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How to Volunteer in Brazil on a Budget

volunteering in brazil, beaches of rio

Well hello there, global-minded volunteer! It’s that time of year again, when your itchy feet lead you away from your homeland to do good things somewhere across an ocean. But not just anywhere – you’ve decided that the place for you is warm, friendly, gorgeous Brazil.

In terms of location, you could hardly make a better choice. Brazil is always near the top of travel lists – in fact, this January, the New York Times chose Rio as their #1 destination of Places to Go in 2013. Still, it isn’t all sunshine and Carnival in Brazil – the world’s 5th-largest country has a huge number of people living in poverty, both in its overcrowded cities and disconnected rural regions. From the coast to the Amazon, there are tons of organizations that can use your help and energy. You’ve got those resources in abundance, but what you don’t have are extra funds for the journey – so how can you make your volunteer experience as low-cost as possible?

Fortunately for Brazil but unfortunately for you, the country’s booming economy has made it one of the most expensive locations on the continent. This doesn’t mean your time there has to demolish your wallet and bank account, but you will have to be more conscientious of how (and where) you spend your time and money.

While you may not be able to volunteer in Brazil for free, you can certainly do it on a budget. Read on for tips on pocketing those extra Reals while keeping it real and volunteering in Brazil.

Sao Paulo, Brazil

The Choice is Yours

The single biggest decision you’ll make, money-wise, is whether you choose to volunteer at an organization in a city or out in some of the more rural areas of the country. This is some tough love, but if you live in one of the major cities, You Will Spend Money. Mercer’s 2012 rankings of the world’s most expensive cities placed São Paulo and Rio at 12 and 13 respectively; with capital city Brasilia at 45, the country has three of the top four cities in South America (Caracas, at 29, is the only other one).

For the most part, volunteering independently in a country is less expensive than going with a program – however, given the high cost of living in Brazil, you may want to consider looking at a few programs. Some are relatively inexpensive, and if you have your heart set on living in a major city, the program price may be worth what you’d save on cost of housing alone. Many programs also have networks and suggestions for fundraising to offset the program fee, so don’t rule them out before doing a quick cost-benefit analysis. You may be surprised!

Figuring Out Where To Live

Forget programs – you’re determined to make this work on your own. If you’re watching your wallet, you’re well-advised to steer clear of the major cities. There’s a reason they’re ranked so high globally, and it isn’t because the housing is so cheap that residents can afford to spend their money on everything else. An average one-bedroom apartment outside of the city center starts around 1,400 BRL, and a furnished apartment in a nicer neighborhood in Rio or São Paulo could be anything from 3000 BRL up At time of writing, the exchange rate is ~2.25BRL to 1 USD. You do the math!

Friends in Brazil

Depending on how long you’re planning on staying – and how much you mind sharing a bathroom with other humans – you might actually be better off staying at a hostel. There are plenty of hostels to be had in the major cities for between USD $15-20/night, which actually comes out to be less than even the cheapest city apartment. Plus, many hostels have discounts for guests that stay longer than a certain amount of time – if they like you enough, maybe you can even trade a few hours of working there for room and board!

Check out sites like Couchsurfing for temporary solutions or even to make connections with people who could help you out. There’s a big expat community in the major Brazilian cities – someone is sure to know someone else with an extra room or at least a sofa. Start making connections the minute (or even before) your plane hits the tarmac, and you should be able to find something that doesn’t break the bank.

Of course, the best possible option is to find an organization that allows you to volunteer in exchange for room and board, but the sad truth of this arrangement is that you’re far more likely to find it in the rural areas of the country. Most places that offer this deal are locations like farms or ecological research facilities and organizations out in the middle of nowhere. Here are a few reputable work exchange organizations worth checking out. There are quite a few of these operating in Brazil, so if price is more important to you than location, forget the cities and start looking in between the trees!

Other Expenses to Worry About

A huge part of the reason Brazilian cities rank so high on the Mercer index is the cost of goods and services (like electronics, clothing or cell phone plans) – luckily, as a temporary resident, you probably won’t be buying too many of these things. Still, a person has to eat and sleep somewhere!

Tasty, Tasty Food

A basic Brazilian lunch (buffet and drink) is about 10 BRL in Rio, a large loaf of bread is about 5 BRL and an average beer is somewhere from 3 BRL up, depending on where you buy it (the current exchange rate is about $1 USD = 2 BRL [Brazilian Real]). Nightlife and entertainment can be extremely expensive – clubs can charge entrance fees anywhere from 50 BRL to hundreds, so your volunteer budget may restrict you to house parties!

Again, there’s a price difference between the major cities and less populated areas. A bus ride in Rio is 2.75 BRL, while on the coast it’s closer to 2.2. A 1.5 liter Coke on the coast costs about 2.5 BRL, while in Rio you’ll pay nearly that for just a 600 mL bottle. These seem like small differences, but they can add up quickly!

Mountain in Brazil
Booking Flights

We haven’t even talked about the elephant in the room: getting there. Brazil is notoriously one of the most expensive flight destinations in South America – there’s pretty much no such thing as a cheap ticket there. The least expensive sale prices you’ll see from major US destinations are at least $700. Because it’s such a huge country, it really doesn’t make sense to arrive over land unless you’re already in Argentina or Uruguay. If you live near New York or Miami, you’re in luck – airlines like LAN and TAM, as well as some US carriers, tend to do sales to those cities. Otherwise, create some fare alerts, cross your fingers, and try searching on Tuesdays.

Brazilian Visa Woes

Oh, and the other elephant: the dreaded visa. Even more so than the airfare, there is no way to avoid this one, unless you plan on sneaking into the country through the Amazon (note: not a recommended strategy). US citizens planning to enter Brazil in any sort of legal way need a visa issued by the Brazilian Embassy or consulate closest to where you live in the U.S (citizens of other countries should check with their individual embassies to confirm visa requirements and costs). There are no “airport visas,” which means that if you arrive in Brazil without a visa, they have every right to tell you to turn around and go home. The current cost of the visa is USD $160, which you also have to pay beforehand. (Before you start protesting, know that Brazil did this as reciprocity for the U.S. government raising the cost of visas for Brazilians. So technically, we started it).

Types of Volunteer Programs in Brazil

On to happier things! What can you do once you actually get there? The most popular fields for volunteers in Brazil are education/youth, health or environmental/wildlife-related. If your interests lie elsewhere, there are certainly organizations for you, too – you may just have to do a little more homework. Many conservation and health organizations work outside of the urban areas, which means they’re more likely to have systems in place for providing housing for volunteers. Look at sites like Volunteer Latin America and Volunteer South America to get a better idea of what’s out there.

Of course, the most effective way to find volunteer programs (and reviews to know if they're legit or not) is by checking the Go Overseas Volunteer in Brazil page.

Some more opportunities to consider:

A word of caution for the completely independent folks: many organizations, especially those working with youth or community development, operate in the favelas, or slums, of the major cities. While these areas are obviously where this kind of work is most important and where you can potentially be very helpful, if you’re working independently, make sure that you prioritize finding a safe route to arrive and leave – preferably with some Brazilians who can keep you from getting lost.

Funding Opportunities for Volunteering in Brazil

There are many resources available to help subsidize your volunteer trip to Brazil. These include scholarships for programs and funds to support your own independent project.

Scholarships with Volunteer Programs

Some organizations like World Endeavors and Intrax actually offer scholarship opportunities for participants in their programs, so if you’re not totally against going with a program, it’s worth investigating. The Glimpse Correspondents Program offers opportunities for paid publication for aspiring travel writers, photographers and filmmakers. World Nomads has plenty of scholarships for creative young travelers, and last year they even funded a Brazil-specific film scholarship. And if you’re the environmental type, the World Wildlife Fund has a great list of conservation-related scholarships.

Volunteers in Brazil
Funds for Independent Projects

If you have a very strong idea for a project, you can also join fundraising sites like Kickstarter or GlobalGiving, where donors can help support your project. And college students, always make sure to ask your study abroad office if there are scholarships available for your region or demographic. Or, if you’re currently working, see if your company will sponsor a matching donation to support your project!

Grants for Research Projects

By its nature, Brazil offers a wealth of research opportunities, particularly if you’re interested in anthropology or anything related to the environment. Submitting a research proposal is a great way to fund your travels, if you can balance your volunteering and research work. Fulbright grants are the most high-profile program, but there are plenty of other donors out there – ask your university for potential funders and see what they come up with.

Funds from Teaching English

And once you’re there, if your Portuguese is half-decent, you also might want to start asking around about teaching English classes on the side to help pay for a few meals. With World Cup madness descending on Brazil next year and the Olympics set to hit two years later, there’s going to be a huge demand for English speakers across the country. You might as well take advantage of this opportunity to market one of your most innate skills (people may be interested in French, Spanish or German too!).

For the most part, volunteering independently in a country is less expensive than going with a program – however, given the high cost of living in Brazil, you may want to consider looking at a few programs.

Getting to Brazil can be quite expensive, so you’ll have to get creative about how you do your penny-pinching (or saving). Luckily, you have a head start – you already know you’ll be paying for your airfare and visa, even if you’ve found a place to stay for free. Find an organization you’re excited about, do some fundraising to offset the unavoidable costs and try as hard as you can to figure out your living situation before you get there. If you plan ahead and budget well, you should be able to fundraise enough money to cover those expenses – and maybe even have a little left over to bring back gifts for your donors!

Photo Credits: Cafezinho, Zonda Bez, IES Abroad, L.C. Nottaasen, and The SFS.
Photo of Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.