Roughly the size of Massachusetts, El Salvador is a small country with a lot of big things going on, providing a number of opportunities to volunteer in El Salvador. Juxtaposed with its scenic landscape of over 300 rivers, El Salvador is currently experiencing a number of social problems, which unfortunately includes gang violence. Since the end of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1992, there have been many periods of fluctuating violence throughout the country. Although this has detracted from the influx of international tourists, it acts as a call to action for those looking to volunteer abroad in El Salvador, especially those interested in social welfare projects.
There are two main mountain ranges in El Salvador that comprise about 85 percent of the country, which meet in the middle to create a central plateau. The central plateau is where the capital city of San Salvador is located, along with its neighboring cities. The remainder of the country is referred to as the Pacific lowlands. There are a handful of major towns and cities across the country, so it is possible to volunteer in El Salvador in a number of locations.
San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, is also the largest city in the country and provides the largest number of volunteer opportunities. The most common types of volunteer placements in San Salvador include public schools, family shelters, and orphanages. Volunteering in San Salvador is the best way for volunteers to positively affect communities in the most significant way, based on the sheer number of people living within the city. The city of San Salvador is small geographically, roughly 28 square miles, but it is dense, with a population of over 570,000 people.
Santa Ana is the nation’s second largest city, and is home to many teaching volunteer opportunities. Santa Ana is much more spread out than San Salvador, but has a much smaller population. The city is surrounded by a number of mountain ranges that give way to more rural areas. The top industries in the city are retail and manufacturing, specifically the processing of coffee beans. Santa Ana is in close proximity to some national parks and small rural towns, allowing volunteers to get the best of both an urban and rural environment.
There are also many opportunities to volunteer in the rural areas of El Salvador. These towns are typically fairly spread out from one another, and located within mountainous regions, making for a very secluded volunteer experience. Placements, such as farming and agriculture, not typically found in the cities are more commonly available in rural areas, but programs run on a much smaller scale. Volunteering in El Salvador’s rural areas will give volunteers the chance to create more personal relationships with locals and immerse more fully in a local community.
Volunteering in El Salvador
The most popular kinds of volunteer placements in El Salvador typically involve working with youth, and their families. While it can be difficult to attempt to fix the current political and social problems faced by citizens of El Salvador, volunteers can truly help build a better future for the nation by providing assistance and development programs for youth. Through working with Salvadoran youth, you will have the chance to serve as a role model and provide them with valuable life lessons.
In addition to teaching English, and helping families through various social welfare programs, some volunteer programs in El Salvador incorporate recreational activities, such as surfing and other sports, to help build strong relationships between volunteers and local youth and instill confidence and other life values. Aside from community development related placements, there are also volunteer programs in El Salvador that focus on conservation of the natural environment and wildlife of the country.
Volunteer programs in El Salvador typically last for only a few weeks, but can extend as long as two to three months, depending on the placement and organization. Although Spanish is not a requirement to volunteer in El Salvador, some proficiency in Spanish will make your time traveling around El Salvador much easier. While English is taught in most public schools, the country does not receive nearly as much American tourism as some of its neighboring countries, greatly reducing their opportunities to practice the language.
Costs & Affordability
The cost of living in El Salvador is very affordable compared to most developed nations around the world. A meal can cost less than $5 at an inexpensive restaurant and less than $15 for a full three-course meal at a mid-range restaurant. Monthly rent is also significantly less than in most American cities; the average monthly rent for a one bedroom apartment is about $325 in some of the nation’s larger cities and even less in more rural areas. On the other hand, imported items, such as gas and clothing items, can be more in line with American prices.
Accommodation & Visas
Living arrangements are typically provided by each volunteer program provider, either by offering assistance in finding housing or supplying volunteers with pre-arranged housing. It is common for volunteers to stay in a hotel or dorm with fellow volunteers or program leaders. But homestays are also popular, and provide volunteers with the most authentic glimpse into the local way of life and a great opportunity to expand Spanish language skills.
Those who decide to volunteer in El Salvador will need to purchase a tourist card from immigration officials for $10 upon arrival. The tourist card is valid for 90 days, so anyone wishing to stay for longer than 90 days must obtain a work visa from an El Salvadoran embassy prior to departure from their home country.
Benefits & Challenges
Safety. Due to the political unrest that El Salvador has experienced since the recent civil war, crime and violence can be unpredictable. While the country does receive and welcome international tourists and volunteers, it is by no means a commercial tourist destination. That being said, it is best for those who volunteer abroad in El Salvador to exercise common sense, listen to the advice of local program coordinators, and attempt to blend in and respect the culture as much as possible.
Cultural Isolation & Discovery. Being that El Salvador is less saturated by tourism than some of its neighboring countries, volunteers with definitely feel isolated from their own culture; but as soon as they warm up to the local customs and traditions, they will feel more than welcomed by the local people, who are both friendly and gracious.