Volunteering at Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center

What's it like to volunteer at Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center ? In this blog I detail my experience as a volunteer at the animal sanctuary in Alajuela, Costa Rica. So many cute Sloths, Monkeys (Howler, Capuchin & Spider), Marmoset, Owls, Parrots, Tucan and farm animals! I also include tips, advice and information for those looking to volunteer.
Volunteering at Costa Rica Animal Rescue Centre

In January 2017 I spent 10 days volunteering at Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center (recently changed to Costa Rica Animal Wildlife Center). I had the best time and learnt about some amazing animals. I wanted to write this blog to give people an idea of what it is like to be a volunteer at the center. Maybe you are interested in volunteering yourself? Or perhaps you are just here for some cute animal pictures and to see what I got up to !

 3 important things to consider before you go:

-Volunteer because your priority is helping the animals. DO NOT volunteer just because you’d like to get photos with Sloths and Monkeys.*

-Be prepared for early mornings, hard work and unglamorous living conditions. You will be sleeping in 12 person dorms and sharing bathroom facilities.

-Volunteer for at least a week. Anything less and you will only just be getting used to things by the time you leave!

*When appropriate it is okay to get photos of and with certain animals but always make sure this is not distracting you from caring for them – and never purposely pick up or hold an animal for a photo.

Cosa Rica Animal Rescue Center Mural
Cosa Rica Animal Rescue Center Mural

Where is it?

There are a number of animal centers and charities in Costa Rica. Just to be clear, I am talking about the animal wildlife center based in the Alajuela province. You can check out their website here. It’s a 30 minute drive from San Jose airport (see the map below).

You can arrange a pickup from the airport or your hotel for $30* (quite pricey but works out cheaper if you can split the cost with other volunteers). The wildlife center will send one of their trusted drivers and it certainly takes the stress out of making your own way. The center is a little off the beaten path but not impossible to access via public transport. You can take a public bus from San Jose to Alajuela town then there is another bus from there that goes past the center. To avoid the hassle and to save time I went for the pick up so I’m afraid I do not know the bus schedule! However, one helpful reader has posted in the comments below some info about the bus.

*Pick up after 9:30pm is $45

map costa rica
Animal Rescue Center location in relation to San Jose

Why I chose to volunteer at Costa Rica Animal Wildlife Center

To put it simply- I love animals!

But a great thing about this wildlife center is that anyone can volunteer. It doesn’t matter what age you are, how much volunteering experience you have or if you have worked with animals in the past. You just need to be passionate about caring for animals and willing to get stuck in. You do not have to be a vet but if you are- then great! Having extra help from those with training (such as vets, biologists etc.) is extremely beneficial for the center. There is a trained vet who works on site and you will be able to help out with some of the animals who need extra care. Please note: to be a volunteer on the vet team you need to stay for a minumum of 4 weeks. 

In comparison to other volunteering projects this one is relatively inexpensive too. Food and accommodation is included in the price you pay. Since the center gets no financial help from the government they rely on volunteers and donations.

How much is it?

$35 US Dollars per day but this includes accommodation and 3 meals per day.

Here’s a 60 second video I made to give you an insight into a day at the center:

A Typical Day for a Volunteer

Your group tasks will be slightly different each day. There is a 7 day rota so you don’t end up doing the same thing all the time. If you only have a few people in your group the tasks will take much longer so it depends how many volunteers are at the center at the time. I always had at least an hour free before lunch-often more.

7am: Breakfast   (Things like pancakes and eggs with rice and beans were common)

8am: Morning meeting

8:15am: Start morning group tasks. This will usually be cleaning, giving water and food to the animals. Each animal enclosure needs raking/sweeping and scrubbing with water and disinfectant . You also need to remove the used food bowls and replace the water. You will not have do every animal enclosure instead you have a list of the animals you need to care for each day. Other morning tasks include food preparation, watering the garden and collecting and moving the compost. Sometimes you will need to do a water check around 11am to make sure none of the animals have spilt their water and need more.

Free time for projects

12pm: Lunch  (Lots of rice, beans, potato, chayote and occaisonally lentils with vegetables and sometimes meat such as chicken, fish and beef. There was always a vegetarian option. Sometimes we had pasta with tomato sauce too and once there was burgers and veggie burgers)

Free time for projects

1:30pm: Afternoon meeting

1:45pm: Start afternoon tasks. You will sometimes need to check the water in the enclosures and help prepare food for dinner.

4pm: Feeding time for some of the animals.

5pm: It will be one teams job to sort tree branches and place them into baskets for each animal that needs them (usually Monkeys and Sloths). Then you go to the enclosures and place the branches around for the animals to eat/play with.

6pm: Dinner (similar food to lunch)

costa rica animal wildlife center rota
This rota is a little out of date now but you get the idea!

You can find more information about volunteering on their website. 

 

The Animals

Some of the animals were kept illegally as pets and treated so badly by humans it will break your heart. Others were injured by cars or electric wires.  I think it is important to understand the animal’s history – some will behave differently around humans depending on their past. You can read about the animal’s stories here. Volunteers are not able to enter the Spider or Capuchin monkey enclosures as they may become aggressive toward strangers. But do not fear! you will get a chance to observe these monkeys from a safe distance and it will be possible to enter the Howler monkey enclosure.

Costa Rica Animal Wildlife Center’s main goal is to ensure the welfare of the animals and help them recover from both, physical and psychological wounds that have arisen from their past suffering. Many animals can no longer survive in the wild so the center provides a safe home for them. Over the years they have released many animals back into the wild but sadly due to new laws in Costa Rica, it has become incredibly difficult to release any more for the time being. Raising awareness about the mistreatment of animals and the illegal pet trade is also important and I was shocked at how many of these animals had previously been owned as pets. If you would like to read more about the center’s goals please see here. 

I tried to get photos of most of the animals at the center but some of them are pretty elusive especially the nocturnal ones. If you’d like more detailed information see here. Otherwise, here are all of the animals I got to meet!

2 Toed Sloths 

There are plenty of 2 Toed Sloths at the center- adults, teenagers and babies! 2 Toed Sloths have more of a pig-like nose whereas 3 Toed Sloths have the black eyes. Volunteers help clean the enclosures and give them food, water and branches.

Two Toed Sloth Costa Rica Animal Rescue Centre
Two Toed Sloth
Two Toed Sloth
Two Toed Sloth
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Baby Two Toed Sloth

3 Toed Sloths

There was just one young 3 Toed Sloth when I was there but I believe there is now a new baby !

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Three Toed Sloth

Howler Monkeys

It was pretty tricky to get a good photo of the Howlers because I couldn’t take my camera inside the enclosure (they could steal your stuff) and they are constantly moving around! You have to wear a face mask inside the enclosure as the monkeys can easily catch humans germs. They’re great fun, super playful and so inquisitive.

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Inside the Howler Monkey enclosure
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Howler Monkey

Feluco the Howler Monkey

Feluco’s mother was killed by a dog when he was only 15 days old. Due to losing his mother, Feluco’s immune system is very weak and he also has a cleft pallet which causes breathing problems. He needs extra care and treats Marielos (one of the founders of the center) like a mother. Not all volunteers will get the chance to feed him but I was able to give him his smoothie one day – but he seemed to like the taste of my hair more!

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Feluco the Howler Monkey 

Spider Monkeys

Incredibly intelligent monkeys! You cannot enter their enclosures but you can go and visit them. Again, I couldn’t get great photos as they are always on the move but I did capture this one whilst he was having a little think.

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Spider Monkey

Capuchin Monkeys

These monkeys are very cheeky and have so much character! You cannot enter their enclosure but you can watch them so long as you maintain a couple of meters distance from the cage.

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Capuchin Monkey

Squirrel

There’s just one squirrel at the center now but when I volunteered there were a few. Hopefully this little guy no longer has a cone on his head.

squirrel costa rica animal rescue centre
Squirrel

Birds

There are a number of different birds at the center. Please note that some of the ones you see in the photos may no longer be there.

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Owls
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Peacock
scarlet macaw costa rica animal rescue centre
Macaw
costa rica animal rescue centre
Caracao

Kinkajou’s and Olingo

These are two animals I had actually never heard of before coming to the center. They are SO cute! I couldn’t get a photo of the Olingo as she only ever came out at night but it bares some similarities to the Kinkajou’s. They are mammals and almost a cross between a monkey, a small bear and a Raccoon! They are actually part of the Raccoon family.

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Kinkajou
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Kinkajou

Porcupine, Hedgehogs and Opossum

It’s quite hard to get a glimpse of these guys since they are nocturnal but volunteers help clean the cages and give them food and water.

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Porcupine

Animals that are no longer at the center: I’ve recently updated this blog and with help from current volunteers I found out that a few of the animals I met are no longer there. Gigi, the beautiful Tucan, was released (I am assuming before the law changed). There are no longer farm animals and Evo, the sweet little Marmoset, sadly passed away.

tucan
Gigi the Tucan
marmoset
R.I.P Evo 

The Rooms and Common Areas

The rooms you sleep in are dorms with approximately six bunk beds. You get your own mosquito net and sheet and there are plug sockets. I went in January and although it’s very hot during the day, I found it quite cold at night as the rooms don’t have much insulation. Bring some warm clothes to sleep in. There are a number of toilets located near the dorm rooms as well as showers with hot water. They only had cold showers when I was there so you better appreciate those hot showers! 

Some people have emailed me about places to keep your valuables- there are now lockers available where you can keep your stuff but you need to bring your own padlock. It’s unlikely anything will be stolen but it’s good to take precautions and not leave valuable stuff lying around in plain sight.

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I had the bottom bunk. My boyfriend had the top.
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Please try and keep your area tidy! I kept my stuff locked in my backpack to avoid any bugs crawling in!
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Toilets and Showers

There are 2 kitchen areas- one for animal food prep and another for human food. Some days it may be your teams turn to help with food preparation (animal and human food). People eat and chill out in large common areas inclduing a hammock area upstairs. There is a pool but I found I was too busy with my tasks to use it- I used it once in 10 days.

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Common area
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The pool
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Hammock area

The Animal Hospital

There is a small animal hospital at the center where they treat some of the most poorly animals. Whilst I was volunteering, Oscar the Goat was castrated because he was starting to get too agressive! This surgery was performed in this animal hospital by the wonderful on site vet- Andres.

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The Animal Hospital

What to do in your spare time 

At the center they refer to your free time as time for ‘personalized passion projects’. This could be a number of things and it’s best think about what skills you have and how you can utilise those skills to help. For example, if you are a builder or carpenter you could help build a fence or enclosure. If you are creative you could help paint signs and murals. If you are neither of these things you can still help! Another great thing to do is create enrichment toys for the animals. If you are unsure there is some guidance in the information book you read through when you start or you can just ask one of the staff members.

Some examples of my projects

The Blog: I consider this blog to be one of my personal projects. Hopefully it will help others that want to volunteer and spread awareness.

Gigi’s enrichment toys: Gigi the Tucan – who is no longer there– was set to be released when I was a volunteer. Therefore, he needed to be fed on a regular basis to mimic what it would be like searching for food in the wild. We did not want Gigi to get into the habit of having his food in the same place each time. In order to teach him to search for his food we hid it inside a couple of natural enrichment toys that we made. They were very simple to make and hang up inside his enclosure.

My bench painting: It’s not my best work ever but I had a spare couple of hours that I used to spruce up this bench.

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My painted bench

Please visit the Costa Rica Animal Wildlife Center’s website for answers to FAQ’s

If you still cannot find your answer I’d be happy to try and help- you can leave a comment or contact me at jess@jesstravels.net 

Lastly, I would like to thank the wonderful staff at the center who helped me and made me feel so welcome. You should get a chance to meet co founders, Marielos and Bernal- truly lovely people.

Thank you to Maude and Fabrice- an amazing French couple who helped me and my team out so much and also let me help with Gigi’s feeding. Also, thank you so much to my main team- Sabrina, Hannah, Agnes and Josh. You made this experience even more special. This is also a test to see if they’ve read this far.

Are you visiting other parts of Costa Rica? Check out my other Costa Rica blogs here. 

Jess Harling
Jess Harling

Creator of Jess Travels

41 thoughts on “Volunteering at Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center”

  1. I love you authentic field report. I’ve been twice at the rescue center and LOVE their work so much. Your blog made me feel a little like being back again. Thank you!

  2. Thank you for this post, it is really informative and inspiring.
    It was really fun to read and I think your pieces of advice are really nice.

    I am a neighbor, but I’ve never been there.
    I also think that I will only visit if I have something good to share.

    Your article has a lot of information, but just in case, on regards of transportation to the center:
    Uber from the Airport is $14-18, which is a little cheaper than a regular Taxi, and bus from Alajuela downtown schedule is every 2 hours. Make sure with driver for Cebadilla-Las Juntas route.
    7AM-8AM-10AM-12PM-2PM-4PM-6PM(last one) $1

    I hope that helps, thank you again! Kind regards.

    1. Thank you for reading ! I am so glad you enjoyed it and found it informative. I really appreciate your feedback.
      Thanks for the transport information. I will make a note in my blog to see your comment for more details on the bus. Thank you so much 🙂

    2. Hello,
      I’m Sofia Garibay and will be joining the rescue center this summer for one week.
      Do you think it might be better to go by Uber when I get to the airport?
      Isn’t it too hard to get to the center without someone that know the way?

      Thank you

      1. Check the price for an uber from the airport to the center first. It may work out about the same cost as getting the centers own taxi service.
        If it’s not too much more expensive I would just arrange a pick up with the center. That is the safest option too.

  3. Hi jess,
    I am spending a month at the wildlife center starting mid june. I was wondering if there was any items you had with you that you were really glad you had, and if there was anything you wish you would have brought with you that you would take if you went back. Really I am just hoping for some suggestions other than the kit they recommend. Thanks for your time.

    1. Hi Alesha

      That’s great! You’ll really get to know the animals well after a month!

      -Bring insect repellent (I know they suggest this one on the website) but I got bitten the more in my 2 weeks at the center than 4 months travelling Central America! You cannot use repellent when going into enclosures so I would only wear it in the evenings so I tihink that’s a reason why you get bitten so much.
      -Bite cream: to treat the bites you are likely to get ! (maybe you are lucky and do not get bitten as much as me!)
      -Warmer clothes or clothes you can layer. I found it got very cold at night in the dorm room. I went in January so I don’t know if the night temperature is the same in June.
      -Closed toe shoes like trainers/running shoes. Im glad I had these for cleaning the enclosures otherwise your feet would get filthy if you wore sandals. But bring sandals/flip flops to wear in the showers! That is an essential for me actually as I hate walking around barefoot in shared bathrooms !
      -Spare plastic bags for dirty clothes that you’ve worn in the enclosures. You don’t really want these clothes mixing in with the fresh ones in your bag/suitcase.

      Thats about all I can think of right now. I hope that helps !

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience. I will be leaving for Costa Rica tomorrow. My dad, my teen daughter, and I will be volunteering for 10 days near Dominical. We are looking forward to it. Thanks again for sharing!
    Kim

  5. Thank you so much for putting this post together! I’m heading to Costa Rica in December and am hoping to volunteer at an animal shelter or sanctuary while I’m there. The daily schedule was helpful for me to get a good understanding of what to expect when I’m there. I’m a vet tech student currently and was wondering if you had or could’ve had any access to the clinic while you were there? Do you think they’d let me watch or help out in the clinic during our free time? Thanks again, I’m excited to get there now!!
    Valerie

    1. Hi Valerie! Thank you so much for reading and i’m so pleased you found it helpful. I am not a vet student or anything like that so I could not help with any of the surgery or medical treatment of the animals. Although I did get to access the clinic to clean and to help hold the goat in place whilst he woke from his anesthetic ! If you are a vet student they will definitely let you help/watch for sure! You will really enjoy your time there- the animals are wonderful!

  6. Hello,

    That’s very nice to get informations from a former volunteer 🙂 There are a lot of pictures I can’t see, is that normal ?
    Did you have time to go out of the rescue center ? Like going in some near villages, or into the forest, or near some beautiful beaches ?
    Do you have advices about what to get there except insect repellent and bite cream? ^^
    I’m excited to get there :):)
    thanks for sharing your experience !

    1. Hi ! Thanks I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. I don’t know what’s going on with the pictures 🙁 they all show on my phone but I will look into the problem. Because I was on a much longer trip I did all of my travel around Costa Rica before and after the volunteering. But if you wanted a couple days off to go visit a beach somewhere you can do that you just have to let them know in advance when you’ll be going/coming back.

      In terms of other stuff to bring i’d just say some warmer clothing for the night and some snacks 🙂

  7. Hi there!
    This was very helpful and informative to read! I’m volunteering at the centre for a month in March, you answered the majority of my questions already but I was just wondering about one thing.
    I know to bring warm clothes, are there any restrictions or dress codes at the centre?

    1. Thank you Im glad you found it helpful!

      As far as I can remember there are no dress codes except for wearing the face masks in the monkey enclosure. It is just recommended to wear long pants and tops so animals don’t scratch or mosquitoes don’t bite

  8. Hi Jess,
    Thanks for the great report. Did you have any experiences with the spanish lessons they offer on the website?

    Best wishes,
    Lena

    1. Hi Lena ! Thank you for reading!

      No I didn’t sorry – we had like q group Spanish class during one morning meeting but otherwise I didn’t do any proper lessons. Perhaps they didn’t offer this when I was there.

  9. Hi,

    I’m thinking of volunteering and it looks absolutely amazing! Unfortunately, I have a phobia of spiders. I’ve tried to do my own research about spiders in Costa Rica and keep reading “they exist but not in cities, hotels, or tourist locations.. they like the outdoors and places without a lot of human activity”

    Do you remember seeing many spiders during your time? (Another way to think about it – was it normal to see spiders roaming about?). I wish my fear didn’t stop me from visiting certain places, but it won’t be fun for anyone if I’m having multiple panic attacks.

    Would really appreciate your feedback!!

    Thank you,
    Talya

    1. Hey Talya, sorry for the delay getting back to you.

      I didn’t see many spiders during my time in Costa Rica- especially not in the city and more built up areas. Like your research suggests- they like to be away from lots of human activity.

      The volunteer centre is in a pretty rural setting however. I don’t want to lie to you and say there are no spiders- because there definitely are some. Whether or not you will see one there I don’t know. I obviously cannot guarantee you won’t see one.

      The staff at the centre are great and would help you out if you needed to remove a spider from the room (Not saying this will definitley happen). It would be such a shame to miss out on something so great because of this phobia. I really don’t like spiders either and I would check my bed thoroughly every night for them (one never showed up thankfully) but you know your limits better than I do.

      I hope you can overcome your fear a little ☺

  10. HI! Quick question, you said they provided you with a mosquito net and sheet? so like a thin flat sheet? Should we bring our own blankets??

    1. Hi! Yes, just a thin sheet and a mosquito net. I went in January and it was very hot in the day but got cold at night (I would sleep in leggings and a fleece!). I don’t know how cold it gets at night this time of year but if you have the space in your bag- I would bring a blanket just in case! And some warmer clothing too but nothing too bulky. Hope this helps 🙂

  11. Hello Jess! I’m going to be volunteering with the rescue center for a month, and I was wondering if the center has laundry.

  12. Hi Jess! Great post, thank you so much! I’m headed to the center a little over a week from now (!!!!) and I had a couple questions!

    I saw on their website that they said there was no touching the animals or taking pictures in the enclosures, but it looks like you were able to do that? I know you were there a year ago so they may have updated their policy; I just wanted to see if that was what the policy was when you volunteered as well and if it just works slightly differently in practice than is stated on their website.

    Also, I’m a writer on a deadline and pretty much have to bring my computer in order to get my work done (on my down time, naturally) … is there a place to store valuables/did you feel comfortable leaving them around? Like, when your phone wasn’t allowed with you in the enclosures, what was done with it?

    It looks like you may have gone alone, but did you happen to note if people who traveled together were put in the same group or were split up?

    I thiiiink that’s all I’ve got for now – thank you in advance!

    1. Hi Maggie!

      Thank you so much. Oh nice, not long til you’re actually there!

      I was only able to touch 2 of the animals that had special needs – Feluco the Monkey and Marius the SLoth. Both needed hand feeding (I think Marius is better now and eats on his own and you will need to prove yourself trustworthy to feed Feluco! Haha!) All the other animals I got very close to but never purposely touched or petted.

      The Howler Monkeys, Marmoset, Kinkajou’s and the Squirrels might climb on you when you are cleaning the enclosure but you have to just let them do their thing and don’t try and grab them or pet them as cute as they might be.

      I have tried to explain why I am holding some of the animals in my photos like Marius for example. But if you see other peoples photos where they are touching the sloths then it is wrong and they shouldnt be doing that- it was never encouraged a year ago and still isn’t now.

      Unless things have changed since I was there – there are no lockers or anything like that. I kept valuables in my dorm room, in my backpack with the backpack locked with a padlock. Nothing was ever stolen but I recommend keeping your laptop out of sight when you are not using it just in case.

      I actually went with my boyfriend I just don’t really mention him in this post I dont think! haha! We met families travelling together, friends and other couples. If you are travelling with just one or two other people there is a good chance you can be in the same team. If there is like 4+ of you then some of you might get split up to help fill up other teams that need people. But this doesnt mean you are split up all day. Just during tasks. Chances are you will be in the same team though 🙂

      I hope this helps! Have an amazing time volunteering!

  13. Hello, Jess!
    Thank you so much for your great post.
    I am thinking of going there in late July and I have a question.

    By when I should tell them exact date that i’m visiting there? Because I don’t know my schedule yet and I haven’t bought the ticket to Costa Rica.

    Thank you!
    Julia

    1. Hi Julia ! Thank you. I emailed them a couple of months in advance but I think I went at a quieter time of year. If you email the week before and there is still space they will definitely have you but my only concern is that July might be a busier month and it could get full.

      It may be worth actually emailing the center about this one because I am not entirely sure how quick it books up these days.

      Jess

  14. Buenas tardes!

    Me Llamo Nicolás de Argentina, tengo 28 años, y con un amigo estamos interesados en realizar el voluntariado con ustedes en el mes de noviembre..
    Miramos su página web y nos encanto el trabajo que hacen, los felicitamos.
    Personalmente realice un voluntariado el año pasado en Islas Galápagos, y me encontre con una belleza natural que quiero seguir descubriendo, y que mis actos sirvan para sumar a la Madre Tierra.

    Queremos conocer:
    1- 35 dolares americanos por día… Lo abonamos en efectivo cuando estemos allá?
    2- Cuantos días por semana se trabajan?
    3- El proyecto está abierto todo el año?
    4- Cuales sob las épocas de mayores lluvias?

    Quedamos a la espera de su respuesta!

    Saludos!

    1. Hola Nicolás !

      Por favor disculpe mi mal español.

      Preguntas:
      1- Si, en efectivo cuando llegue

      2- 7 dias ! (puedes tomar un día libre)

      3-Creo que noviembre es el final de la temporada de lluvias

      ¡Espero que esto ayude!

      Jess

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