate in those 10 years old or over. In fact, the country has always had a strong focus on education, becoming the first in the world to make primary education both free and obligatory in 1869 and funding the education program through the state’s share of the great coffee wealth. In those days only one in ten Costa Ricans could read and write. By 1920, 50% of the population was literate, and by the 1970s, 89% of the population were able to read and write.

ACE participants will be based in the village of Gandoca; the southernmost Caribbean coastal town of Costa Rica, located nearon the border with Panama (Note: ACE participants are not permitted to cross international borders as part of the experience) and around five hours travel time from San Jose. Gandoca is surrounded by the National Wildlife Refuge Gandoca-Manzanillo which includes a large stretch of undeveloped coastline, multiple freshwater creeks, and a brackish lagoon with an important mangrove ecosystem. Gandoca is a small, rural, coastal community of about 600 residents. The town has two elementary schools and a small high school. It is not developed touristically like its neighboring towns of Puerto Viejo and  Manzanillo and maintains a rural, community feel. The town is influenced by Afro-Carribean culture since many residents are of Afro-Caribbean descent. Like the culture of many rural areas in Costa Rica, people are laid- back, value time with friends and family, enjoy playing soccer or supporting the local soccer team and spending time in the outdoors. Gandoqueños  are friendly, upbeat and welcoming to visitors.

Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge is home to many incredible species such as monkeys, sloths, toucans, and turtles. Due to its proximity to the Caribbean shoreline, Gandoca is renowned for Afro-Caribbean influence on dining and local culture.

Gandoca has a tropical climate. Temperatures remain consistent during the year. Sunrise and sunset change very little during the year (about 6:00 AM and 6:00 PM, respectively). On the Caribbean coast, where students will be based, there are two seasons: The wet seasons (February-April and again in September-October) and the very wet seasons (May-August and November-January).  During the wet season, the average temperature tends to stay around 29°C (84°F). During the very wet season, it can occasionally drop to 20°C (68°F). The heat and humidity make working in this environment particularly difficult: 28°C (82°F) often feels like 40°C (110°F). Do not underestimate the heat, it is typically our largest health and safety consideration. The heat and humidity also means lots of mosquitos during the day and night.  Mosquito screens are on all accommodations and mosquito nets can also be provided at the accommodation for sleeping under at night.  ACE participants are strongly encouraged to pack long-sleeved shirts and pants to prevent bites when working outside and to consider an EPA-registered repellent.

ACE participants will be housed in basic same sex, dorm style accommodations with 4 beds (2 bunk beds) in each and a shared bathroom.  There will be a communal area for meal preparation, relaxing, socializing, and project work preparations. The accommodation has electricity, cold showers, and western style toilets.  Hot water is not available in Gandoca, but the weather is warm enough that it is not needed. Due to the difference in housing structure, keep in mind that accommodation can get cold at night so wearing layers is recommended. Weekly laundry will be included. Please note that air conditioning is not available in the rooms. To help with the heat and humidity, participants may be placed in rooms with fans or more than one screened window for airflow.

Three meals a day will be served and prepared by either local community members, GVI staff and/or the ACE participants themselves.

  • Breakfast: The traditional meal consists of “ gallo pinto” (rice mixed with beans), eggs, coffee, arepas, fruits, and other sides. We will also have organic hot chocolate from the farm.
  • Lunch: We will be serving the typical Costa Rican lunch of rice, beans, a protein and a salad or side of diced vegetables (picadillo). For picnic lunches outside of the lodging, we will have sandwiches, fruits, and other portable items.
  • Dinner: Dinner is typically lighter than breakfast and lunch, for example beef fajitas with fried green plantains, salad and rice will always be available as a side (we have found that many visitors from the United States don’t eat as much rice as Costa Ricans, but some do)

ACE participants will be able to help themselves to fruit, basic snacks and potable drinking water throughout the day.  There may be times when participants  will go out for the odd meal, which will be included in the program. Participants may wish to bring extra spending money for supplementary food and snacks that can be purchased at a nearby  village shop or in San Jose. The village shop has very limited options so we will make sure to make a stop in San Jose before heading to Grandoca where participants can stock up on snacks. In general, most dietary restrictions and preferences can be accommodated.  If you have any specific concerns, please contact the ACE office,, to discuss whether or not your dietary needs can be reasonably accommodated at this program site. Detailed packing recommendations will be given closer to departure, however, participants are encouraged to bring some type of protein supplements, as the Costa Rican diet contains a lower amount of protein than some student-athletes are accustomed to.

Some cell phone service may be available, but expect it to be limited around the village and unreliable unless you have a local sim card and a 3G phone.

All ACE participants will be provided with a cell phone and local sim card to use during their stay to make local calls and additional airtime can easily be bought at local grocery stores. All GVI onsite field staff carry cell/mobile phones at all times and are reachable via the 24-hour GVI Emergency Contact number.

While ACE participants are permitted to bring their own cell phone, camera, laptop to the program, GVI is not liable for any damage, lost, or stolen items during the stay. Due to GVI’s Health & Safety and Child Protection Policy, technological equipment will not be permitted on the project site (including cell phones, cameras, etc.).


Students will travel in a fully-insured and vetted transport with a licensed and experienced driver to and from their community partner sites, the gym, and on weekend enrichment activities. Where possible students will walk to service projects and/or the gym. However, for projects that are further away transport will be provided.

The gym available is in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, approximately 1 hour away from Gandoca. The gyms tend to be quite small, but include a range of weights such as dumbbells and barbells, treadmills and various exercise benches. The gym has an outside area and a small inside area with air conditioning. Opportunities to train will be held in the morning when the temperatures are cooler. Photos of a gym that participants may use have been included in the gallery at the end of the profile. Two hours of training time in the morning has been included three times a week during the program. Optional training sessions may be available on the weekends before or after the cultural immersion activities.

ACE participants will have access to a local grassy sports soccer field for running twice a week, although this can be increased if requested. Pool training is not feasible for ACE participants who need to commit to regular swimming training since there are no pools available in the area. Participants will be encouraged to run together and be given information on-site about safe running routes.

Please note that swimming in the ocean for training purposes will not be allowed due to risk management requirements.

June-August is summer in Costa Rica, with temperatures in the range of an average high of 29.1°C (84.4°F) and an average low of 24.8°C (76.6°F). However, it can feel much hotter due to the humidity. Dehydration and sunburns are common if ACE participants are not careful, especially during training.

GVI includes a two-day orientation for ACE participants. This includes a welcome presentation and introduction to the GVI staff, history and background of the projects as well as health and safety requirements for their involvement with GVI.  Participants will be given a briefing on safety procedures at their accommodation, safety around the local area, and safety around the project site. Participants will also be reminded of the goals and objectives for their stay in Gandoca. In addition, all training required for the service projects is built into the schedule.

A Typical Week will look as follows (may be subject to change)

Monday – Friday

  • 7am – 9am: Gym Time (approx three times a week)
  • 9 am: Breakfast
  • 10am-5pm: Project
  • 6pm: Dinner
  • 8pm-9pm: Evening Program (includes discussions, reflection sessions, and other cultural enrichment activities)


  • Cultural Enrichment Activity – Arranged by GVI
  • Debrief/Reflection Session


  • 8am – 10am: Gym Time (optional)
  • Cultural Enrichment Activity –Arranged by GVI
  • Debrief/Reflection Session
  • Preparation for the service project

Experienced GVI staff introduce ACE participants to local cultures and environments, enabling supported cultural immersion and the fostering of global citizenship and intercultural understanding.  Staff will guide the participants through the learning process, including presentations, weekly written assignments, frequent discussions, and daily reflection time.

Reflection topics may include:

  • Team Building Session
  • Costa Rica History Lesson
  • Spanish Language Lessons
  • Cultural Sensitivity and Community Work
  • Conservation and wildlife debates or workshops
  • Culture Shock
  • Stereotypes & Perceptions
  • Sustainability
  • Reverse Culture Shock & Re-entry
  • Global Citizenship
  • Local guest speakers

There are also daily briefings and de-briefings, where the day’s achievements or issues will be discussed and plans put in place for the following day. During the program ACE participants will learn:

  • To overcome personal and work related challenges.
  • To work as part of a team and resolve conflict.
  • About the local issues and how they relate to global issues and their communities at home.
  • New skills and gain practical experience relevant to their chosen project.

Weekends and evenings are filled with cultural enrichment activities organized by GVI Staff. ACE participants will be able to meet with the local community through our own team members.  While activities are weather dependent and may be subject to change, opportunities may include visiting organic chocolate or coffee farms, trips to other parts of Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, visiting indigenous groups, taking part in a cooking class and listening to cultural stories told by a local elder.

The schedule planned for ACE participants is quite full and has been thoughtfully put together to make the most of your time in the country. Therefore participants can expect to have limited free time and there will not be opportunities for independent travel outside of the ACE in Costa Rica itinerary.

In addition, as this program is specific for student-athletes ACE participants are not allowed to participate in high risk activities, such as, activities involving animals (e.g. horseback riding, handling animals, etc.), extreme/adventure sports-type activities (e.g. rock climbing, paragliding, zip lining, etc.), water activities/sports (both watercraft and swimming/diving/snorkeling), and driving or riding vehicles (e.g. scooters, ATVs, etc.). Please note that this list is not exhaustive.

All GVI programs aim to develop participants’ core communication and leadership skills. However, programs also offer practical opportunities for ACE participants to develop their skills in cultural sensitivity, inclusivity, equality, privilege, development in practice and the realities of climate change.

To learn more about the program, visit the GVI Costa Rica website.

Additional resources: