Costa Rica | Community Service

Live and volunteer in a rural Costa Rican village and work side-by-side with local people on a summer community service program in Costa Rica for high school students. Wake each morning to the sounds of howler monkeys and exotic birds and spend your day helping build a community center or classroom, teaching English, or running a summer camp for local kids.

  • June 19, 2016  –  July 12, 2016
  • June 23, 2016  –  July 7, 2016
  • June 26, 2016  –  July 19, 2016
  • July 1, 2016  –  July 31, 2016
  • July 9, 2016  –  July 23, 2016
  • July 24, 2016  –  August 7, 2016
Students completing grades 9 – 12
Community Service
Typical Group:
15 – 17 students, 2 leaders
  • 24 days (June 19 – July 12)
  • 15 days (June 23 – July 7)
  • 24 days (June 26 – July 19)
  • 31 days (July 1 – July 31)
  • 15 days (July 9 – July 23)
  • 15 days (July 24 – August 7)


  • Volunteer with friends from town to build a community center or school classroom.
  • Teach English classes to local children and adults.
  • Shadow a farmer for a day as you learn to milk a cow or harvest coffee beans, papayas, or plantains.
  • Trek through Costa Rica’s many diverse ecosystems—visit volcanoes, rain forests, hot springs, and untouched beaches.
  • Learn about permaculture and sustainability at an eco-lodge nestled in the jungle canopy.


Village Life and Service

Immerse yourself in the rhythm of life in a small mountain village in Central America as you work with warm and welcoming Costa Rican people to undertake several important and much-needed volunteer projects. Work hand-in-hand with enthusiastic friends from our host village on municipal and environmental initiatives identified by town leaders. After a day’s volunteer work, spend late afternoons and evenings relaxing with Tico friends, hiking to a hidden swimming hole, learning new songs on the guitar, playing games of fútbol in the town plaza, and attending local fiestas. Participants in Putney’s 31-day Costa Rica programs can expect to complete 80 100 hours of community service work.  Students enrolled in Putney’s 24-day Costa Rica programs can expect to complete 60 80 hours of community service work. Students enrolled in Putney’s 15-day program can expect to complete 30 50 hours of community service work.

Our days in Costa Rica are full of activity. We live together as a group in a community building or school. We sleep on camping pads on the floor of our group house, and use simple bathrooms and showers. Instead of alarm clocks, the sounds of roosters signal the start of a new day. Each morning, we form cooking crews to help local cooks prepare meals of rice, beans, chicken, fried plantains, and a delicious array of fruits and vegetables such as yucca, papaya, mango, and pineapple.

We work on several different types of volunteer projects during our time in our host village—volunteer projects where we learn to mix cement and lay blocks, environmental projects such as planting seedlings or helping control erosion, and educational projects such as teaching health, environmental education, or English to local children and adults.

Independent Projects

Each student chooses and designs an independent project to focus on over the course of the program—past projects have included learning to cook gallo pinto, interviewing local girls and women about their roles in the community, organizing a community soccer tournament, and more.

Create lasting friendships, both with Ticos from your project village and with fellow Putney travelers.

Create lasting friendships, both with Ticos from your project village and with fellow Putney travelers.


On weekends, we take excursions from our host village to explore Costa Rica’s many natural wonders. With eco-lodges, bungalows, and family-run inns as our bases, we hike volcanoes, relax in natural hot springs and mud baths, surf and snorkel off pristine beaches, ride horseback, or search for monkeys, toucans, and other wildlife in Costa Rica’s ecologically rich national parks. Trek to a vista overlooking Costa Rica’s gorgeous Pacific coastline, zip-line through the cloud forest canopy, interview a wildlife guide to learn about howler monkeys or three-toed sloths, or learn to surf in world-renowned beaches.

“Cole gained a tremendous amount of confidence which will serve him well when he goes to college. He loved his leaders — thought they were the best!”

— Lark Pfleegor, parent of Cole Sutton, The Gilman School, Baltimore, MD

Final Challenge

During our final days in Costa Rica, we undertake one last challenge together—a white-water rafting trip. With professional guides to teach us the basics, dive in and paddle through breathtaking virgin rainforest, enjoying one final moment together with your group to reflect on all our experiences in Costa Rica.


Group accommodations are carefully selected by Putney Student Travel to emphasize convenience, a positive group environment, and wholesome interaction with local people and fellow travelers. Our living accommodations in Costa Rica are very simple. We sleep in sleeping bags on sleeping pads in a community building, school, or house, with girls and boys in separate rooms or spaces. There are simple bathrooms with running water, flushing toilets, and a shower.  There will not be hot water, although the cool shower is a welcome break from the day’s heat. The leaders reside together with the students. During overnight trips and excursions, we stay in simple, clean, eco-lodges, bungalows, and family-run inns where you will sleep in beds, have hot showers, and share a room with other students in your group.

Physical Activity Level

Our programs are physically active. Days are filled with movement — playing with local children, learning to surf, working on a community service project, swimming, or going on a hike. In the afternoons, students can play pick-up games of soccer, frisbee, or basketball.  You do not need to be at peak fitness to participate, but it is important that you have a desire to be physically active, and that you are excited about trying all activities. On excursions there may be opportunities to hike, bike, ride horseback, zipline, swim, raft, and more.

A Typical Day

7 a.m. — Breakfast
8 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Work on project sites
12 p.m. – 2 p.m. — Lunch and rest
2 p.m. – 4 p.m. — Work on project sites
4 p.m. – 6 p.m. — Help prepare dinner, play soccer, relax
6 p.m. — Dinner
8 p.m. — Group Meeting and/or group activity

During the week, we wake up between 6 7am, eat breakfast together as a group, and then head to the work site from 8am12pm. Work may include mixing cement, painting, participating in a local harvest, or teaching local kids. We’ll break for a long lunch and rest time, then return to work for a few hours in the afternoon. After work, relax, play soccer with local friends, help cook dinner, or pursue independent research. After a group dinner together, students participate in a meeting to discuss the day, plan for upcoming excursions, or simply play a game together. Weekends are a time to explore. Hike to a nearby peak, zipline through the rain forest, raft down a gorgeous river, snorkel and swim off a pristine beach, or ride horseback with local guides.

What to Expect

For most of each weekday, we are actively involved in community service work. This volunteer work, as well as afternoon and weekend activities, can be strenuous, and you can expect to spend most of each day outside. Everyone participates in all of the group’s projects on a rotating basis, and everyone lends a hand in meal preparation and cleanup. Since we live in our village as the local people do, accommodations are very simple with separate space for boys and girls, and basic bathroom facilities. You should come to the program with an open-mind, eager to participate in new experiences and interested in exploring another culture and way of life.

At Putney we take pride in our reputation for careful, thorough planning and attention to detail. The descriptions of our high school summer travel programs are based on our experiences in previous summers and our plans for this summer. It is inevitable that some things described here will not happen exactly as presented. To get the most out of the Putney experience, participants need to be flexible in responding to unforeseen situations, and creative in taking advantage of unexpected opportunities. We expect Putney participants to share responsibility for the success of their experience. Rules that provide a safe and structured environment, set curfews, and prohibit the use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco are in place and enforced. We expect you to behave in a mature and productive way at all times.


  • $4,990 plus airfare (June 19 - July 12)
  • $3,990 plus airfare (June 23 - July 7)
  • $4,990 plus airfare (June 26 - July 19)
  • $5,990 plus airfare (July 1 - July 31)
  • $3,990 plus airfare (July 9 - July 23)
  • $3,990 plus airfare (July 24 - August 7)


Putney organizes and reserves seats for students on a round-trip group flight from a gateway U.S. airport to your program destination. One or more of your group leaders will be at the airport to welcome you and to fly with the group on both departure and return. Please consult us for fares.


Learn about last year’s program by reading the 2014 Community Service Costa Rica Blog.

This program begins and ends at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston, Texas.

This itinerary represents a general description of the group’s travels in Costa Rica, but exact itineraries vary by unit.  Putney groups live and partner with different host villages and do not meet during the program.

Departure • Travel Day • Begin your journey on a village-based community service program in the mountains of Costa Rica. Meet your group and one of your leaders in Houston and fly together to Costa Rica.

San Jose or Pacific Coast Spend two nights in either San José, the capital city of Costa Rica, or in a small beachside community on the Pacific coast. Here, you learn about the country’s history, language, and culture, get to know your group, participate in an in-depth orientation, and prepare for your stay in our host village.

From your base in a rural village, make weekend trips where you learn about the country's astounding biodiversity, discover untouched beaches, ride horseback, and take surfing lessons.

From your base in a rural village, make weekend trips where you learn about the country’s astounding biodiversity, discover untouched beaches, ride horseback, and take surfing lessons.

Our Host Village • Travel by minibus to your host village, tucked in Costa Rica’s lush mountains. Live together as a group in a simple community building or house and collaborate with local people on several important volunteer projects.

Mountain and Rainforest Excursion • Travel to a mountain ecolodge to learn about Costa Rica’s astounding biodiversity. Hike to waterfalls, interview local wildlife experts, zip-line through the rainforest canopy, take a tour of a coffee plantation, spot white-faced capuchin monkeys, and more.

“One afternoon we were planning on going to the river after work but couldn’t go until all four sides of the foundation of the locker room were covered in cement. We worked hard to finish what we thought was going to be our last batch of cement and we were ready to go jump in the river, but there wasn’t enough cement and we needed to go make more. After almost an hour of mixing rocks, dirt, and cement powder in the hot sun, we finally finished it, and ran to the river! I don’t think I’ve ever felt more accomplished in my life.”

— Gabriela Hubner, Packer Colliegiate Institute, New York, NY

Beach Excursion • Stay overnight in cozy bungalows on the Pacific coast. Snorkel off a pristine beach, take a surfing lesson, or hike to a vista along the coastline for a picnic lunch. Evening activities may include salsa dancing, a night hike in search of sloths, playing guitar around a beach bonfire, or watching sea turtles nesting on the beach.

Whitewater Rafting • Towards the end of your program, undertake a final challenge as you spend one day white-water rafting with professional guides through the Rio Pacuare or Rio Corobici, surrounded by lush jungle.

Return • Travel Day  •  Fly with your group and a leader from San José or Liberia back to Houston.  Say a heartfelt goodbye to your group and continue home on a connecting flight.

This itinerary represents our best projection of the group’s schedule. However, we may implement changes designed to improve the quality of the program.


Background • In 1949, declaring itself a peaceful nation, Costa Rica disbanded its army and has since enjoyed six decades of democracy and peace. Known for its astounding biodiversity, warm and inviting people, and miles of tropical beaches, Costa Rica is a pioneer in innovative approaches to ecotourism. Although a tiny country, Costa Rica has incredible geographic diversity. Within its borders you can travel from tropical rainforest to pristine beaches to active volcanoesall within the span of a day. With nearly 30% of its land protected, this Latin American biodiversity hotspot has become not only an ideal destination for recreation, but also for research in ecology, biology, conservation, and sustainable development. Despite its commitment to environmental conservation and its reputation as Central America’s most stable democracy, Costa Rica suffers from widespread poverty, particularly in its more remote regions.

Our project villages are situated in rural, mountainous regions throughout the western (Pacific) half of the country. Generally, the towns have populations of less than 1000.

Our project villages are situated in rural, mountainous regions throughout the western (Pacific) half of the country. Generally, the towns have populations of less than 1000.

Population • Costa Rica has a total population of just over 4.5 million, with 1.5 million living in the capital city of San José. Our community service villages are located in rural areas and generally have populations of 500 – 1000 people.

Language • Spanish is the official language of Costa Rica.

“The program certainly met my expectations — that Olive would be engaged in meaningful work in the community they were living in, as well as have opportunities to see the country. What was additionally wonderful was that she also connected so well with the others in the group, and that she loved her group leaders!”

— Solveig Schumann and Sebastian Brecht, parents of Olive Brecht, Hotchkiss School, New York, NY

Climate • Costa Rica has only two seasons: wet and dry. We visit during the wet season. Rain is common but intermittent and not necessarily a daily occurrence. It is quite warm — in the 80’s most days — so occasional rain showers are welcome!

Cuisine • Typical Costa Rican cuisine is hearty fare with rice, beans, and fruit at almost every meal. A typical lunch consists of gallo pinto (rice and beans), fish or chicken, vegetables, cheese, tortillas, and fruit.

Our newfound Tico friends share their culture and community with our group.

Our newfound Tico friends share their culture and community with our group.

Currency • The Costa Rican currency is known as the colon. The exchange rate is roughly 500 colones to one U.S. dollar. The best way to access cash is by using an ATM card.

Visa • U.S. citizens are not currently required to have a visa to enter Costa Rica. Non-U.S. citizens must check local visa requirements, including requirements for countries passed through in transit.   


The Community Service Costa Rica program is directed by Lauren McDowell. If you have questions, are interested in receiving more detailed information, or would like to talk further about any of our high school summer programs abroad, please get in touch!

Lauren McDowell

Lauren McDowell: Washington and Lee University, B.A., Spanish, Economics. Lauren lived in Spain during college, and has been on the go ever since. She led Putney programs to Ecuador, Cuba, Costa Rica, and Spain. When not traveling, Lauren enjoys yoga, reading, and being a mom. Her two young sons will one day join Putney Student Travel groups themselves. Lauren coordinates high school summer programs in Latin America and acts as our liaison to the Putney Open Door Fund scholarship foundation.

How To Apply


If you are new to Putney Student Travel, visit our Online Application.  
If you are a Putney Student Travel alumni family, 
use your existing account information to Log In.


You can hold a space in a program by completing the Online Application Form, submitting a signed Agreement Form, and providing the $700 Application Deposit by Mastercard, Visa, or Discover Card through our secure online system or by sending a check to our office. Our admissions staff is also available to take credit card information over the phone.  We will hold a space in a program for a reasonable time, pending completion of the full application process. See Step 3.

After March 15, we will hold a space temporarily as above, but we must receive full payment by check or wire transfer within three days to continue to hold a space in the program.


Before we can make a final admissions decision, an application must be complete.  In addition to the Application Form and Application Deposit described above, a complete application includes:

  • Applicant Statement – Attach a statement explaining why you would like to join a Putney program and what you feel you can contribute to it. Your application cannot be processed without this statement. Approximately 150–300 words is sufficient. Global Action applicants’ statements must be 300-500 words addressing these questions, and detailing their interest and/or experience in the country and issues on which they wish to focus.
  • Two Teacher Reference Forms

These documents are available as part of our Online Application.  We review a completed application within a few days, and notify families of our admissions decision by e-mail.