Linking Mexico to the north with Colombia to the South, Central America is bordered by coastline on both sides, boasts a tropical and fascinating landscape, and retains ancient Mayan ruins in five of the seven Central American countries. From the tiniest country, El Salvador, to the largest of the bunch, Nicaragua, volunteer programs in Central America offer volunteers the opportunity to work in conservation, education, or community development while experiencing the local culture and learning a lesson in humility and appreciation.
Costa Rica is the most popular Central American country for international volunteers, offering a laid-back pura vida lifestyle, friendly locals, and countless opportunities for volunteering in education, conservation, medical care, community development, and more. Since abolishing the army in 1948, Costa Rica remains a peaceful oasis in the midst of the other often turbulent Central American countries, and the centrally-located capital city of San Jose provides a common placement location or home-base for volunteer organizations in Costa Rica.
A strong emphasis on education in Costa Rica has contributed to a literacy rate that ranks as one of the highest in Latin America (95 percent), and the ever-growing tourism industry creates a constant demand for English instruction for students of all ages. Ticos (Costa Ricans) are also extremely passionate about their incredibly biodiverse ecosystem and upholding high standards of environmentalism.
Guatemala. While Costa Rica is ideal for volunteers passionate about the environment, Guatemala is the place for those with a desire to impact the lives of those less fortunate. With over forty percent of the population being of Mayan descent, Guatemala remains the indigenous heartland of Central America. Unfortunately, Guatemala is known for more than its hippie vibe and magical landscape that ranges from Central America’s deepest lake to mountainous highlands.
Its reputation for crime, corruption, and poverty create a significant need for volunteers looking for a rewarding experience. The capital, Guatemala City, is a popular location for volunteer programs in Guatemala focused on teaching and playing with children or caring for abandoned cats and dogs, while outlying rural areas are more common when volunteering in health care clinics or conservation efforts.
Honduras. While the ancient ruins, surfing waves, and snorkeling spots rival any Central American country, Honduras’ poverty rate tops the charts at sixty percent, just barely surpassing Guatemala and making it the most impoverished country in Central America. Additionally, natural disasters and gang activity are two factors volunteers should always get up-to-date information on before departing to any Honduran destination, although volunteers are a readily welcomed addition to the numerous rehabilitation programs benefiting the Honduran economy and local communities. From Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital, to tiny rural villages, volunteers can find volunteer placements in Honduras related to construction, health care, teaching English, and working in orphanages or care centers.
The most common volunteer programs in Central America stem from three consistent themes characterising all seven countries, including: a pristine and biodiverse ecosystem, a high motivation to learn English, and impoverished developing communities.
Conservation. With a over sixteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites combined, the seven countries of Central America are prime locations for individuals looking to volunteer abroad and join various efforts of environmental conservation. Panama has the second largest rainforest in the Western Hemisphere, Costa Rica is a top destination for turtle conservation, and Belize covers over forty percent of it’s land mass by some form of legal protected area status - more than anywhere else in the world. Duties for those who volunteer in conservation may include collecting data, maintaining wildlife areas, assisting researchers, guiding nature walks, and more.
Education. Spanish is the primary language in six of the seven Central American countries, Belize is the one exception with the official language being English. Since English-language skills are highly valued, volunteer teaching in Central America most often involves English-language-instruction in schools, language institutes, or to host families.
Volunteers are also needed to assist in other aspects of education, however, including: helping teachers in the classroom, creating and leading activities, or providing one-on-one tutoring. Individuals who want to volunteer in Central America with disadvantaged children will find the majority of volunteer opportunities in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
Community Development. Compared to North America, the Central American economy is considered impoverished, politically unstable, and lacking developed social and medical care. Community development projects in Central America can range from infrastructure development, caring for abandoned street animals, working at orphanages and care centers, assisting in health care clinics, and more.
When volunteering abroad in Central America, you can generally assume that the up-front program cost will be the most expensive part of your volunteer trip. Not only do volunteer program fees generally include housing and some amount of food and in-country transportation, but the cost of living in Central America is significantly less than that in the U.S. or Europe. Prices will, of course, vary slightly from one country to the next, with Belize and Costa Rica being the most expensive and Nicaragua being the most economical.
The most common accommodation available for individuals who volunteer in Central America is a homestay. Not only are homestays a great opportunity to be more fully immersed in the local culture, but it gives volunteers a chance to practice their Spanish, taste home-cooked authentic dishes, and can lead to lasting friendships.
Volunteer flats or communal housing may alternatively be available, though in more impoverished or rural locations, volunteers should not be surprised if their housing accommodation lacks some basic amenities.
Generally, no special visa is required to volunteer abroad in Central America above and beyond the 90-day tourist visa automatically obtained by all visitors entering the country. However, it is always a good idea to check with your volunteer program provider to make sure the country and type of volunteer work you have chosen does not require additional permits. If you plan to volunteer in Central America for longer than 90 days, renewing your visa may be as simple as taking a trip across the border, or you may need to apply for a new visa, which your volunteer program provider can generally help you with.
- Tropical Climate. While the plush landscape of the paradise that is Central America is breathtaking - the tropical climate can also be very unpleasant for unprepared individuals volunteering abroad in Central America. The wet season is not for the faint of heart and volunteers should pack proper gear.
- Happy and Helpful. Central Americans are a friendly bunch that practice a laid-back lifestyle and are very welcoming of newcomers. Volunteers may be surprised at how quickly they feel at home while volunteering in Central America and will benefit from learning to appreciate the small things and taking a step back to reassess what’s truly important in life.