Why Volunteering in Central America Will Rock Your Socks Off

by Hillary Hardesty

Central America is a beautiful region and it makes sense why so many volunteers are drawn to the area. Volunteers are greeted by Volcan Poaz, lush rainforests, Manuel Antonio National Park, Bocas del Toro, sleepy sloths, adorable turtles, and more! There are so many opportunities to volunteer in Central America that volunteers are often blown away by Mother Nature. So what exactly can you do as a volunteer in Central America?

Caroline Edler about to slide with students after a long day of English classes.

Caroline Edler about to slide with students after a long day of English classes. Photo credit: Hillary Hardesty

Nicaragua

You Can Be a Teacher & a Movie Star

Nicaragua is a great area to volunteer with children in Central America. Ometepe Island, for example, is in the the middle of Lago de Nicaragua and home to two volcanos. Many schools on the island seek individuals with English language skills to help teach English to the students, particularly those in elementary school. It isn’t all work and no play though! The children here light up at the novelty and quirkiness of outsiders and beg for your time. You will feel like you are having your five minutes of fame. 

Nicaragua is also one of the few countries in Latin America where the general population favors baseball over soccer, which is more common in Latin American countries. Panama regards baseball in the same way, producing such MLB athletes as Bruce Chen, Manny Corpas, Randall Delgado, and more! 

Where to Lose Your Socks: You can’t miss going to Granada, Nicaragua, the first European city in mainland America. The architecture is astounding; particularly at the Cathedral, where you can climb to the bell tower for an astounding view of the city and more. This is the place to do your souvenir shopping. The markets here are unbeatable and the spirit of the vendors and community are vibrant to match. 

Costa Rica

You Can Release Baby Turtles into the Wild

Costa Rica is home to many of the world’s endangered animal species. Through volunteering in Tortuguero, volunteers can live a luxurious tropical, beach life and wake up to release baby turtles into the ocean. Who wouldn’t melt at this volunteer opportunity? This area of Costa Rica is only accessible by boat and serves as a home to howler monkeys, crocodiles, and many more. It is easy to stay in a tent or find a place to stay on the canal. There are even bars on the docks that are accessible by canoes. Falling asleep and waking up to the sound of howler monkeys is a mesmerizing experience. 

You Can Change a Child’s Life

That might be a bit of a lofty statement, but you can definitely make a difference in a child’s life. Some areas of Costa Rica are so isolated that sometimes there is only one school for the children living there to attend. Due to a lack of resources from the rest of the country, schools are open to having volunteers who are willing to do construction and other manual labor. This is a great opportunity for those who prefer to volunteer with children. One group of volunteers could build a dry and safe path out of coconut shells that would allow the students to walk to school every day, for example.

You Can Open Doors For Adults

Volunteer, Hillary Hardesty at her going away party on the last day of her English class that she had been teaching for three months.

Volunteer, Hillary Hardesty at her going away party on the last day of her English class that she had been teaching for three months.
Photo by Hillary Hardesty

In Costa Rica, the job market can be an incredibly challenging place for older adults. As globalization further impacts how the Costa Rican workplace functions, many older adults who lack computer skills, English language skills, and a stable income may find themselves starting to struggle. Some local organizations are dedicated to helping older adults live fulfilling and meaningful lives by giving them discounted opportunities for education and recreation. Classes instructed by volunteers include English, yoga, water aerobics, and more!

Where to Lose Your Socks: Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in Costa Rica has the beaches that go on for miles. Don’t be surprised as green iguanas sidle up on the rocks beside you to enjoy the sun in your company. Be sure to catch a cab to Rocking J’s, where you can rent a hammock, tent, or room for the night for $10 or less. 

Belize

You Can Give a Family a Home

Belize, although in Central America, is the only country in the region not typically associated with Latino cultures. This makes Belize the oddball of the group, but that doesn’t mean that it is any less incredible. It is the oddball because of its incredibly diverse culture and environment. Locals will tell you that there is no national language or ethnicity and that the country has eight national languages. However, the majority of the people you encounter will speak some version of Creole, along with English and another language. The people here are incredibly polite, helpful, and non-judgmental. 









Students from Saint Xavier University in Chicago stand in front of a house that they built in Belize along with the family who will be living in it.

Students from Saint Xavier University in Chicago stand in front of a house that they built in Belize along with the family who will be living in it.

Although Belize is a popular cruise ship destination with its beautiful coasts and beaches, Belize is home to an unfortunately high level of poverty. Many of them are women with children who have left abusive or unhealthy relationships, but are unable to afford a safe home for themselves and their children. Organizations like Hand In Hand Ministries receive applications from families like these every day and go into the community, with or without volunteer groups, and construct homes so that people feel protected and independent. 

There are also outreach centers to provide services to people who are affected by HIV and AIDS. Many people in Belize remain uneducated about these diseases, resulting in a stigma about the disease, much like the United States did during the late 70s and early 80s. Hand in Hand ministries provides confidential and uplifting services to these individuals during difficult times. 

Where to Lose Your Socks: Caye Caulker in Belize is a must! Witness a beautiful sunrise over the water at this small, local island. Travelers from all over the world come here to enjoy the beauty of the ocean and its beaches. Fall asleep in a hammock by the water as the sound of crashing waves lulls you into the perfect summer nap. 

Guatemala

You Can Help Sustain an Ancient Culture

If you still cannot decide where in Central America to travel and volunteer, look no further than Panajachel, Guatemala for the all-in-one experience. Local NGOs provide opportunities for volunteers to work with disadvantaged children and the elderly, as well as homeless animals and people. For those wishing to expand their administrative experience, fundraising, or campaigning skills, there are office-based volunteering opportunities in Guatemala.

For the nature-lovers, Guatemala has the landscape to leave you breathless. The caves, cliffs, and lagoons are amazing, but the national tourism slogan says it all with “The best part are our people”. 

Where to Lose Your Socks: Livingston, Guatemala is a hidden gem near the Caribbean coast. Don’t get this confused with the town, Livingston in the central part of the country, as this location is only accessible by ferry. This location is one of many homes to the Garifuna culture, where merrymakers and night-owls find home. Find your beat in a dance with the locals and be sure to check out the amazing clothes that accompany these traditional dances. 

Central America is not only a place to help others and the environment, but a place where you can go to help yourself. Volunteering abroad brings a certain degree of appreciation and humility into your life. Although many of these people struggle, their positive and loving attitude radiates in such a way that makes you evaluate how you see your own life.

Volunteering in Central America is a great experience, but don’t feel guilty about taking a day to yourself to explore. Spend a day going to places like Bocas del Toro in Panama or Caye Caulker in Belize to wind down from all of the hard work you have done and feel free to lose your socks!