An undeveloped golden sand beach with driftwood and palm trees on shore.

Volunteering can go hand in hand with enjoying your vacation favorites like swimming or sunbathing. Photo © Robert Lerich/123rf.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” —Margaret Mead

Volunteer vacations—combining travel and volunteer work—are becoming an increasingly popular way to see the world. Why spend your vacation working? It’s not about work—it’s about travel. Travel becomes transformative when you share experiences and integrate with the people, culture, and environment of the place. Volunteer vacations convert the tourist into the traveler, allowing you to experience a destination and connect with locals in a new way. It’s about sharing talents and abilities, mutual learning, and pulling back the curtain that separates the foreigner from the country.

It’s also about fun. You might find yourself drawn to the rich indigenous cultures of Guatemala, Bolivia, or Peru. The golden sands of Honduras, Panama, and Brazil may beckon. Are you captivated by the extraordinary wildlife of Costa Rica and Ecuador? Or do you long for the laid-back vibe of Nicaragua and Mexico? From the European-Latin fusion of Argentina to the beaches and colonial cities of less-traveled Colombia, Latin America offers something to entice any traveler.

I took my first volunteer vacation when I was 13 years old, building homes with Habitat for Humanity in Washington State. Of course, it’s also about need. Poverty figures in Latin America dwarf those of the United States and Canada. Most Latin American countries don’t have social safety nets like welfare or Medicaid. Entire families may live in one- or two-room homes with dirt floors and no running water. Children may go to school only 100 days a year—or not at all. Wildlife conservation and environmental protection is often left behind in the basic struggle for survival.

I took my first volunteer vacation when I was 13 years old, building homes with Habitat for Humanity in Washington State. The camaraderie that I shared—with both my fellow volunteers and the family whose home we were building—was amazing, and it was gratifying to be able to help people in need. Seeing the injustice of economic inequality up close, and feeling the satisfaction of participating in a solution, planted the seeds for my first career in international development.

Today I have built homes in Honduras, monitored presidential elections in Ecuador, and worked with marginalized youth in Bolivia. Each experience opened a window into a world different from my own, and I gained indelible memories in the process. Whatever you choose to do, volunteering will add a new dimension to your travels and will leave you with meaningful remembrances of your own.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America.