Cusco is the epitome of the Peruvian experience. The red roofed city was once the capital of the Incan Empire and is now Peru’s capital of tourism, Spanish language schools, and intricate cathedrals. Lima may be large and in charge, but volunteering in Cusco will make you feel like you are part of the community. It will be easier to meet people and you will have direct access to Peru’s best features with only short bus rides or a good hike.
Projects & Placements
You do not need to know Spanish to volunteer in Cusco, since tourism is so strong here, not only will many people speak English, but they will prefer to speak with you in English so they can practice. Don’t worry, if you are hoping to learn Spanish you will not have a problem practicing in the markets, with locals, and especially in the surrounding area.
Teaching English. There are many volunteer placements in Cusco centered on teaching English. Even if it is not the main event, there will typically be some aspect of English teaching included. You may even teach onsite representatives that are affiliated with the organization you are volunteering in Cusco with. You will have a lot to learn from one another in more ways then one. Most teaching placements in Cusco require a 20 to 30 hour a week commitment and most volunteer opportunities will be with young children or in elementary schools.
NonProfit Support. This can cover the whole spectrum from construction to office work. Nonprofits are typically able to use your skill set and put them to work in some capacity. You could work in web development, construction, or work in a school. This is a great area to be involved with because it is so tailorable. It is a good way to do skilled volunteering abroad in Cusco, which is a growing area in the international volunteering industry. This type of volunteer work in Cusco will also lead to a more applicable way of showcasing your experience on your resume. If you are interested in Project Management, Intercultural Relations, or working in the NGO/nonprofit sector, this is a great way to get started. It is also a good way to get involved with volunteer providers because many hire alumni.
Public Health. Volunteers can work in local clinics helping staff or in schools spreading awareness of good health practices. Areas that are typically covered include hygiene, sexual health, and basic nutrition. These items may seem like common knowledge to Westerners, but these subjects are not included in curriculum in Peru traditionally.
Individuals can volunteer in Cusco for one week to one year, but the average length of stay is around four weeks.
Life in Cusco
A day in the life of volunteer in Cusco will be laid back and adventurous at the same time. Cusco is extremely easy to navigate on foot so you won’t need to rely on public transportation. It is easy to arrange taxis and buses to sites around the area, such as to the ruins of Pisac or Moray which is home to the famous round terraces. Longer bus trips will cost you only a few dollars while you can get a taxi to Pisac for only around $40. It is an all around affordable place to volunteer abroad, with programs that start at less than $200 a week.
There are also plenty of sites within the city too, such as the cathedrals, the Plaza de Armas, and Sacsayhuaman, all of which can be reached by foot and are within 10 minutes walk of each other.
Volunteers will have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but the markets are not top notch. There are very “touristy” markets and the local markets can be a bit dodgy, but still beautiful and fun. Take the opportunity to purchase something made from Alpaca, which feels like a cloud on your skin. You can get everything from Alpaca lined boots, to scarves, to miniature alpacas actually covered in the soft hair.
Cusco is known for its restaurant scene and the flatter street that run off the plaza are filled with places to eat. The plaza itself is lined on one side by cafes, but the other sides are taken by Spanish cathedrals, trekking gear and trinket shops, and travel agencies. It is also popular for its social life which is not kept indoors. The city itself is part of the nightlife. The Plaza de Armas often has live music and festivals.
Accommodation & Visas
There are many hotels in Cusco. The narrow, steep side streets that veer off the Plaza de Armas are lined with accommodations. It is easy to find budget housing, but if you are in need of some pampering and comforts you’ll need to pay a little extra for a soft bed and reliable hot water. Most volunteer organizations in Cusco will arrange your housing or at least help you to arrange it. There may be special group housing for volunteers, but homestays are the most popular arrangement for volunteer programs in Cusco.
American citizens can volunteer abroad in Peru for up 183 days on a tourist visa, so it is a great location for participating in long term volunteer placements. The Customs Agent will stamp your passport upon arrival in the airport and it is basically up to their discretion how long they stamp it for, but they will ask you what you are doing in Peru and how long you plan on staying. It important to have free pages in your passport and be sure it will not expire while you are volunteering in Peru. A good rule of thumb is to have at least six additional months past your planned exit date. Logistics and visa regulations are easy to manage in Peru so you will be able to focus on immersing into the Peruvian culture instead of stressing about your paperwork.
Benefits & Challenges
- Machu Picchu. Volunteering in Cusco mean you are already at the popular starting point for a trip to Machu Picchu. The famous Inca Trail hikes can be arranged from here, but you can also take a train if that’s more your style.
- Community. Cusco is somehow touristy and authentic and modern and historical at the same time. Be sure to spend a great deal of free time wandering up and down the side streets. Many are narrow cobblestoned ways and no two are alike. Some will be filled with fancy restaurants, others dark bars, and still other quaint cafes.
- Spanish Learning Opportunities. If you want to try a more academic and structured setting you’re also in luck. Cusco is bursting with affordable Spanish language schools. Courses will sometimes be included in your volunteer program, but are easy to arrange on the side if they aren’t. Choose from an hour of conversational Spanish with a local or intense all day courses with students from around the world learning from a certified teacher.
- Health & Diet. The Peruvian diet, especially in the Cusco area, is not healthy. Peruvians eat lot of greasy meats and starchy foods. They have survived for centuries on what the high Andean elevation will allow so their diet is basic and sturdy, but not nutritious. Peru continues to make progress in terms of development, but the idea of choosing something to eat based on its health properties is completely foreign to many.