Why You Should Consider Volunteering in South America

by Andreas Sampson Geroski

There are some tough decisions in life. Should you spend your time working with disadvantaged young people, supporting vital health programmes or conserving fragile ecosystems, all the while learning new skills and gaining valuable experience that will help your future studies and career? Or should you spend your time trekking the Inca Trail, exploring the Amazon, lounging on golden beaches, discovering vibrant cities and exploring the wilderness of the Andes and Patagonia?

South American indigenous girls laughing
Two girls at one of our projects that helps young women from indigenous or rural communities access education.

These aren’t your usual life decisions, but these are the real choices you’ll need to make if you plan on volunteering in South America. But, if you aren’t quite convinced becoming a volunteer in South America will be beneficial for you, read on to find out some of the most important benefits of volunteering in South America.

Living in a country is the best way to explore it.

For me, I was looking for a break from the 9 – 5. After working for a few years in London, I was ready to explore the world, but I didn’t want a massive gap on my CV that just said “traveling.” Having traveled before, I was also very aware that traveling through a country may give you a snapshot of the culture, history, and people, but it only gives you a very sheltered and superficial knowledge of a country.

It’s not until you live and work in a country do you really come to understand and appreciate it.
Girls hiking in Cusco, Peru
Two of our volunteers walking to a project on the edge of Cusco that provides a home for vulnerable, at-risk boys.

Sure, you can do Machu Picchu or explore Lake Titicaca, but you probably won’t hear about the all-night festival in a remote Andean village or the unspoilt mountains you can trek through that are only accessible in the back of a pick-up truck. It’s not until you work side by side with the local people through volunteering in South America that you will really come to appreciate them and their welcoming and friendly nature.

It presents the perfect opportunity to learn the language.

Whether it’s Spanish or Portuguese, or a local indigenous language, like Quechua, many volunteers use their time in South America to polish their language skills, or even learn a new language from scratch! There is no better way to learn a language then to live in a place where it is spoken 24/7, where you have to rely on your skills in the new language even for the most basic interactions, like buying your lunch!

My Spanish improved beyond recognition just through living in a place where it was the default language. There are also endless language schools or language exchanges to help with the finer points of grammar, or to really understand when to use the subjunctive tense, which you can take classes at while volunteering in South America. 

Young South American woman
One of the young women at a project that provides a home for young women and their children who have been victims of abuse. She is working in the projects social enterprise, making high quality leather goods.

You’ll learn new skills and boost that CV of yours.

There’s no getting around it, working in a new culture and environment is a massive shock to the system. Whilst I am use to formal work meetings with agendas and formal introductions, business is just done differently in other cultures. You will be taken way out of your comfort zone as a volunteer in South America, and that’s a good thing. An employee that has learnt to work in different cultures, in often tough conditions, will always be sought after. My experience volunteering in South America has been a massive boost to my CV, just by being able to say that I have worked in different cultures.

Volunteer experience in South America will teach you new approaches to work and how to cooperate with a wide range of people. 

My organisational skills have been massively improved too, just through trying to sort out everything when I arrived. It’s no easy feat to find a new apartment and settle into a new job and city all at once, and all in a different language! You’ll also come to rely on your initiative as a volunteer in South America. There’s always more work that charities can do, so having a can-do, go-getting attitude will massively help not only the charity you work with, it will mean that you can take on new responsibilities too. The new skills that I’ve learned are too numerous to list in one single article.

Young girl raising her hand in a classroom
A girl at one of our projects that helps young women from indigenous or rural communities access education.

You will also pick up new skills in whatever area you volunteer in, from education to conservation. Though I was helping out with social enterprises during my time volunteering in South America, I learned new skills surrounding business development and marketing, which are all skills that really help my CV stand out. These types of skills make working abroad an invaluable career boost, and not just for those seeking a career in international development. My volunteer work in South America helping budding social enterprises has set me up to apply for jobs in a range of industries.

There will be no shortage of daily excitement

Possibly the most rewarding aspect of volunteering in South America is the daily excitement! Instead of coming home from work and collapsing in front of the TV, you can come home from work and immerse yourself in the local culture. Whether that means heading off with your new found friends to a local music festival or trying out tasty restaurants serving platter upon platter of local cuisine, there are always exciting new adventures to be had for volunteers in South America. Even doing your shopping can be exciting, as you explore markets and haggle to get the best prices for your seemingly exotic fruits and vegetables!

With most volunteers choosing to explore more of their host country during the weekend, or after their volunteer program is over, you won’t miss out on the traveling you were aiming for, and your newly developed language skills and knowledge of the country means you will be able to explore places well-off the beaten tourist track.

Young women completing a worksheet together
Three girls laughing at a project that helps young women from indigenous or rural communities access education during one of the educational workshops that LAFF hosts for them.

Volunteering in South America truly does give you the best of both worlds. Whether your motivation is to discover new places, progress your career, or challenge yourself, volunteering in South America will be an experience you will look back on with nostalgia and wonder.

Find an opportunity to volunteer in South America now!

This article was contributed by Latin American Foundation for the Future, a charity focused on helping marginalized youth in Peru.