Volunteering is something Iain and I spent hours painstakingly researching when we were preparing for our trip to South America. The obvious questions for us were: what type of volunteer project should we choose, where should we volunteer, and how should we begin organising our volunteer trip? It was a daunting task deciding where, not only, to donate our time, but also our money from the thousands of projects out there on offer.
How to choose a type of volunteer project?
For us working at an animal rescue centre, an orphanage/school, a construction project, or teaching English were all considerations. And really we made the final decision by being brutally honest with ourselves. What would we enjoy most and what type of project would we get the most out of? To all the selfless do-gooders out there, this might all sound a bit me me me, but really you need to be enthusiastic about a project to do any good.
The reality for me was: I wasn’t sure I was physically fit enough or skilled enough to be part of a construction project 24/7. Also having never worked with children before I couldn’t promise myself that after a week or so a group of them wouldn’t drive me crazy. I love kids but usually kids that I can look after for a few hours and then give back to their parents. An after our episode with Tannat the stray dog we picked up in Argentina, I’m sure you can appreciate why working with animals became the focus of our efforts. Choose something you love and you and the project will both be happy with your work there.
How to begin organising your volunteer trip? Cutting out the middleman.
When beginning our search online it was easy to be lured in by the glossy websites or middlemen offering “life changing experiences” all over the world. You’ll know ones if you’ve begun by typing “volunteer abroad” into Google. Tempting as the pictures of volunteers holding turtles or the close-up shots of jaguars seemed at first, with prices way over £1000 for 2 weeks these projects were an unrealistic option for us. Despite these companies promising pre-departure support and local orientation on arrival we like many had to question what justified these prices. From a little research and speaking with projects that had once been involved with these companies, usually only a small portion of what the volunteer pays actually goes to the project itself.
True or not, why would you pay £1000 when you can pay a tenth of that for virtually the same experience? We chose a project were we paid a little under £100 for 2 weeks directly into the hands of the project. For that our food and accommodation were included as well as a donation for materials for the project. And to top it off we didn’t have the nagging question in our minds as to what our money was actually paying for. The organisation was upfront about all the costs involved with the project and we could see exactly where our money went.
How to find the free/cheap volunteer projects?
Having ruled out going through ones of the large companies, we had to search a little harder to find and contact the projects themselves. Unfortunately it’s not as easy as adding “free” or “cheap” to your original query in the search engines. The commercial middle-mans still appear…£1000 is cheap in some peoples definitions apparently?! We luckily stumbled across this website which proved invaluable for our search in South America.
Anything but glossy, this basic website offers a list of “grassroots” volunteer projects throughout South and Central America. Simply web-links but it allows you to contact the projects directly yourself.
Not travelling to South America? Don’t worry these websites/lists do exist for your chosen destination; you just have to be a bit more creative with your search. I suggest searching for “lists of free volunteer projects in …” or “volunteering aboard for free blogs”. For most travelling and backpacking, blogs and first hand advice are a vital source of information. Likewise when you’ve narrowed down your choice of project it is worth searching for a few blogs written by people who have actually volunteered there. They might simply have useful advice about getting there or what to pack but they may also help you avoid less authentic, money grabbing organisations.
Which volunteer project should I choose?
As I said before reading blogs on the projects can be really helpful, but here are a few of other tips for choosing the right project.
Read the websites – sounds simple but get as much information out of the website as possible. Read all the information available but don’t be afraid to contact and ask for further info if you cant find what you need. Reading newsletters and updates from the projects can be very reassuring.
Contact multiply projects – I’m not saying email them all, keep to those within your chosen field, but it’s a good idea to contact a few as they may not all have availability for your chosen timeframe. Also a friendly, enthusiastic email response from a real person goes along way to cementing your decision to volunteer. We emailed multiple projects but it was Olivia’s quick, personable response that ensured we were on the next plane to Esperanza Verde.
Talk to other travellers – if like us you were already on the road when you were finalising your decision of where to volunteer, other backpackers can be an excellent source of information. They might for example know of smaller/start-up projects that perhaps don’t have a web presence yet.
Use social media – you will find lots of projects have a Facebook page or perhaps a group set up by ex-volunteers. Most of the projects wont be on review sites, such as Trip-advisor, but it’s always reassuring to reach out to a few ex-volunteers if possible.
There are thousands of projects out there, offering all sorts of different work as a volunteer. Research your project carefully; ensure you know what will be expected of you as a volunteer and what you will get in return. You don’t need to pay a lot of money to have an amazing and fulfilling time. Nearly all the volunteers I have met, whether they volunteered for 2 weeks or 2 months have come away with an unforgettable experience. Good luck with your search and do contact us if you would like any further help or advice.
Although this blog post was created to help you choose volunteer project in any field, but if like us you have an interest in animals you can read more about our experience at Esperanza Verde here or watch the video below.
If you are interested in volunteering with animals in South America then check out our new video about life at Esperanza Verde in Peru. Esperanza Verde is an Animal Rescue Centre and Reforestation Project in the Amazon Basin. It was started 5 years ago and is home to an array of animals. It was also home to us for the past 9 months and we hope this video will give you an idea of what kept us there so long. Sorry for the lack of blogs recently but hopefully this makes up for it.
So if you’re asking yourself “where can I volunteer in South America?” then look no further…
Life wouldn’t be life at Esperanza Verde without its resident monkeys. And not a day goes by when one of them doesn’t get up to some sort of mischief.
Within a few days of arrival we got used to the feeling of being watched. Whilst the monkeys enjoy the freedom of the jungle their favourite past time is watching us.
They stare in fascination as you go about your daily activities and watch in wonder through the wire mesh as you work with the animals in cages.
Every morning we woke up to Nakoya, a baby woolley monkey, hanging above our heads peering through the wire mesh window. She liked to watch us sleep and made little “oh, oh” noises when we’d stir and look up at her…
Watching us prepare the twice-daily food rounds was the best viewing…
But even just watching us read in a hammock was worth hanging around for…
Though when our jobs cause us to venture outside the monkeys will often be found “helping”. As we sweat in the midday sun, digging, raking or swinging an axe, Willow particularly likes to be involved. It’s a tough life being a monkey.
A quick task of cleaning the drinking bowl attracts Willow’s help yet again…
And a simple photography session turns into me gaining a student; Nakoya just couldn’t resist seeing what my fascination was with this strange black box…
If the monkeys aren’t “helping” then it’s fair to say they probably entertaining us all. Mica wearing a discarded t-shirt and walking on her hind legs was unforgettable. Just like when she stole as many of the oatballs she could get her hands on…cue a bit of face stuffing…
One evening at dinner the subject of the monkey drinking bowl came up in conversation. After a few minutes it transpired between us we had refilled the bowl an astonishing 15 times in one day. Fearing there may be a leak we kept an eye out the next day and found the culprit…
Turns out Geordie, one of the capuchin monkeys, had found the sink plug and was proudly showing off his work to Mica.
But even with the sink plug firmly jammed in, Mica was splashing out the water to empty it…I like to think she was giggling at our stupidity every time…
So at times the monkeys ran rings around us, but life just wouldn’t be the same without them…even when they steal your shoes and eat them. They’re charming, annoying, adorable all at once and sometimes you’d be convinced they were plotting their next mischief…
In the last few months we had considered many times taking a break from life on the road and volunteering, preferably with animals. Finding ourselves in the South American city of Lima and asking ourselves the question “what shall we do next?” it seemed like the prefect time.
We found Esperanza Verde online, loved the sound of the project and pretty much jumped on the first plane to the jungle. When we arrived we fell in love immediately.
Esperanza Verde is a Wildlife Protection Centre based in the Amazon Basin. It is currently home to an array of rescued native animals and the numbers are ever increasing. It was started 5 years ago by Olivia and Douwe, and with the help of their 2 children and an army of volunteers over the years, they have created something pretty special in their little patch of jungle.
Day-to-day life varies and there is never a dull moment. The jobs range from feeding the animals, helping with the construction of new cages, carrying sandbags to assisting with veterinary work. It was rare that 2 days of the week would ever be the same as there is always a new job that crops up to keep you on your toes. Like bathing some baby squirrel monkeys for example…
But of course a day doesn’t go by at Esperanza Verde without spending a good part of it with all the adorable animals. We hope to introduce you to a few more of the residents over the next few weeks but here’s just a handful that stole our hearts.
Here is the resident sloth, Elmo. Raised from a baby and free to come and go as he pleases, the lure of a few carrot sticks and sliced sweet potato keeps him hanging around in the nearby trees.
This is Nakoya the resident baby female Woolley Monkey. Along with Willow and Kamari the two male Woolleys, she enjoys the freedom of the jungle but is always hanging around ready to enjoy her milk three times a day.
And this is the lovely Rincay, a tapir with rare blue eyes. He used to have the freedom to roam but unfortunately kept roaming as far the local village and eating peoples clothes off the washing line. Fearing for his safety he now shares a large enclosure with Pepito, a tortoise, but still enjoys eating the volunteers t-shirts when they are not paying attention…
The aim is with most of the animals to release them back into their natural environments but for a few this isn’t a reality. Many of the monkeys enjoy the safety of the nearby jungle but never roam far from the feeding table. Whereas some, like the Macaws, whose wings are broken and therefore cant fly, must instead enjoy life in the large aviary. But with ample food they happily shout “Hola” as we go about our daily work.
When we weren’t doing all of the above you’d often find us on the construction site for Olivia and Douwe’s house. (They have spent 5 years camping in the volunteer house, poor things!) In just six weeks it was amazing to see the house begin to take shape, going from mere foundations to a structure with floors, a few walls, a roof and a working sink! Before we arrived an Ikea wardrobe was about as far as my construction skills went…but now sawing wood, sanding and (badly!) hammering in nails is all part of day-to-day life.
Life is basic but in our eyes bliss. You’re kept fit and healthy running around after all the animals, the food is local, fresh and plentiful and there’s often a campfire and a few cocktails in the evening. So if you’re thinking of volunteering but not sold on the animals alone, you’ll be sold on the people and the lifestyle.