One of the most exciting things about contemplating a trip to Latin America is discovering the diversity of sustainable travel options. Staying in a remote “ecolodge” in Costa Rica or Ecuador, joining a cultural heritage tour in Peru, or enrolling in a Spanish immersion course in Guatemala are popular travel options that ideally benefit the local community and conserve its resources. There are ever increasing ways to enjoy connecting with a new culture, while striving to minimize the negative impacts of tourism.
Some people go a leap further by having a true “hands on” approach, choosing to focus firmly on service over sightseeing. Participants travel as a group to volunteer their skills for projects aimed at directly improving the lives of others, a.k.a. “mission trips”. Some example of groups recently booked with Exito include:
Burners Without Borders: Aiding in reconstruction efforts in Peru, after last year’s 8.0 earthquake.
Centura Medical Missions : Medical teams aiding health care facilities in Peru and Nepal
Nova University : Dentistry mission to northeastern Brazil
And, there is everything in between. A whole branch of the travel industry, aptly named “VolunTourism“, serves the increasing number of people who want to combine travel with some amount of volunteer or research work. A variety of travel companies and non-profit organizations endeavor to play the role of matchmaker, carefully putting well-intentioned people together with current projects. A couple of interesting examples:
Earthwatch puts volunteers to work “in the field”, collecting data for ongoing conservation studies focusing on anything from climate change to loss of habitat to lost civilizations. Volunteers who might find the idea of viewing wildlife “up close” in a place like Brazil exciting already, are invited through participation to gain a deeper understanding of the subject at hand, and about key conservations issues. Programs are designed to encourage researchers to apply what they learn back home.
Cultural Embrace provides guidance and placement services for groups and individuals engaging in a variety of volunteer activities, in and beyond Latin America. Volunteers choose from working in an orphanage or school, to taking part in wildlife conservation or construction projects. In many cases language immersion courses and a bit of sightseeing are either already included or can be added to the itinerary as a way of rounding out the ideal volunteer-travel “package”.
A recent Careerbuilder.com survey found that 25% of Americans plan to do some amount of work while on vacation, implying an expectation to stay connected to the job at home. Choosing to dedicate time and energy to a local project could result in a refreshing change of habit, a way to stay engaged with the “here and now” of the destination; ideally leaving the place, and the traveler, in better condition than they were before.