Coach soccer in Romania, teach kids to surf in South Africa, or help protect endangered giraffes—all while getting some R&R.
Candyce H. Stapen 1 / 12
Tag rhinos in South Africa, teach soccer in Romania and follow dolphins in Belize, whales in Mexico, giraffe in Kenya and seahorses in Cambodia. These are just some of the many volunteer projects that enable you to combine adventures with doing good. “Voluntourism” is trending.
To choose the best program for yourself, be candid about your interests, skills and time and know just how remote you can go. Do you prefer to work with children or adults or out in the bush sustaining wildlife? Figure out whether you can forgo running water, electricity and Wi-Fi for a week or more or if you really need those creature comforts to enjoy the trip.
Once you find your focus, use this list of ten amazing trips to discover volunteer adventures that you’ll likely remember forever.
*Note, unless otherwise stated, prices are per person.
Follow your passion for surfing to Cape Town, South Africa’s beaches. Get kids living in the city’s townships, many of whom have never visited a beach, as stoked about catching waves as you are. As a surfing instructor with Projects Abroad’s program, you organize beach trips and teach the basics, including how to swim and be safe in the water. As the kids progress, explain board and body positioning, paddling, recovering from wipe-outs, and standing up. Carving waves provides these kids with new confidence and a way to have fun.
Good at corner kicks, headers, dribbling down field and passing? Then teach these skills and soccer tactics to children and young adults in Brasov, the capital of Transylvania located in the scenic Carpathian Mountains. With previous coaching experience, you can opt to work with rising stars ages 8 to 16 at a soccer center, assisting local coaches. Otherwise, teach basics and teamwork to ages 14 to 19 who exhibit behavioral problems. In either program, coaching occupies just two hours per day so you fill out your volunteer schedule by either teaching English in a high school or helping at a day care center or orphanage.
On this adrenaline-pumping rhino encounter drive through the plains of Kwandwe, a 54,000-acre private game reserve on South Africa’s Eastern Cape. With the aid of helicopter surveillance, you, the game manager, and a veterinarian, track the endangered animal, temporarily disabling him with a tranquilizer gun. Once he’s down, your team has 20-minutes to implant a tracking microchip on his rump and to drill into his horn (not painful) to insert another chip that will incriminate poachers if caught carrying that horn. Before the 5,100-pound behemoth awakes, glide your hands across his thick skin and stroke his soft muzzle. Then climb aboard a helicopter to follow your rhino by air as he lumbers to his feet and dashes away. Explore the reserve on five more game drives, spotting bushbuck, elephant, giraffe and other animals.
Stay: Luxury lodges or private villas designed for one group.
You Need: 4-days/3 nights. Best time is May 1 through Sept. 30. Package includes lodging, meals, rhino tagging, plus 5 other game drives. About $5,000, for two people. Travel Sommelier, www.travelsommelier.com.
Just a 40-minute drive south of Ixtapa’s resorts and beaches, the fishing village of Barra de Potosí serves as your base for documenting the region’s importance to Pacific humpback whales. Oceanic Society volunteers, working with Mexican and American scientists, learn how to spot and photograph fluke markings, unique as fingerprints for humans, so researchers can identify individual creatures. Your job is to watch and record behaviors. When the huge animal breaches the surface, hurling itself out of the water before slapping down with a huge splash, you note it. When mother and calve pairs submerge and resurface, you log the information. Diving, snorkeling and kayaking are possible depending upon sea conditions.
Stay: Local guest house rooms come with ceiling fans, mini-fridges, and daily maid service.
Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, is a striking combination of mountains, grasslands, glaciers, forests, and fjords. The park’s rugged beauty attracts more than 100,000 travelers a year, many of them hikers. On REI Adventures’ volunteer trip, you assist with maintenance and restoration of the park’s most popular trekking route, the W trail that stretches from Grey Glacier to the Torres del Paine, the park’s namesake three granite towers. On time off, hike to scenic overlooks and explore Grey Glacier, an impressive formation that calves huge icebergs into the lake with a thunderous roar.
Stay: Backcountry mountain lodges or dome tents.
You Need: 13-days; Nov. 23-Dec. 5, from $2,950; Feb. 22-Mar 5. From $3, 250. www.rei.com.
Dive the waters surrounding Koh Sdach, an island in the Gulf of Thailand, to monitor its intriguing marine life. Discover the world of the endangered seahorse as you measure and observe these tiny creatures. You count stingrays, record octopus as well as map and monitor coral reefs plus collect abandoned fishing nets and other debris. No diving experience is required as Projects Abroad works with instructors to provide PADI certification for novices and advanced training for others. Since the lessons take a bite out your reef explorations, it’s best to sign-up for more than two weeks.
Zebra, impala, Cape buffalo, hyena and giraffe roam the wheat-colored savannahs and woodlands while hippos hover in the river that cuts through Kigio Wildlife Reserve, two hours north of Nairobi in Kenya’s Rift Valley. The heart of Projects Abroad’s program on the 3500-acre wildlife reserve focuses on the ecology of the 35 resident Rothschild’s giraffe. Only 670 of these graceful animals remain in the wild. Learn how to track giraffe and other animals and how to identify specific individuals so researchers can create an inventory. You also remove fences, dig water holes, and plant shrubs and trees to maintain the habitat.
Stay: Base camp with same sex dormitories with communal bathrooms.
Bottlenose dolphins arc through the waters of Turneffe Atoll, the largest and most biologically diverse coral atoll in the Western hemisphere. The Oceanic Society has been studying dolphins in the atoll, about twenty-five miles east of Belize City, since 1992. You boat to known dolphin hangouts to assist researchers in identifying individual creatures and recording their behavior. Watch the dolphins stream through the sea or maybe even surf the boat’s wake. Immerse yourself in the environment by snorkeling, the better way to report on the habitat and to encounter manatees, hawksbill turtles and eagle rays.
Stay: Beachfront but basic cabanas with porches and bathrooms.
Balance doing good with beach fun by coming aboard Fathom, Carnival Corporations’ new cruise brand. Launching April 2016 with week-long voyages to the white sands of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, Fathom, devoted to “impact travel,” anchors three days of volunteering with four sea days. You create your own schedule of up to three volunteer activities. Working with locals, you can help cultivate cacao plants at a nursery, teach English to children and adults, and build water filters out of clay. When the ship docks at Amber Cove, there’s time to swim, sun, glide on a zipline and simply relax. Back onboard, enjoy island music and entertainment. In May, the Fathom ship plans to sail to Cuba.
Stay: a private cabin on Adonia, a 710-passenger ship with a fitness center and spa.
You Need: 7-days. From $974 to the Dominican Republic. From $1,800 to Cuba. www.fathom.org.
Costa Rica, nestled between the Caribbean and Pacific oceans, serves as a land bridge between North and South America. About 25% of Costa Rica’s land is protected as national parks, refuges, and reserves, home to some 850 plus species of birds, more than in all of North America. In Barra Honda National Park, as part of Projects Abroad, you focus on the tropical dry forest’s bats and birds. The park’s 40 limestone caverns create habitats for thousands of bats. Assist in conservation work by identifying and counting bats temporarily captured in mist nets and by planting vegetation and creating nest sites for scarlet macaws. On time off, drive to the nearby beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula.
In Zambia’s Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, Victoria Falls, one of the world’s most spectacular waterfalls, plummets 355-feet into a mile-wide gorge. Raft or kayak the rapids just below the thunderous water or fly above the mist for a panoramic view. On park safaris see zebra, giraffe, warthog, and rhino. At the nearby Twabuka Community School, teach computer skills to elementary school children as part of Henny’s Kids.org, a program to bring solar-powered laptops to rural schools in Africa started by this article’s author and named after her mother, Henrietta, a teacher. Henny’s Kids works with Children in the Wilderness, the non-profit educational and environmental division of Wilderness Safaris.
Stay: Upmarket Toka Leya Camp with en suite bathrooms.
Toka Leya Camp rates, including meals and safaris, from $620 per person. Contact Wilderness Safaris specialist Travel Sommelier, www.travelsommelier.com.