From the rule of powerful indigenous communities and European conquest to Colombia’s independence and colorful culture, Colombia has a rich history with a mix of cultures and influences.
Combine that with an easy to learn version of Spanish, and a variety of development initiatives taking place in Bogota, Cartagena, and beyond, and Colombia becomes a wonderful place to volunteer abroad. Whether you're interested in volunteering in Colombia as a teacher, research specialist, or skilled medical professional, start planning your trip with this guide today!
Skilled medical volunteers can be of great help in Colombia. Colombia’s health care system has gotten a lot of media and political attention in recent years. In 2012, Colombia will have universal health care. Don’t let that fool you though – many disadvantaged citizens are still in great need of help and won’t necessarily see benefits from the new health care system anytime soon. One of the country’s biggest health issues are deadly diseases like malaria, HIV, and yellow fever. Malnutrition also affects many children in various ways. Whatever your interest in health may be, there are plenty of ways to educate and give greater access of health care to the population as a volunteer.
Despite its prime location geographically, Colombia has big environmental issues that volunteers can lend a hand with. From the Andes to the Amazon rainforest to the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, there is tons of worthwhile and fun outdoor environmental conservation work to be done. Deforestation is one of the largest environmental problems in Colombia. Although legal has been taken recently to protect Colombia’s environmental resources, need your help. Other areas of conservation in Colombia include fighting pollution, wildlife preservation, ecotourism, and agricultural work.
While there are many universities and schools available in Colombia, not all citizens have equal access. It’s especially common in rural areas to find that teachers are often underqualified, resources are lacking, and secondary school isn’t always offered. Attendance to primary and secondary school is mandated by law.
Many NGOs work to send more Colombian children to school and close the education gap. Volunteers can make a difference by sharing their knowledge and teaching students a variety of subjects, including English. For example, through the Fundación Marina Orth, you'll commit to 11 months of full-time volunteering, teaching English to students and staff and organizing and running clubs. You'll receive accomodation, meals, and a small stipend.
Planning your trip
Living with a local family is a popular option for volunteers. Similar to many other Latin American cultures, Colombia’s family life is very important. Children usually live at home until marriage and even then don’t move too far away. Staying with a homestay family, therefore, is a great way to fully understand Colombian life.
Most NGOs in Colombia focus on environmental issues as well as law and policy. Unfortunately, NGOs don’t have a successful history in Colombia. This doesn’t mean that there will be no NGOs to work with, but that they especially rely on the help of volunteers. See WANGO for a complete list of NGOs in Colombia.
Best places to volunteer
No matter where you choose to volunteer in Colombia, you are sure to have an amazing time. Cartagena is a popular tourist destination that also has need for community development. The capital city, Bogota, is full of nightlife and culture but also has a great need for volunteers. Medellin, an important coffee and agricultural destination, is great for those who appreciate the beautiful outdoors.
Health & safety
Safety used to be a major concern for foreigners in Colombia due to terrorist activities and civil conflict. Luckily, most areas are much less dangerous than they used to be; some jungle regions are even under military guard on a regular basis. Generally, highly populated urban areas are considered safest. It’s well worth your time to research the areas and neighborhoods you will be traveling to and be aware of all possible safety concerns.
Travelers should be sure to check MD Travel Health for vaccination recommendations well before a trip. Recommended shots include typhoid, hepatitis A and B, as well as malaria and yellow fever for those going to rural or jungle areas. Water is safe in urban areas but outside of the major cities only bottled water should be consumed.