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11 Things to Know Before Volunteering in Latin America

Latin America

Congratulations! You’ve decided to dedicate your time as a volunteer in Latin America. Volunteering overseas will likely become one of the most influential experiences of your lifetime, especially having chosen this region of the world. Latin America offers a distinctive experience for international, especially U.S., volunteers. While you may only travel a few hours by plane from home, your destination will likely seem a world away. It is this unique connection with “Western society” that allows volunteers in Latin America to learn not only about a new culture but also about themselves.

You'll find volunteer opportunities abound throughout Latin America’s Caribbean, Central American, and South American regions. Whether you’re looking to volunteer in childcare, construction, environmental conservation, agriculture, education, girl's care, public health, etc., you’re sure to find a program fitting your needs. As you prepare for your volunteer experience in one of the most interesting regions of the world, here are 11 things you need to know and consider.

1. Not All Latin American Countries Are the Same

Dominican Republic

Latin America represents an immense portion of the Western Hemisphere. From Mexico and the Caribbean islands in the north, all the way down to the southernmost point of Chile, the nations of Latin America include diverse geography, weather, art, religion, languages, food, and economic development.

Even within countries, experiences can vary greatly. Countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia are home to indigenous Maya, Aztec, and Inca cultures that remain very prevalent. In contrast, a visit to the capital city of those nations will likely offer the same fast food restaurants you have at home.

Be sure to do your research as well as consult your volunteer program about your exact site’s geography, weather (including rainy season), predominant language, and proximity to major cities. (The author once made the mistake of thinking her time in volunteering in Guatemala would be warm and tropical, only to discover she’d be sleeping in freezing temperatures!)

2. Visa Requirements Vary

Within Latin America, visa requirements vary greatly by country, but here are some general things to keep in mind when researching the visa requirements for your host country and any others you may want to visit during your stay:

  • Many countries issue automatic tourist visas when you arrive at the airport. These may be good for as few as 28 days or as many as 180 days. (Argentina and Chile are exceptions, with their visas lasting 10 years or the life of the passport.)
  • Look up visa fees. Some Latin American countries’ visas are free, while others charge up to US $160.
  • Other countries, like Brazil, require a visa be obtained prior to arrival. Each Latin American country also holds different policies on what happens when visas expire. Many countries allow visitors to apply for an extension of their visa. Others mandate that visitors leave and re-enter the country. Be sure to ask your volunteer program provider or check VisaHQ for the most up-to-date visa information about your arrival country.

3. How to Stay Healthy

Even the most seasoned traveler can experience physical adjustments and illness upon moving to a new country. Tips for staying healthy specifically in Latin America include:

  • Take it easy the first several days.
  • In many parts of Latin America, it will not be safe to drink the tap water. Always ask your volunteer program or a local contact about the safety of the tap water. Even if you’re assured that it is safe to drink, proceed with caution and remember that everyone’s body will react differently. Drink bottled or boiled water. Avoid ice, and thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables.
  • Ease your body into eating street food, and take multivitamins.
  • If you take prescription medications (or wear contact lenses or glasses), talk to your doctor about stocking up to last the duration of your volunteer experience before arriving.
  • Visit a travel doctor/clinic prior to leaving. They will explain what, if any, vaccinations are required. The most common vaccinations needed for Latin American travel are hepatitis A and B, yellow fever, and typhoid fever.
  • Ask about malaria and dengue fever, both mosquito-transmitted diseases. Depending on the location of your volunteer site, your doctor may prescribe anti-malarial medication.
  • Finally, ask your volunteer program about medical access once in country. If you're not given insurance as part of the program, consider getting travel insurance that will cover any medical emergencies as well.

4. Language Barriers

Language barries

The predominant languages of Latin American are Spanish, French, and Portuguese. Depending on where you’re volunteering, you may also hear Creole or one of dozens of surviving indigenous languages. While many Latin American citizens will speak some English, don’t assume you can get by in your volunteer position without any language skills. Ask your volunteer organization what level of language fluency is required/recommended and if they provide language classes.

If you do need to brush up on your language skills, consider studying on site. Many volunteers choose to arrive in country 2 - 4 weeks early to take language classes. This is especially common in Spanish-speaking countries where language schools provide private Spanish lessons, a homestay with a local family, and cultural activities – for a fraction of the price of language school at home.

Even if you have previous language skills, you may still experience language barriers -- and that's OK! For example, Spain Spanish, Latin American Spanish, and Caribbean Spanish are all distinct dialects and you may find yourself adjusting that Spanish you learned while studying abroad in Spain for the first few weeks of your volunteer program in, say, Chile. That said, we've got a bunch of great volunteer opportunities for Spanish speakers.

Suggested Language Programs in Latin America

5. Packing Reminders

Your first and best resource for packing lists should always be your volunteer organization. Current and former volunteers will provide the best advice on what they wish they’d brought more of -- and what they wish they’d left at home.

In general, we suggest bringing:
  • Clothing you can layer
  • Raingear -- Nearly all Latin American countries experience a rainy season. Be prepared with a rain jacket, umbrella, or rain boots.
  • Toiletries – Most Latin American capitals offer access to large supermarkets with standard toiletries. If you’ll be living near a large city, you may only need to pack enough items to last you the first few weeks. (Exceptions to this rule include feminine products, sunscreen, and name-brand products you cannot live without.)
  • Extra passport-sized photos
  • Photocopies of important documents (emergency contact information, passport, driver’s license, immunization records, credit cards). You may even consider scanning them and backing them up online.
  • Money -- Cash (small bills) to last your first few days, plus an international credit or debit card (ask your bank about best options)

6. Toilet Paper Etiquette

No need for in-depth details here, but when volunteering in Latin America, be sure to keep in mind that 1) Most plumbing systems cannot break down toilet paper. Use the bin provided next to the toilet. 2) Many public restrooms will not provide toilet paper. Carry your own if you’re worried.

7. “Mañana” Time

One of the most difficult adjustments volunteers experience upon moving to Latin America is transitioning to “mañana” time. “Mañana” is a Latin American attitude toward time that is starkly different from that to which most U.S. and European volunteers are accustomed.

“Mañana” translates literally to “tomorrow” but culturally means “some indefinite time in the future.” Many Latin American buses will not leave or arrive on time, and many meetings will not start on time. For many citizens, “mañana” is also a polite alternative to saying “no.” If you ask someone for an answer and they respond “mañana,” you may not ever get your answer.

If this attitude toward time is new to you, remain flexible. Latin American culture and “mañana time” revolve around personal relationships, not deadlines and punctuality. As a volunteer abroad, try to enjoy this change of pace.

8. Fitting In

Carrie Making Empanadas

As an international volunteer, you bring a new cultural perspective to your organization and host community. However, a more important part of your experience will be learning about, respecting, and acclimating to the culture of your host country. To “fit in” in Latin America, remember these tips:

  • Pack an appropriate wardrobe. You’ll find both men and women wearing pants, not shorts. Clothes should fit properly and should not be too casual. Avoid torn jeans and revealing clothing.
  • If you have tattoos or nontraditional piercings, be aware that these can carry negative connotations in other parts of the world. In many Latin American nations, tattoos and piercings are a sensitive issue. Ask your volunteer organization about their stance on this topic. Some programs may ask you to cover up at certain times, while others will have no problem at all.
  • Don't be the "ugly tourist". You're there not just to give back, but to learn. So show some respect and ask questions about your community's culture. Learn what you can of the language. Be humble. Don't be obnoxious.

9. The @ Symbol

If you’ll be volunteering in a Spanish-speaking country, don’t let this writing shortcut throw you for a loop.Many folks in Latin America use “@” to represent both the male and female form of a word in one quick symbol. If you read a notice at your volunteer organization that says “niñ@s,” it’s not a typo. It’s a faster way of writing “niños y niñas.” Now you know!

10. Consider Costs

As you begin your search for an international volunteer program, you’ll likely explore what it might cost you, why people pay to volunteer abroad, and how you can volunteer abroad for free. The next important step will be to think about timing –- for your wallet.

Even if you’ve found a relatively low-cost volunteer program, what other fees will you incur during your time abroad? Have you accounted for vaccinations, travel insurance, food, local bus fare, leisure travel, cell phone credit, etc.? Part of responsible volunteerism means being able to support yourself abroad and avoid unforeseen costs for your organization. Estimate what your financial resources will be at the time of your departure, and decide if you are comfortable with that amount.

Communicate your feelings with your volunteer organization, as many programs will allow you to push back your start date, giving you time to save up for a few months. Fortunately though, the cost of living in Latin America is generally much lower than back home (especially in more rural areas) and depending on where you go, also affordable for Americans to travel to their country of service.

Suggested Volunteer Abroad Programs in Central America
Suggested Volunteer Abroad Programs in South America
Suggested Volunteer Abroad Programs in the Caribbean

11. Finally, Have The Right Attitude

The volunteer lifestyle may be an adjustment. You may not have much free time for travel, and you may not have free nights and weekends. Flexibility, patience, and a positive attitude will serve you well, helping to keep the larger picture in perspective. Many international volunteers come to their organization ready to solve problems and change the world. While noble, this can create unrealistic expectations. It can also create conflict over who knows the community’s needs best.

You must accept this and learn to appreciate small wins. You may not change the world, but you will certainly leave it better than you found it.

Your primary duty as a volunteer is to serve. You are there to assist in what the local community needs, not what you think they need. While your contributions are needed and are valued, you may not see the tangible differences they make. You must accept this and learn to appreciate small wins. You may not change the world, but you will certainly leave it better than you found it.

On the good days, the bad days, the inspiring days, the sad days, the crazy days, the calm days, and all the days in between, volunteering in Latin America will leave its mark on you. You will not return the same. Choosing to volunteer abroad brings an incredible reward but also requires great planning and research. To get the most out of your experience, follow these 11 tips so that you’re completely ready – physically, emotionally, financially, linguistically – for volunteering abroad in Latin America.

Best of luck out there!

Photo Credits: Global Giving, Adam Jones, and Author.

Photo of Carrie Daut

Carrie has studied in Greece and lived in Guatemala and is now searching for the next great country starting with “G.” Her favorite parts of travel include trying new foods, deciphering new languages, and navigating public transportation systems. Connect with Carrie on Google+ and her blog, You Only Live Once.