Nestled between the Pacific Ocean, Colombia, and Peru, Ecuador is an exciting country to launch your volunteer adventure in South America. Volunteer opportunities in Ecuador are numerous, and the types of programs available are diverse, satisfying any skill set you have to offer or are looking to develop. With a tumultuous history full of territorial disputes, colonization, and abundant resource management, today, Ecuador is navigating a more vibrant economy based on exports (like oil, bananas, shrimp, and gold), tourism, and agriculture.
Like an Amazonian River Dolphin, there's no need to wait—let's dive right in. Here's why you should volunteer in Ecuador this year!
1. Great Need.
Ecuador, particularly in recent years, has experienced much heartbreak (here's looking at you, 2016 earthquake), not to mention increasing societal issues facing Ecuadorians. As hosts to the largest population of refugees in Latin America and with limited reproductive rights for women, ample opportunities exist for international volunteer projects in Ecuador.
And that's just scratching the surface. We'd be amiss if we didn't mention the crowded animal shelters, the profuse conservation projects (#didyouknow Ecuador was the first nation to declare that nature has constitutional rights?!), and the orphanages and organizations that support children. These NGOs and small businesses need manos extra to continue the work that's been started.
2. Diverse Opportunities.
Since a variety of volunteers are drawn to the region for a variety of different motivators, it's only fitting that Ecuador's volunteer programs would cater to a variety of interests!
No matter your age, native language, whether you prefer to work indoors or out in the fields, if you identify as a city slicker or Farmer Jane, if you like passionfruit or pineapple, Ecuador has a project for you. You can work on human-facing projects, such as ones that help the elderly, the indigenous groups (there are 14 of them!), women, children, minorities, or offer medical aid. If you're a lover of wildlife, ample opportunities exist with conservation – on land and in water! – for both plants, animals, and those amazing Amazon mushrooms.
So teach English on the beach, track howler monkeys in the rainforest canopy, support clean water projects in rural countrysides, and/or assist an NGO in the thriving metropolis of Quito. We dare you.
3. Accessible Spanish Learning.
Learning a local language will only elevate your international volunteer stint – while Spanish is the official language and is spoken by a majority of the population, 13 Amerindian languages are also recognized, including Quichua. Learning both Spanish AND an indigenous language might be beneficial depending on the location of your volunteer placement.
Lucky for you, Ecuadorian Spanish is unique in it's clarity and lack of irregularities. We recommend all volunteers start their programs with intensive language classes with a private tutor or at a language school – this allows you time to acclimate, put your Spanish to work, and drum up excitement for all of the good work you will do alongside other heart-centered travelers and locals.
Don't miss out on this opportunity to practicar su español in the company of native speakers. Remember: if you feel a little embarrassed talking slowly, missing grammar structures, or forgetting words, it's all in your head. Your new friends will support you on your linguistic journey!
4. It's Affordable.
One of our favorite parts about visiting and traveling in Ecuador is it's affordability – provided you're steering clear of ultra-touristy spots like the Galapagos (hint: if you book a two week trip to the islands, prepare for forking out a hefty hunk of cash). Volunteering in Ecuador doesn't need to empty your accounts; you can easily do it on the cheap if you remember to pack good financial sense. Besides avoiding tourist hot-spots, consider taking public transportation and avoiding American import goods whenever possible. Hang out with your new Ecuadorian friends to avoid price gauging, and don't forget to bargain when you're at the market.
Oftentimes, the biggest costs to volunteering abroad in Ecuador lie in the plane ticket and the program fees. Going through a well-structured program will make fees higher but also provide a priceless support system if you’re a first time volunteer. Get creative in finding means to lessen on-the-ground costs such as food and housing – it might be possible to find work-exchange programs that offer this hospitality in exchange for a few hours work.
5. Weekend Travel Destinations.
With neighbors like Colombia in the north, Peru in the southeast, and the Pacific Ocean to the west, there's no way you'll get bored while volunteering. Take off your work gloves and park the shovel as you explore breathtaking Banos in the Amazon, the quiet fishing villages, and the tropical party-thumpin' beaches on the coast. Would you rather take to the mountains? The nearby Andes – and Ecuador's 28 volcanoes – make for incredible captures from your camera of choice.
Looking to jaunt a little further? The salt flats in Bolivia, Malpelo Island in Colombia, and Machu Picchu in Peru are all very accessible should you choose to travel outside of Ecuador during your time volunteering.
Pro tip: don't be that guy who travels to Ecuador and doesn't straddle the equator. With one foot in the north and one in the south, you're basically invincible.
Where to begin! Like many great nations, Ecuador's culture is comprised of multiple lifestyles and peoples coming together. The longstanding Inca culture was heavily influenced after Spain's colonization in the 1500s. After 300 years of Spanish rule, it's no surprise that nearly 80% of Ecuadorians identify as Roman Catholic. The people are generally quite conservative, as well as superstitious.
Conservative dress is preferred, so leave your booty shorts and sleeveless shirts behind. After all, you don't want to cause a stir in the village when you try your luck at salsa dancing or partake in Carnival!
Ecuadorians loooove fútbol, and it's rare to pass a day without mention of the F.E.F. on TV or seeing a pick-up game being played in the neighborhood. Another favorite pastime of the locals is their national card game: Cuarenta. Grab a new friend and have them teach you – you won't be disappointed.
7. Food! Glorious food.
Let's talk about our bellies (we all know the best way to travel is through your tastebuds). Exotic, tropical fruits like you've never seen before await you – mmm, mangosteen, dragon fruit, and guanabana! If you're feeling adventurous, sample the guinea pig. Classic South American dishes, such as ceviche, churro, and sofrito will make their way to your dinner plate, and you can expect a lot of other Latin American food, like empanadas, on almost every corner.
In Ecuador, the most basic, ubiquitous prepared food is soup. Common starches are rice and taro (grown on the coast), potatoes, corn, barley, and quinoa (from the Sierra), and, in Amazonia, plantains and bananas. Is your tummy grumbling yet?
Despite the obvious differences, there is a sense of familiarity in Ecuador that can help you adjust to life there a little faster. American dollar as the currency aside, people are people, and this universal truth quietly hangs above each interaction that you have in country.
Western comforts aren't too hard to find here. If you're ever feeling like you just need a thick slice of pizza, there's a Pizza Hut to cure your pain. Want to see the latest blockbuster film? Chances are it's playing in theater. Miss JT? It won't be long before you enter a bar and here "Can't Stop the Feeling."
Ecuador benefits from a widespread community of foreign travelers, all eager and openhearted (like you!) to humbly understand the local culture, have some adventures, and leave the place a little than you found it. All these similarities provide a great foundation for life long friendship – you know, the kind that help keep homesickness at bay – and good people to fall back on when culture shock strikes (it's inevitable but powerful, and most importantly, will help you grow).
9. Adventures Galore.
You don't have to be an extreme sports junkie to get in on the action-packed fun in Ecuador. There's plenty of low-budget opportunities in Ecuador, like zip lining or river rafting the Amazon, hiking the gorgeous Andes, mountain biking down Cotopaxi Volcano, or sailing along the coast of the grand Pacific. The hardest part of the adventure may just be choosing one, which means you should probably just try 'em all.
Love more low-key adventures? Walking tours, cooking classes, trips to historic sites, and a quick jungle walk will more than satiate your thirst. Keep your costs even lower by taking public transport and self-organizing your adventures vs. signing up with a tour operator.
But remember: you're in Ecuador to volunteer and help others – don't necessarily get caught up on an adventure-binge and lose sight of your intentions for being there in the first place.
There are some that'll make you want to cry in fear (anacondas), some that will delight and make you giggle (sloths), and some that will just enchant you (birds of paradise!). The animals and endemic species of Ecuador add an exciting layer of wonder to your volunteership south. Colorful geckos, slow-moving tortoises, giant lizards, the KOMODO DRAGON... not to mention jaguars, monkeys, and anteaters.
Tap into your wild side by appreciating the incredible nature that abounds in this verdant country.
Next steps to volunteering in Ecuador
Now that you have the inside scoop, it's time to choose where you want to volunteer, who you want to volunteer abroad with, and what project you will work on! Choosing a program isn't as hard as it sounds, especially if you follow these steps:
Decide where to go. Figuring out where YOU should volunteer in Ecuador is paramount. Have a short list of locations that sound ideal for your goals and skills (i.e. if you don't have experience working with animals, you might reconsider volunteering in a rainforest eco-park). Don't let the piranhas hold you back—choose a place that's right for you.
Pick your project. Common projects for volunteers in Ecuador include animal conversation and teaching English. Do some reflection on what skills and knowledge you bring to the table, and which project would best benefit from your time and energy.
Choose from the best volunteer abroad programs in Ecuador. Pay attention to past participants’ reviews, program/university reputation, location, and how the project's needs match your skills. Some programs may even share contact info for ambassadors or past participants if you want the REAL dirt. Here are more considerations to make as you figure out how to choose the right volunteer program for you. Pro tip: You can use MyGoAbroad to compare programs side-by-side.
Plan your finances. Sort out funding before you go to afford daily essentials and splurge on travel (in addition to program costs and airfare). Be sure to raise a little extra money to donate to the organization that you'll be working with. Learning how to fund your volunteer abroad adventure is essential prior to your travels!
Get prepared! Preparing to volunteer abroad is as fun as it sounds. With the days til departure number dwindling and your excitement boiling, it can be easy to overlook the details. Lean on us to help guide you through your pre-departure process—that's what we're here for.
And that's just scratching the surface of why volunteer in Ecuador
Volunteering in Ecuador is the bee's knees. No, really. Whatever your personal motivation, give back to the global community while exploring the shoulder of South America. Prepare to be wow'd in unexpected ways, to improve your Spanish, to come back with more questions than answers, and to continue fighting the good fight for dignity for all.