By Jared Johnsen
Adventures In Ecuador, Episode I: Volunteering
Gringos, stop being gringos – ah, never mind. We will probably always be gringos. And you might even be comfy in your gringo shoes. But I have a tale to tell about shedding my tourist identity. It’s true; I escaped the way of the gringo, if only for a moment. I stepped, or leapt maybe, right off the gringo trail and wandered into a rainforest reserve where I volunteered for a month. Needless to say, I highly recommend you do this.
I have to admit, this wasn’t altruism at it best; volunteering was not my sole motivation for joining the organization. I wanted, as I’ve just alluded, to escape my gringo enclosure and wander into areas of local modus vivendi. I wanted to live and work toward something meaningful alongside Ecuadorian villagers and farmers and I wanted to do it in the inter-Andean forest. These interests precipitated volunteering for me and there is little preventing anyone with an interest. If there is a requirement, I think it must be a desire to protect an Andean forest or an interest in teaching English to a child. Or maybe you just want to give homeless children a hand in Quito. Just let these things not simply be the necessary conditions by which you are afforded a cheap accommodation in the wilderness. Ecuador has many other opportunities for this. But if your traveling time spans over a few months and you want to get closer to and even help the people and native wildlife, this might be your best chance to do it. For me, it ended up being more than a unique experience in my travels, but rather a meaningful way to offer something back to the inhabitants of the country that opened its doors to my backpack and I.
Choosing where to Volunteer
I planned my volunteer program in Quito, which is the best place in Ecuador to do so. Many volunteer headquarters are located there. Another resource in Quito is the invaluable South American Explorers clubhouse. These native English speakers residing in Ecuador have literally a library of information on the country. One of the most useful resources they have is the “trip report.” These files contain reviews written by travelers rating the quality of activities they’ve participated in such as trekking, mountain climbing, horseback riding, and volunteering. If you wish to enter and enjoy these materials over a cup of coffee in their lounge area, they may charge you their $50 a year membership fee (it’s not a bad deal if your traveling around as they have clubhouses in Cusco and Lima as well). However, if you wish only for help choosing a place to volunteer in Ecuador, they will most likely have updated information on what is available free of charge. If not, ecuadorexplorer.com has a ton of listings to check out and an internet café from which to research.
Ultimately, where you decide to volunteer depends on your own interests. You may want to first decide what kind of environment you want to be living in and who or what you specifically want to help. Maybe the organization is important to you and you want to determine which one’s overall goal best acquiesces to your own ideals. If the environment is your primary focus, Fundacion Jatun Sacha, which is the largest volunteer organization in Ecuador, has opportunities in over 10 nature reserves throughout Ecuador. These range from coastal wetlands and cloudforests to Amazonian jungles and Andean forests. If helping children is your aim, opportunities abound in the city of Quito helping out at shelters for homeless children. Also, many environmental-protection organizations teach English in nearby communities, so working with kids there is a possibility too. Nearby the city of Quito but secluded in a beautiful cloud forest worlds away, is Mindo with a station that also accepts volunteers. Even if you don’t volunteer there, a brief visit to this wonderful cloudforest is a must. This mystical landscape of lush vegetation is cloaked nightly with a blanket of fog, whereupon the earth is transformed into a celestial dreamscape.
You’re thinking, what do I mean cost? Volunteering means you are the one foregoing the paycheck, not them. Well, not quite. You can expect to pay on average between 7 and 12 dollars per day while volunteering to cover your living expenses. Sounds like a lot to pay in return for the work you are donating to them, but honestly, you have to take into consideration that most people only volunteer for a month and spend almost half of that time being taught by paid workers how to perform the daily tasks. And believe you me, this is a small price to pay not only for the experience you will have, but also in comparison to the price being charged for this same experience by international companies. I met plenty of Brits and Americans who had paid 4 times this price to have volunteering set up by a company like i-to-i or Global Vision International from back home. And the worst part of all is that none of the extra money goes to the volunteer company, but entirely to the international volunteer broker. Trust me, setting up your volunteering from back home will cost you dear and snuff out the flexibility of your travels since volunteer dates will be predetermined. Research some other aspect of your trip now, and worry about setting up your volunteering in Quito. Just don’t let this de-gringoing experience pass you by.