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13 life-changing volunteer vacation trips to take in 2019

Article by Jana Jansen van Vuuren

Jana Jansen van Vuuren

Posted: May 30, 2019

What are you looking for in a vacation? To get away and recharge? Or are you searching for inspiration?

Trips that truly enlighten us are those that expose us to new ways of life, making us see things differently, and putting our personal challenges into perspective. These are experiences that are truly transformative – they change our mindsets and, in so doing, the trajectory of our lives.

There’s a reason just about all our volunteers describe their time with GVI as “life-changing”, why so many choose to come back, and even choose to work for us in the future.  

We make it our job to connect people around the world to the causes they care deeply about and find a place where they can make a lasting impact. The result is a truly incredible experience, the lifetime value of which cannot be underestimated.

So if you are looking to make the year of 2019 unlike any other, browse our list of most life-altering volunteer experiences to pick one that resonates with you.


Volunteer vacations with animals

Develop an appreciation for all creatures.

1) Help reintegrate rescued elephants into the wild


What exactly is it about elephants that hold us in awe? Is it is their nimbleness in combination with their substantial size? Is it the great sensitivity they show in interacting with one other? Is it the intelligence we sense behind their enigmatic eyes?

Thai society has long considered elephants a symbol of strength, majesty and high-mindedness, and, their trainers, mahouts, were traditionally held in high esteem.

But the rapid reduction of forest areas over the past 20 years has significantly reduced the number of elephants. Although cutting down trees without a permit was outlawed to curb this trend, the law affected tame elephants and their mahouts, who turned from logging to the tourism industry to earn a living.  

For over a decade, GVI has been operating in Huay Pakoot village near Chiang Mai, to introduce elephants back into the wild from a life of performing tricks for tourists, and to support their mahouts in developing new forms of income.

While many volunteers in Chiang Mai expect to be moved by seeing these magnificent animals in their natural environment, what many don’t expect is to be so deeply affected by the sense of belonging village life affords.

Further reading: Four reasons why the environment needs elephants

Wildlife volunteer vacations

Preserve biological diversity for future generations.

2) Safeguard a jaguar stronghold in Costa Rica


The allure of the elusive jaguar has captured the imagination of ancient and modern civilisations alike. Sadly, the famed beauty of their pelts has lead to many of them being hunted to near extinction.

Their need for large roaming territories meant that as farmland expanded into their habitat they began to prey on livestock, resulting in a tense relationship with farmers. Costa Rica, a country known for its progressive conservation efforts, has become a refuge for the jaguar population.

GVI has been partnered with organisations like Coastal Jaguar Conservation, Panthera and the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment, in Tortuguero National Park for more than a decadeAs a volunteer on this project, you’ll collect data on jaguar numbers and movements to find out what makes a population successful as well as how it can be protected and replicated in other locations.

Activities will involve walking along a protected beach area (incidentally the only habitat where turtles and jaguars are known to interact) looking for signs of jaguar activity, as well as setting up and maintaining camera traps throughout the park.

While there, you might have the chance to catch a rare glimpse of a swatch of mottled fur through the thick jungle vegetation.

Further reading: Six unusual animals to look out for in Costa Rica

3) Work to safeguard the cheetah in South Africa

Conservation researchers have warned that the threat to Africa’s cheetah population might currently be underestimated. How terrible would it be if the children born over the past few years are the last to see this incredible creature, the fastest land animal known to man?

GVI staff and volunteers in Karongwe Private Game Reserve near South Africa’s well-known Kruger National Park, work on a range of conservation projects. One of these projects involves collecting data on the feeding habits of cheetahs in the park.

The park is a very predator dense area, which means there’s a lot of competition for cheetahs from other, stronger and more resilient predators like lions and leopards. Understanding how cheetahs thrive in this environment allows researchers to provide recommendations for other parks looking to grow their cheetah populations.

Volunteers on this conservation trip have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a role in protecting Southern Africa’s habitat and wildlife.

Further reading: All about cheetahs

4) Help baby sea turtles make it to the ocean in Greece


Endangered wildlife might not immediately spring to mind when someone mentions Mediterranean beaches, but they are, in fact, key to the survival of sea turtles.

Most sea turtles take over 20 years to reach maturity, and when they do mothers need to make a trip up to the beach to lay their eggs. Once on the beach, these eggs are in danger of being discovered by land predators and mother turtles are exposed to poachers, who sell their meat, skin and shells for a hefty price.

They are also under threat in the ocean, where baby turtles are vulnerable to attack from seagulls and sharks, and adult turtles often get trapped in large fishing nets.

On this project, you’ll spend your time camping on a Greek beach. In the evening you will walk the beach to measure and tag mother turtles who have come to lay their nests. In the mornings you will look for nests laid overnight and put protections in place.

While the part of this research vacation many volunteers are most excited about is guiding hatchlings down to the water, many are deeply affected by the powerfully peaceful presence of mother turtles.

Further reading: About sea turtles

Environmental vacations

Discover the interconnected nature of our global ecosystem.  

5) Work to preserve Thailand’s coastline


Continuing with the theme of coastal conservation, let’s talk about our team’s work in Thailand’s Phang Nga province. They work to protect the flora and fauna of this fragile ecosystem from the impacts of the country’s fast-growing tourism and fishing sectors.

Rapid development of beaches disrupts wind patterns and affects the distribution of sand. This results in the gradual erosion of beaches and coastal mangrove forests: the nesting grounds of sea turtles and other wildlife.

Outdated fishing gear harms many of Thailand’s threatened marine species. New hatchlings are raised in nurseries, rather than recovering beaches, in order to increase turtle populations.

As a participant on a coastal conservation volunteer expedition to Phang Nga, you’ll work at two of these turtle nurseries and help facilitate local community members in setting up initiatives that minimise their impact on the environment. 

You’ll collect data on mangroves populations, and conduct biodiversity surveys on the nearby islands of Koh Prathong and Koh Ra. In this way, you’ll start to appreciate Thailand’s beaches for the natural treasures they truly are, in a way many tourists never do.

Further reading: The top three reasons to volunteer In Phang Nga

6) Conserve an island paradise in Seychelles


Islands are home to many species found nowhere else, such as the coco de mer palm and the black parrot of the Seychelles island range. These one-of-a-kind species rely on the limited resources available on the island and are thus vulnerable to threat from invasive alien species.

These rare species are not only important sources of genetic biodiversity but provide a secluded environment that birds and marine life use as a resting, nesting and nursing ground. On an eco-volunteer vacation to Seychelles, you’ll be maintaining one of these precious island habitats, namely that of Curieuse Island.

The entire island and its surrounding waters are a protected national park. GVI is, in fact, the only research team permanently stationed on Curieuse. Habitat restoration, as well as coco de mer, mangrove and giant tortoise research, are included on this project.

Between October and February, you’ll also be collecting data on the annual sicklefin lemon shark and sea turtle nursing seasons. While you might expect to be blown away by the breathtaking beauty of this mini-utopia, you’ll be most surprised to learn about its vital ecological significance.

Further reading: Top five reasons to volunteer in Seychelles

7) Protect the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System in Mexico


Ever heard of coral bleaching? It’s an event caused by rising global atmospheric temperatures in which hotspots of ocean water effectively cook corals. These events are the topic of Netflix’s popular film Chasing Corals.

Corals function as nursing grounds for fish, which means they are key to regenerating plummeting native fish populations. They also protect the coast from the effects of tropical storms.

Other threats to our oceans include plastic pollution, invasive species and unsustainable fishing methods. You can help turn the tide of history by working to monitor the effects of coral bleaching on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the second largest reef after the Great Barrier Reef.

As a marine conservation volunteer on this project, you’ll be stationed at our base in on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, where you’ll gather data about the health of the reef, and remove plastic from the reef waters. You’ll also discuss with local tour guides and fishermen how to protect this important marine site.

Further reading: Is the Great Barrier Reef on its last breath?

One week Volunteer Construction Programs

Make a meaningful impact in under seven days.

8) Help Nepal recover from the 2015 earthquake


It’s easy to take our homes, schools, and roads for granted. Although it has been four years since the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015, rebuilding efforts are still in progress.

Many families lost their homes, children lost their places of learning, and sites of cultural and spiritual significance were completely destroyed. You can help with rebuilding and repairing homes and schools in the city of Pokhara, keeping families safe and children working towards a more prosperous future.

You’ll also get to learn about Nepalese Hinduism in a unique way, by repairing local temples. In this way, you’ll be able to play a significant role Nepal’s history within the space of only one week.

Further reading: The top six reasons to volunteer in Nepal

Volunteer vacations Asia

Master a more gentle way of life.  

9) Teach Novice monks in Laos


If you are looking to escape the rat race, and reconnect with your true self, a volunteer vacation to Laos is the perfect choice. Primarily a Buddhist country, Laos is known for its laid-back atmosphere.

Since 2009, GVI has been partnering with temple schools in Luang Prabang, providing volunteers who can help teachers deliver English, mathematics, and computer skills classes for young novice monks.

Many of these novices don’t commit to a fully monastic life once they come of age, but rather join the country’s growing tourism sector. By joining this project you’ll be supporting them in increasing their possibilities for employment. 

Further reading: Ten reasons to volunteer in Laos

10) Promote gender equality in Cambodia


There are many groups, both governmental and private, working to enhance gender equality in Cambodia, but they need support to achieve their goals and amplify their impact.

These organisations work to provide women with better access to education, alternative incomes, jobs, and healthcare. Some of the challenges they face include an insufficient number of hands on deck and social norms that put a theoretical limit on women’s capabilities.

Participate in the global empowerment of women by working with these groups in the Cambodian town of Kampong Cham

Further reading: Eight unmissable things to do in Cambodia

Volunteer vacations in Africa

Experience the diversity of the African continent first-hand.

11) Coach sports in Cape Town


Did you have a parent, sibling, grandparent or even a teacher who would spend the afternoons after school with you, making lunch, going through homework and playing games?

If you did you will know how much this meant to you as a child and how it shaped your future. In South Africa, as in many other locations around the globe, teachers and parents in low-income communities are under a lot of pressure.

Educators need to cope with crowded classrooms and administration responsibilities, while parents need to work long hours to support their households. You can contribute to one of these communities in Cape Town by conducting sports lessons both during and after school hours.

Inspire a lifelong interest in sports, promote the value of exercise, and provide students with much-needed support and encouragement.

Further reading: Ten things you need to do in Cape Town

12) Support Ghanaian women in their empowerment efforts


Women in Ghana have been gaining more economic, social and political power, especially in the past few years. However, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure this trend continues.

The main catalyst for change is education. On GVI’s women’s empowerment project in Kokrobite, just outside of the capital city Accra, you will be involved in organising and presenting workshops on professional development, alternative income, preventive healthcare, and domestic violence awareness.

While interacting with these women you will pick up on their language and beliefs, in this way, finding out just how varied the customs of different groups can be.

Further reading: 16 interesting facts about Ghana

Volunteer vacations South America

Embrace life with gusto.

13) Work with women in Costa Rica to help increase their opportunities


It’s far more difficult for women to set up and grow a business or get a higher paying job than it is for men. This is due in large part to a lack of educational and professional development support available to women across the globe.

Even short courses in computer and interviewing skills have the ability to significantly increase a woman’s earning power. This is especially true for women in more rural areas, where education is not as readily available as in urban areas.

By joining our women’s empowerment program in Costa Rica, you’ll work with women in the town of Quepos to set up their own social enterprise initiatives and develop alternative means of income.

During your stay, don’t be surprised when you start living the ‘pura vida’ way, by focusing on taking things as they come, enjoying life’s simple pleasures, and making the contentment of yourself, your family and community a priority.  


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