Are you interested in volunteering in Central America? If so, you’re not the first. But finding the ideal placement can be daunting. So, to help you, here are our favorite volunteer organizations in the region, all looking for help in 2020.
One first impression of Central America that still blows the minds of many visitors from the US, Canada, and Europe is visible poverty.
It’s everywhere here, unmissable unless you’re holed up in an exclusive, all-inclusive resort you arrived in by helicopter. Despite increasing tourism development and a faster rate of economic growth than the global average since 2018, one only needs to look out the car window to see there’s real hardship here.
I mean there’s a reason why so many Central Americans dream of making a new life elsewhere. Poverty breeds crime and violence, after all.
Even Costa Rica and Panama – two affluent countries in Latin American terms – are countries where, once you get off the tourist trail, you’ll wonder how people survive. And if you’ve never seen cardboard shanty towns and windowless shacks on the side of the road, even these two countries will shock.
The truth is, even though Central America has recorded a faster rate of economic growth than many other regions, it’s level of growth remains below the global average.
Behind the luxury hotels, shopping malls, and modern condos, you’ll see that very clearly.
So it begs the question of what to do.
As a visitor to the region, if you’re exposed to the poverty here and that question doesn’t pass through your head, even fleetingly. you’d have a heart of stone.
Many tourists who visit Central America end up asking what they can do to help. This is why so many hotels and tourist businesses run their own programs or projects. It’s about giving back.
And although most tourists who visit Central America give back by donating money or needed items, some decide to go deeper. Some decide to look for a volunteer program down here.
Volunteering in Central America, rather than donating, is a great way to get a real feel for the region, for the specific country you’re working in.
You’ll be under the hood, involved. You’ll get an insight into your Central American country and your local community far more than if you were simply traveling or vacationing.
Most volunteers end up making friends for life and taking away a unique, positive experience. And volunteering also looks great on your resume.
But if you do things differently and not be like me (recommended), you can volunteer in Central America and end up with one of the richest, most fulfilling life experiences anyone can have.
It’s just a question of figuring out what to do and who to volunteer for.
You want a good organization, reputable, that makes a difference in people’s lives. And it would help if they were legit and didn’t rip you off or leave you in the lurch, too!
Below, we’ve put together a list of different organizations for potential volunteers in Central America.
We’ve tried to vary the work these organizations do to give you a better idea of what you can do. Whether you’re interested in working with children, adults, or animals, there’s a volunteering opportunity for everyone in Central America.
Crocodile Research Coalition
The Crocodile Research Coalition dedicates itself to the protection of crocodiles throughout Belize and the wider region. They are always looking for volunteers to help with their research and education programs.
Founded in 1969, the Audobon Society looks after natural parks and protected areas in Belize. Volunteers can help with community outreach programs, working in the protected areas, and environmental education.
TIDE (the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment) operates in the south of Belize where they help local communities with sustainable development. Volunteers can either present their own idea for a TIDE project or research program, or the organization can assign them to an existing one.
Maximo Nivel runs a number of programs out of its base in Antigua, Guatemala. More like a “jack of all trades” in Central American volunteering, these guys offer opportunities in teaching, animal welfare, construction, eco-tourism, conservation, and others. Maximo Nivel also works in Costa Rica and Peru.
Niños de Guatemala is a non-profit operating three schools around Antigua, Guatemala. The children come from families so poor that normally they wouldn’t be able to attend school. Volunteers have a number of options from one-day placements for tourists and travelers to long-term work.
Located in the Rio Dulce area of eastern Guatemala, Casa Guatemala provides education, nutrition, and healthcare to local children. Volunteer positions include teaching English, computer skills, and arts/crafts.
Honduras Child Alliance
The Honduras Child Alliance runs educational programs to help lift local people out of poverty in El Porvenir, Honduras. The idea is to teach real, tangible life skills to get people employed. Volunteers will work with both children and adults.
Helping Honduras Kids operates an orphanage and a school in and around La Ceiba, Honduras. Volunteers will be involved in all aspects of teaching and caring for these children.
Jaspers Utila Animal Shelter
If you like the idea of living on a tropical Caribbean island and working with dogs and cats, then Jaspers Animal Shelter on Utila is for you. This program is better suited for those living on Utila already, so, for example, if you’re here for the diving, take some time out to help the animals!
CIS El Salvador
CIS El Salvador is a social organization dedicated to the advancement of El Salvador and its people. Formed after the end of the civil war, the aim of CIS is to break down the social and economic barriers that caused the conflict in the first place. CIS volunteers will teach and work as community organizers.
Homies Unidos works in Los Angeles, California, Denver, Colorado, and El Salvador helping ex-maras (gang members) change their lives around. Volunteers will work on education and rehabilitation programs.
Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative
The Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative works to protect the nesting beaches of the hawksbill turtle in El Salvador. Volunteers will take part in every aspect of turtle conservation, from patrolling the beaches to egg collection to mangrove reforestation.
With a slogan of “Hike volcanoes, help kids”, Quetzaltrekkers offers a different form of tourism. Based in Leon, Nicaragua, they use volunteers to guide hikers around the local volcanoes. Profits from the guided hikes go to help disadvantaged children around Leon.
La Esperanza is an educational organization in Granada, Nicaragua focused on helping the poorest children in the city. They do this by sponsoring children and recruiting volunteers, whom they send to work in local schools, teaching English and computer skills.
Colibri Spanish School
People come to the Colibri Spanish School in the mountains of Matagalpa, Nicaragua to learn Spanish. But they can also volunteer here. Volunteer options include working with local children in a local social development program or working on ecological programs.
Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation
The Costa Rica Humanitarian Foundation (CRHF) works with the most vulnerable communities in Costa Rica. These communities include some of poorest parts of San Jose and remote indigenous areas. Projects vary, ranging from working with abused women and children to helping rehabilitate former prisoners. CRHF also encourages volunteers to pitch their own project ideas.
Love insects and spiders? Then you’ll be at home in Costa Rica, where creepy crawlies are everywhere. But if you have a deep, special, abiding love for multi-legged creatures, then volunteer at the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens. Here, you’ll help teach visitors all about insects by taking them on tours through the gardens.
Punta Mona is a remote off-grid permaculture farm near Manzanillo on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Only accessible by boat or hiking through virgin rainforest, this place offers volunteers the chance to work on the farm, learn about herbal medicines, and study the concepts of permaculture.
Give and Surf
Give and Surf Provides empowerment to indigenous communities in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Their main tools to do this are education and community development. Volunteers also get surf lessons once they’re done with their work on educational and social programs.
Based in Pedasi on Panama’s Azuero Peninsula, the Azuero Eco Foundation (AEF) is all about the preservation and habitat restoration. They plant trees, cultivate local plants, and teach sustainability and environmental stewardship to local schools. Volunteers assist in all aspects of AEF’s activities.
TeachPTY is all about turning travelers into residents, at least for a short time. The idea is to use travelers to teach English in and around the town of Pedasi, Panama. Volunteer teachers will work in local schools and help provide cross-cultural awareness.
These organizations listed above are all local, well-reviewed, and trustworthy.
But there are also, of course, other options for volunteering in Central America. Be sure to look for reviews and vet them thoroughly before you give them your money. After all, you don’t want to pay, arrive, and have no-one to meet you.
No matter you decide to play it, work hard and have fun!
Volunteering in Central America will end up being the best thing you’ve ever done.
James Dyde is the editor of CentralAmerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.