Here's why volunteering in Latin America should be your next move. Every day, something happens in Latin America that needs to be addressed. A hurricane devastates an entire island, political instabilities lead to dangerous uprisings, children go hungry and uncared for, animal species get closer and closer to extinction, you name it. Latin America is an amazing region, but it is not without its problems, too. While most people like to view Latin America as a beach paradise (which it is!), anyone slightly more in-tune knows that there’s much more than meets the eye.
You should volunteer in Latin America if you’re driven, aware, courageous, and looking for meaningful adventure. There are some amazing volunteer opportunities in Latin America for any type of person, so as long as you’re willing to step outside of your comfort zone and put in the work, there is definitely a way for you to make a difference in this region. Think you got what it takes to volunteer abroad in Latin America? If you’re here, you probably do!
What makes volunteering in Latin America great
First things first, let’s clarify one thing that always seems to trip people up: What is Latin America exactly? Latin America consists of everything from Mexico down to Antarctica excluding only Belize, Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and the Falklands. So, that leaves a lot of land (and water!) to volunteer in! Because of the massive ground this name encompasses, there’s just as much diversity in the volunteer opportunities as there are in the countries themselves.
While the majority of Latin America is postcard-beautiful and popular among tourists, there are issues in every country, territory, and island that volunteers can address. From sea turtle protection on the Galapagos Islands to teaching children how to read in Mexico City, there’s a need for all types of volunteers here. Whether you’re a volunteer in Latin America going into this with years of experience or you’re a student looking to make a difference during your spring break or summer vacation, you’re needed!
There are so many benefits to volunteering abroad in Latin America, including empowering a local community AND yourself! Any time spent in Latin America is an adventure, so those who are spending their time really down in the weeds are only going to be that much better off. Plus, who wouldn’t want to help friendly, exciting, and grateful communities improve themselves while being surrounded by tropical paradises, vibrant cities, or spectacular natural landscapes?
5 questions to ask yourself first
Start this process by doing some soul-searching and planning. You probably have already considered the basics like logistics and schedule, but what about some of the deeper questions that pertain to only you?
1. Why are you doing this?
This is the most important question to answer before you sign up to volunteer in Latin America. Let’s face it...we live in a world of Instagram-facades and #travelgoals. You can’t escape the constant stream of “look-at-me” content and savior-attitudes. Check out the satirical Barbie Savior if you don’t believe us. Are you considering volunteer opportunities in Latin America because it looks cool and you’re bored, or because you really want to make a difference and Latin America offers something you can’t get elsewhere or do elsewhere? Make sure you’re doing this for the right reasons, otherwise you’re probably better off just taking a vacation.
2. What skills are you bringing to the table?
Self-awareness about your skills is essential to matching you with relevant programs or projects. Even if you’re a student without much work experience, you still have skills and talents that you might not even be aware of that could majorly benefit a community in need.
For example, you don’t need to be a doctor to volunteer in a medical clinic (although the more the merrier!). Are you one of 10 children in your family and know how to administer CPR and treat surface wounds from years of babysitting your rambunctious siblings? These skills can be put to use! Just because you don’t have a degree in something doesn’t mean you aren’t qualified to volunteer abroad in Latin America. Think really hard about all of your capabilities and find a relevant opportunity to make a difference!
3. Are you ready to work?
Even though volunteering abroad isn’t a job, you’ll still be technically working. You will definitely have downtime after the work is done, but you should expect most of your time to be spent contributing to the cause. Despite what the “voluntourism” trend tells you, true volunteering abroad is not a vacation. Your time spent volunteering in Latin America should be productive, focused, and make a difference to more than just you and your social media followers.
4. Are you prepared to enter a culture that’s likely very different than your own?
Volunteering abroad is an excellent way to really become immersed in a different culture, as you’ll be working closely with locals to solve some type of issue together. Cultural immersion is an exciting and rewarding thing, but it’s not without its challenges, too! Especially when you’re working with people who are different than you, there can be cultural and language barriers that you’re probably not aware of, and they will likely surface at the worst time.
Overcoming cultural differences to become friends with someone is one thing, but having to work alongside someone different and accomplish a mutual goal is a whole other beast. You will have to exhibit constant flexibility, open-mindedness, and respect towards your co-volunteers, and always remember that you are the visitor here. You are the one who needs to adapt, not the other way around!
5. Are you prepared to work in a language that’s likely very different than your own?
Understand this as a volunteer, Latin America encompasses a huge area of land and the languages spoken here are just as diverse as the countries themselves. Over 60% of Latin Americans speak Spanish as a first language with the rest broken out between Portuguese, French, and indigenous languages. While most young people in metropolitan areas speak decent English, you’re not going to be able to survive on just English, especially when you factor in that a lot of volunteer programs are based in more remote areas rather than international cities.
Que bueno if you’re one of the lucky ones who already speaks some Spanish, but chances are whatever you learned in high school ain’t gonna cut it. Regardless of how much Spanish or Portuguese you already know, you should be prepared to be at least slightly confused while you’re adjusting to your new surroundings.
Other considerations to make before you volunteer in Latin America
Time to wrap up any loose ends! Be sure to have answers to the following questions before enrolling in a volunteer program:
- Do you have the time to commit? Even if you’re only volunteering in Latin America for a week or two, make sure you’re available to be fully immersed for that week and not constantly disrupted by your flooded work inbox, job recruiters, spouses, etc. It’s all about being able to disconnect in order to really connect and make a difference!
- Do you know the visa situation? Once again, even if you’re only going for a week or so, some countries require all foreign visitors to have tourist visas prior to entering. Do your research so you don’t get sent home before you can help that endangered sea turtle or illiterate child! The same thing applies to passports, country entrance fees, and any other potential entrance hurdles...utilize online resources and when in doubt, talk to someone at the consulate!
- Can you cover your cost of living comfortably? Before you can shout “but I’m a volunteer!” at your screen, allow us to shout back “we know!!”. Even though you’re giving your time fo’ free, you’ll still have to pay for things while you’re there. Most worthwhile volunteer programs have a fee to participate plus costs for accommodations, food, and local transportation. Make sure you’re not assuming this will be a free venture, and if you’re signing up for something that appears to be “free”, it probably is too good to be true.
- Are you confident in the ethics and sustainability of the project you’ve chosen? Not all volunteer programs are created equal, so you need to do your research to ensure that both the program and project are inline with your morals and the true needs of the area. There is nothing sadder than hearing about locals needing to fix what volunteers do...sort of defeats the point, no? The service you’re providing should not be taking a job from a local while also not creating more work for a local. It’s all about solving a problem, not creating more problems for the area!
Next steps to finding volunteer programs in Latin America
Once you’re sure you want to volunteer abroad in Latin America, it’s time to pick a program! Head to our below resources to help you find your dream program and prepare for your time volunteering abroad:
- Our free OnlineAdvisor services will give you a handful of custom program recommendations—it’s like getting your homework done for you!
- Check out our official report of the top places in the Americas to volunteer
- Read our article on how to prepare for volunteering abroad
- Browse ALL of our articles on volunteering abroad
¡Arriba Arriba! ¡Andale Ándale! It’s time to make a difference
These tools are only the tip of the Patagonian glacier, so be sure to do your own research, talk to program alumni, and connect with as many people as you can who have volunteered in Latin America. First-hand knowledge is the most powerful resource you can find, so don’t be shy about connecting with others who have done this already. They will be able to provide you with tips and things to consider better than any guidebook or advisor can!
Volunteering abroad in Latin America is an amazing opportunity that is definitely not for the faint-hearted! You will gain so much from spending any amount of time here, and the communities you help are sure to gain even more. Head to our directory to pick a volunteer program, book that plane ticket, grab your adventure shoes, and enjoy your time in Latin America making a true difference!