There are so many decisions to make when wanting to volunteer abroad. The most important ones are deciding where to go and to pick a program that suits your interests but makes an impact where it’s needed. Peru is the ultimate destination for volunteers, and there is a never-ending demand for them. You could be educating children in one of the historic cities, working toward the conservation of wildlife in the Amazon Rainforest, or providing healthcare for those in need in the Andes Mountains. Peru contains a plethora of unique opportunities across its spectrum of environments.
Steeped with a history tracing back to the Incan Empire, Peru’s rich cultural traditions are prominent throughout the country. Volunteering in Peru is perfect for someone wanting to practice and learn Spanish because there are many opportunities for immersion. You may even pick up some Quechua (an indigenous language) phrases and words!
During my time volunteering in Peru, the most valuable aspect of my program was the impactful hands-on experiences. We were educated on native herbalism, the existing environmental and political situations, and the culture and traditions of Peru and its ancestors. In ten years, I could visit the farm we volunteered on and see we made an influence--and that is the beauty of volunteering. Peru is an astounding country; its landscapes are alluring and serene, the cuisine is vibrant and authentic, and trekking in the Andes is breathtaking (literally and figuratively!).
There is bound to be a perfect fit for every volunteer. Discover the best places to volunteer in Peru, where the need for help is most, and the diversity of experiences the country offers, especially in areas of health, social issues, youth development and education, community development, and environmental conservation.
#1 - Lima: The Capital, The Garden City
If you’re looking for excitement and the constant bustle of life, Lima is the perfect place for you. This capital city is one of South America’s busiest cities and makes it a diverse spot for any volunteer. It’s a prime location for trying local Peruvian cuisine, like Pisco, the national drink, or ceviche, a seafood dish.
This coastal city is rich in culture and history. The Plaza Mayor is home to the Lima Cathedral, Government Palace, and the Aliaga House, or the oldest house in the Americas. You can spend time learning about Peru’s pre-Columbian and Inca history through its many museums and churches. The Larco Museum is home to a collection of 3,000 years of cultural artifacts, including erotic archaeological finds not destroyed by the Spaniards. The Church of San Francisco is famous for its catacombs, the burial place of an estimated 75,000 exposed bodies for visitors to look at.
Lima has a bit of something for everyone. There is Miraflores, one of the more affluent districts, bursting with parks like El Malecón, a six-mile cliff walk and an opportune spot to learn surfing. Barranco is an artsy neighborhood, known for its romantic and bohemian-esque feel, while the Surquillo district is home to the Boulevard of Gastronomy, perfect for the food lover.
When you need a break from the constant activity, hop on a bus to escape to quieter destinations. You can spend time relaxing at Huacachina, the only oasis in the Peruvian desert. If you’re interested in historical mysteries, go south of Lima to catch a small plane ride over the Nazca Lines, giant geoglyphs etched into the desert. Paracas is a great destination for the nature-lover with its beaches and nature reserve. You can also take a boat tour around the “poor man’s Galapagos,” or Islas Ballestas, home to penguins, sea lions, and many native birds.
What makes Lima great for volunteers is the diversity of its projects and the strong desire for volunteers from NGOs and local communities. Depending on the program, volunteers may be able to live with a host family or in a volunteer house, giving them an immersive Peruvian experience. Organizations are always looking for volunteers to teach and educate, to assist with at-risk children, and to help empower girls and women. Some offer unique opportunities like building educational and community facilities, or are seeking specific individuals like health care professionals, so be sure to browse through them all!
#2 - Arequipa: The White City, “Rome of South America”
Maybe the constant go-go-go of Lima isn’t for you, but you’re still looking for a city brimming with diverse opportunities, cultural history, and stunning sights. Search no further than Arequipa, located in southern Peru. Many of the buildings are built with volcanic white rock, dubbing it the White City. This historical city is known for its beauty, local cuisine, and its surroundings of snow-capped volcanoes.
The Plaza de Armas is a great location to awe over the historical buildings. Colonial churches, like the 17th century Arequipa Cathedral and the Iglesia de la Compania, are aplenty within the city. The Monasterio de Santa Catalina provides insight into the 16th-century lives of Catholic nuns. While exploring the city’s museums, the Museo Santuarios Andinos is a must-see. It is the final resting place of the “Ice Maiden,” a discovery named by Time Magazine as one of the World’s Top Ten Discoveries of all time. A young Inca girl’s body was found on Mount Ampato in 1995 and is thought to be a sacrifice during a ritual offering to the gods around the 1450-80s.
Because of its proximity to the border, Arequipa is a prominent location for volunteers wanting to explore neighboring countries, like Bolivia and Chile. It’s also a prime spot for trips to the famous Lake Titicaca, and to visit its floating islands and preserved ruins. Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world, is breathtaking, and you can watch for condors flying overhead. There are many trekking and climbing opportunities throughout the surrounding volcanoes (some active!), including El Misti (5,822m). But for those looking for something less extraneous, there are plenty of smaller hiking opportunities with stunning views around the city.
Arequipa is another city in need of volunteers focusing on education, health, and children. Teaching English or assisting in daycares are aplenty in this city. You can also help empower women and children, participate in a unique nursing internship, and escape into a more rural life with this school project. Be sure to check out all the programs to find the one for you in this beautiful city.
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#3 - Cusco & the Sacred Valley: Home of the Inca Empire
Cusco is the Capital of the Inca and a hub for NGOs and local communities seeking volunteers. This well-traveled city has an immersive rich history within its Puma-shaped design. Along with the markets and street vendors sprawled throughout the city, there are unique spots to visit in Cusco and the surrounding Sacred Valley.
San Pedro Market, an open-air market, is a must for their fresh produce and other foods. Cusco is the perfect place to give cuy a try, the Peruvian guinea pig delicacy. Visit the Cusco Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas for a different take on The Last Supper featuring cuy. Providing history and culture during the day, the Plaza de Armas transforms with the nightlife to an active bar scene.
Interested in the history of the Inca Empire? Be sure to find the “Twelve Angled Stone,” a historical artifact located near the center of the city, and to visit Qoricancha, or the Temple of the Sun, for a glimpse into the Inca lifestyle. Sacsayhuaman is an ancient Inca site located near Cristo Blanco (a massive statue of Christ overlooking the city). You can learn about the Inca astronomy at the Cusco Planetarium and gaze at the stars from a high elevation.
Pisac is a great day trip from Cusco. A small village with its own individual market and nearby ruins, it’s worth the trip out. You can also purchase pink Peruvian salt at its source in the nearby Salt Pools.
Machu Picchu, one of the wonders of the world, is a must-see destination when volunteering in Cusco. Take a day trip or for something more strenuous, follow in ancient footsteps by trekking the 26-mile Inca Trail to the ruins. Within the Sacred Valley, there are other, less-extensive hikes to behold the beauty of the Andes and the lakes within. The Rainbow Mountains is another longer trek for the adventure-seekers.
There is an abundance of volunteer opportunities in Cusco and the surrounding area, especially those with a focus on poorer communities. Teaching English, educating children and women, health care, the environment and animal care, and construction and renovation are some of the opportunities available. There are unique projects for aspiring dentists, archaeologists wanting to discover ancient history, and ego-agriculturists interested in sustainability and traditional medicines.
#4 - Huancayo: The City Less Traveled
Volunteers looking for a quieter place and infinite outdoor activities should look at programs in Huancayo. This city high up in the Andes is on the path less traveled. Full of history and culture, Huancayo provides an authentic way of life with its homemade crafts and neighboring ruins.
La Feria Dominical is the Sunday fair in the city, where local vendors come from miles and miles away to sell their unique crafts. To promote their culture and identity, they created the Parque de la Identidad Huanca. Created out of stone, there are artistic and detailed designs sprawled within. Located on the outskirts of the city are natural towers of red clay with an excellent view of Huancayo. Some parts of Torre Torre are 100ft., and all hand-crafted by nature.
There is an abundance of hiking, jungle trekking, mountain biking, and horseback riding in this mountainous place. If volunteering here, you should spend a day in Cochas, where the art of gourd carving was born. Another place to explore is the ruins at Arwaturo. It’s a short hike up to them, but afterward, you can relax by the water at Ñahuinpuquio Lake.
Despite being a smaller city, there are plenty of impactful programs for volunteers to check out. Health and medicine, children and education, empowerment, and the environment are common projects for volunteers here. There are opportunities to assist communities in extreme need and to educate disadvantaged children. Special programs also focus on multi-media productions on racism and prejudice, or engaging with and researching for an impactful health project.
#5 - Iquitos: Capital of the Peruvian Amazon & the Amazon itself
The Amazon Rainforest is a one-of-a-kind volunteer opportunity, perfect for those hoping to make an impact with wildlife, conservation and preservation, eco-alternatives, and the environment in general. Iquitos, the largest city in the world unable to be accessed by road, is also the biggest metropolis in the Peruvian Amazon and is the perfect base for volunteer opportunities in the Amazon.
Nature is plentiful within Iquitos. The Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm and Amazon Animal Orphanage are home to countless colorful butterflies as well as other exotic animals. At the Amazonian Manatee Rescue Center, you can feed young manatees and learn about the aquatic wildlife. Not too far away is Monkey Island, a sanctuary for monkeys, and is a must-see destination for those volunteering in the Amazon.
The Museum of Indigenous Amazonian Cultures is full of artifacts and exhibits from 30 different Amazon Indian cultures. You can visit indigenous communities dressed in the traditional style at Bora Bora or Yaguas, watching a tribal song and dance, and with the potential to practice some blow-dart hunting. Belen, the floating village south of Iquitos, is worth checking out, especially the unique and interesting market where you can find all sort of odds and ends.
By going off the grid in this diverse place, volunteers will find an abundance of environmental programs. Projects vary from focusing on the biodiversity of the rainforest, conducting research deep within the Amazon, assisting locals with eco-conscious alternatives, and helping with children’s education,
#6 - Trujillo: City of “Eternal Spring”
Last, but not least, Trujillo is another prime location for volunteers. NGOs and local communities are desperate for volunteers to help with educational projects and youth development. Although a poorer region, this northern colonial city is ample with historical buildings, churches, and nearby archaeological ruins.
The historic center contains impressive republican-era mansions mixed in with the scattered religious buildings, such as the famous Trujillo Cathedral. El Carmen Church has the most expensive collection of Colonial art in the city, and the Casa Urquiaga is a mansion full of historical relics from the Chimu and Moche empires. When volunteering here, you want to be sure to catch a marinera dance performance (the traditional dance of coastal Peru) or a Paso horse display at the Plaza de Armas.
Huanchaco is a neighboring seaside village where local caballitos de totora (reed boat) fisherman reside. It’s the ideal place for surfing and tasting ceviche, and to experience the quieter side of life.
Nearby, there are a few archaeological wonders worth spending time at. Chan Chan used to be a massive city built of adobe and sand under the Chimu Empire before conquered by the Inca Empire. The Temple of the Dragon, or known as the “Rainbow Temple,” is a well preserved Chimu temple that is believed to be a tribute to fertility. The Temples of the Moche are two ancient sites dating back to the Moche Empire. The Huaca de la Luna, a site of religious importance, is still available for visitors to walk through, although the Huaca del Sol is a sight to behold from a distance.
Trujillo is a city in need of volunteers wanting to teach, with a demand for English especially. Due to being a poorer region, the educational needs are higher and the desire for volunteers high. This city is a great place to make a lasting impact on the local communities. Along with English, there are other projects educating children, such as music or photography. There are also programs in Huanchaco for volunteers, like rescuing and caring for dogs or teaching English.
Peru is a diverse country with numerous and unique volunteer opportunities. No matter where you choose to volunteer in Peru, your project will help leave a lasting impact on the communities there, and it’ll be an unforgettable experience for you.