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Travel South America on a Budget: Teach or Volunteer

August 7, 2011



Interested in traveling to South America, but not in a tour group? Maybe you want to take your time to get to know the continent, or a tiny speck of it.

Many foreigners with a gap year – or at least, a few months – at their disposal want to spend their time using their skills to help others.

Check out these 8 great ways to travel to South America by teaching or volunteering. Please note, these are recommendations only; does not endorse or have any affiliation with any of the organizations mentioned below.

1) Teach English. If you speak English, chances are you can land a job, internship, or volunteer position in just about any corner of South America. Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Lima, Peru, are two of the most popular places for English-teaching jobs, but there are plenty more.

Interested in a specific city? Do a quick search online to see if there are any advertisements for English teachers. Or better yet, visit the city itself and ask around. Even remote cities and towns are looking for English teachers, and not all require certification, although the highest-paying organizations will require it.

Don’t plan on making it rich in South America; many schools will pay the bare minimum, or provide only room and board. Some organizations ask that you pay a volunteer fee.

One unique opportunitiy for teaching English is Intercambio Selvatico, or Jungle Language Exchange. This organization in the Amazon of Ecuador offers teaching volunteerships for those who want a jungle experience and want to teach English to indigenous communities in the Amazon. No certification is required, and only a month-long commitment. There is a volunteer fee.

2) Teach other subjects like math or computer skills. Do you know how to build a website? Are you a professional architect? Lend your knowledge and skills to others in the developing world. Oftentimes positions such as these require basic or intermediate Spanish language skills, so brush up on your Rosetta Stone.

There are scores of organizations that bring together skilled workers to donate time, energy, and resources to the developing world, so you can join in one of those efforts. Architects Without Borders, for instance, joins skilled architects with slum settlements and other building projects.

Or, if you prefer to fly solo, approach an organization on your own and ask if they need a helping hand. Chances are, they do – or know someone who does. The Amauta Spanish School offers volunteer positions in exchange for free Spanish classes and/or room and board. Volunteer opportunities depend on skill sets, including teaching English, teaching computer skills, working on their website, or helping their marketing efforts. They ask for a commitment of 4-12 weeks, and require low to intermediate Spanish speaking skills. Positions are available in Lima and Cuzco, Peru, and in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

3) Work for environmental causes. Passionate about preserving the globe? Or just love being outside? An environmental cause may be the perfect way for you to travel to South America. Hopefully, South American governments will begin to realize that sustainable tourism is an integral part of their economic success, and will be more friendly to environmental causes that promote sustainable tourism.

An ambitious and wonderful environmental cause is already underway in Patagonia, where the owners of the North Face and Patagonia companies have made great strides in restoring the landscapes of wild Patagonia. Conservacion Patagonica, the organization responsible for opening Patagonia National Park, has an internship program as well as a volunteer program, allowing travelers participate in the hard work that is necessary to restoring Patagonia lands.

4) Be a receptionist for a hostel. If you are willing to brave the cold showers, lumpy mattresses, and noisy roommates, consider volunteering in a hostel. Many times hostels are looking for reliable volunteers to check in newcomers late at night. Many chain hostels are not so bad either; the only difference between a hostel and a hotel is the shared sleeping quarters. In return, you get free rent, and sometimes other perks. You should probably be able to speak some Spanish, be willing to do late nights, and stay at least a week, but it all depends on the hostel. Hostel chains like Loki Hostels has volunteer positions in all their hostels in Peru and Bolivia, so you can pick and choose where you want to stay. In return for a few shifts each week behind the bar and the reception desk, you get free rent, free dinner, and discounts on tours and events planned by the hostel. Minimum stay of one month. Loki Hostels also have longer-term positions available.

5) Write for an English-speaking organization. If you know how to put together a good sentence in English, chances are you are employable in South America. Offer your time and expertise to an organization that needs more English content on its website, a better brochure, a social media guru or blogger, or other marketing materials.

There are plenty of English-speaking news organizations, blogs, schools, and travel agencies that are looking for English writers. The South American Explorers Club is always looking for more writerly interns. The club is dedicated to providing affordable services and events for independent travelers. They put on weekly events, Spanish classes, book exchanges, and provide trip reports and maps for travelers. They have offices in Lima and Cuzco, Peru, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Quito, Ecuador. These unpaid internships often include free or discounted rent and free club memberships as well as other perks.

6) Work for a social cause. There are a slew of organizations in South America dedicated to helping the less fortunate. Work with children, impoverished families, communities, and hospitals are always available, and will take anyone willing to lend a helping hand – regardless of whether you can speak a word of Spanish or if you can only commit to a couple of days.

If you can speak the language, and/or have a skill that you would like to share, even better. Whether its a girls sports camp in Cuzco, Peru, or a larger organization building houses for impoverished communities like Habitat for Humanity, there’s probably an opening for you.

7) Join a religious cause. Plenty of churches are looking for volunteers to help them reach out to their communities. Sometimes its helping the church in practical ways, like building a new roof or running a health clinic, or sometimes it just means helping English learners practice their language skills on native speakers. Calvary Church English Service Lima in Lima, Peru, holds an English Camp every summer, and has English speakers from the US visit Peru and talk and hangout with Peruvians, who are encouraged not to speak a lick of Spanish throughout the camp.

Get creative. Something else caught your eye? Maybe its a specific company or just a general interest, but if you can get specific enough about what it is that you want to do while you’re in South America, you can probably find someone or some organization that’s looking for help.

Think about what skill sets you have, and then identify what organizations might need those skills the most. And if the place you’ve got your eye on doesn’t seem to have any volunteer or internship opportunities, don’t be afraid to ask!

A few South America volunteer websites:


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