Puerto Rico’s imperialized roots have much to do with the nation’s need for volunteers. A continually developing territory of the United States and formerly colonized nation of Spain, the interplay of politics in Puerto Rico has been both turbulent and complicated overtime. With development has come degradation of the natural landscape, and therefore the need for volunteers to assist in the protection of the nation’s fragile natural environment and tropical utopia. Volunteering in Puerto Rico also commonly entails advocating for disadvantaged populations and contributing to the preservation of the nation’s cultural roots that run deep in the soil of Borinquen.
A wonderful location to volunteer in Puerto Rico is in the city of San Juan, where non-profits help to create media that illuminates issues of marginalized communities in Puerto Rico, for example. San Juan is the focal point of the nation, filled with both modernity, as its tourism industry grows year by year, and history, from the authentic narrow streets and brightly colored building to the ancient Spanish fort along the coast. If volunteers want to volunteer in Puerto Rico in an urban environment, it will be difficult to find a better option than San Juan.
Although many community development programs are most often based in larger cities, such as San Juan, this type of program can also take place in smaller local villages where assistance is essential and beyond limited. Volunteer work in the rural areas of Puerto Rico can span from teaching at a local school to providing important health care resources to increasing conservation awareness. While volunteering in Puerto Rico’s rural areas, volunteers will find it is more essential to speak Spanish, however, they will also find that their isolation from other cultural influences in minimal therefore providing them with a more native perspective of Puerto Rican culture.
Volunteering in Puerto Rico
As the weather of Puerto Rico is tropical, programs here take place year-round and there is always work to be done. Volunteer projects in Puerto Rico are focused around three main areas: environmental conservation, community development, and social empowerment.
Environmental conservation projects can take you to more rural and off-the-beaten path locales to invest in conservation of the natural environment across the island. There are many opportunities to get involved helping conserve rich environments, such as the El Yunque rainforest, Vieques Island, Fajardo (home of one of the biobays and Cabezas de San Juan Ecological Reserve), Playa Jayuya, and beyond. While marine conservation is implicit in considering conservation of the natural landscape in Puerto Rico, the island is also home to many other geographies that beg for preservation and recognition. From rainforest canopies to the lush mountains of El Cordillera Central, which runs down the center of the nation, to offshore islands, like Vieques, to the mangrove forests of the coast, from east to west Puerto Rico’s diverse landscapes all require the attention of conservation volunteers.
The environmental issues in Puerto Rico that are addressed by conservation programs and volunteers are often pollution, waste, pesticide runoff that affects the quality of fresh water, soil erosion, contamination, encroachment, and introduction of invasive species. With less than 10 percent of the landscape designated as permanent protected areas, volunteers will provide key help in obtaining protected status for as much of the environment as possible.
Community development programs also help to benefit disadvantaged communities, by implementing projects surrounding things like nutrition, construction, and English language lessons. The issues that bring about a need for community volunteering in Puerto Rico are unemployment and poverty. Due to the recession, many Puerto Ricans have migrated to the mainland U.S., due to the affects the economic downturn has had on housing, business, and education markets in Puerto Rico. Depopulation causes an already challenged market to further slump, as recovering from debts when a population is in decline is nearly impossible. International volunteers help to bring resources to the island, and to contribute to social programs that help bring education, nutrition, and health programs to those in need.
Volunteers may also opt in to cultural activities to help them immerse and learn about the enriching history of this small isle. While Puerto Rico may be a territory of the U.S., its extensive and controversial history is little-known by citizens of the mainland. Learning more about the cultural backdrop is edifying for volunteers, and sheds light on the socio-economic complexities surrounding the need for volunteer programs in Puerto Rico.
Costs & Affordability
As a territory, the currency of Puerto Rico is the U.S. Dollar. Items are similar in price to those in the U.S., however, you are able to get cheap eats in Puerto Rico if you know where to go. Rather than eating at expensive tourist restaurants in Old San Juan every night, venture to the coast for $2 pinchos de pollo, cerdo, or even tiburon (Puerto Rican kabobs of chicken, pork, or even shark). Be sure to ask for the guava sauce! Or frequent a corrugated tin-roofed roadside shack for mofongo, a traditional Puerto Rican dish of mashed plantains stuffed with chicken or pork.
Accommodation & Visas
Accommodations can be expensive in the city, but the best bet as a volunteer is to get outside the city limits. This will allow you to see the true beauty of the natural environment and to get involved in the conservation of it. As well, housing is much cheaper once you leave the urban tourist limits. Some volunteer programs in Puerto Rico include housing, while others allow you to arrange your own. On set environmental programs in Puerto Rico, included housing may be in volunteer houses with shared rooms that are like dorms or may entail camping in platform tents.
For shorter programs, or volunteer programs in Puerto Rico that do not include housing, it is recommended that volunteers say in pareadors, which are usually locally run and frequented by local people. They are cheaper than hotels on the tourist strips of San Juan, and often get you more for your dollar. Another option is to stay in green lodging, such as eco lodges, which are often found in the rainforest or mountains. These can cost more than pareadors but are often in evocative and unique ecological corridors, and follow practices which lead to a small footprint, such as recycling, composting, using solar panels, cooking with gas, using no pesticides, having a strict no smoking policy, and working closely with environmental awareness groups.
Visas are not needed to enter Puerto Rico as a U.S. or Canadian citizen for stays of up to 90 days, and citizens of the UK and most other European citizens do not require a visa to volunteer in Puerto Rico either.
Benefits & Challenges
Language Barrier. In well-touristed Old San Juan almost everyone speaks English, but once you get outside of the city and into the rural island this may not be the case. Safety can be a potential issue and it is a good idea to travel with caution and avoid flashiness, especially if you don’t know Spanish. Dress down and keep your expensive jewelry and gadgets at home, to be both modest and respectful, and safe.
Vibrant Culture. Puerto Rico is an amazing place filled with vibrant sights and a thriving culture all its own, that is informed by the mix of Spanish, African, American, and indigenous elements. Volunteering in Puerto Rico will help you to explore the lesser-known histories, cultures, and environments of the island and to help conserve the nation’s future.