Volunteering in Mexico and Central
An Overview, Top Tips, and Recommended
|WorldTeach students in Costa
Rica. Photo courtesy of Worldteach.
Many international volunteers, especially
those from North America, find Mexico and Central America
to be inviting and exciting places to serve. Easier and
cheaper to get to than Africa and Asia, this region offers
a huge range of volunteer opportunities from working with
street children in Mexico City to counting butterflies in
the rainforests of Cost Rica.
I first volunteered in Central America
in 1986, and I still recall the feeling in my muscles while
mixing cement with a shovel on a sister city project in
Nicaragua; the sound of Mayan mothers patting homemade tortillas
into shape; and the taste of fruit juice served in little
plastic bags from a corner street vender in Managua. In
Mexico and Central America, I fell in love with Spanish,
Latin food, and the Meso-American approach to life.
Since then, I have interviewed dozens
of volunteers who agree with me. Mexico and Central America
are inviting, culturally rich places to volunteer.
Popular Options for Volunteers
in Mexico and Central America
Top Tips for Volunteering in
with children. Due to the tourism industry
and economic globalization, there is a demand for
volunteers to teach English. Throughout Latin America,
vibrant nonprofit and faith-based communities provide
a plethora of opportunities to work with young people
in orphanages, afterschool programs, and cultural
health services. Many clinics and hospitals
in the region are underserved and volunteers in the
health sector, especially doctors, nurses, PAs, and
physical therapists are in demand.
environmental conservation. From sea turtle
conservation to promotion of fair trade coffee and
sustainable agriculture, there are abundant opportunities
to volunteer to help protect the environment.
the language: Your ability to volunteer effectively
in Mexico or Central America will be greatly enhanced
if you speak at least some Spanish. Consider making
language study part of your volunteer experience—take
a Spanish class before leaving home, start off your
volunteer experience with a Spanish language program,
or volunteer with an organization that offers language
training as part of the volunteer experience.
Of course, Spanish is not the only language spoken in
the region. In Belize and the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua,
most locals speak English or English-based Creole. Among
indigenous communities in Mexico, Guatemala, and Panama,
Spanish is widely but not universally spoken.
regional differences: In Mexico and Central
America, regional differences within countries are
almost as wide as between countries. For example,
in Mexico, you could volunteer with impoverished communities
just south of the Rio Grande, a sophisticated cultural
center in the underappreciated capital Mexico City,
an indigenous community in Oaxaca, or an environmental
organization in Baja.
In most parts of Guatemala you’ll experience the
indigenous majority which has kept Mayan languages and
cultures alive despite centuries of repression, but in
the capital you will find significant pockets of Mestizo
communities with connections to Europe. In Panama you
can experience African influenced communities as well
as Kuna and other indigenous communities that have preserved
their land, art, and language. Consider these regional
differences as you plan your experience—are you
most excited by the idea of living in the rainforest
in Costa Rica or working with Mayan children in a Guatemalan
the history. The best volunteer programs
in this region will provide not only opportunities
for meaningful service you opportunities to learn
about the culture, history, and politics of the country
where you are volunteering. Especially in Central
America, the United States has a history of intervention
as well as international citizen solidarity. It will
serve you well to learn the context of international
volunteering in the region.
your health. Dengue fever, hepatitis, and
intestinal disease are common throughout Latin America.
Make sure to get all recommended shots and evacuation
insurance before you leave home. To avoid serious
stomach troubles, I always travel with acidophilus
and a back up pre-filled prescription for antibiotics.
Do not assume you can get a prescription filled away
from home. In an emergency, call your embassy and
get an embassy-recommended doctor. Don’t swim
outside of designated areas and even then only after
you know about local currents.
If you prepare yourself well, chose the right volunteer
program, and make an effort to stay safe, volunteering
in Mexico or Latin America can be a transformational
experience that enriches your life with new skills, heightened
cultural understanding, and deep friendships.
Here are top organizations
to consider for Mexico and Central America based
upon 6 years of research for the book I co-wrote, How
to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas.
For college grads and
professionals with more money than time:
Cultural Solutions is a reputable organization
with short-term opportunities in Guatemala
and Costa Rica.
- WorldTeach is
a highly regarded organization that specializes
in volunteer service teaching English in developing
countries around the world, sharing life experience
to make a difference, and learning from locals
in the process. It offers optional TEFL certification
in many cases. There are summer and year-long
Institute offers opportunities to help
scientists gather data with researchers ranging
from counting caterpillars in Costa Rican
forests or tagging conches in Belize.
For college students:
For high school students:
de las Americas has decades of experience
providing meaningful service and leadership
Routes combines overseas travel and service
for young people.
If you want to learn
Spanish while you serve:
- I recommend Pop
Wuj, a language school in Guatemala run
by indigenous Mayan teachers.
- Most language
schools offer opportunities to volunteer,
but at Pop Wuj, volunteering
is an integral part of the language experience.
mentioned above, also does a great job of integrating
the volunteering and language learning.
For family or intergenerational
Volunteers provides family opportunities
in Mexico and Costa Rica.
Scholar, formerly Elderhostel offers
special intergenerational trips for folks
volunteering with their grandchildren,
For medical professionals:
Programs Association (IVPA), www.volunteerinternational.org,
is an alliance of non-governmental organizations
involved in international volunteer work and
In many parts of the
region, if you already speak Spanish, you could
consider setting up an independent