Dreamy beaches, exotic landscapes, and a tropical climate lure countless visitors to the Caribbean region, and volunteers that choose these magical islands as their meaningful travel destination are no less charmed. With a vast range of volunteer projects, including everything from saving sea turtles and preserving volcanoes to coaching kids and building schools, those who volunteer in the Caribbean are sure to learn new skills, meet new friends, and make once-in-a-lifetime memories.
Over 7,000 islands, islets, cays, and reefs make up the Caribbean region, 13 of which are independent countries, and several of which host volunteers programs. The majority of volunteer opportunities in the Caribbean can be found in the four most populous countries, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica.
Cuba. With savory food, colorful streets, and a timeless charm, volunteers will feel like they’ve stepped back into the past while volunteering in Cuba. Since recently lifting half a century long regulations limiting interaction between America and Cuba, volunteer programs in Cuba truly represent a great way to continue mending a strained relationship between these two countries. There are both humanitarian and educational organizations that connect volunteers with volunteer programs in Cuba, which have the ability to increase cultural awareness and insight, and aid in the development and awareness-raising of sustainable agricultural and conservation projects.
Dominican Republic. A blend of African heritage, Latin influence, and diverse geography grant the Dominican Republic bragging rights as a top spot for volunteering abroad in the Caribbean, not to mention the hospitable locals and all-night merengue to boot. Although the booming tourist industry has contributed to the nation’s economy and status as the second strongest economy in all of Central America and the Caribbean, life beyond the beach resorts looks very different for locals in the Dominican Republic. Adequate educational funding, health care accessibility, and standards of living have a long way to go. Medical students can offer aid in healthcare settings, hands-on types can thrive in building projects, those who enjoy working with children can teach or coach local youth, and nature-lovers can make a real difference contributing to the preservation of the country’s natural resources.
Haiti’s African roots, storied past, and vibrant way of life create an alluring combination for volunteer work in the Caribbean. In the wake of the devastating earthquake in 2010, and the consequential improper distribution of resources and lack of governmental stability, Haiti remains the poorest county in the Western hemisphere and is in endless need of volunteers. Those looking to make a real difference in the lives of locals will find humility and a sense of fulfillment by assisting in medical facilities and various community development projects. When choosing to volunteer in Haiti, volunteers should ensure they keep an eye on the news and an ear out for travel warnings that are subject to change as deemed necessary by the U.S., UK, and other national governments.
Jamaica. Laid back but outspoken, the people of Jamaica are truly one-of-a-kind, or, “out of many, one people” as they call themselves in reference to the varied (but majority African) descent of the natives. Though the country’s official language is English, volunteers will get a kick out of the unique accent Jamaicans speak, blending British and American English with a hint of Irish flair. Volunteers with just about any area of interest can find their fit as a volunteer in Jamaica, with options to work in a range of settings, including with children, animals, the deaf community, and even in journalism placements.
Volunteering in the Caribbean
Marine conservation projects are an obvious choice for those interested in volunteering in the Caribbean, thanks to its ideal seaside location). But, there are several other options to choose from and almost any volunteer can find the right fit among volunteer placements in the Caribbean.
Conservation volunteer work in the Caribbean are both vast and varied. Conservation efforts may range from protecting marine wildlife and their ecosystems to processing archaeological sites and preserving natural landscapes. Volunteers may be involved in formal instruction, community outreach, and hands-on work working alongside local scientists and conservation professionals. Typical tasks for conservation volunteers in the Caribbean include, but are not limited to, gathering data, rehabilitating hurt animals and damaged environments, and constructing trails, gardens, and wildlife habitats. An added perk of most marine conservation volunteer programs in the Caribbean is the opportunity to gain PADI SCUBA certification and have plenty of diving time.
Community Development volunteer programs in the Caribbean may be as physically demanding as building a school from the ground up or as abstract as managing the website of a local organization. With countless causes, each with a diverse range of fundraising, outreach, and education programs, it takes hard work to be a successful community development volunteer in the Caribbean; but, volunteers will surely enjoy making a real difference while living the local lifestyle.
Healthcare volunteer placements in the Caribbean are most often found in rural settings, and generally serve underprivileged populations. Infants and children are a key focus of many programs, but volunteer duties may include a range of responsibilities, such as educating locals about safe cooking practices, distributing nutritional supplements, and assisting with basic medical services.
Youth. Education is an especially popular realm of volunteering in the Caribbean, so volunteers that are cultivating their teaching career will find plenty of placement opportunities. Youth volunteer programs in the Caribbean are a never-ending source of excitement for volunteers with any background, whether leading classes, coaching sports, working with special needs organizations, or advocating for children.
It is possible to volunteer abroad in the Caribbean for any amount of time, although about four weeks is pretty typical. The majority of volunteer programs in the Caribbean are open to all participants, although basic knowledge of the local language is extremely beneficial. Some volunteer placements, such as those in clinical healthcare, may require a minimum amount of relevant experience in the field.
Costs & Affordability
The cost of becoming a volunteer in the Caribbean covers a vast range of prices, based upon location, project type, amenities included, and length of stay. Rural projects in less developed countries may run as low as $60 per week for program fees (which doesn’t include airfare), while more popular tourist destinations can ential program fees of up to $550 per week. Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are known as being among the less expensive islands for volunteering in the Caribbean.
Accommodation & Visas
Unlike many volunteer destinations around the world, homestays are not the most common form of accommodation in the Caribbean. When on land, volunteers can generally expect to stay in shared housing specifically meant for volunteers, or other foreign visitors. Housing arrangements may come in the form of apartments, hotels, houses, or lodges, and may include a range of amenities, from the most minimal necessities to a full room-service staff. The type of accommodation volunteers will encounter depends largely upon location; the more urban and more touristy the island is, the more lavish your housing will be.
Since Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are part of the U.S. commonwealth and territory respectively, no documentation beyond an unexpired form of state or federally issued ID is required for U.S. citizens to volunteer in either of the latter countries. A valid passport will be required of all volunteers and often a return flight ticket and/or proof of sufficient funds is also necessary to volunteer in the Caribbean.
Benefits & Challenges
Know The Lingo. Individuals with previous foreign language experience or those who are seeking to gain specific language skills should research ahead of time to ensure their location’s tongue corresponds with their goals. Though numerous languages are spoken across the Caribbean region, the most dominant include Spanish, English, Dutch, Haitian Creole, and Papiamento.
Be Weather Aware. Be sure to check the forecast before departing for your volunteer program in the Caribbean. If traveling during the island’s rainy or hurricane season (June to November), you will want to adequately pack for wet weather.
Enjoy The Extracurriculars. With rich aquatic systems and an exotic landscape, the Caribbean islands offer endless activities for volunteers to enjoy during downtime. Surfing, sailing, snorkeling, kayaking, and hiking are just a few of the adventures volunteers can have during their time in the Caribbean.