How much should I save before considering to dedicate a year to volunteering in Latin America?
This will depend on a few things, such as how many places you plan to visit, what you would like to do in between volunteering, and with which organizations you choose to volunteer. Many volunteering organizations charge you fees to volunteer, often in the range of $10-20 USD per day, and in many cases this includes your meals and lodging. When I planned my trip, I separated my expenses into: volunteering costs, travel costs, "extra" costs (things like restaurants, activities, and other things that I had not yet planned), and then I kept some extra on the side to be my living expense money in case it took me a while to find a job after I was finished volunteering.
Did you plan everything beforehand or did you simply leave and figured it out along the way?
I put a database together of volunteering organizations throughout Latin America (which eventually became the book), and some of those organizations I had reserved my dates already prior to leaving to go on the trip. Other organizations I planned as I went along, and some of those turned out to be incredible opportunities. What I would recommend would be to have a plan but to remain flexible to exciting opportunities that pop up along the way.
How did you choose the organizations for which to volunteer?
I wanted to experience a variety of environmental work being performed by volunteering organizations so that I could gain a better perspective of the efforts being made throughout South America to conserve biodiversity. And although a year sounds like a lot, it was not a lot of time to divide between several organizations in several countries, so I had to select opportunities that allowed me to work for shorter durations. Budget was also a concern, so I had to keep the costs of volunteering in mind. All of this information is what I gathered together to eventually write ‘Volunteering in Latin America’, and I hope the information in the book allows you to pull the right itinerary together as well.
What is vital to pack?
I knew I was going to visit a variety of ecosystems, from tropical climates, to colder temperate rainforests, to windy and potentially cold Patagonia; so I packed a range of items including a sturdy tent, warm sleeping bag, clothes for most weather conditions, camera gear, solar charger, and a variety of outdoor equipment.
At the very least, I would recommend:
- A good pack that can take some abuse
- A sleeping bag rated for a little colder temperature than you expect to be in
- First-aid kit
- Good quality pocket knife (this may become your best friend)
- Headlamp with rechargeable batteries
- Rain coat
- Quick-dry pants
- Versatile button down shirt
- Sunglasses and/or hat
- Wool socks (they need less washing than cotton, and stay warm when wet)
- Easy-to-dry underwear (you may need to wash these in hostel sinks at times)
- Biodegradable soap (such as Dr. Bronner's)
- Travel towel
- Ebook reader (this will save you a lot of weight compared to paper books)
- Camera with extra batteries and memory card
- Notepad, journal, or electronic device to take down notes and contact info
- Optional: a tent (I ended up spending over 60 days in mine over the course of a year...I'm not sure if that qualifies me as homeless, but that's a lot of hotel/hostel expenses saved)
Is it safe to hitchhike in Latin America?
I did not have any problems, but that does not mean it's safe. I found that in Chile and Argentina, especially in Patagonia, hitchhiking was fairly common. The roads are long without much public transportation, so many people seemed to use their thumbs. Use your judgment and avoid doing this alone, especially if you are a woman. And also be prepared to spend the night on the side of the road if you do not find a ride.
I read that your professional camera got stolen. Where did that happen and should I get insured for these situations?
My camera got stolen on a bus in southern Ecuador, when it was in its bag just above my head. Although I did not actually see it get taken, I am fairly certain that the culprits were a team of five young men, in their late teens or early 20s, who knew what they were doing. I saw them enter the bus and sit in different areas of the bus, looking at each other. I think what happened was that one signaled when I was looking, and another quickly took my camera out of my bag and then put the bag back so I could still see it up there. I learned to always have my valuables on my lap when on public buses after that, no matter if the ride was over 20 hours long.
And yes I would highly recommend getting your camera insured when traveling if it is a professional one.
Did it feel weird to travel alone? Is it a friendly environment where you can easily meet people?
Traveling alone can be unnerving at times, especially when crossing some of the borders where crime can be more prevalent. The common areas of hostels are a great place to socialize and meet other travelers, many of whom are probably in the same boat as you and looking to meet new people from other places. Out of all the countries in South America, I felt the safest in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay; but of course bad things can happen anywhere, so please take caution, especially if traveling alone. Unfortunately, I would not recommend traveling alone for women.
What's the best currency to bring? Should I keep a certain amount of cash with me?
For most countries, the best currency to have is obviously the currency of that country. But in some cases where inflation is increasing rapidly, sometimes US Dollars or Euros are more valuable. I found that in almost all countries, I could pay for items directly with US Dollars, but many times at a very bad exchange rate. Having extra dollars or Euros packed away for emergencies is probably a good idea.
How are the ATMs and banks there? What about the exchange offices?
For the most part I had no problems with ATMs, and I think they give some of the best exchange rates when traveling. There was an exception in Chilean Patagonia, where the ATMs for the most part did not accept Visa cards when I was there. I did not have another card, and at one point I even ran out of money without the ability to take more out from the cash machines nearby. Luckily I was able to hitch a ride to the nearest Visa-accepting ATM about 10 hours further south, but the lesson learned was to ensure I had some extra cash on my bag in cases such as this, as well as to bring another type of ATM card with me during my next visit to Chilean Patagonia.
How was life after you returned from this trip? How was the adjustment?
As much fun as a year backpacking and volunteering can be, it still feels good to earn some money and settle down in one place for a while. I found that I did have an adjustment period back in the paid working world, similar to as how I had to adjust to the start of my unpaid volunteering trip. And even though I often find myself thinking of being back in my tent in Chilean Patagonia or of swimming across a river in the Amazon with the Waorani, I feel like I have adjusted fine. I never regretted anything regarding my decisions to take off and volunteer, and the stories and memories from a trip such as this truly feel that they will last a lifetime.
Are you going to have a printed version of your book?
Yes, I’m currently working on a printed version with photos to be released later this year (2015).
What would be the one best piece of advice for someone preparing for a trip like this?
(Apart from buying the book), my biggest piece of advice would be to create a plan but to remain flexible throughout your travels. Opportunities that were unknown to you at the start of your trip may open up along the way, and some of those will likely be worth making a change to your plans. And sometimes opportunities will fall through, so it is best to have backup options wherever you are. This book contains many good backup options should they be needed.
If you still have questions that need an answer or want more detailed advice, please feel free to contact me and I will be happy to help.