Allowing you to experience the culture of Latin America while making a huge impact in places with limited budgets and resources makes South America a great destination for those looking to volunteer
If you're looking to undertake a gap year and make a positive contribution to society, volunteering is the ultimate rewarding experience. You can give your CV a boost and acquire valuable skills that employers are looking for.
In South America, you'll be able to get involved with all kinds of worthwhile projects and find a specific programme with an NGO (non-governmental organisation) that matches your passion and interests.
As well as voluntary work, there's also the chance to explore this amazing backpacking destination. Here are some examples of popular countries and projects to consider when embarking on a South American trip.
'If you haven't visited South America before, Argentina is the ideal place to start,' suggests Shafik Meghji, co-author of The Rough Guide to Argentina and The Rough Guide to South America on a Budget.
He explains how the eighth-largest country on earth encompasses a remarkable array of landscapes, including deserts and wetlands, beaches and Andean peaks, ice fields and savannah.
Indeed, if you've seen the 2004 biopic road movie The Motorcycle Diaries or Ewan McGregor's travels in Long Way Up, you'll be aware of the beauty of South America, and how it contrasts with the poverty and social issues facing many of the people inhabiting this continent.
For those looking to learn a language and lend their hand to a worthwhile cause, there are a number of benefits. 'Argentina is a great place to learn Spanish and it offers plenty of volunteering opportunities, both of which will prove useful from a career point of view, even if that may not be your focus at this point in time.'
Volunteering projects in Argentina include:
- educating street children in Buenos Aires
- helping to rehabilitate monkeys rescued from the illegal wildlife trade
- offering patient support at a local hospital or clinic
- working with an NGO to help provide emergency housing and basic services to those who need it.
In your spare time, you can sample world-class steak, learn to tango, ride with gauchos, hike across glaciers, and watch the most fiercely contested football match on earth - the Buenos Aires stand-off between River Plate and Boca Juniors (beware of the hostilities between fans). Despite its size, Shafik described how the country is easy to get around and the locals are very welcoming.
Comfortably the largest country in South America, Brazil is renowned for its rich cultural heritage and vibrant cities, not to mention magnificent white sand beaches and tropical rainforest, which are home to some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.
However, despite its standing as a popular destination for tourists, there are still parts of Brazil suffering from extreme poverty - hence the need for volunteers in its sprawling urban areas, as well as those tasked with addressing environmental concerns in the wilderness.
In Brazil, you could find volunteering work by:
- contributing to conservation efforts at a wildlife sanctuary in the jungle, assisting in the day-to-day activities of the animals being cared for - including monkeys, pumas, jaguars and parrots
- teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo
- coaching football in the favelas for at-risk children
- taking up a placement in a childcare centre, supporting orphans and street children as they play and learn.
Read more about what it's like to live and work in Brazil.
Other opportunities to volunteer in South America
- Bolivia - teaching music to children. See 10 opportunities to volunteer with children.
- Chile - if you're contemplating a career as a vet then you could help at a rescue centre for stray dogs and cats in Santiago with South America Inside.
- Costa Rica - living on the beach and monitoring endangered sea turtles. Read more about volunteering with animals.
- Ecuador - getting involved in a wildlife rescue project in the Amazon rainforest.
- Galapagos Islands - volunteer in Galapagos by planting trees, tending to tortoises and getting involved with other conservation work on the island of San Cristóbal.
- Peru - getting hands-on and assisting with a construction and renovation project in Cusco.
How to volunteer
While you could organise your own South American travel and programme directly with an NGO, you'll find that gap year and work abroad organisations that cater to UK students run structured schemes that simplify the process.
Generally speaking, programmes are offered all year round, but students may wish to focus on the summer months when there's a break from university. As for the duration of a particular project, two weeks is typically the minimum and you could be working for up to three months, depending on the scheme chosen.
Popular volunteer project providers and portals include:
- BUNAC - offers volunteering options in Ecuador and Peru, with programmes lasting 6-12 weeks and costing £2,000 for meals, accommodation and training.
- Gap360 - add wildlife conservation, learning to speak Spanish or teaching English in Costa Rica to your gap year itinerary. Most courses last between two and eight weeks.
- GoAbroad.Com - search for international travel programmes by opportunity and country. You'll also find useful information on each destination.
- Go Overseas - browse the volunteer listings for areas of interest. If you're looking specifically to teach, you can search TEFL courses in South America.
- International Volunteer HQ - a New Zealand-based organisation with options across South America for native English speakers. Programme fees are from as little as £225 for one week of volunteering, up to around £3,000 for six months.
- Kaya Responsible Travel - you can volunteer in Latin America as part of a gap year or select an internship project in countries such as Costa Rica and Ecuador. The cost of programmes vary, but it would be £1,420 for a minimum of two weeks volunteering in Brazil.
- Volunteering Solutions - if you're just looking to test the water you could do a one or two-week stint with options to teach disabled children or work in a healthcare clinic.
While the project fee may include local training, in-country assistance and any internal transport pick-ups, unless specified, it usually wouldn't cover the cost of flights, insurance and visas.
South America travel advice
Many of those choosing to undertake a gap year decide to continue exploring the continent once they've finished the programme. If you're contemplating travelling around South America, it's important to heed any relevant safety advice - see our gap year safety tips.
Some parts of these countries may suffer from high crime rates, you may need to be wary of walking alone at night, and unlicensed taxis. However, if you take the right precautions for specific destinations, and do your research on GOV.UK - South America, there should be no need to worry.
Find out more
- Discover what you need to know about teaching English abroad.
- Explore taking a gap year and working overseas.
- Read the travel advice offered by Lonely Planet.