Travel guide publisher Moon Handbooks is giving away free ebook copies of its newest niche guidebook, Volunteer Vacations in Latin America by Amy E. Robertson. (Download the entire book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Kobo.) It’s all in celebration of In honor of April, National Volunteer Month.
As anyone who has ever volunteered abroad before knows, it is crucial to do your own research before you sign up. Robertson’s new book is a resource which makes that process easier – and more fun, since it is always fun to read guidebooks before you travel.
My travels in Latin America began in 1998 as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, working with the Ministry of Education in Nicaragua for two years, and continued as a trip leader for American Jewish World Service, guiding groups of young volunteers throughout Central America. SoÂ I was excited to see that Robertson had devoted an entire book to volunteer opportunities in the region. She covers Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.
I asked Robertson a few questions about writing this book and about where my readers and I should go on our next volunteer vacation.
JOSHUA BERMAN: What is unique about volunteering in Latin America? Why did you choose to focus this book on this particular region/collection of countries?
AMY E. ROBERTSON: I love Latin Americaâ€™s rich culture and heritage (Mayans! Incas! Aztecs!), the beauty of its natural environment (Beaches! Volcanoes! Galapagos Islands! Patagonia!), and the warmth of its people. Having lived in Latin America for eight years, it is a region that is very close to my heart. It is also close enough to North America – where Moon Handbooks and many of their readers are based – to easily embark on short-term volunteer adventures, which are the focus of the guide.Â No jet-lag, and you can reach many of the destinations covered in the guide with just a few hours flight.
JB: What was the most interesting thing you learned while researching this book?
AR: While many of us are aware of the large US-based organizations that offer service trips, I was amazed to see how many small local initiatives are equipped and eager for international volunteers. In addition to the usual volunteer suspects of teaching English or protecting sea turtles, there is a wealth of truly unique volunteer opportunities out there: planting cardons to help provide food for the endangered chinchilla population in Chile; installing solar panels to provide electricity to rural communities in Nicaragua; monitoring the coral reef by scuba diving in Honduras; offering swimming and surf lessons along with environmental education to youth in Peru.
JB:What/where are the best programs for high school Spanish students looking for something to do during the summer?
AR: There are language schools throughout Latin America which combine language study with volunteering, and most start with a minimum one-week commitment. A typical program involves Spanish lessons in the morning, and volunteering in the afternoon.
Many non-profits can also connect their volunteers with Spanish lessons, either at a language school or with private tutors. In Volunteer Vacations in Latin America, Iâ€™ve noted when organizations offer or can arrange language lessons.
Volunteers coming alone usually need to be 18 or older, but many organizations welcome both families and student groups.Â To make the most of the experience, would-be volunteers should look for placements which include lots of interaction in Spanish with locals (working with people rather than wildlife can be an advantage here), and choose a homestay for their accommodation, to maximize their exposure to the language (and culture!).
JB: What volunteer opportunities did you find in the Maya region? Any particular ones you recommend?
AR: While there are several volunteer opportunities in Guatemala and Honduras that work with modern-day Maya by virtue of their location, here are a few reputable and interesting organizations whose programs specifically focus on the Mayan people:
Â· Long Way Home, an organization in the Kaqchikel Maya town of San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala that focuses on construction with sustainable design and appropriate materials, and environmental stewardship.
Â· Mayan Families which supports indigenous and impoverished Guatemalans with a variety of development programs near Lake Atitlan.
Â· Trama Textiles which supports 17 weaving cooperatives in the Guatemalan Highlands.
Â· Guacamaya, a language school by the Mayan ruins of CopÃ¡n in Honduras, whose volunteer opportunities include helping out at an elementary school that serves the local ChortÃ Maya population.
JB: What’s the most important thing to study/remember/know before departing on a volunteer vacation in Latin America (besides your book)?
Study â€“ as much of the local language as you can before you go. Even the basic pleasantries will enhance your trip, and the more you know, the more you will be able to get out of the experience.
Remember â€“ it isnâ€™t about handouts or patronage â€“ your service is about working in solidarity with project organizers and beneficiaries for a better future.
Know â€“ â€œNo one can do everything, but everyone can do something.â€
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â€” Joshua Berman is a freelance writer, Denver Post columnist, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. He is based in Boulder, Colorado. All photos by Joshua Berman, taken during AJWS Alternative Break trips to Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras.
â€” Amy E. Robertson is a travel writer and author of several guidebooks for Moon Handbooks. Her work has also been published in Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Traveler and Budget Travel, among others. She has a background in international development and nonprofit management, has worked in both private and nonprofit sectors, and has served as an international volunteer in Bolivia, Ecuador and Honduras. Her latest book, Volunteer Vacations in Latin America, is available through your favorite bookseller, and the e-version can be downloaded free from moon.com during the month of April.