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 work is truly an investment in Mexico's future.
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.
Many large cities in Mexico have fairly large populations of expats 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.)
NGOs/Nonprofit/Volunteer History in Mexico
Since the 1990s, perhaps the most visible role of NGOs has been in preventing violence - and mediating - between the government and indigenous peoples. However, NGOs and nonprofits are currently active in many realms of political, social, and economic life in Mexico.
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.)
How to Save Money While Volunteering in Mexico
If you're interested in learning more Spanish, 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. Cook meals instead of going out, and learn what's local and in season to eat the most cheaply.
Best Places to Volunteer
Mexico City, Oaxaca, the Yucatán, anywhere near a beach.
Questions to Ask
Are you responsible for arranging your own housing? Is there an option to take language classes? How much free time will you have? Are there opportunities to travel within 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.
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 Acapulco. 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