From the arid Atacama Desert in the north to the frigid Strait of Magellan in the south and across the mighty Andes to the Pacific Ocean, Chile offers volunteers a wealth of experiences as diverse as its geography. Volunteers that come to Chile have the chance to sandboard down desert dunes or walk on glaciers in addition to experiencing the equally memorable hospitality of the local people.
With an abundance of natural resources that lend the country to an active export economy, Chile remains a dominant factor in the global arena, and a foreign volunteer presence contributes to forming a foundation for the population to compete and remain relevant in the international marketplace.
One of the most popular volunteer opportunities continues to be teaching English in Chile as a second language in public schools. Native English speakers with all levels of teaching experience -- even absolute beginners -- are welcome to lead classes for elementary school students and become part of the surrounding community in the process.
Beyond teaching, other opportunities to work with children include volunteering in day care centers and orphanages throughout the country. Volunteering with the underserved youth communities in Chile can provide an unforgettable experience for both the children and volunteers alike and provide support that is not always readily available.
Given the fragile nature of the local environment, there are many chances to get involved in ecotourism and conversation projects in areas known for natural wonders such as Torres del Paine National Park in the Patagonia region of the south or the San Pedro de Atacama Desert in the north.
Volunteer opportunities in Chile involve interacting directly with patients in various programs that place volunteers in some of Chile’s larger cities. Depending on the primary job functions, formal medical training may not be necessary, and a positive volunteer impact can be felt working in any capacity.
At first glance, it appears that Chile is on the fast track to joining the group of more developed countries referred to as the “global north.” Still, there are a number of projects volunteers can find to help the largely underserved populations of the indigenous Mapuche people living in more rural parts of the country.
The issue of gender equality is a paradox in Chile – women are given generous time for maternity leave but still operate within a patriarchal society that does little to support other areas of their life. Women’s shelters are particularly appreciative of foreign volunteer influence and support.
Planning Your Trip
Volunteer Support: Formal volunteer programs often have regional contacts throughout the country that can provide logistical and, if necessary, emotional support for volunteers should they need it. Volunteers can also contact their embassy in Santiago for more formal support if necessary. Take advantage of the local community to make the most of your volunteer time, and use networks like CouchSurfing to get to know both locals and other foreigners in the area.
NGOs/Nonprofit/Volunteer History in Chile: Chile has a number of native NGOs that provide support for environmental and social causes in the country. Foreign volunteer presence in the country takes the form of various organizations such as the Rotary Club, Red Cross, BridgeTEFL, United Planet, World Teach, and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Know before You Go: Fluency in Spanish is not a requirement of many programs, but a basic level of comprehension will make it easier to communicate and get around. Climate in Chile varies drastically depending on the region, so confirm the general area where you will be living and pack accordingly – e.g. a solid waterproof layer for southern regions and lighter clothing for the days in the desert.
How Volunteering in Chile Will Help Your Future: The volunteer immersion programs in Chile build volunteer Spanish skills that will serve them well in their home country and in future travel or volunteer endeavors. Though each program presents its own unique set of skills gained, the added challenge of being in another country builds character among volunteers that can’t be found in other professional opportunities.
How to Save Money While Volunteering: Finding a program that arranges for a host family to provide housing and meals is the best way to reduce the cost of volunteering. Volunteers who do so have the added benefit of building meaningful relationships with their host families and engaging in mutual levels of cultural exchange. Setting up a budget and looking for regular ways to cut back where possible can help stretch those volunteer dollars, too.
Best Places to Volunteer: Popular destinations for volunteers beyond the capital of Santiago include the beaches of Viña del Mar and La Serena, bohemian Valparaiso, and university towns of Concepcion and Valdivia in the south. Other commons volunteer destinations in Chile include: Castro, Villarica, Puerto Varas, Osorno, Temuco, Chiguayante, Antofagasta. Volunteers in Chile often take advantage of the country’s various natural wonders and national parks to visit other cities and landmarks as their schedule permits.
Questions to Ask: Will I receive a stipend for my volunteer work? If so, how often? What incidental expenses can I expect to encounter each month? Will there be other foreign volunteers nearby? How reliably can I contact my friends and family back home?
Health and Safety of Volunteers in Chile
Health: In general, tap water is safe to drink and pharmacies are well-stocked, but stomach/pain medicine is always useful as a precaution. Foreigners can receive medical attention at the major hospitals and clinics throughout the country, and MD Travel Health recommends the obtaining the following vaccines before arriving in Chile: Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) and Tetanus. Per the State Department, Clínica Alemana and Clínica Las Condes treat international patients and even have experience with international insurance, though long-term volunteers may want to look into obtaining local health insurance to avoid paying out-of-pocket for any medical treatments. Many volunteer programs can provide information on health insurance programs that best fit a volunteer’s needs.
Safety Concerns: Chile is a politically stable country, but there are frequent public marches and demonstrations. Protests that begin peacefully have the potential to turn violent, and it is not uncommon for local authorities to use tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Foreigners should pay attention to local media and avoid getting involved in or too close to demonstrations.
Additionally, travelers are reminded to watch personal belongings in crowded areas -- such as on public transportation and shopping centers -- throughout the country. In general, visitors should remain vigilant and execute good judgment as they would in any foreign environment.
Visas for Volunteers in Chile
Chile does not require a visa prior to arrival; however, visitors arriving through Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport in Santiago are required to pay a $140 (USD) reciprocity fee before clearing customs. The fee is required for any length of stay in Chile and is valid until the visitor’s passport expires.
Volunteers interested in staying in Chile longer than the 90-day tourist visa must apply for a temporary resident visa. A temporary resident visa also allows volunteers to obtain a carnet de identidad, or Chilean I.D. card, from the local registro civil, which streamlines the process for banking and other logistical processes within the country. Many programs will help volunteers arrange for a visa for the duration of their volunteer stay. More information on business and other visas can be found at VISA HQ.
Contributed by Luisa Montes