Skip the typical resort getaway. With these volunteer vacations, you’ll travel to incredible far-flung places and do awesome things for a good cause.
Laura Kiniry 1 / 11
Working for The Man day after day gets old. No doubt, you need a vacation every once in awhile. But with all that pent-up energy, is lying comatose on a beach really what you’re after? OK, maybe. But if you want a little more adventure, volunteer vacations combine sweet destinations with adrenaline activities—<em>and</em> a bit of giving back. You're not just <em>seeing</em> a place; you're experiencing it in a non-tourist way.
Ever thought about tracking wild carnivores through the woods of Madagascar, or studying great white sharks off the coast of South Africa? Well, start racking up your vacation days. These 10 adventure trips offer a great mix of downtime and blood-pumping action—one day you'll be planting coral reef off the coast of Borneo, and the next you’ll be diving with whale sharks. The best part? It’s all for a good cause.
<em>See also: <a href="http://www.mensfitness.com/leisure/travel/10-best-national-park-hikes" target="_blank">10 Best Hikes in America</a></em>
Conserve Great White Sharks in South Africa
White Shark Africa
Instead of spending your vacation watching reruns of Shark Week, wouldn't you rather look one of these badass creatures in the eye—and help advance shark science in the process? With White Shark Africa, you'll study and record the behaviors of great whites off the waters of Mossel Bay, South Africa, home to one of the largest concentrations on the planet. You'll also have an opportunity to learn basic seamanship, bait and chum waters, and come within feet of the ocean's most storied predators from behind the bars of a floating cage.
<strong>You Need:</strong> A diving certification is suggested, but not required (you can cage dive without one). Even better, just earn your C-card as you go. Time is also ideal. The program typically runs 27 days, through shorter stints are possible. ($915 & up; <a href="http://www.govoluntouring.com/great-white-shark-ecotourism-program-mosse... target="_blank">govoluntouring.com</a>)
Plant Coral Reef in Borneo
Known for its white sand beaches and insane sea-life diversity (think massive whale sharks and 1000-pound leatherback turtles), Malaysian Borneo and its surrounding waters are already a dream vacation. But the non-profit Tropical Research and Conservation Centre offers travelers an opportunity to do more than simply sit on the beach. TRACC hosts week-long courses in things like marine biology and coral reef ecology coupled with field work, including the chance to replant coral reef in places where bomb fishing has annihilated it. Not only will you be beautifying the ocean, but you'll also be helping to preserve the local aquatic ecosystem in the process.
<strong>You Need:</strong> A diving certificate, or a few extra days to earn your C-card on-site. ($1280 & up; <a href="http://govoluntouring.com/marine-science-courses-tracc-borneo" target="_blank">govoluntouring.com</a>)
Track Carnivores in Madagascar
More than 90 percent of Madagascar's wildlife is found nowhere else on earth, including the elusive fossa, a carnivorous cat-like creature populating the African country's forests. Your mission—should you choose to accept it—is to help researchers learn more about their habitat and behavior by setting up traps; relaying info over high-tech radio-tracking transmitters; and measuring trapped and sedated fossa for study. You'll get in some great workouts, too—as well as take in some unbelievable scenery—while trekking up to 15 miles a day through rural villages.
<strong>You Need:</strong> Two weeks. ($2675; <a href="http://govoluntouring.com/carnivores-madagascar#ad-image-0" target="_blank">govoluntouring.com</a>)
Extreme Expedition in Belize
Tired of spending your workday playing trashcan basketball? Here's a chance to reinvent your career by training to become an extreme expedition guide. While TrekFORCE's multi-month course focuses on leadership training—meaning you'll be learning survival skills like river rescue, shelter building, and night-time navigation in the forest and jungles of Belize and neighboring Guatemala—there's also a volunteer element. (It may even involve tracking and recording lost Mayan artifacts, depending on when you go.) Added perks include the chance to learn Spanish and a brief sojourn to the Caribbean Cays. Sweet.
<strong>You Need:</strong> Time, though the 16-week course could completely change your life. ($5160 for two months; <a href="http://govoluntouring.com/expedition-leader-training#ad-image-0" target="_blank">govoluntouring.com</a>)
Volcanology in Iceland
Iceland is a literal hotbed of seismic activity and magma flow. Through Earthwatch Institute, you can help create maps documenting the minor disturbances volcanoes cause beneath the earth's surface, essentially giving scientists a heads-up on possible future eruptions. From the glacier-capped Vatnajökull <a href="http://www.mensfitness.com/leisure/travel/fit-travel-top-10-adventure-ac... target="_blank">volcanoes</a> in the south to the ever-active Krafla volcano (one of Iceland's most spectacular) up north, you'll tramp across flat flood plains and lunar-like landscapes recording your finds.
<strong>You Need:</strong> 7-14 days. ($1500; <a href="http://govoluntouring.com/volcanology-iceland#ad-image-0" target="_blank">govoluntouring.com</a>)
Investigating Whales in the Norwegian Arctic
This isn’t your typical whale-watching trip. Instead, you can <em>see</em> male sperm whales near the surface, and with special equipment listen to humpback and killer whales communicate—all from your boat’s high-up crow's nest. You’ll record data and once back on the mainland, you'll download learn to interpret whale sounds for research. In the middle of Norway's deep fjords, jutting mountains, and glacial lakes. Added bonus: During June and July, the sun never sets.
<strong>You Need:</strong> Eight days in July, August, or November. ($2675; <a href="http://govoluntouring.com/investigating-whales-and-dolphins-norwegian-ar... target="_blank">govoluntouring.com</a>)
Rescuing Coral Communities in the Seychelles
Dr. David Smith
The Indian Ocean's Curieuse Island is known for its golden sands, giant roaming tortoises, and towering coco de mer palms, found only one other place on earth. It's also part of a larger Marine National Park that's seeing the adverse effects of climate change. You can help assess the health of the surrounding waters' coral reefs and the island's coastal ecosystem by measuring coral growth and identifying biodiversity hotspots using digital photography and underwater video. Then in your downtime, you can dive, snorkel, or soak in the rays on the beach.
<strong>You Need:</strong> Twelve days in April. To take part in the research's diving aspects, you must be scuba certified (CMAS 2 star = PADI Rescue or BASC Sports), have at least 30 logged dives, have recent diving experience and bring along your own equipment. ($3075; <a href="http://govoluntouring.com/coral-communities-seychelles#ad-image-0" target="_blank">govoluntouring.com</a>)
Building Homes in a Rio de Janeiro Shanty Town
Iko Poran Association
In Rio de Janeiro's Barriera do Vaso favela, you'll find families of 10+ members packed into flimsy plywood and canvas structures without any running water. How about helping build solid brick structures—with both kitchens and bathrooms—that they can actually call homes? You'll work alongside a pro-builder, reside in Rio's artsy Santa Teresa neighborhood (an easy walk to the bars and eateries), and even have the opportunity to learn some Portuguese.
<strong>You Need:</strong> Two to four weeks. ($590 for two weeks; <a href="http://govoluntouring.com/building-houses-favela#ad-image-0" target="_blank">govoluntouring.com</a>)
Coaching Sports in Bolivia
Here's your chance to shoot a couple of hoops on vacation and help impoverished kids in the process. As a Kaya volunteer, you'll head to Santa Cruz de la Sierra—Bolivia's largest city—to aid a local school with their sports curriculum. You'll also have the opportunity to showcase your mad skills in either judo, football, volleyball, or basketball by offering coaching assistance at a nearby sports center. And with easy access to the city's killer cuisine, you've got your downtime covered.
<strong>You Need:</strong> Minimal experience. And since you'll be working with kids, all volunteers are also subject to a police background check. ($1181 for two weeks; <a href="http://govoluntouring.com/sports-coaching-and-youth-development-cochabam... target="_blank">govoluntouring.com</a>)
Build Bicimaquinas in Guatemala
The Guatemalan village of San Andrés Itzapa, Guatemala, runs mainly on bicimaquinas: pedal-powered machines such as water pumps, grinders, and threshers constructed from donated bikes and local materials. Working with the non-government organization Maya Pedal, as well as local agricultural cooperatives, you'll collect, disassemble, and rebuild these bikes into devices that make it simpler for villagers to independently haul cargo, blend smoothies, thresh corn, and shell coffee beans. Simultaneously, you’ll help improve the local economy by lowering energy costs and increasing overall production.
<strong>You Need:</strong> Self-motivation. Unlike the other volunteer vacations listed, this is not an organized package. Volunteers need to get themselves to San Andrés Itzapa by their own means, and should have relevant experience (i.e. fixing bikes) along with basic Spanish comprehension. The longer you can stay, the better. ($9 shelter fee every two weeks; <a href="http://www.mayapedal.org/0" target="_blank">mayapedal.org<)