If you want to know what you’re truly capable of, take yourself out of your comfort zone.
If you want to stop learning Spanish and start living it, surround yourself with the language.
And if you want to make a difference in the world, don’t let anything stop you. Go and do it.
Volunteering abroad will help you accomplish all of these things. It can be an incredible, eye-opening experience. You learn about yourself, you help others and you experience a world outside of your own.
There are many reasons to volunteer, but the best volunteers do it as a way to blend their passion for helping others with their passion for traveling and experiencing new cultures.
If you’re choosing to do this in a Spanish-speaking country, learning Spanish is essential to truly experience immersion and effectively communicate with the people you’re serving.
If this is the type of opportunity you’re looking for, we’ve got some ideas for you. And these aren’t the typical “voluntourism” programs that can cost thousands of dollars and emphasize the tourist experience in lieu of the volunteer one—these are the real deal!
What Is a “Real” Volunteer Experience?
A real volunteer experience is one that makes you uncomfortable, immerses you in the local culture, forces you to learn local customs and traditions and pushes you to practice the native language. This type of experience is alternately challenging and rewarding, exciting and exasperating, inspirational and demoralizing.
There’s a popular misconception that in order to be considered “well-traveled,” you need to have physically stood in many different countries. I’m going to go out on a limb and declare that to be rubbish.
To me, “well-traveled” means that you’ve gotten to know the place you’ve traveled to, and you’ve gone beyond the initial “meet-and-greet” stage with the city. You’ve gone beyond the central plaza and closest coffee shop. It means you’ve gotten lost (and not in the fun way) and had a frustrating encounter where you struggled to understand and make yourself understood.
You’ve gone beyond the typical tourist experience and have really begun to know the ins and outs of the community you’re in.
Why Learn Spanish While Volunteering?
Volunteering abroad for an extended period gives you as much insight into yourself as it does into a new culture. It gives you the opportunity to practice your non-native language authentically and challenges you to think about different perspectives, to think before you speak.
The very act of formulating a basic sentence will have you second-guessing yourself in ways you haven’t since you were a child. Is this how to say what I want to say? Is there a better way to say it? Why am I not being understood? Oh, that’s why.
You’ll begin to grow and the feeling of “getting it” will become addicting. When it comes to learning anything, time and persistence are essential. But with language-learning, there’s another element—confidence.
I’ve been volunteering as an English teacher in Peru for over three months now, and I still have to prompt myself to say “yes” instead of “no” when people ask me if I speak Spanish. In my mind, saying “no” is a safe answer—I can still attempt to speak, but if I end up being as bad as I fear I’ll be, then at least the person I’m talking to won’t be surprised.
Immersing yourself in the language and truly learning it takes away this doubt and allows you to freely communicate with the people you’re working with. It helps you keep the focus on the community you’re serving instead of on yourself and your (perceived) shortcomings.
Tips for Practicing Spanish in Your Host City
Many times, people think or hope that by coming to a Spanish-speaking country, even for long periods of time as volunteers do, they’ll just “pick up the language.” Let me just burst this hope bubble before it gets too big: that’s not how it works.
Even people who have a knack for languages need to practice what they’ve learned and seek out new opportunities to learn more. Fortunately, in a Spanish-speaking city, these opportunities are everywhere. Be sure to actively push yourself outside your comfort zone!
Avoid eateries that cater to tourists
Yeah, you might be tempted to go to that cheerful-looking place with all the familiar accents and English filtering out onto the street. However, by passing up local food establishments for those that cater to tourists, you’re missing a chance to practice your Spanish!
You’re also missing out on the opportunity to enjoy an authentic cultural experience without all the frills and fanfare that being with a tour group would have, and you can genuinely relax.
Roam the markets and bakeries
Living long-term in a South American country will have you roaming the local markets and sizing up local bakery options like a pro after a few weeks. Initially, though, the atmosphere can seem a little intimidating. In the market, every stallholder is vying for your attention—and your money.
Always keep your purse or bag in front of you and never take the first price quoted to you. I encourage you to visit multiple stalls with the same foods and ask for the price.
Early on, this is more about practicing your Spanish and getting to know the space a little more—you’ll inevitably end up paying more than the locals on your first few rounds because, well, you’re clearly not from there and obviously don’t know how things work.
But one of the best feelings is when you start to develop a repertoire with a certain stallholder or find yourself able to bargain for a fair price in Spanish.
Practice with native Spanish-speaking volunteers
Many organizations rely on citizens of your host country to assist in classrooms or offer their help and expertise on whatever the organization’s central focus is.
In many cases the volunteers use English to speak with international volunteers. Although this might seem inconvenient (after all, you want to learn to communicate completely in Spanish), I found a great way to practice even when they spoke to me in English. I would let my new Spanish-speaking friend speak in English, and I would speak in Spanish. This way, both of us benefit from practicing our second language, and the conversation flows more smoothly.
Tackle local bars/clubs
If you thought it was hard trying to understand people in bars and clubs in English, you’re in for a treat. Imagine being in that exact same environment—bass thumping, people laughing and shouting and singing and dancing while the lyrics to some pop song (sometimes English, sometimes Spanish) blare overhead and there’s some guy or girl trying to talk to you. And you’re not sure if they just asked for your name or how long you’re staying in the country.
It’s definitely an experience! It’s one that makes you appreciate the difficulties of practicing a language more than the actual difficulty of the language—bargaining at the market never sounded so appealing.
Now that you know where to practice, it’s time to pick a country and an organization!
Resources for Finding Volunteer Opportunities in Spanish-Speaking Countries
Here are a couple of reliable websites to find legitimate organizations to volunteer with:
This is an extremely comprehensive list of volunteer opportunities in South America, organized by country and in alphabetical order. They invite readers to add opportunities not yet listed in the comments, so make sure to scroll all the way down!
The page also emphasizes that the programs it features are free or low-cost for travelers, but that doesn’t mean you should narrow your selection based on just free programs! Sometimes those that charge a small fee upfront are those that are doing the best work. The most important thing when it comes to fees is transparency regarding where the money is going.
This option is a little bit more mainstream. Go Overseas is nevertheless well-organized and offers very detailed information on volunteering opportunities throughout the world. Simply adjust the filters for South America and your interests, and start browsing!
Bear in mind that while these websites organize nice lists and are always adding to them, it’s up to you to do some basic research. Visit the website, poke around, see if they have volunteer testimonials (and check how recent they are) and always be sure to visit their FAQ page. See if they’re transparent about their appropriation of funds and if it’s easy to contact the people in charge of each branch of the organization.
3 Programs to Volunteer in South America, Learn Spanish and Learn About Yourself Along the Way
Based in Sucre, Bolivia, Condor Trekkers offers a unique volunteering experience for those who are both volunteer-minded and love being outdoors. Volunteers learn the routes of the treks and guide visitors through their chosen hike, which range anywhere from a city walking tour to a four-day overnight tour.
100% of the proceeds from these treks go towards development and social projects within the Sucre community and the surrounding countryside. As with every organization that relies heavily on volunteers, the longer you can stay the better, but if you only have a couple weeks to offer, Condor Trekkers has opportunities for you as well! They always need help promoting their agency, which is a great way to force yourself to get out of your comfort zone and practice speaking Spanish. They also invite anyone with an idea for a community project to share.
The cost breakdown is very encouraging for prospective volunteers—living comfortably in Sucre is possible for around $10 a day. And after taking an initial hike at your own cost ($72) in preparation for learning the surrounding areas, it’s still pretty affordable. Other costs you’ll need to consider are Spanish lessons (around $5 an hour), relaxing at the bar after a long day (around $2 per beer) or a fancier meal in a tourist restaurant (around $2-$3).
Volunteers also have a range of prospective accommodation, ranging from a room in a hostel with a private bathroom, a room in a shared house or a home-stay.
Condor Trekkers is ranked second of things to do in Sucre on TripAdvisor, which suggests that the organization’s volunteers are both happy volunteering with the organization and good at what they do. While the site says there’s no typical day for a volunteer, the experience is largely centered around hiking and guiding hikes, promoting the company to the public, teaching English to the native-Spanish-speaking guides and engaging in the community projects that the funds from the treks go to support.
The organization also states that it’s open to suggestions from other volunteers and encourages volunteers to share whatever unique talents they bring to the table.
Voluntarios de la Esperanza (Volunteers of Hope)
Based in Santiago, Chile, Voluntarios de la Esperanza (VE Global) is committed to fostering the positive development of children at social risk in Chile. Originally established as a children’s home in the late 1990s, the organization has since grown to include children’s shelters, community centers and schools in Santiago’s most vulnerable areas.
VE Global boasts a history of nearly 450 full-time volunteers from over 35 countries. Part of VE Global’s massive success stems from its belief that children benefit most from long-term volunteers who provide stability that’s so often missing in their lives. For that reason, prospective volunteers looking for an incredibly transparent and successful organization have found the right place: VE Global requires a four and a half month minimum time commitment.
Established adults looking to take meaningful time off from work and contribute their worldview and work ethic would find this to be an incredibly rewarding program.
The organization charges no fee but is careful to stipulate on its website that “no fee doesn’t mean free.” This means that the organization works with each incoming volunteer on an individual basis to establish their personal fundraising goals based on what they think is possible in the context of their professional network. This could also be extremely useful to people wanting to learn about fundraising or get firsthand experience doing so. Every volunteer, regardless of placement, is expected to assist in fundraising.
The organization requires an intermediate level of Spanish or a commitment to take classes to attain that level. This is perfect for volunteers needing that little extra push to get them to take classes and actively practice speaking.
Helping Overcome Obstacles Peru (HOOP) was founded in 2013 by four international volunteers and one native Peruvian who recognized a need for continuous volunteer service in the high-poverty, rural town of Flora Tristan, Arequipa. At first, HOOP focused on offering English education to children in the Flora Tristan community, located on the outskirts of the city. However, they’ve grown a lot over the years to accommodate the needs of the community members they work with.
For children, they now offer daycare, after school recess and art and theater classes. For women, they hold workshops that address everything from English to parenting to starting and growing a small business, as well as health and medical campaigns and fundraising initiatives.
To volunteer as an English teacher, the minimum time commitment is about two months. However, the organization is always looking for classroom helpers, so if you don’t meet the time requirement to officially teach, you can still have a great experience as a classroom aid. Just contact the volunteer coordinator to discuss your specific availability.
HOOP maintains a close connection with Soul Guesthouse, a large, spacious hostel specifically designed to accommodate long-term volunteers or international workers. The vibe is relaxed and cozy, with everyone brought together by a mutual desire to travel and meet new people. The location is good as well—about a fifteen-minute walk to the main square and ten minutes to the office where volunteer meetings are held and lots of pre-class prep takes place.
Volunteers living in Arequipa are offered assistance finding accommodation, with many choosing to live together in a long-term guesthouse. Others opt for one of the many affordable hostels or Airbnb options in the area or a home-stay with a local Peruvian family. There are also a range of Spanish schools available for about $7 an hour that offer tailored lessons to each individual’s level of Spanish upon entry.
How it all fits together: A day in the life of a HOOP volunteer
I personally chose to volunteer with HOOP and can’t recommend the organization highly enough. Volunteer teachers have the mornings to themselves before setting off to the office to convene before school, usually around lunchtime. The combi (bus) ride to the school is about 40 minutes each way, taking you out of the center of the city and past beautiful, but markedly different landscapes.
The English lessons, offered as a free supplemental program to children in the community, are one hour each day, with an hour of organized cancha (recess) where volunteers can play sports, make art or introduce a new activity based on their personal talents. The after-school program ends around six o’clock and volunteers are back in the city by seven, where it’s common to grab a bite to eat as a group to unwind and recount the day’s events.
If this is something you’ve been considering, go for it! The unique bond shared by international volunteers when joined by a common goal cannot be overstated.
And volunteering in South America encourages these lasting bonds by virtue of being surrounded by a language that’s not your first.
So what are you waiting for?
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