As Julio hauled the net into our skiff, we spied a green sea turtle ensnared in the mesh. In this case, we were happy to see our captive: Julio is the Magadalena Baykeeper on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, and part of his job is working with Grupo Tortuguero — the world’s foremost sea turtle conservation group — to capture, study and release endangered turtles in order to help ensure their future.
I was along to assist, donning yellow waders to haul in the dripping nets, and helping to measure and weigh the turtles once we got them to back to our camp on shore. The three days I spent on tiny Conchalito Island in Magadalena Bay were part of a sea turtle “voluntourism” adventure I signed up for in tandem with a trip to see Baja’s gray whales.
As I worked alongside local fishermen and researchers who regularly monitor the turtles, I learned what it takes to sustain this rich yet fragile ecosystem and the people who subsist within it. I made fast friendships built on shared values. And I came away with deeper rewards than I could have found in a conventional vacation setting, say if I’d opted for a week at a resort in Cabo.
Voluntourism is a way to immerse yourself in local cultures and make a difference by blending a vacation with service work on a local project. Today more than ever, travelers are looking for meaningful experiences where they can connect with a destination and create special memories. As we celebrate Earth Day, honor the environment by embarking on a voluntourism vacation that combines travel with service.
Voluntourism can take you to Costa Rica to teach English in the mornings before you surf each afternoon. Build wells for a poor community in Vietnam. Extend your African safari and assist at a rural health clinic in South Africa. Play with children at an orphanage in Romania. Build and maintain trails in our U.S. national parks.
The options are myriad, with some 10,000 volunteer vacations to choose from, according to VolunTourism.org, a clearinghouse for travelers as well as destinations, operators, suppliers and nonprofits/NGOs who want to explore and create volunteer travel opportunities. Whether your interests lie with the environment, wildlife, community development, teaching or building projects, there is a volunteer vacation for you.
To kick-start your imagination, here are five possibilities:
Keep Children Off the Streets in Kenya
After your Kenyan safari, spend some time in the city looking after abandoned children whose mothers are in prison. The Nairobi Children’s Home rescues kids from trying to survive in the streets, improving their living conditions and eventually working to reunite them with their mothers once they are released. Just eight paid staff care for 100-150 infants and young children; volunteers are essential to shower love and attention on these kids.
Work on an Organic Chocolate Farm in Belize
At Cotton Tree Lodge, join Sustainable Harvest International to learn how organic cacao farms operate and produce those delicious chocolates you buy at home. Native to this region in Belize, the cacao bean is a critical part of agriculture and economics. Most guests work on a one-day project, though multi-day opportunities also exist. Projects may include building a fuel-efficient wood burning stove, reforesting land or planting an organic school garden.
Care for Elephants at a Sanctuary in Sri Lanka
Get up close and personal with these intelligent, gentle giants as you look after injured or aging elephants whose owners could no longer afford to care for them. This project also enlists volunteers to help with community development, part of an overall effort to alleviate elephant-human conflict in the region. Work alongside the mahouts (elephant keepers) and learn all about elephants and their place in Sri Lankan culture. In your free time, explore Sri Lanka’s beautiful beaches, tropical forests and hill stations.
Teach Kids How to Protect The Environment in Ghana
If you don’t know littering and burning trash are bad for your environment, you’ve got no reason to stop. This ProWorld project helps educate youth in Cape Coast about environmentally friendly waste management, sanitation and recycling. Through developing curriculum, conducting workshops and teaching in local schools, you can make a difference by showing kids how they can make a difference. During your free time, Ghana’s beaches and the rainforests of Kakum National Park beckon.
Lend a Hand with Panda Conservation in China
GAP Adventures offers a 2-week Panda Conservation Adventure that includes five days at Bifengxia Panda Center in Sichuan province. Volunteer duties include gathering bamboo and supplementary foods, cleaning the pandas’ outdoor areas and enclosures to ensure a safe and sanitary environment, and occasionally the chance to help professional researchers gather behavioral data. The pandas are most active in the morning, and there should be plenty of opportunities to enjoy watching the infants romp in their playground environment.
Then, peruse some of these sites for opportunities and ideas:
Inspired to serve,
Feature image: Measuring a sea turtle on Conchalito Island in Magadalena Bay. Photo: Wendy Worrall Redal