Why do you travel? Is it merely to escape the routine of your daily life? To bask in awe before the planet’s most humbling spectacles? To learn about foreign people and places? Or do you simply crave the challenge of carving leathery chicken into masticable bites with bendy airline cutlery?
If your goal in traveling is to experience and understand countries and cultures different from your own, your best bet is to immerse yourself in a native community for a time. Participating in a short-term volunteer project can be an excellent way to get to know the people and customs of a particular area. (If you read the preceding sentence and thought, “I go on vacation precisely so that I don’t have to patch a roof or dig a well,” then perhaps voluntourism isn’t for you. No worries. For all others, please read on…)
There are a couple tiers of organizations that coordinate volunteer work abroad. The first tier comprises companies that offer travel packages including both sightseeing and working on local projects — in education, medicine, disaster relief, and elsewhere. Packages tend to be a bit expensive, but most of the money you spend ends up in the country you visit, and the price covers your transportation, food, lodging, etc. One of the most widespread is Hands Up Holidays, where you can find projects of varying lengths in over 30 countries. Others include socialtreks and people and places, and if you fall into the better-than-50 age group, check out SAGA.
The second tier is cheaper; it consists of networks of information on volunteering in particular areas, but you find the volunteer opportunities and organize the trip yourself. Visit True Travellers for heaps of information and discussion forums on voluntourism around the globe. And here’s an excellent website specifically for opportunities to volunteer throughout South America.
If you have any experiences in voluntourism you’d like to share, we’d love to hear about them.