A girl's guide to volunteering in Costa Rica

A girl’s guide to… volunteering in Costa Rica

Volunteering in Costa Rica

I’ve always had a fascination for the animal kingdom, so being rich in nature and wildlife, Costa Rica has been on my travel wishlist for a while. Costa Rica covers just a tiny proportion of our planet yet is host to 5% of the world’s biodiversity, something that the nation is particularly proud of. And you don’t have to venture too far to see some of its native creatures. Just relaxing by the pool at our hotel in Manuel Antonio we managed to spot lizards, capuchin monkeys and various birdlife, including toucans!

As someone developing a keen interest in all things zoological, I decided that I would like to combine my sightseeing holiday with volunteer work, so spent a week at the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center, around 20-30 minutes from Juan Santamaria International Airport.

Volunteering in Costa Rica - spending a week at an animal rescue centre was a very rewarding experience.
One of the many murals decorating the walls at the centre

We were picked up by a driver at the airport, along with 3 other jetlagged Brits. We arrived at the centre late afternoon and were shown to our 12 bed dorm. There are around 5 dorms in total and most were almost full, accommodating over 50 volunteers in total – alot more than I was expecting!

We met the owner Bernal and his howler monkey, Feluco. Feluco is an orphan whose mother was killed by a dog. Because he lost his mother at such a young age, his immune system is very weak. He also has a cleft pallet which gives him breathing problems. Feluco would stand no chance of survival out in the wild but luckily he is very well looked after at the centre. We learnt more about the other animals and the centre itself, but I will tell you more about the story of the rescue centre in another post.

An orphaned howler monkey being cared for at a wildlife rescue centre in Costa Rica
Feluco

The next morning we were given a tour of the centre which at the time of our visit is home to an assortment of birds including parrots, owls, a peacock, a curassow and some chickens and ducks. There are also pigs, goats, 3 types of monkey (howler, spider and capuchin), two and three toed sloths, a tortoise, porcupine, marmoset, opossum, hedgehog, squirrels, two kinkajous, an olingo and a couple of pet dogs. There was also a toucan but as it was going to be released back into the wild, only the resident biologist was allowed anywhere near it.

Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center - rescue, rehabilitate and release Costa Rican wildlife.

As volunteers, the only animals besides the toucan that we were not responsible for were the spider monkeys, capuchin monkeys and some of the baby creatures inside the animal hospital.

A baby three-toed sloth being rehabilitated at a wildlife rescue centre in Costa Rica
One of the baby sloths from the hospital with her teddy bear <3

For your first two days volunteering, you must shadow someone and not enter the enclosures, with the exception of the goats and pigs. I must admit being a little wary of Oscar the male goat, but the mama and two baby goats were sweet. I did enjoy going into the pig pen and we were encouraged to go visit the pigs to stop them from getting lonely.

Feeding the resident pigs on a Costa Rican volunteering holiday!
Feeding my piggy pals

A typical day

7am – Breakfast in the common area.

8am – Meeting in the common area – this is to go over any points of discussion and extra duties (one day every single person got involved in shifting a spider monkey cage, for example). Each volunteer is put into one of five teams and then each team has set tasks for the day on a morning and afternoon rota. The rota is repeated every 5 days so everyone has a chance to be involved with different animals and different aspects of the work.

Food preparation at a wildlife rescue centre
Food preparation for the animals – one of the rota tasks

A typical day may go something like this…

AM

  • Clean enclosures and supply fresh food and water for: the goats, the sloths beside the goat enclosure (aka The Goat Sloths), the owls, peacock, curassow and parrots.
  • Collect grass for the goats.
  • Tidy the garden.

The morning shift would usually last until 11am.

A scarlet macaw in Costa Rica
A cheeky scarlet macaw – the parrots were always entertaining the volunteers!

12 noon – Lunch in the common area.

Free time.

1.30pm – Meeting in the common area.

PM

  • Clean enclosures and supply fresh water for the porcupine, hedgehog, squirrels, opossum and teen sloths.
  • Feed the squirrels.
  • Give the porcupine, hedgehog and opossum their snacks at 4pm.
  • Give the teen sloths their branches at 5pm.
  • Feed the porcupine, hedgehog, opossum and teen sloths at 7pm.
Squirrel at a rescue centre in Costa Rica
One of these inquisitive squirrels decided to climb on me and run round my legs!

The afternoon shift would usually last until 4pm. Of course, every day was different as if your team were responsible for some of the nocturnal animals that day, you had a few jobs to do after 4pm, but who’s complaining when you have a kinkajou climbing on your head at the 7pm feed! You aren’t supposed to touch the animals but an excitable kinkajou did decide my head looked like a fun place to climb!

Vet feeding a pair of kinkajou. These animals are nocturnal but required veterinary attention during the day, giving us a rare glimpse of them during daylight hours.
Normally nocturnal, the kinkajou woke up to receive their electrolytes from the vet

6pm – Dinner.

Free time.

10pm – Lights out.

There was a swimming pool and some hammocks for chilling during down time. The living conditions were basic and I didn’t mind the cold showers and sharing a dorm, however the sleeping wasn’t easy due to the various, and quite loud, noises of the local wildlife and vehicles on the nearby road. My body also ached for somewhere comfortable to sit – yeah yeah I’m an old granny alright!

The people at the rescue centre, both staff and volunteers, were really friendly and the work felt very rewarding. As someone who volunteers at a cat rescue centre close to home, it was a great learning experience to be so close to the native animals of a different country, and I could tell that the other volunteers felt the same.

Volunteering in Costa Rica - caring for howler monkeys among other animals.
Chew with your mouth closed! – Me in with the Howler Monkeys

I would like to thank Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center for being the wildlife warriors that they are and for allowing me to play a small part in their story.

And I would urge anyone who wants to make a difference, no matter how small, to get out there and do it!

Pura Vida!


If you would like to help the CRARC you can donate money, supplies or your time by following this link.

Famous for its wildlife, Costa Rica is a great place to spending some time volunteering with animals. This is my personal account of when I spent time at the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center. Pin for later!

A muggle's guide to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - how to make the most of your time at Universal's Islands of Adventure

A muggle’s guide to… The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

You may be forgiven for thinking that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a theme park in its own right but in actual fact, it is just one part of Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park. Since The Wizarding World opened in June 2010, it has been Islands of Adventure’s biggest crowd-puller, with people even queuing for up to 8 hours to get into the park on the opening day! But fear not Potter fans, here is my run-down on my time in Hogsmeade which will hopefully help and inspire you on your own wizarding adventure.

Top Tip: Get to the park before it opens and grab a map. As soon as the gates open, head straight to The Wizarding World. The rest of the crowd are sure to be heading in this direction too but the amount of people will be far less than later on in the day.

Rides

First up, make a beeline for Hogwarts Castle as this is where the main ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, can be found. Enter the castle (don’t forget to stash your belongings in one of the free lockers!) and follow the corridors of Hogwarts school, where you will find yourself in the familiar surrounds of the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom, Dumbledore’s office and other recognizable locations from the movies and books. You’ll be enchanted by the moving, talking portraits as depicted in the movies and even holograms of some of the main characters, so much so that the attention to detail here makes the queuing process a bit of an experience in itself.

Eventually when you reach the ride, you take your seat upon a 4-person “bench” and are then strapped in and whisked away for an adventure through the land of Harry Potter where you will follow Harry twisting and turning on his broomstick, over the Quidditch pitch and through the Forbidden Forest. You’ll see a fire-breathing dragon, giant spiders and evil dementors among other things – all in a clever mix of real animatronic models and high-tech computer graphics. The ride lasts for around 4 minutes and you’ll definitely want to ride it again just to take it all in! We were incredibly lucky and the longest we had to queue for this ride was around 20 minutes but queues for this have been known to exceed 4 hours!!

The next biggest ride is The Dragon Challenge, which is a nod to the Triwizard Tournament in The Goblet of Fire. Consisting of 2 large and looping rollercoasters, guests will all join one queue and then must choose whether they want to ride the Chinese Fireball or the Hungarian Horntail (red or blue, in muggles terms). Both coasters travel at the same time and there are even a few moments when it appears as though both rollercoasters, or dragons, may collide. Perfect for thrill seekers, wizards and non-Potter fans alike.

A slightly tamer, yet still fun, rollercoaster ride is The Flight of the Hippogriff, which is a lot less stomach churning than The Dragon Challenge and aimed more at a younger crowd. Just don’t forget to bow to the Hippogriff before you ride!

honeydukes-at-wizarding-world-orlando

Shopping and Dining

If you’ve always wanted to get your hands on a Pygmy Puff or a Golden Snitch, then all the best Potter merchandise can be found at the shops in Hogsmeade. These include favourites from the books such as Dervish and Banges, Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods and, my favourite, Honeydukes sweetshop. I defy anyone to walk out of Honeydukes without purchasing some Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans (rotten egg flavour jellybean anyone?)

Top Tip: Inside the bottom of the Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans box there is a little piece of paper revealing which colour beans relate to which flavour. I must admit part of the fun is the Russian Roulette element but if you don’t like surprises or want to trick your friends into eating all the nasty ones then this might come in handy!

You can also visit the Owl Post in Hogsmeade where you can send a postcard home with a special Harry Potter stamp and a Hogsmeade post mark. The stamps are pretty pricey as you have to buy a whole pack (they won’t sell you just one) but you can always purchase a postcard and get a Hogsmeade post mark on the back (you just won’t be able to post it).

While the queues were kind to us for the rides, unfortunately they were a problem at Ollivander’s wand shop and so this was one part of Harry Potter World we failed to experience. Because the shop is small and is an interactive environment, limited numbers of visitors are allowed in at any one time. So true Potter fans should definitely aim to get here early if they want to see and do everything.

If you’re peckish while in this part of the park, then The Three Broomsticks serves up traditional British dishes such as shepherd’s pie and fish & chips, but even if you’ve already eaten, make sure you take a seat in the Hog’s Head pub and sample some famous Butterbeer or Hog’s Head Brew.

Top Tip: Butterbeer is non-alcoholic and comes in regular or frozen (slushie). No one should leave Hogsmeade without trying Butterbeer as the taste is indescribable!

hogs-head-at-harry-potter-world

Other entertainment

There are plenty of things to look at in Hogsmeade, besides rides and shops. The village scenery is very beautiful and detailed, and true to the films. If you are there at the right time you may witness the Triwizard Spirit Rally, with ribbon twirling from the Beauxbaton witches and mock-fighting from the Durmstrang wizards.

Of course, I should add that my visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was before they opened Diagon Alley at Universal Studios last year – which now even includes the Hogwarts Express to connect the two Universal parks!

Have you had the chance to visit the new Diagon Alley section? What did you think?

please-dont-feed-the-birds

A girl’s guide to… Las Vegas on a budget

Las Vegas isn’t perhaps the most purse-friendly of destinations but there is more to it than the movies will lead you to believe – it’s not all about getting drunk, getting hitched and gambling. If you don’t want to pour all your hard-earned pennies into the slots then there is plenty Las Vegas has to offer, and best of all, some of it is for FREE!

From fountains to flamingos, here is a selection of activities to entice any budget-conscious traveller-

bellagio-fountains-las-vegas

1. Fountains of Bellagio

Perhaps the most romantic of Vegas’s attractions is the Fountains of Bellagio. Every day from 3pm (12pm on weekends and holidays) viewers are mesmerized by this extraordinary show of carefully choreographed water and light playing against a backdrop of music ranging from upbeat tunes such as ‘Viva Las Vegas’ to classical numbers like ‘Time to say goodbye’. Shows run every half hour until 7pm and then from 7pm until midnight, every 15 minutes, so if you don’t get such a good view the first time round its not long to wait until the next performance.

2. CBS Television City, MGM Grand Hotel

If you feel tired from traipsing the strip all day then Television City at the MGM Grand is a great way to rest your legs while playing a part in tv history. Participants are led into a studio to watch a pilot episode of a new tv series. Each viewer is given a dial to register how they feel during the show and then at the end is asked to fill in a questionnaire on screen. The feedback you give remains anonymous so you can be as honest as you like. The research results are passed on to studio executives, so if you are lucky enough to have previewed ‘the next big thing’ you can tell all your friends you had a small part in a big hit!

flamingo-habitat-las-vegas

3. Wildlife Habitat, Flamingo Hotel

The Wildlife Habitat at the Flamingo Hotel is a beautiful place to spend some time away from the hustle and bustle of the strip. As well as a flock of Chilean flamingos, the lush garden is home to swans, ducks, koi and turtles. The buffet restaurant overlooks the garden so stop here for a meal. There is also a gift shop just inside the hotel which is the perfect place to buy gifts for those with a penchant for all things pink!

4. Circus acts, Circus Circus Hotel

At the north end of the strip sits the colourful big top known as Circus Circus, and what circus would be complete without its acts? Every day from 11am on the carnival midway visitors can see regular performances from world class circus acts including trapeze artists, jugglers and acrobats. On the occasion that we stopped for an act we were treated to a performance by a graceful aerial acrobat suspended from the ceiling with little more than a piece of ribbon.

4. Sirens of T.I, Treasure Island

Vegas is famous for its shows and the swashbuckling Siren show at Treasure Island draws quite a crowd. The sultry Sirens sing and dance while sword fighting with a group of pirates aboard their ships. The sexy cast, impressive stunts and amazing pyrotechnics make this show a sizzler. Check the T.I. website for times and be sure to get there early for a good view as it gets very busy.

fremont-street-las-vegas

6.   Fremont Street Experience

Take the Deuce bus from The Strip and head downtown to the world-famous Fremont Street for a vintage Vegas experience. See the illustrious neon signs – Vegas Vic and Vegas Vicky – as you wander between the legendary casinos, such as Golden Nugget. You will be entertained under the bright lights by the free street performances, but the main attraction at Fremont Street is the free hourly sound and light show overhead. The whole experience is one not to be missed!

The only blog post you will need to read if you are visiting Venice. You can thank me later.

A girl’s guide to… Venice

Venice. The name alone conjures images of romance and history, uniqueness and grandeur. For centuries, poets and artists have tried to capture its beauty in their work, and even today, people are still enamoured by this Italian splendour. I too could compose many a beautiful word about the city and describe it the way every other writer does, or I could tell you the truth.

Now, I don’t want to shatter any illusions, Venice IS an exquisite and special place, but when people write about it they tend to get swept away with the romance of it all. I am here to offer some practical advice, after all, how romantic is a gondola ride when you’re swatting away mosquitoes?

Know before you go

Get a map of the city and decide whereabouts you would like to stay. Learn about the districts – if you want all the major tourist attractions on your doorstep then the San Marco district is the one for you but the best way to ensure you have your dream trip is to do a little research before you go.

What to pack

  • Pack as lightly as possible. The only ways to get around Venice are by boat or by foot. The boats aren’t going to take you to your hotel door, so be prepared, you may have to lug your suitcase for a 15 minute walk through the hot, busy streets from St Mark’s Square to your accommodation.
  • Wear sensible shoes. You will be doing A LOT of walking during your visit. A trip to Venice is no time to break in your new pair of heels, regardless of how stylish the Italians are. Gladiator sandals may have been worn by the Romans but they still managed to blister my feet (yes, they were flat as well!) so a pack of plasters and some comfortable trainers are recommended.
  • Avoid becoming a mosquito buffet. Nothing can dampen a romantic evening dining at a waterside restaurant more than becoming the main meal yourself, so make sure you pack some insect repellent. You want to return home with a glowing golden tan, not itchy red bumps.
Don't feed the pigeons!
Don’t feed the pigeons!

Sensible spending

Venice is a pricey city, so unless you are a Dolce-clad darling, you may find the following few tips useful.

  • You will see street vendors trying to sell “designer” handbags to passing tourists. Do not be tempted. As well as being fake, they are also illegal and even buying one – if caught by the police – could land you with a hefty fine. That cheap “designer” handbag wasn’t so cheap after all, was it?
  • Beware of hidden extras. So you’ve just enjoyed a pleasant meal and received the bill when you notice you have been charged for something called ‘coperto’. You didn’t order this? Well, this is the cover charge which is in addition to the service charge (the tip) that they also add onto your bill. Cover charge is basically what you pay for the privilege of sitting in their restaurant – it could be the bread that the waiter/waitress brought over that you never asked for, or it could even cover the cost of washing the table linen!! If you want to avoid nasty surprises like this then look out for restaurants which state NO COVER CHARGE.
  • Try take-away. The price of even a margarita pizza in Venice can vary alot, so one of the best ways to eat cheaply is to get take-away. As well as being cheaper there is also no cover charge involved. Another idea would be to buy some sandwiches at a supermarket or deli for lunch and find somewhere nice to sit and dine alfresco. If you do decide to dine in, then skip the expensive desserts and head to the nearest gelateria to sample some divine gelato (Italian ice cream).
  • Avoid eating at the major tourist hubs. At the time of writing, a glass of coca cola at a café in St Mark’s Square will cost you around 9 euros. Unless you have a burning desire to tick the whole dining in St Mark’s Square experience off your bucket-list then I would avoid. Head out of the square and up into one of the side streets to find more reasonably priced refreshment. And don’t even think about eating that take-away baguette on the steps of St Mark’s Square – you may get fined!
  • Carry a bottle of water with you. Sightseeing is thirsty work but you don’t need to keep buying overpriced bottles of water, simply fill up from one of the many drinking fountains dotted around the city.

Lastly
Don’t forget to carry a map with you. Getting lost in Venice is part of the fun but at some point you’ll want to find yourself again!

Alfresco dining!
Alfresco dining!
A girl's guide to Marrakech - dedicated to the wannabe Carrie Bradshaws out there

A girl’s guide to… Marrakech

Anyone who is fan of Sex and the City will know that the second movie, although set in Abu Dhabi, was actually filmed in Marrakech. So for all you cosmo-sipping, handbag-toting, high-heel-wearing fashionistas out there, here is A girl’s guide to Marrakech.

1. Take a leaf out of Miranda’s book – Know before you go.

It is always a wise idea to learn about a country’s customs before you visit, it’s only polite and you don’t want to cause any offense. It also helps if you can learn a little bit of the language. Remember in SATC2 Miranda says that “shukran” means “thank you”? It is also highly beneficial to know that “laa” means “no” so when you are receiving unwanted attention from henna ladies, snake charmers, souk sellers etc etc, a polite “laa shukran” should in most cases be enough to prevent you from being pressured into buying that rug that won’t even fit into your suitcase! You will also find that a little bit of French goes a long way here too, making all those gruelling hours of French lessons you sat through at school all the more worthwhile.

2. Don’t follow in Samantha’s footsteps – Cover up.

Morocco is a conservative country and women in particular should cover up when outside of their hotel. Samantha being Samantha didn’t do this and got into all sorts of trouble. While it is unlikely you’ll get arrested for flashing a bit of cleavage, you may receive some unwanted attention. Invest in some cute maxi skirts/dresses and cover your shoulders with a light scarf, if these aren’t features in your wardrobe then it makes for a good excuse to go shopping!

A girl's guide to Marrakech - definitely go shopping in the souks!

3. Shop like Charlotte – Just save some space in your suitcase for souvenirs!

Don’t get yourself locked away in a room with fake designer handbags quite like Charlotte did, but do spend time wandering around the souks. There are plenty of gorgeous items on offer from leather goods, argan oil beauty products, hand-made jewellery and homeware. Take a wander through this labyrinth of colour and pick yourself up a pretty bracelet or a beautiful pashmina – and don’t forget to haggle for it. If you think that the seller is trying to rip you off, then walk away, as you are likely to find the exact same item a few doors down in another shop.

4. Shun the stilettos – Only Carrie can carry them off!

If you are shopping in the souks, then it is inevitable that you will be doing alot of walking. Carrie Bradshaw may be able to run around all day in 5 inch heels, but trust me you are better off without. This also applies to any excursions you may take into the Atlas Mountains – wear closed in shoes with a bit of grip – there’s slippery mud and snow to contend with up there. You can always purchase yourself some Moroccan Babouche slippers from the souks, just like Carrie did when she left her passport behind, if you want to add a bit of Sex and the City sparkle to your feet.

A girl's guide to Marrakech - babouche shoes

5. Beware of the black henna – keep your hands to yourself.

Henna tattoos look beautiful but beware – black henna has been known to contain toxic chemicals and cause severe skin reactions so the best advice is to avoid getting one. The henna ladies are prevalent on Jemaa el Fna square throughout the day and they are persistent too! They will most likely be called Fatima and will follow you, tell you that you have beautiful eyes and they may even snatch your hand (blink and you have a tattoo – they are that quick!) or they may offer to draw you a small tattoo as a “gift” (which they will later want paying for). Just say “laa shukran” and be on your way – Fatima may be a flatterer but it just isn’t worth the risk of rashes, blisters or worse.

With its snake charmers and magic potions, Marrakech is truly a city that would only otherwise exist in a storybook. So pack your suitcase and grab your passport and make a story of your own – one that Carrie Bradshaw would be proud of!

EDIT: If you do wish to have a henna tattoo done in Marrakech, then check out this post on where to find a non-toxic one!


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A girl's guide to Marrakech. What to Wear and where to shop - handy hints for the Carrie Bradshaw wannabes.