Volunteering in Mexico, one of the most diverse countries in the world – biologically, ethnically, linguistically, and culturally – means you'll never be bored. Mexico is home to one of the new seven wonders of the world (Chichén Itza), dozens of biosphere reserves (monarch butterflies, coral reefs, volcanoes, and more), spectacular beaches, world-renowned cuisine, and the second-largest city in the world (Mexico City). There really is something for everyone!
Maintaining this diversity while growing economically has been one of Mexico's foremost challenges. Popular volunteer projects in Mexico include environmental initiatives and work with poor communities. Unfortunately, the country also continues to struggle with providing basic services, particularly in rural areas, which means that health and education volunteers in Mexico are regularly needed. Many volunteer opportunities are only available to volunteers with some Spanish.
Mexico is one of a few "mega-diverse" countries in which most of the world's biological diversity is found. A number of different projects work to maintain this diversity, and volunteers might conduct flora and fauna censuses or provide community education about conservation. Experience in biology and botany is a plus.
Work with Children and Youth
Social services in Mexico are chronically underfunded, particularly those that work with orphans, children in poor communities, and children of single mothers. Volunteers in this realm nurture these children, and their long-term work is truly an investment in Mexico's future. Make sure to avoid scams and work with responsible organizations that do more harm than good.
Schools in Mexico can't keep up with growing numbers of students. Poor students rarely have access to English and computer classes, which provide economic mobility, and volunteers can help create these opportunities for underserved youth.
Volunteers, particularly those with a medical background, can work in clinics throughout Mexico or help with outreach projects. These positions typically require the highest level of Spanish.
Violence against women in Mexico puts them at an extreme economic and social disadvantage. Women make significantly less money than men and many times they need to travel for work. Volunteers can help change the long history of discrimination and sexist attitudes.
Planning Your Trip
If you're considering volunteering in Mexico, you probably have a lot of questions about the logistics: Where should I go? Am I responsible for arranging my own housing? Is there an option to take language classes? How much free time will I have? Are there opportunities to travel within Mexico?
Best Places to Volunteer in Mexico
Mexico City is a popular place to volunteer in Mexico. Not only can you explore Aztec ruins and visit the Frida Kahlo Museum in your free time, but you can volunteer in education, health, and youth to make a difference in the capital city.
Known for its delicious food, Oaxaca is a great option to volunteer in Mexico. Enjoy the colorful markets in the evenings, and volunteer during the day. You can find opportunities in a host of different industries such as art, law, healthcare, and more with Adelante Abroad.
The Yucatan is a beautiful and diverse area of Mexico. It's well-known vacation spots are Cancun and Tulum where people come to learn about the ancient Mayan civilization, explore the jungles and cenotes, and relax on the beach. While you explore during the weekends, you can volunteer within education during the week. If you want to volunteer as a teacher in the Yucatan, take a look at VolunQuest and Fundación Aantah Tulum.
Language Requirements & Tips
It's time to brush up on the Spanish you learned in high school! Although not required of every volunteer program, it's a good idea to have some working knowledge of the official language of Mexico.
If you're interested in learning Spanish in Mexico, see if you can arrange an intercambio - a language exchange with someone interested in learning English. Live in a homestay or with local students - either way, you'll live cheaply and really improve your Spanish.
Many large cities in Mexico have fairly large populations of ex-pats from the U.S., so you can expect to find organizations of foreigners, English-language bookstores and libraries, and stores that will sell comfort food and familiar brands. The U.S. embassies and consulates are also very helpful in case of emergency and the economic dominance of English means that you can almost always find someone to translate in a pinch. (Similarly, many doctors have trained in the U.S. and speak excellent English.)
Know Before You Go
Due to the drug war, customs agents are particularly diligent about medication. If you need prescription meds, bring enough for your entire stay, or get the chemical formula and have it filled locally. (The second option is usually cheaper, even without insurance.)
If you're on a budget, cook meals instead of going out, and learn what's local and in-season to eat the most cheaply. You can also fundraise or apply for scholarships to fund your volunteer abroad experience in Mexico.
Visas for Volunteering in Mexico
Citizens of the U.S., E.U., and many other countries do not require visas to enter Mexico as tourists, and can stay for up to 180 days. However, be aware that some volunteer programs in Mexico may require a work visa even if you are not being paid.
Health & Safety
The diversity of Mexico makes it difficult to make country-wide recommendations, although typhoid and hepatitis A and B vaccinations are recommended for all travelers. Anti-malarials are recommended for a small number of rural areas, and insect protection measures are advised due to the prevalence of dengue fever. Long-term volunteers might consider travel insurance.
Although the U.S. media paint Mexico as dangerous, the truth is that drug-war-related violence is limited to the border region and the states of Sinaloa, Michoacán, and Guerrero, particularly Tamaulipas. Make sure to check travel advisories with U.S. Department of State. General street smarts are all that's required for most of Mexico: the traffic is usually the single biggest hazard to your safety.
Contributed by Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein