When Christopher Columbus landed on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, mistakenly believing he’d reached Asia, he described “everything I have thus far discovered has been superior to what preceded it…” Since that 1492 arrival, the diversity of this region’s 7,000-plus islands have drawn visitors from around the world.
Some, like the Dutch and Portuguese, were searching for colonies; others, like modern tourists, are hoping for suntans and soft beaches. Always a popular location, yet most people probably can’t name more than a handful of the Caribbean’s 30 sovereign states and territories.
Which is exactly why should you spend your gap year here! Early explorers might have “discovered” a bit of shoreline, but there is so much more to observe and appreciate. Mixed cultures, spirited music, spicy foods – history and the present collide here in a sensory overload. With 365 days at your disposal, the Caribbean offers an under-appreciated calendar of opportunities that will surprise and awe as much as they did for Columbus, those 500 years ago.
Types of Programs
Just like the Caribbean’s peoples and environments, potential gap year prospects span the spectrum of unique and remarkable. Want to learn how to salsa dance or surf? Sign up for a cultural study program in Cuba. Keen to practice your Spanish? Stay with a local family and take daily courses in Costa Rica. Interested in environmental conservation? Learn about reef protection and management in the Bahamas. Almost every program pairs cultural exchange with field-focused experiences, creating a well-rounded combination.
While multiple European countries, from France to Sweden, have all influenced the development of the Caribbean, English and Spanish are the two predominately-spoken languages. Courses cater to both brief introductory periods and long-term intensive studies. Students are typically placed in home-stay accommodation for the benefit of additional language practice. Extra instructional activities – such as surfing, yoga and dancing – are also often combined with language lessons. Cuba is becoming a top choice for such courses, while Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are old favorites with established school programs.
The Bahaman coral reefs and Costa Rican rain forests are two top choices for volunteering and working in wildlife conservation. The region contains 8% of the world’s reefs and 11,250 types of funghi, while nearly 25% of its native species are endangered. So the Caribbean’s varied ecosystems offer something for every nature lover. Though recent natural disasters and the effects of population growth have damaged many native landscapes, a boost in eco-tourism is helping to educate locals and support federal economies.
Several organizations support placements for pre-med students, high-school students considering a future medical degree, and volunteers with limited medical experience. These placements are usually in rural hospitals and involve a wide range of tasks, from welcoming patients to administering medicine and running educational courses. Current programs exist in St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Haiti.
The Caribbean is a holiday destination for many of the world’s rich and famous. With a little resume-pushing, gappers can find temporary and seasonal work in inclusive resorts and on private yachts. These hospitality-based positions don’t always require experience or a long-term commitment. While hourly wages aren’t massive, tips and gratuity may earn you enough for a few more months’ travel. Start your job search online, at CrewSeekers or CaribbeanJobs.
Planning Your Trip
Unlike organizing a gap year in Europe or South America, sorting out your time in the Caribbean will require a bit more time and patience. Due to the distance between islands, the plane and boat routes around them, and the number of foreign Customs desks you’ll pass by, traveling can be a challenge. But don’t let that deter you.
The Gap Year is an excellent source for queries and information on work and travel-related experiences in the Caribbean; post a question and read other gappers’ comments.
Looking up frequent flights between islands, currency exchange rates and seasonal weather will also help. While the summer months, between April to December, mean muggy weather and potential hurricanes (especially in August and September), this is also the best time to find cheap prices and discounts.
Cost of Living in the Caribbean
Most study and volunteer programs charge a set amount in fees. Though these may include accommodation and one-three meals a day, they won’t typically cover additional things, such as souvenirs, weekend excursions and fun nights out. Travel websites suggest having an extra $500 a month for spending. Add that to the beginning costs of most programs – $500-$1,000 depending on the program’s duration – and you’ll want to budget out a fair amount of money for your year.
Luckily, the cost of living in many islands is significantly lower than in the United States, and you can avoid expensive goods by avoiding touristy resorts and restaurants. Book tickets on local ferries and dine on pelau – a delicious heaping of rice, vegetables and meat – at neighborhood markets. Bartering is the norm in most transactions and a good skill to develop over the next 12 months.
Health and Safety in the Caribbean
While international rumors and media have fueled stereotypes of island-wide drug schemes and tourist money scams, most Caribbean countries are very safe for visitors. Though lower socio-economic levels have created a small culture of tourist theft and scams, these are easy to avoid by being aware of your surroundings. Don’t leave your valuables unattended on the beach or at a bar, and don’t draw attention to the amount of money in your wallet.
When hiring local guides and drivers, negotiate prices in advance. Too often, travelers will pay one price for a return trip to a nearby destination – only to find themselves ‘stuck’ at one end, unless they agree to pay double for the route back!
The same negative gossip should be overlooked when considering your physical health in the Caribbean. Most water is actually safe for drinking, and food preparation methods are held to federal standards. Mosquito-born diseases typically assorted with tropical countries are not prevalent here. Though several cases of malaria, dengue and chikungunya have been reported in recent years, these are limited to specific areas.