Volunteer Abroad in Central America
For many people, volunteering abroad is one of their first chances to step out and see the world beyond their country's borders. However, if you live in the United States, you do not need to travel that far to encounter new cultures, experiences, and communities who need devoted volunteers. Although Central America is only a short plane ride away, you will find nearly anything that you could want in any volunteer abroad destination worldwide.
Volunteer Abroad in Central America: Projects in Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama
The hardest part of volunteering abroad in Central America will probably be choosing which of these incredible countries you want to visit and serve. To help you out, we will be detailing six of our most popular Central American volunteer abroad destinations giving you a little bit of background about the countries and projects that are popular among our volunteer reviews. Although any of the countries in Central America will be full of breathtaking scenery and opportunities to work in one of the most biologically diverse areas on our planet, we think you'll find that each country has something special to offer. So, do your research and figure out where you can be of greatest benefit.
Because of Central America's easy accessibility, large number of English speakers, and strong voluntourism infrastructure, many countries in Central America have become primary destination choices for student volunteers and students taking a gap year. Because of this interest, many of the projects that we mention are especially suited to students, although most of them are great for anybody with a big heart, a willingness to solve problems, and a great attitude.
Belize is a small country in the northeastern corner of Central America bordering Mexico. Although its population is just over 330,000 people, it is richly abundant in both natural wonders and unique cultural experiences. Over 70% of Belize is covered in forest and it is home to some of the only jaguar preservation sites in the world. Belize is unique in that its official language is English and would be a great destination for someone nervous about traveling in a country where they do not speak the native language. Despite Belize's abundant natural resources, the country faces a poverty epidemic that affects many areas of Belize society, such as the country's ability to fund its schools.
If you're working in the healthcare field or else are interested in pursuing a healthcare degree, International Service Learning (ISL) runs many different service learning excursions all throughout the country, especially in rural and indigent communities. ISL’s trips focus mainly on helping volunteers join healthcare-related projects, specifically in the areas of nursing, dentistry, and healthcare for women and children. Providing healthcare to the underserved is a major priority of ISL, and as we hear from our volunteers, they put the resources and training into making sure it is done right. Volunteer trips range from nine to fourteen days long, and can be tailored to the needs of a group. ISL does also provide-education related tours, but only on the request of a group. Education groups work to support teaching staff at schools with limited resources and a high student to teacher ratio.
Costa Rica, long famous for its beautiful beaches and dense rain forests is one of the most prosperous and progressive nations in Central America. As a country, it has won worldwide recognition for its strong environmental policies that protect its forests and marine ecosystems. This cultural drive to protect the environment is part of the reason Costa Rica is such a great destination for environmental volunteers-- extra hands are always needed in a country so devoted to protecting its natural wonders and the multitude of groups in Costa Rica doing so will provide an excellent learning environment.
Among these natural wonders to preserve are sea turtles. They have tremendous cultural weight in Costa Rica, are of special concern due to loss of breeding ground habitat and the resulting decreased populations. There are many projects that work to maintain sea turtle hatchling nurseries and rehabilitate injured or sick sea turtles. One such program is Animal Experience International (AEI). Although AEI’s sea turtle conservation and restoration programs are suited to all volunteers, trips can be tailored if volunteers have veterinary interests or experience. The work that volunteers do in Costa Rica is part of a much larger local conservation effort-- AEI's partner organization in Costa Rica is comprised of biologists, educators, and local activists who make it their goal to protect the sea turtles' important place in the Costa Rican culture and ecosystem. Typical activities include monitoring the beach for new sea turtle nests, tagging and measuring sea turtles, and releasing newly hatched turtles back into the ocean. Logistically, trips range in length from two to eight weeks, and special arrangements are made for groups over five.
If you're interested in a wider range of volunteer abroad programs, you should also research Volunteers for Peace (VFP), which arranges environmental and educational volunteer abroad trips throughout Costa Rica. VFP supports both short-term and long-term volunteer projects, and works closely with in-country partners to place volunteering groups or individuals in highly personalized volunteer experiences. Types of programs include supporting rural tourism, environmental advocacy, village construction, and projects working with animals.
Guatemala, usually remembered for its spectacular Mayan ruins and scenic beauty, is quickly becoming a favorite spot for volunteers looking to serve abroad. Full of historic vestiges of the Spanish conquest and ancient Mayan civilizations, Guatemala is great for volunteers interested in working in a country with plenty of interesting history. Of course, present-day Guatemala itself is a great place to be. Tourists have fallen in love with its unique cuisine, which boasts over a hundred different types of tamales, and the city of Antigua, which boasts unique Spanish architecture unparalleled anywhere in Central America.
Like many countries in Central America, Guatemala’s strongest need for volunteers is rooted in its widespread efforts to conserve its natural beauty and protect the rare plants and animals that call Guatemala home, as well as the culture that is disappearing with the influx of globalization. Global Leadership Adventures (GLA), which specializes in planning volunteer travel trips for students in high school, provides a number of “service adventures” ranging from Spanish immersion to teaching assistance to beach and rainforest conservation. There are also volunteer projects focused on preserving Mayan culture that include experiences teaching at a Mayan school and becoming immersed in the vanishing Mayan culture. Volunteer trips are pre-arranged and typically last around two weeks. Programs with GLA are designed for students aged 14-18 and take many measures, such as promising a 6:1 volunteer to staff ratio, to make volunteering abroad comfortable for younger volunteers.
Like many of its Central American neighbors, Honduras is brimming with turquoise beaches, bio-diverse rainforests, and vibrant local cultures. Also like its neighbors, Honduras is becoming a place of fast-paced change as more and more tourists discover all that it has to offer. That doesn't mean that Honduras isn't a place for volunteers though- despite its immense natural resources, Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere with over 50% of the population living below the poverty level. There are many projects in Honduras that aim to help the country recover from and avoid some of the troubles that come along with a booming tourism economy and other national struggles, such as illegal logging and deforestation.
If you're interested in finding a project in Honduras, we recommend checking into A Broader View Volunteers (ABV), which coordinates a number of projects throughout the country, including projects devoted to education, addressing local health needs, and HIV awareness. ABV provides both occupational volunteering opportunities and programs for general volunteers who are looking to serve an excellent cause. Volunteers who plan their trip with ABV will have the benefit of staying with a host family and have the option to take Spanish immersion classes if they do not have a working use of the language to communicate with their community and host family. Occupational volunteering programs are also open to students or those interested in the appropriate disciplines, so they can be used as an internship for a student looking to gain more experience in their discipline. Trips can range from 1 to 12 weeks and are supported by full-time in country ABV staff.
The largest of the Central American countries, Nicaragua has become a tourism hot spot due to its strong, multi-ethnic culture and the natural beauty that pervades the entire Central American isthmus. Because Nicaragua has coasts both along the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, it has two distinct subcultures that are suited to each of their geographic demands. While some people still think of Nicaragua as related to its revolution and political instability that lasted into the 1990s, Nicaragua is now regarded as one of the safest countries in Central America for foreigners.
There are plenty of great, unique volunteer projects in Nicaragua. Because of the size of the country and its large volunteer program network, you should definitely take the time to find the project where you can be the biggest asset. For example, one program to look into is VIDA Volunteer Travel, which offers specialized medical, dental, veterinary and advanced veterinary programs with in-country partners throughout Nicaragua. VIDA Volunteer Travel's model is to provide able volunteers to the communities and clinics that need them most. VIDA's volunteer programs do not require any previous medical knowledge or skills, and their programs are great for someone interested in volunteering in a very real, sustainable way. All volunteers work in local clinics that adhere to all laws and interested volunteers can either join existing trips or plan their own.
Because of its small size, density of sights to see, and easy navigability, Panama is quickly becoming one of the top tourism destinations for tourists with a limited amount of time. After all, when you can see volcanoes, tropical rainforests, ruins, and pristine beaches all in the space of a few days, what more could you ask for? However, if you're planning to stay one week or one year, Panama has plenty to offer. You should definitely take the time to explore Casco Viejo, the oldest city in the Americas, join the tourist crowd at the Panama Canal, and even take a tour of one of the many coffee plantations. While there is plenty to do in Panama as a tourist, there is even more to do as a volunteer. Panama's rapidly growing volunteer industry has made way for some fantastic eco-tourism and volunteer projects that work to connect local communities with volunteers to provide their skills and time.
Programs that have operations in Panama include International Service Learning, which conducts a variety of Panama-based programs including veterinary, dental, and optometry volunteering opportunities. ISL also runs a unique program in Panama called Hike for Humanity (H4H), which is a “service hiking adventure” that aims to assist those far off the beaten path by sending service-minded hikers to help them in their far-flung jungle communities. H4H volunteers are responsible for carrying packs loaded with supplies to villages and communities far off the beaten path and away from the advantages that other urban areas have. Once volunteers have reached the communities, they serve according to their skills (the majority of H4H volunteers work in the medical field) and then return back through the jungle to the base camp. Volunteer trips are pre-arranged and usually last from one to two weeks. Special trips can be arranged upon request.
Summing It Up
Volunteering, in any locale, is about building relationships and working hard to make real change. Central America is in a unique position as it attempts to both nurture its burgeoning tourism industry while also trying to protect and conserve the natural resources that have sustained it for so long and are essentially what makes Central America so special. Volunteering in Central America allows individuals like you to experience the area's natural beauty and unique cultures while also leaving things better than you found them.
So, do it! Volunteer in Central America, one of the most unique and accessible places on our planet. If you work hard enough, all of the amazing benefits that you receive will be doubled in your value to your community. Volunteering, of course, is not just about the immediate relationship formed between the volunteer and their host community, but also the broader relationship established by the movement of people wanting to give back to the unique places that they gained so much from. As part of a movement of volunteers, your actions today could make an even bigger difference in how the world collaborates tomorrow.
If you're wondering how you can afford a volunteer trip to Central America, check out our list of 200 Volunteer and Study Abroad Scholarships and Grants or learn how you can volunteer abroad for free.
Brittany Edwardes is a Fulbright Scholar who spent the last year teaching and living in Southeast Asia. Brittany is very passionate about service learning, spending time outdoors, and making her own pasta.