Where to Volunteer in Latin America

Choosing where to volunteer is as important as the type of volunteer work you want to do, and will probably require the same amount of research if not a little more. Encompassing 20 nations, 4 dependencies, 600 million people, and roughly 8 million square miles, Latin America is a big place with many possibilities. Once you’ve narrowed down your options, take the time to read up on your destination. A deeper understanding of the local culture, economy, and political context will not only help you find the right fit, but also greatly enhance your volunteer experience once you’re on the ground.

A bicycle parked on the street in front of a stucco building.
Volunteer opportunities in beautiful Granada, Nicaragua, include community development for access to clean water to improving access to and quality of education in surrounding villages. Photo © Angie Harms, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Mexico and Central America

Mexico is Latin America’s northernmost country, filled with bustling and sophisticated cities interspersed between lush countryside and ancient pyramids, as well as endless golden beaches. Heading south, Central America’s “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras is next: a fertile region of mountains and cloud forests that is also rife with hardships. While Guatemala and Mexico are rich with indigenous cultures, the Maya and the Aztec the most famous among them, in compact Honduras a visit to Mayan ruins can be made in conjunction with a trip to its spectacular Caribbean archipelago. At the southern border of Honduras lies Nicaragua, the poorest country in Latin America (and second poorest in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti), but volunteers may be surprised by the wealth of volcanoes, colonial architecture, and easygoing attitudes. The stable and more economically developed Costa Rica, Panama, and (English-speaking) Belize make up the rest of the region.

Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua have a large selection of locally based volunteer opportunities, from teaching English to protecting sea turtles, plus some unusual offerings, such as the promotion of green and alternative building practices in Guatemala, or training emergency responders in Nicaragua. Because of Mexico and Central America’s proximity to the United States, flights there are frequent and generally much less expensive than those to South America.

South America

From the beaches of Brazil to the Andean mountains of Bolivia, the coffee farms of Colombia to the pampas of Argentina, South America evokes beauty and romance. Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana line the northern Atlantic coast of the continent. Along the Pacific, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia are famed for their Andean mountains, strongholds of the diverse Quechua people and home to many more indigenous groups as well. They also share the Amazon rainforest with their eastern neighbor, Brazil, whose beaches and fun-loving cities are as celebrated as its forests. Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay compose the Southern Cone region and are distinguished by a strong European influence and a love of the asado, or barbecue.

Colombia is emerging as a great offbeat destination for travel and voluntourism, while a more established path for volunteers has been worn to Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. As a result, these countries also offer the greatest number of locally based volunteer opportunities in the region. Southern Cone countries have stronger economies and less outreach to international volunteers, but existing opportunities are generally well organized. National regulations make volunteering in Brazil a trickier affair, but those wishing to practice their Portuguese or samba steps while volunteering will find plenty to do. Flights to South America are generally pricey, and advanced planning is recommended to make the most of a trip.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America.