5 Amazing vacations that give back to the community

Not merely the reserve of backpacking tweens keen to show their virtue between full moon parties, volunteering vacations are, in fact, for everyone. Hands-on or hands-off, there’s a volunteer job to suit any personality. One might aid nesting sea turtles on the beaches of Costa Rica, track endangered animals in Kenya’s Maasai Mara or teach English to underprivileged communities in Machu Picchu. Those with some degree of muscle might opt to help construct nature trails or paint a school. Whatever it is, there are countless ways you can go about giving back to the community, for an afternoon, a week or longer. Here we list five of the best volunteer vacations around the world, and their sustainable organisations, to help mitigate the damage done by tourism and be a part of the solution.

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Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya | Photo: Jack Carter

1. Wildlife Conservation Volunteering in Africa

Rewriting the bucket list with an ethical twist, we head to Africa to get involved in wildlife conservation. One of the biggest players in the conservation game is the non-profit organisation Biosphere Expeditions, which runs a small international operation with teams of scientists, volunteers and full-time conservationists in various countries across Africa and beyond. Expeditions vary each year depending on need, but current missions include biodiversity surveyance in South Africa’s Cape Mountains, Kenya’s Maasai Mara and Malawi.

All are involved with monitoring and surveying the native wildlife, but this will mean very different things depending on the country. In Biosphere’s South Africa expedition, it’s wild cat protection that takes precedence in the UNESCO World Heritage area of Cape Floral Kingdom. As well as leopards and caracals, volunteers will encounter and track other African fauna, including buffalo, eland, giraffe, kudu and zebra. Despite being a remote and mountainous part of the nation, travellers can expect to live in comfort on a former farmstead fitted with modern amenities, travelling around the region on foot, by mountain bike or car. Activities include setting camera traps, counting game and capturing wildlife for tracking and research purposes.

On the Kenya expedition, meanwhile, it’s the ‘big 5’ (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) population that needs counting, in addition to giraffe, zebra, eland, wildebeest and more. The Maasai Mara is the ideal place to do so, a world-famous game reserve known as the place to see Africa’s annual Great Migration. Animal volunteer conservationists will be based in a very comfortable field station, covering the expanse in off-road vehicles or on foot to ascertain the diversity and abundance of each species. Thirdly, in Malawi, the focus is on four of the ‘big 5’ (no rhinos), plus cheetah, hippos, antelopes and primates in the African Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve. A lesser-visited reserve, the camp here is rustic but comfortable, enabling volunteers to work alongside local scientists monitoring and managing biodiversity for the future of the region.

The Masai Mara | Photo: Leonard Von Bibra

Masai Mara National Reserve | Photo: David Clode

2. Amazon to Andes, Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu Volunteer Journeys

A slight change of scenery but no less biodiverse, we arrive in Peru, the second option on our list of volunteer vacations. The beauty of Peru lies in its vast assortment of natural landscapes, spanning both Amazon rainforest and Andean peaks. Peruvian culture too is not to be ignored, ancient and otherwise, as shown along the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu and Cusco, the lofty historic capital. Archaeological sites such as Maras Moray and Pisac show vestiges of ancient Incan civilisations as well as modern-day markets and other cultural offerings. Though rich in history, many schools in Peru – particularly in the mountain regions – don’t receive proper funding and some students are left behind. Basic school supplies and food are much appreciated, as are English teachers willing to play a few language games with the children.

Of the working vacations on offer in Peru, Elevated Destinations runs a number of the best, including the ‘Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu Journey’ which sees volunteers spend nine days teaching at the rural Chicuchas Wasi school for marginalised girls, passing Cusco and the Sacred Valley (aka the Urubamba Valley) before finishing with a climb up Machu Picchu Mountain. Though the trip has a number of days on the job, the biking and hiking rewards make it all worth it. Then there’s the ‘Andean Highlands Eco-Service Journey’, a gratifying educational project at altitude, again passing through the Sacred Valley and climbing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu before ending in Cusco for a food-centric treat. Along the way, volunteers will collaborate with indigenous communities through the non-profit initiative, Andean Alliance.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu | Photo: Victor Rodriguez

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Animal lovers in Peru might be more interested in the ‘Dog Rescue and Sacred Valley Experience’, enabling travellers to help out at a local shelter alongside tours of Cusco and the Sacred Valley

Trekking in the Andes can sound a little daunting, especially when considering camping at high altitudes. With Elevated Destination’s ‘Salkantay Lodge Trekking’ itinerary, however, travellers get to combine leg work with luxury lodging and selfless acts. On this 10-day trip, trekkers eat gourmet and sleep in modern rooms, while also visiting a community school and exploring Machu Picchu before descending into Cusco. Animal lovers in Peru might be more interested in the ‘Dog Rescue and Sacred Valley Experience’, enabling travellers to help out at a local shelter alongside tours of Cusco and the Sacred Valley. While it’s easy to find and feed street dogs in the region, volunteering with a shelter allows you to make a bigger difference by feeding, walking and playing with the dogs and preparing them for adoption.

Photo: Rachel Claire

Peru | Photo: Alex Azabache

3. Teach HIV awareness in Cambodia

Community and Cambodian culture take centre stage on our South East Asian escape, as we embark on a two- to four-week volunteering adventure with Global Service Corps. Here you’ll work with disadvantaged children and adults in and around Phnom Penh to provide important educational workshops focused on everything from hygiene and nutrition to HIV/AIDS prevention and drug abuse awareness.

While it’s true that the Cambodian people show amazing resilience in the face of a long history of suffering, scars remain as a result of the Khmer Rouge regime and the civil war. Homelessness, children orphaned by HIV/AIDS and a lack of proper schooling are still key issues in some regions, and as a way to help combat the lack of basic public health information or social services for these groups, volunteering with the Global Service Corps is invaluable. As well as imparting vital information, getting involved in community training can help empower vulnerable populations to lead healthier lives and achieve their potential, through English practice and leadership training. The Global Service Corps partner with a range of local organisations, schools and Buddhist monasteries to provide the most relevant service opportunities.

Besides training the locals, volunteers will receive an education of their own, starting on arrival in Cambodia with an in-depth cultural orientation, project preparation and basic Khmer language lessons. While working with the community there will be various opportunities to take sightseeing trips and weekend excursions to Siem Reap, covering significant historical sites and archaeological beauties such as Angkor Wat. Discover the full list of service-learning volunteer programs, spanning Community Development & Leadership Training and Buddhist Immersion, over on the GSC website.

Cambodia | Photo: Thiago Rocha

Cambodia | Photo: Thomas Allen

4. Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms

Travellers looking for a rural experience, who also don’t mind getting their hands dirty, can consider working on an organic farm, gaining insight of local culture and agriculture within the host nation in an intimate setting. A big name in international volunteering vacations is WWOOF which stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a platform connecting volunteers with organic farmers in need of a farmhand or two since the 1970s. Some hosts are individuals or families who cultivate their own land, others are bigger organisations or communities aiming for self-sufficiency.

WWOOFers can expect to help out in any aspect of daily life on the farm, planting, harvesting or feeding animals for instance, while also learning about sustainability and making lifelong friendships. In return for labour, volunteers receive free room and board during their stay, usually living on-site and eating with the host family.

WWOOF is active in over 40 nations, providing hundreds of cultural and educational exchanges in each, to build a global community active in grassroots movements, sustainable lifestyles and more. Simply choose your destination and browse the list of hosts, signing up as a WWOOF member if you’d like to reach out and arrange a stay.

Photo: Lara Jameson

Photo: Steven Weeks

5. Sea Turtle Conservation in Costa Rica

You needn’t forego your favourite white sand beaches for this next voluntourism option, a conservation initiative based in the tropical paradise of Costa Rica. Working with the See Turtles organisation, volunteers can get up close to endangered sea turtles and support local efforts to bring them back from the brink of extinction. Though sea turtles can be found across the globe, six out of seven species are endangered and three of those are considered critically endangered, due to harmful fishing practices, pollution, coastal development, climate change and poaching. It’s easy to find organisations claiming to help these majestic creatures, but many tend to focus more on tourism than actually serving the needs of the turtle population. Being rigorous when researching possible conservation programmes can help you avoid adding to the problem.

Costa Rica is one of those nations with an exceptional track record for sustainable tourism, where the majority of tours and packages come with some degree of eco-friendliness. With the See Turtles initiative, the focus is very much on helping the marine life – dolphins and manatees as well as turtles – throughout Costa Rica and Belize. One of a few companies that give back profits from each trip for future protection efforts, See Turtles runs a number of educational expeditions with transportation, meals, lodging and airport transfers included in the upfront fee.

Photo: David Reynolds

The Costa Rica Turtles, Whales & Rays package allows for working vacations on Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast to see and study several species of sea turtle alongside humpback whales, rays and even parrots. Volunteers will aid local researchers, visiting the El Jobo community to join the efforts of the Equipo Tora Carey organisation, to capture and release green turtles and olive ridleys in the area. Likewise, the Playa Tortuga Conservation Project monitors nesting sea turtles on one day and crocodiles and tree boas the next, within the tropical rainforest nature reserve of Playa Tortuga, where pristine beaches, coral reefs and mangrove forests provide the ultimate backdrop for your do-good activities.

If in doubt about the eco-credentials of your vacation, check if your hotel or agency is certified by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.

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