8 Things to Consider Before Volunteering in Peru 

by Mary Ellen Dingley

There is generally A LOT to think about before volunteering abroad anywhere in the world, and when it comes to volunteering in Peru, there are many different programs to sift through. Supply has risen to meet demand, because who doesn’t get excited when thinking about volunteering in Peru? Land of ancient Incan cities, landscapes that range from jungle to desert, llamas for days, and cute, cuddly guinea pigs that you can eat for dinner (If that’s something you’re into - I gotta admit, it’s pretty delicious!).

You’re going to want to do quite a bit of research to find the best volunteer program in Peru for you, and also do some personal soul searching. Time to sit down and ask yourself some questions. You can do this the easy way, or the hard way. Actually, the easy way is now even easier, because I’ve gone ahead and written eight things to ask yourself as you plan your volunteer trip to Peru below!

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Photo Credit: Byron Fan

1. Why Peru?

Knowing what it is about Peru that attracts you can help you focus your energy and narrow down your search for volunteer opportunities. Is it the Incan history? The outdoor adventures? The mix of Spanish and indigenous languages and culture? The particular challenges Peru faces?

Think about why you wish to volunteer in Peru, as opposed to in other countries. Also, remember that Peru is more than just exciting tourist opportunities, it’s a country that faces such issues as mining pollution and corporate encroachment on indigenous land. Having a clear idea of what intrigues you about Peru, in particular, will guide the rest of your hunt for the volunteer opportunity that’s a perfect fit.

2. Why volunteering? 

Ask yourself why exactly you’re volunteering abroad. What do you most want to get out of a volunteer program in Peru? Better Spanish language skills? A fun adventure? Learning more about the needs of Peru as a country? Trying something new?

Let’s be blunt: if 99.9 percent of what you want is to be outside hiking and exploring, maybe a trekking trip would be a better fit for you than volunteering in Peru. There is no shame at all in wanting adventure travel, but a half-hearted volunteer gazing longingly at the mountains wouldn’t be super useful to anyone. Or, maybe you’re actually more interested in studying Peruvian history than spending your time working on a construction project.

If you answer these questions and realize that your honest desire is to help those in need, then onwards with volunteering in Peru! If you still really want to improve your Spanish while volunteering in Peru, look into volunteer opportunities that include Spanish language classes. If you want to delve into the social challenges Peru faces, find a volunteer placement that will allow you to help with advocacy, connect with multiple NGO’s, or take in a few lectures on social issues.

Canopy bridge in the jungle

Hanging canopy

Photo Credit: Katelynn Wheeler

3. Where do you want to go?

Peru has a beautiful diversity of landscapes and ecosystems that can be broken down into three major regions: the Coastal Desert, Amazon Jungle, and Andes Mountains. Lima, the capital city, sits in the Coastal Desert, and Cusco, one of the biggest tourist draws, is up high in the Andes Mountains. The major city in the Amazon (and largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road!) is Iquitos. If you want destinations less on the tourist track, perhaps check out volunteer programs in Huancayo, in the mountains, or Trujillo, on the Northern coast.

All three regions have great natural beauty and activities ranging from paragliding to sandboarding to wandering in beautiful ancient ruins. But, they also have their own challenges. Make sure you consider malaria pills for the Amazon and be careful about bugs and parasites, for example. In the Andes, be cautious with physical activity due to altitude sickness (which can strike even the seasoned mountain traveler). Lastly, Lima is an exciting city, but is also known for pick-pocketers. Don’t let the challenges dissuade you, thousands and thousands of travelers descend on Peru every year and have amazing experiences.

It is even possible to find volunteer opportunities in Peru that allow you to explore all three; go hiking in the Andes, see ruins in the desert, and enjoy boating in the Amazon!

4. What do you want to spend your time doing?

Does environmental work intrigue you? You could help conserve marine life or work with NGO’s based in the Amazon rainforest. Educational work more your thing? You could teach English in Lima or work with kids in Cusco. Do you fashion yourself as having a “heart of gold”? Consider volunteering on a medical project.

Think about your interests and skills; what do you have to offer or what do you want to learn? Don’t feel pressured into working with kids just because that’s what your friends did. Perhaps your skills lie elsewhere!

You can think outside the traditional nature of international volunteering too. There are volunteer placements in Peru that need volunteers with media skills, or if you’re an experienced volunteer maybe you would like working in volunteer management!

Non-profits in Peru are always looking for different types of help; no matter what kind of skills you have, there will be someone who can use your help!

Caution - if you are interested in volunteering in orphanages, be sure you select a trustworthy organization and creates a positive environment for orphans, as opposed to a tourism stop for visitors. Many major organizations have even cautioned against orphanage volunteer abroad, as it can actually harm to orphans and even local communities. At the end of the day, be sure you are making an informed decision!

Inca Canal

Inca Canal, an old Inca Sewer System in Tipon, Peru

Photo Credit: Morgan Benson

5. What impact will your volunteer work have?

You have to be very careful when volunteering abroad, and consider what role the work of the organization, and thus your volunteer work, will play in the community. Consider if your volunteer work in Peru will do more harm than good, and make sure it is going to be sustainable. Ask yourself questions like, will you be there long enough to finish a project, and if not, will someone else pick up your project after you leave? Unfortunately, there are some volunteer projects in Peru that can promptly fall into disarray as soon as volunteers leave, which means all of their work ends up being for nothing.

Remember, problems of poverty and inequality are complicated, and the simplest solution might not always be the best. Ask yourself: is your volunteering taking away jobs from locals? Are the local people treated with dignity and respect? There are communities that feel condescended to and disrespected by volunteers and NGOs.

Do your research of each organization and their work. Ask them the important questions, read program reviews on GoAbroad, and know the ultimate mission of each and every organization before committing.

6. What time is best?

Winter in Peru is from May to September and is the driest season, the best time of the year to do outdoor activities. Summer is December to March and is the wet season, so take into account that you may find yourself working through driving rain. ’ve volunteered in Cusco during the wet season and ended up caught in a torrential downpour during a hike, but the rest of the week was surprisingly sunny!

Stick to outdoor trips during the dry season, although keep in mind the dry season is also the busy tourist season in Peru!

Lima church

Lima church

Photo Credit: Lauren Ehle

7. Are you ready for this?

Time for some self-reflection! Volunteering abroad can be a mentally, emotionally, and physically challenging experience. Are you prepared to work in a culture and language that might be very different than your own? You might find yourself thrust into situations you’ve never faced before, from being served food you don’t recognize to greetings that surprise you. You may be excited about experiencing a new culture, but you may also face culture shock.

Are you ready to come face to face with issues like poverty or lack of healthcare that are embedded and complex and don’t have a quick fix? Visiting communities that lack clean water, hygienic toilets, proper education, dental care, and enough healthy food can make you feel utterly helpless.

Meaningful travel requires a level of honesty and humility.

Sit with yourself a minute. Delve into your mind and emotions and see if you are feeling prepared for the challenges that can arise when volunteering abroad.

8. Is volunteering in Peru going to blow your mind?

It will. It really, really will.

A history you can touch and feel, the exciting flavors in Peruvian food, landscapes from the Amazon to the Andes that soar and enrapture, and the beautiful music and art, you’ll want to take it all with you when your volunteer program is complete. No matter your skills or background, there is a volunteer placement in Peru that is right for you. Take some time to reflect and research, and then go forth and explore!