Let’s start with what not to take: Leave your valuables at home. The best way to avoid problems is to eliminate their possibility. If you do bring electronics, such as a tablet or music player, the more discreet you can be, the better. Do not use these devices while walking down the street or on public transportation. If you bring a laptop, leave the standard carrying case at home and pack your computer inside something less obvious. If your engagement ring is flashy, or your earrings could pass for real diamonds, leave them at home. Ditch the expensive watch and wear a cheap one for your trip.
Likewise, if you want to bring anything from school supplies to project materials, be sure to check first with your hosting organization to see what is really needed, and if it is available to purchase at your destination instead. Not only will you keep your luggage lighter, but you’ll also help support the local economy with on-site purchases.
Now, for what to take. Many warm places feel surprisingly cool in the evenings, so a lightweight jacket or sweater is often handy. If you will be in the mountains, be prepared for cooler temperatures, and even downright cold nights. Once you’ve laid out on your bed all the clothes you want to bring, put half of them back in the closet. Do bring one nice outfit for the unexpected (a night on the town, an inauguration of your project, or even a local wedding—you just never know!). Remember that Latin Americans tend to dress up more than their northern counterparts, and that shorts are not usually worn except on the beach.
Think about the kind of work you will be doing, as well as any exploring you plan to do. Hiking boots can be great for agricultural and construction work. Closed-toed, strong-support sandals (such as those made by Keen, Chaco, or Teva) can be good for nighttime beach patrols for sea turtles. Lightweight and quick-dry long pants and long-sleeved shirts can be lifesavers in buggy jungle environments. A waterproof jacket or poncho is handy anywhere that rain threatens. If you will be staying in the jungle or on the beach, buy some biodegradable shampoo and soap, and environmentally friendly insect repellent and sunscreen. Bring a high-quality water bottle, such as a stainless-steel model that keeps water cool even if you leave it in the sun (and avoids increasing plastic waste). You may want to bring earplugs and Pepto-Bismol (the latter is available in some pharmacies in Latin America; the generic version is called bismuth), and a pair of flip-flops to wear into the shower. A few sites require that you bring your own sleeping bag. Be absolutely sure to bring a hat.
Many volunteer organizations ask for your passport number. If you don’t have a valid passport already, start the application process. Most countries in Latin America require passports be valid for six months beyond the date of entry into the country, so if you already have a passport, check the expiration date. Some countries may require visas—check the individual country chapters and/or with the local embassy of your destination.
As a precaution, scan your passport and birth certificate into your computer at home, then email the scans to yourself so that you can access them if your passport goes missing. Make a photocopy of your passport to take along as well. Visit the website of your home country’s embassy in the country you’ll be visiting and find the 24-hour emergency citizen services number. Write this number down on your photocopy. Keep your passport in your handbag or backpack, and tuck the photocopy into your suitcase, so the documents are traveling separately.
Ensure that routine vaccinations for tetanus, polio, and hepatitis B are up-to-date before traveling. Vaccinations for hepatitis A and typhoid are typically recommended for travel in Latin America.
Yellow fever is a mosquito-borne disease endemic in parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, with some cases in Argentina and Panama. A safe and effective vaccine is available and may be required if you are traveling from a country where yellow fever is endemic (for example, from Peru to Bolivia).
For many of the opportunities in Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America, the biggest expense will be airfare—and the farther you travel, the greater that expense will be. However, by booking well in advance or traveling at nonpeak times, you may be able to save money. Also consider other airports that could offer a better fare; you might find cheaper flights if you are willing to hop on a bus from a different airport to your destination. For example, travelers to western Panama may find cheaper flights to San José, Costa Rica. They can then reach the volunteer site via a relatively inexpensive bus ride, rather than a pricey domestic flight.
If you are not staying at the volunteer site, check whether or not local transportation is needed and provided. If not, include that in your estimate as well. Bus networks are comprehensive across Latin America, as well as a cheap way to travel. Intercity buses are generally reliable, but buses within some big cities in Latin America may not be safe; taxis are recommended instead.
Driving in Latin America is fairly easy, especially if you speak Spanish or have a GPS, and rental cars are available at all international airports. A valid driver’s license from your home country is usually sufficient.
Even if you are planning to take foreign-language lessons, brushing up on those skills prior to departure will only enhance your experience. Enroll in a language course at your local institute or community college, or sign up for an online class. Self-learners can buy a study guide from companies such as Teach Yourself, Pimsleur, or Rosetta Stone; download language learning podcasts; or find conversation partners with whom to practice online or in your home community.
It’s worth noting that English is the first language in the Bay Islands of Honduras, as well as in Belize, so if brushing up on your Spanish skills is a priority, volunteer opportunities in these places might not be the best fit. Portuguese is spoken in Brazil. It’s possible to study the indigenous languages Quechua, Aymara, and Guarani while volunteering in Bolivia.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America.