How Volunteering Changed My Travels
When my boyfriend and I set off on our South American adventure, one of the primary aims of our travels was to stay out there for as long as possible. Yet barely a few months in to our epic (hopefully) year-long adventure, we had traveled the length of Brazil, done Rio carnival, gone to both sides of Iguazu falls, got robbed in Buenos Aires, flown to the end of the earth, seen the sunrise at Mt Fitzroy and hiked the ‘O’ circuit in Torres Del Paine. Needless to say, because we had done so much, our money was quickly running out, so what could we do to sustain ourselves for the rest our trip and get the most from the remainder of our savings? The answer was simple, volunteer. We signed up to www.workaway.info and started looking for some options.
Our next stop was in Santiago, Chile. We decided that there would be no better place to settle down for a few weeks. After looking at a few options, we came to the decision that a hostel would be a good start for our first volunteering experience.
We were initially only meant to stay for a month, but ended up staying for 3 months because we loved it so much. We undertook a huge variety of tasks, and met loads of amazing people. We even put on weekly events like ‘Mexican night’ for guests where we would cook a big banquet, a completely new experience for us, but everyone loved it! In return for volunteering a few days a week, we received complimentary accommodation, which is one of the biggest expenses whilst travelling. As Chile’s prices are comparable with European prices, this meant we could stay in Santiago for far longer than we would have been able to otherwise. I love travelling, but it can be tiring to constantly be on the move, so to settle down for a few months gives you a chance to relax and really appreciate living in a city. Most travellers only pass through Santiago for a couple of days and aren’t overly fussed by it, but we loved it! We found a ton of good shops, places to eat, places to hike and of course places to party.
After 3 months in Santiago, we had decided we had better get on with the rest of our travels and travelled up the length of Chile and into Bolivia. For our next volunteer experience, we opted to do something a little more rewarding and give something back. This time, instead of volunteering for accommodation, we actually paid a small fee to volunteer for a charity. We found an organisation in the Bolivian jungle called CIWY, www.intiwarayassi.org – they care for and rehabilitate rescued animals which have been taken away from their mothers and sold on the black market or confiscated from illegal circuses or zoos.
From the second I found this organisation online I knew it was for us, and when we arrived I couldn’t have been more right. We spent 5 weeks in the jungle and would have stayed for much, much longer if our visas and financial situation had permitted it. Most people don’t want to pay to volunteer, but as it worked out at around £14 a night for 30 nights including all food and accommodation, it was totally worth it. We would spend more than this on a daily basis wherever we were travelling. We spent our days teaching monkeys how to climb trees, keeping ocelots company, enriching jaguars and walking pumas. Now don’t get me wrong, this was the hardest work I have ever done, given the early starts, mosquito bites and the long hot days, but it was also the most rewarding and all the good points ended up outweighing the bad. I would give anything to go back there – it was quite simply the most special place I have ever been to. To make a difference to these animals lives was incredible and it will always have a special place in my heart. (If you want to read more about the organisation then please take a look at the more in-depth posts I have written on www.wearenico.com.)
We then carried on our travels through Peru and Ecuador and picked up more volunteer roles, which allowed us to spend longer in places along the way. As our money was drastically running out, we knew we would soon have to return home, but before this we decided we wanted to work with animals one last time. We ended up volunteering at a rescue centre in Colombia, high in the mountains above Bucaramanga, which had both dogs and cats. Again, in exchange for our accommodation, we spent a few weeks looking after some beautiful animals that had been found injured on the street and brought to the shelter. We helped to feed, walk and play with the animals and generally give them lots of love and attention. We felt that our being there really made a difference and we were able to give these animals a second chance which was simply amazing. We would have loved to take them all home with us, but to be honest they loved the shelter and each other so they were probably better off living at the shelter. There were 13 dogs and 9 cats when we arrived and some were lucky enough to be adopted while we were there. The organisation received some gorgeous new arrivals during our stay too! It was a great place, and the love that went into it by the couple that ran it was beautiful to see. As well as being in the Colombian countryside, somewhere we may never have normally visited, we got to immerse ourselves in a new culture and improve our Spanish through conversation with the locals.
After this we spent our last 2 weeks on a Caribbean island: making a short film, doing some design work and enjoying the sun. It was yet another incredible experience and a great way to end our trip. You can watch the film here.
We spent about 13 months on the road and it would have been a lot shorter had we not done any volunteer work. If you do decide to volunteer, you will gain so much more than free accommodation – the new friends you will make, the memories you will have and the interaction with local people all make for an experience you will never forget. Generally, if you are a nice person and can adapt to different situations then volunteering is for you. From now on, I’m sure that anywhere we travel, we will volunteer somewhere, even if it is just for a short time. So go on, get out there!