Congratulations, you’re finishing school!
What should you do next? Start applying for jobs? Enroll in college? Get on the fast track to medical school?
Actually, why not take a break?
No, not a one-week lake trip with your friends. Why not take an entire gap year?
Rather than diving straight into the overwhelming world of higher education, more and more high school graduates are choosing to take a year off.
Whether it’s to study a new language, work in a faraway land, volunteer to help the needy, travel or a combination of all four, a gap year is a wonderful way to experience the world before settling into a career.
And don’t worry, high school graduates aren’t the only ones getting in on the action! Plenty of college students take a year off after graduation, or even in the middle of their studies.
Even professionals are starting to jump on this bandwagon.
So where should you go? And what should you do with this time?
South America is an affordable option that offers a plethora of activities for your gap year. Whether you want to volunteer, travel, work or study, you’ll never be short on choices.
Livin’ la Vida Loca! The 4 Best Options for Your Gap Year in South America
1. Volunteer in South America
Volunteering has several benefits.
First, giving your services in a foreign country looks great on your resume. Second, many programs include language education. Third, you get to use your gap year in a helpful way.
Always thoroughly research either the agency or the NGO in question, because some are known to charge hefty fees for sub-par experiences.
However, here are some programs that should live up to expectations.
- Want to volunteer in mountainous Argentina? The High Mountain Institute Gap Semester from Go Overseas focuses on developing outdoor skills for those passionate about conserving the world’s natural beauty. Participants embark on extended backcountry treks through the spectacular landscapes of southern Patagonia.
- Rainforest Concern is an independent NGO. It operates a volunteer program in the cloud forests surrounding the Ecuadorian Amazon. The community-run project focuses largely on wildlife conservation.
Social and community work
- Cross-Cultural Solutions offers an educational immersion program. Volunteers work closely with disadvantaged children in Lima, Peru. Based out of a specially run shelter, participants provide assistance to children who lack access to adequate education.
- A rather unusual option, Volunteer Latin America facilitates participants to teach photography to impoverished teenagers in Peru. There are no program fees, and the experience is ideal for budding photographers.
The Chilean government sponsors a program called Centro de Voluntarios to encourage foreigners to teach English at schools in underprivileged regions. No program fees apply.
The Peace Corps
The United States Peace Corps runs a number of projects throughout South America to aid development and provide volunteers and communities with a meaningful cultural exchange. It’s only open to Americans and requires a minimum two-year commitment.
The Corps grants benefits such as return flights, health insurance, a modest monthly stipend and a relocation fee.
The United Nations Volunteer Program
Professionals longing for a sabbatical could sign up for the UNV Global Talent Pool.
A bachelor’s degree and two years experience in your chosen field are required, making it one of the most prestigious volunteer programs around.
Participants use their professional skills to provide aid to vulnerable communities throughout South America. This immersive experience with the United Nations will definitely make your resume stand out when you return to your home country!
Agencies such as Gap Force offer combination programs that include volunteering, travel and language studies, all mixed together in a neat package.
Their 8-week South American Adventure, for example, provides volunteers with the chance to trek to Machu Picchu, work at an animal rescue in the Amazon, help develop an impoverished rural community in Ecuador and explore the wildlife-rich Galapagos Islands.
It’s a great option for those after multiple experiences within a single agency.
Click here to join our team!
2. Travel through South America
If you have the time and money, why not spend your gap year seeing as much of this gorgeous continent as you can?
You might choose to travel on your own. Or you can work and volunteer in multiple places around South America, with traveling being your ultimate goal.
Your budget for South America
The cost of travel varies considerably throughout South America. How much you spend ultimately comes down to where and how you travel. Consider the following as a minimum backpacker budget:
- Bolivia, 30 USD per day
- Peru and Ecuador, 35 USD per day
- Colombia, 45 USD per day
- Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, 60 USD per day
Airfares are expensive, so book early and look for deals via an online reservation system such as Skyscanner.
A little tip: When choosing your destination on Skyscanner, select “everywhere” to search a wide range of options. Or choose “whole month” to find the cheapest dates. Flexibility is key for securing affordable flights!
Most travelers opt for an open-jaw ticket, which means flying into one destination and out of another.
Traveling South America on the cheap
Spend more time in cheaper countries like Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.
Argentina and Brazil are too amazing to describe, but spending a ton of time there will take a toll on your bank account.
Rather than hotels, book rooms in hostels or cheap hospedajes(guesthouses). Buses are a popular form of transportation in South America. If you can take an overnight bus when traveling, you’ll save money on accommodation.
When you do visit those expensive destinations, cook for yourself. And if it’s safe to do so, forgo tours and visit attractions independently.
Where to go in South America
Deciding where to go is somewhat subjective. Ultimately, it comes down to your personal interests, time frame and budget. The following are a few South American highlights:
- The Iguazu Falls are a stunning series of ginormous cataracts on the border between Argentina and Brazil.
- The Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats) is an epic white salt desert in Bolivia known for its alienesque landscapes.
- Machu Picchu is a famous Inca citadel perched high in the Peruvian Andes.
- Rio de Janeiro is a world-renowned Brazilian city in an incredible natural setting.
- Patagonia is a vast southern wilderness area in Argentina and Chile. It’s home to some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth.
3. Work in South America
Adventurous gap year travelers often pick up work to either beef up their resumes or finance their wanderings.
Gringo-orientated hostels often hire extranjeros (foreigners) to fill reception or bartending positions. Experience is rarely necessary. Time commitments are as low as two weeks, which is ideal for the roving nomad.
On the downside, don’t expect to earn much more than food, accommodation and maybe some free booze. Approach hostel owners directly or apply online through Workaway.
Teaching English is the perfect gap year profession, combining invaluable work experience and the chance to immerse oneself in another culture. Opportunity abounds even for the novice teacher, although salaries can sometimes leave a lot to be desired.
A Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate helps teachers land better paying positions, which can be done either online before you depart or through a certified local institution.
A huge advantage is that TEFL programs help young people land their first job, which can be a daunting task for those new to the workforce.
Bolivian Express offer a one-month journalism internship with their La Paz-based magazine. Participants receive on-site training, Spanish lessons and assistance in preparing high-quality articles for publication in the magazine.
Yes, the internship only lasts one month. But you can always travel around South America after your internship! Put your newly-crafted journalism skills to work and sell some pieces about your gap year experiences.
People who can work online should consider adopting the role of a digital nomad during their gap year. Pay may be low at first, but the worker will gain precious experience in their field and learn how to run their own business.
With a little hard work and perseverance, the remote worker could eventually bring in enough money to fund their travels indefinitely. Your gap year just became way longer than a year!
Contact potential clients directly to pitch your services or look for gigs on online platforms such as Upwork, Fiverr and People Per Hour.
4. Study in South America
A gap year in South America is the perfect opportunity to hone those Spanish skills
Before departing on your epic adventure, try FluentU free for 15 days and start watching videos to give yourself a language base.
FluentU takes real world videos—like sports programs, music videos and news broadcasts—and turns them into Spanish learning experiences.
You can even download files for offline use. This way, you can keep studying on long bus rides around South America.
While on the road, immerse yourself in the local culture and memorize the most useful travel phrases to make the most of your gap year.
Study in a language school
To expedite the learning process, it’s a good idea to enroll in a local language institute. An army of Spanish teachers holds classes throughout the continent, meaning options are virtually limitless.
The whitewashed Bolivian city of Sucre is a popular destination for classes. Language learners come for its stunning colonial architecture and plethora of gringo-orientated schools. Me Gusta is a well-run language school that incorporates games, videos and salsa classes into its curriculum.
For the best results, take four class hours per day, organize a local homestay and aim for total immersion.
Regardless of where you decide to study, do so at the beginning of your gap year to give you time to build upon your newfound skills.
If you’re still in school, contact your institution about earning language credits through programs in South America.
The above are just a few ideas of what to do on a gap year in South America, but you don’t need to limit yourself to just one option!
Mix and match activities that match your interests and career aspirations to compile the perfect gap year itinerary.
Buen viaje (Have a nice trip).
Harry is a South American-based freelance writer who covers travel, the arts and culture, among many other things.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.