Costa Rica Big Cats, Primates & Turtle Conservation

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1. In Brief


Set between its tropical Caribbean and Pacific coasts, Costa Rica is one of the most breath-taking countries in the world. Even though it covers just 0.03% of the world’s landmass, it is home to an incredible 500,000 species including jaguars, pumas, four species of monkeys and five species of turtle. This is the highest density of species of any country in the world.

Frontier volunteers are carrying out groundbreaking survey work, exploring Costa Rica's remote habitats and helping to combat the effects of global warming by establishing a baseline against which future protected area management can be assessed.  On this project you will live in a wilderness camp set in dense tropical forest on the shores of the Pacific Ocean next to pristine turtle beaches.

You'll live and work with other enthusiastic and energetic volunteers at a basic research camp near some of Costa Rica's most impressive protected areas. You'll carry out crucial surveys that are being used to find out how climate change is affecting endangered species and threatened habitats. Jaguars, sloths, pumas and turtles are just a fraction of the species here that are under threat; it is your job to help find out how to best protect these species and preserve their environment.

Join this incredible project to discover a world of fragile beauty and help safeguard Costa Rica's precious wildlife and exceptional habitats for future generations.




  • Help to conserve vital habitats and the species that live within them through studying their ecology and behaviour
  • Develop lifelong friendships and return with photos and lifeliong memories
  • Visit a tropical paradise
  • Work with some of the world's most endangered species and benefit their conservation


  • High level of fitness and stamina needed: conditions can be arduous and trekking strenuous. Practice uphill walking before you arrive.
  • Vocational qualification available

Please note: the peak turtle nesting season of Olive Ridley turtles begins in June and ends in October. After this period the Pacific black turtles comin in to nest until January/February; sightings outside of this period (March-May) are expected to be less frequent



Location Costa Rica
Activities Primate observation-based studies
Turtle monitoring
Big cats monitoring using field sign surveys
Understanding the social and ecological constructs of predator conservation
River otter surveys
Bird surveys
Butterfly surveys (Dry season only)
BTEC personal research projects (Various surveys subject to candidates' interests)
Additional forest trails, river walks and beach walks
Recreational sports
Reforestation programme
Trail creation and maintenance
Swamp visits by day and night, plus forest night walks
Community involvement activities e.g. education, recreation
Optional excursions (not included in the price and subject to availability)
Transport Pick-up from the airport weekly on a Monday
Escorted on the local bus. Fare not included (USD6)
Accommodation Communal forest camp and local hostel on night of your arrival (USD7)




Before you go

Pre-departure support & documentation
Travel & medical advice & documentation
Advice on visas & equipment
Discounted medical kit
Free Frontier t-shirt
UK residential briefing weekend including food, accommodation and training FREE for 10 week+ volunteers ($168 per person for those participating for less than 10 weeks)

In-country Accommodation
Food (on camp)
Project orientation and training  
Airport pick-up weekly on a Monday
In-country emergency support
24-hour international HQ backup
BTEC and CoPE qualifications available



A variety of qualifications are available on many of our projects. For example, BTEC certificates and diplomas on our Group conservation projects and TEFL certificates and BTECs on most of our teaching projects. You may also be able to gain a CoPE to support your university application. For more information on these qualifications, please see the qualifications section of our website or ask your volunteer advisor.

2. The project


You will be working in the Pacific rainforests and beaches near Corcovado, one of the most remote National Parks in the country which has been described by National Geographic as “one of the most biologically intense places on the planet.” Home to one of the largest tropical primary lowland rainforests in the world, the Corcovado National Park is also the habitat of a large range of endangered plant and animal species. Dense rainforest creates a dramatic habitat for hundreds of bird and mammal species, along with a high population of marine turtles nesting on the beaches each year (please note that the peak season for turtle monitoring begins in June and ends in February/March. Markedly fewer surveys are typically conducted outside of this period.)

On our Costa Rica Forest Research Programme you will be carrying out extensive and broad biodiversity surveys. Work will include walking primate transects to collect valuable data on the white-faced capuchin monkeys, squirrel monkeys, Geoffroy’s spider monkey and mantled howler monkey which thrive in these biologically rich forests.  You will also be patrolling the beaches of nesting endangered marine turtles to assess nesting preferences, hatchling success and population health, undertaking a big cat research project which aims to address one of the biggest threats to wild cats globally, human-wildlife conflict, undertaking groundbreaking work on the Data Deficient neotropical otter whilst walking the course of the rivers, and surveying populations of exotic birds, invertebrates and other animal groups in this exciting, relevant and comprehensive research programme.

In addition to these wildlife research projects you will also be involved in other activities which play a key part in conservation. For example, typically twice per week all project participants assist with projects led by partner and land owner Osa Conservation, a non-governmental organisation whose mission it is to protect and support habitats, people and wildlife of the Osa Peninsula. Programme participants may be involved in the creation and maintenance of trails which facilitate the majority of the surveys we conduct, assisting on their Agro-Ecological farm in order to secure a more sustainable food source for camp and Osa Conservation or on Reforestation programmes

This programme has also secured opportunities to assist with additional surveys in the local area led by a Carate-based turtle conservation programme, and operate out of a satellite camp situated a few kilometres away where participants may be given the opportunity to milk cows and make cheese on the farm as well as conduct wildlife surveys in the surrounding forest previously largely unstudied.

Though there is enough downtime to get yourself stuck into a good book, swim in the rivers and take part in horse riding, canopy tours, dolphin and whale tours and a trip to Corcovado National Park (not included in the price) among others, the project boasts a busy schedule focusing on its broad range of high conservation impact science for which participants will receive full training in the field.

Sea turtle monitoring

Volunteers patrol two beaches close to camp. The patrols not only help to gather valuable population data of the endangered marine turtles, but also serve to discourage poachers and predators trying to raid nests and collect eggs. The two species of turtle most frequently observed are the Olive Ridley and the Pacific Green Turtle. During peak nesting season (July-October), turtles found nesting on the beach at night are tagged and given a health check. In the mornings we also conduct nest excavations which involve checking the hatched nests to assess reproductive success after the hatchlings have emerged. Total clutch size, number of successfully hatched eggs and the number and stage of development of un-hatched eggs are recorded. Any hatchlings that might have remained trapped in the nest chamber are freed and placed on the beach to allow them to reach the sea.

Primate surveys

Many mammals are social animals which frequently travel in pairs or groups. The most abundant mammal species found in the area are the four species of monkey: squirrel monkey, mantled howler monkey, Geoffroy’s spider monkey and white-faced capuchin monkey. Primate surveys are typically conducted three to four times each week recording every troop encountered whilst walking slowly through the forest with a pair of binoculars. The primary aim of this project is to estimate density of all four primate species in Costa Rica and so it is important to firstly take an accurate count of the number of individuals within the troop (a good pair of binoculars will certainly prove beneficial) as well as calculating the size of the area surveyed by taking measurements of the distance between the trail and the troop of monkeys. 

Big cats and people

Costa Rica is home to six species of wild cat and five are found on the comparatively tiny Osa Peninsula; the large jaguar and puma, the small jaguarundi and margay and the intermediate spotted cat, the ocelot. These species are elusive and sightings are rare and even if you don’t see them whilst out on the trail or on camp (an ocelot was seen at the time of an early morning toilet visit in early 2015!) you will likely find evidence that they are around, leaving tracks and faeces and being caught on camera traps. Seeing a big cat is mostly down to luck, being in the right time at the right place, and to increase your chances further, we also offer night walks into the forest to search for some of the world’s most incredible wildlife as your torchlight is reflected in the eyes of a wild cat.

Our big cat research is a multi-phase project which combines an ecological study of the abundance and distribution of predators and other wildlife and a sociological study in which interviews are conducted with local people to understand perspectives of conservation and the interactions between people and wildlife with regard to livestock and crop losses. This conflict between landowners and wildlife is one of the most significant issues in wildlife conservation and the jaguar is one of the most heavily threatened species as a result of retaliatory killing and persecution as a preventative measure against livestock predation. The ultimate objective is to find solutions to any problems identified that benefit the livelihoods of local people and allow for the sustainable maintenance of predators and prey in this critical biological corridor neighbouring Corcovado National Park.

Neotropical river otters

The neotropical river otter (Lontra longicaudis) is classified on the IUCN Red List as Data Deficient as there is insufficient data on species distribution, abundance and habitat use for the population status to be assessed against the criteria used to decide whether the species is Critically Endangered, Vulnerable etc. Our study in Costa Rica seeks to provide one of the first year-round studies of a local population of otters with regard to the spatial distribution throughout the year. It is critical to study these animals all year round as it is expected that the otters will expand, contract or shift their core areas of use as the river changes in depth, width and course within and between seasons. This information has conservation significance as it ensures that any strategies to protect this species that are recommended as a result of this work consider the habitat requirements throughout the year and not just within a specific shorter period.

To determine the areas being used by otters we record indirect signs such as faeces (‘spraint’) as evidence that an otter has been there. These locations are recorded onto a GPS unit in the field and are analysed within a Geographic Information System (GIS) to assess the spatial distribution through computer analyses.

Bird point count surveys

Bring your binoculars and set your alarm early and you can join in our bird surveys which take place throughout the forests and along the course of the Rio Piro. Many of Costa Rica’s beautiful birds can be found here, as well as several migratory species. Frequently sighted are trogons, antbirds, hummingbirds and tanagers, and if you are lucky maybe a Baird’s Trogon or Great Curassow.

Bird counts are a commonly used method of identifying avian species composition in an area and we aim to study the diversity of the bird community in primary and secondary forest as well as within the river course. Not only will you be identifying birds by sight, but you will start to learn to identify birds by the calls they make.

Butterfly diversity in the forest understorey (Dry season only)

Butterflies are a well recognised indicator of habitat quality, ecosystem function and health and can be used as an early warning system for environmental change. As a key part of the food chain a diversity and abundance of butterflies will promote greater diversity and abundance of animals at the top trophic level (e.g., wild cats) and any changes in the environment and forest health that results in detriment to butterfly populations will have significant negative impacts on other wildlife.

This work is conducted only in the dry season due to damage caused by rainfall and typically therefore runs between October/November and May/June.

Leaf litter frog diversity and abundance

Costa Rican amphibians are a diverse group and are amongst one of the most sensitive to climate change due to their use of small microhabitats and the porous nature of their skin. Declines have already been seen amongst amphibian groups due to reductions in pool sizes, shortened rain fall seasons and increased temperatures increasing bacterial growth and disease transmission. The sensitive nature of amphibians to altered climatic variables makes them an excellent indicator group for studying the effects of changing climates. The focus of the study here is leaf litter frogs and as they lay their eggs in leaf litter, increasing decomposition rates due to increasing temperature can eliminate their breeding habitat to the point that reproduction of an entire population can be threatened.

Our study looks at leaf litter frogs within the primary forest and collects scientific photographs  and ecological variables related to the species. Environmental data such as temperature and humidity is also recorded to monitor the effects of climate change on populations between years. By the nature of this project, it creates an inventory of all leaf litter frogs in the area, is able to estimate the number of species likely in the area and can be used to monitor not only the diversity but also the abundance of leaf litter frogs.

Overview of project objectives

The long term goal of this project is to investigate the effects of climate change on biodiversity and the subsequent implications of climate change upon Costa Rica's network of protected areas. The project addresses four important questions in order to safeguard the future of Costa Rica's economically and biologically important natural heritage:

  1. What effect is global warming having on the biodiversity within Costa Rica's system of protected areas?
  2. What future effect is global warming likely to have on the biodiversity within Costa Rica's system of protected areas?
  3. Is there adequate existing connectivity between habitat blocks within Costa Rica, and within the Mesoamerican hotspot as a whole, to allow ecosystem migration?
  4. What conservation efforts can and need to be put in place to ensure the continued existence, where possible, of the ecosystems which typify the natural habitats of Costa Rica?

3. What to expect


You will be greeted at Puerto Jimenez Airport or bus station by your local Frontier staff member and escorted by bus to the project site (the bus fare costs $6 and is not included) on Monday. If you arrive too late for the afternoon bus back to camp (which is at 13.30) then you will have to stay the night at a hostel in town which will cost USD7 and factor in food (about USD10) and is not included.

There are two airlines which fly to Puerto Jimenez, Sansa and Natureair or if you're up for it there is also a bus service from San Jose to Puerto Jimenez. Your Project Coordinator can give you further information about this bus journey. You may have to organise your own transport back to the airport after you have completed your project depending on your project end date, which is very straight forward and the Project Coordinator can help you with this.

Like many of our worldwide conservation projects our Costa Rica project camp is set in a remote and beautiful location, so you should be prepared for a fairly long journey out to camp. In dry season (January – April) the bus takes just over an hour but in wet season it can be up to two and a half hours (mainly September to December).


Life on camp is simple, environmentally footprint less and great fun! You will be sleeping alongside other volunteers of both sexes and arrangements will vary from tents to hammocks on our handmade deck, made from locally sourced materials. Our main camp is located a 20 minute walk from Playa Piro, with beach which stretches for over 15 miles.

You may also get out and about on smaller (satellite) camps close to the national park, deep in the rainforest or even down on the beach, depending on the work programme.

Be prepared for mosquito nets and open-sided living quarters, and you will have the luxury of two Western style toilets on camp too.

Check out our camp tour video!

Check out our video on Frontier Gap Year TV from Costa Rica, showing you volunteer life on the Osa Peninsula.


We support the local economy by sourcing much of our supplies from the local community. This includes the staple food, as well as a selection of seasonally available fresh fruit and vegetables so get thinking about unusual and exotic dishes that you can prepare to impress everyone when it is your turn to cook.

You will be involved in catering for yourself and your camp mates and you will discover how to produce three delicious and nutritious meals a day that will provide you with all the energy you'll need for your busy schedule. Cooking and cleaning are carried out communally on a rotational basis. Costa Rican food is delicious, with a focus on rice, beans and good quality fruit and vegetables. You could learn to make gallo pinto, the staple food of the nation, which is fried rice and black beans. Other favourites include light and crispy tortillas stuffed with refried beans and vegetables  Although the camp is vegetarian (there’s no refrigeration for meat, fish and dairy products but we do have powered milk) we cook some incredible dishes including pizza, falafel-style burgers, curries with homemade chapattis and ginger and cinnamon cakes to name but a few.

You should also be aware that most of the water in Costa Rica is drinkable so don’t hesitate to drink from the rivers and streams to keep dehydration at bay, but make sure to ask staff first.

On account of the lush nature of Costa Rica's natural habitats, the range of fresh fruit and vegetables is abundant, so make sure you sample some of the fresh market produce. Another thing to try is some Costa Rican coffee, famous the world over and representing the country’s biggest export, its fragrant aroma is synonymous with the lush plantations found in Central America. Luxuries such as chocolate and packet soup are available in the local town (which you can visit whenever you want) but it is worth bringing some of your favourite treats out with you as well as any herbs or spices. It is recommended that you buy snacks when in town (cereal bars, biscuits etc) for mid-morning sugar dips or to give you energy on long treks. Your food budget will only cover basic rations so bring some extra spending money if you want to treat yourself.

4. The reviews

I want to go into conservation and came here to gain experience before starting my degree. This p...

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I'm on my last day here in Costa Rica waiting for my flights which I hope are cancel...

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I have just returned from frontiers big cats, primates and sea turtles project, to put it bluntly...

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I have just returned from the Costa Rican jungle where I spent 6 weeks on Frontier's Big cats...

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ONCE IN A LIFETIME  | 23 Feb 2016
I went out to Costa Rica for 3 weeks to join Frontier on their Big cats, primates and tu...

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TAPIR ON CAMP  | 26 Jan 2016
Frontier's Costa Rica project based on the Osa Peninsula was good fun whilst being informativ...

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Having a gap year before going to uni has been the best decision for me and spending two and half...

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HUGE VARIETY  | 4 Jan 2016
I can honestly say my 2 weeks on the Costa Rican project was one of the best experiences of my li...

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Jungle Life in Costa Rica- One of the best experiences of my life, totally unforgettable...

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The camp of Frontier in Costa Rica is situated in the middle of an magnificent old growth forest ...

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5. Gallery

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6. Extras


Costa Rica provides everything you could ever desire for an action packed and eye opening gap year or eco break. You may wish to explore some of the activities and unforgettable sights that are on offer here whether it is in your spare time, or even in a few extra days spent in this spectacular country at the beginning or end of the project. There are so many possibilities to explore – here are just a few suggestions! Try white water rafting, river kayaking, or even ocean kayaking – all activities that Costa Rica is famous for whether you are an expert or a compete novice.

If you have a head for heights see the landscape stretch out beneath you from above with a canopy tree top tour, or even an aerial tram! Other adventure activities that are on offer include biking, hiking, snorkelling and even bungee jumping! For something more sedate, there are butterfly and insect farms – fascinating for those with an interest in the natural world. The Costa Rica camp is also close to the border with Panama so you could always add another country onto your list by heading to this fascinating country too.

Alternatively you may wish to visit the Frontier house or local hostel in Puerto Jimenez ($7.50 per day, food not included). Costa Rica really does have something for everyone – you will never be short of ways to enjoy your spare time!

* Please note that you will need to cover your own costs for extra activities.


Learn more about one of the most biologically intense places on earth as you explore solitary beaches, beautiful rivers, mountains, waterfalls, farms and amazing diversity of wildlife on a guided kayak tour. You will have the unique opportunity to explore the mangroves from the water, and then paddle towards the sea where you may encounter dolphins, sea turtles, fish and ocean birds. You can kayak individually, in a group or with a guide who will teach you more about the incredible mangrove and coastal environment of Costa Rica.

A guided day trip costs 45GBP / 60USD and includes kit hire inc. buoyancy aid, dry bags, kayak and paddle. Kayaks are collected from the beach near Puerto Jiminez. You can sign up for this experience prior to your deployment, or in country.

Wildlife Sanctuary

Visit this remote wildlife sanctuary which is providing wildlife rescue and rehabilitation for orphaned, injured and displaced animals indigenous to south Costa Rica. The sanctuary promote conservation through education and community involvement and work promote the maintenance of natural biodiversity. The sanctuary run a public education programme and you have the opportunity to visit the organisation for a day to see the animals, meet and chat with staff and walk around 700 acres of local forest land.

Entry to the wildlife sanctuary costs 25USD / 15GBP, and transport to the sanctuary is via boat only. The boat journey must be organised directly with the wildlife sanctuary and can cost up to 90USD / 70GBP for daily boat hire. You can sign up for this experience prior to your deployment, or in country.

Modern conveniences

Puerto Jiminez - 1 hour collectivo from camp at own cost

  • Banks / ATMs; Banco Nacional and Banco de Costa Rica
  • Bar / cafe
  • Hotels and hostels
  • Internet cafe
  • Medical clinic
  • Souvenir shop
  • Supermarket
  • Traditional markets and cafes
  • Western style restaurants

7. Dates and Costs


1 week $1,595

2 weeks $1,845

3 weeks $2,445

4 weeks $2,945

5 weeks $3,145

6 weeks $3,395

7 weeks $3,595

8 weeks $3,895

9 weeks $4,195

10 weeks $4,445

20 weeks $6,945

Extra week $445



Weekly on a Monday


You can join this project for a minimum of 1 week


Before you go

  • Pre-departure support & documentation
  • Travel and medical advice and documentation
  • Advice on visas and equipment
  • Discounted medical kit
  • Free Frontier T-shirt
  • UK residential briefing weekend including food, accommodation and training FREE for 10 week+ volunteers ($168 per person for those participating for less that 10 weeks)


  • Accommodation
  • Food (on camp)
  • Project orientation
  • Project equipment
  • Airport pick-up (for those arriving on a Monday)
  • In-country emergency support
  • 24-hour international HQ backup


Nearest airport(s): Puerto Jimenez (PJM)



Flights are not included in our trip costs. However, we have partnered with an experienced and professional team of travel experts to help our volunteers find the best flight deals for their trips with us. This travel specialist operates in the tailor-made, long haul multi-stop travel market, arranging complex airfares and transfers for independent travellers. They provide expertise, security and a vast product range along with a Travel Butler service which is a single point of contact and support whilst you are overseas.

We recommend that you obtain a quote using the following contact details rather than book online, as our partner will offer you the most competitive fares. To receive your quote or to seek any advice for your flights, please contact our dedicated team of travel experts on 0800 082 9994 (or +44 800 082 9994 outside the UK) or email .


For fast, efficient and up-to-date visa advice please contact our recommended visa consultancy partner:

Depending on your destination country and your country of origin, you might require a visa. Please see the appropriate country consular website for details or contact our affiliate visa consultancy service. Please note that your visa will usually start on the date that you enter the destination country regardless of when it was issued. Please check with the relevant embassy or high commission. If you are purchasing your visa or paying entry/exit fees in-country you will probably need to pay in US Dollars. If you have any questions please consult the relevant embassy or high commission. Please check the visa information regularly, as changes often happen without warning.


You'll need to buy appropriate travel insurance covering your participation on the project. You won't be able to go without the right travel insurance so double check to avoid disappointment. Please make sure that you're covered for the whole duration of your trip – from the day you leave the UK to the day you return. It's also best to get your travel insurance at the same time as paying the deposit for your project. Depending on your policy, this will cover you for any unexpected cancellations.

Your insurance should include the following:

  • Medical cover, including medical emergencies and medical evacuations (up to USD$3,000,000 / GBP£2,000,000);
  • Personal liability (up to USD$1,500,000 / GBP£1,000,000);
  • Cancellation and curtailment of your trip (up to the value of your project contribution).

If you are going to be scuba diving you should get coverage for scuba diving up to 30m, including hyperbaric therapy treatment (unlimited). You should consider obtaining insurance to cover you for any additional activities which you plan to do during, before, or after your Frontier project. We recommend that you obtain cover for your baggage and personal effects.

Frontier Partner Projects and Frontier group projects are run in partnership with in-country NGOs, small community based organisations, local research institutes, academic organisations and conservation agencies. Project descriptions and information are supplied directly by our partners or field staff and are accurate at time of publishing.

We aim to keep information up to date and accurate, however, the nature of our projects and in particular the fact that they are constantly evolving and developing in response to changing needs means that project activities, travel schedules, tour itineraries and daily timetables can change overnight and without notice.

8. How to apply

To apply for this placement, click on "Apply Now" below. Fill in the short application form and one of our advisers will then call you back to answer any questions and make sure this is the perfect placement for you. Applying doesn't cost a penny and you won't pay anything until you're completely happy and you're ready to reserve your place.

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