Best Save-the-Earth Trips
At 3 a.m. on a moonless, steamy night, I trudged along a stretch of Caribbean coast, peering into the darkness. My sneakers sloshed with a mixture of wet sand and seawater; sand flies bit my ankles. A few hours earlier, the half-dozen people in my group had chatted quietly as we’d marched along, but now, stumblingly tired and with a light rain misting our faces, we’d fallen silent. We still had miles to go before we slept.
Of course, I’d known when I signed up that this wasn’t going to be a typical beach vacation. I’d come here—to Costa Rica’s remote Gandoca region, a bumpy eight-hour bus ride from the nearest city—for a single reason: to see, and hopefully help, one of the world’s most astounding endangered species, the leatherback sea turtle. Leatherbacks (which can grow to almost six feet long) return to Gandoca’s beaches every year to lay their eggs by night in the black sand. My job, as a recruit with U.K.-based voluntourism organization i-to-i, was to give those eggs a chance to hatch.
I wasn’t alone in my quest to get something more from my vacation than a tan. Dozens of other i-to-i volunteers—from college kids to 50-somethings, and from all over the world—had converged on this tiny Costa Rican community looking to help. In fact, voluntourism programs in general are booming.
The trend is perhaps more surprising when you consider that volunteer participation isn’t exactly free. The program fees for helping the leatherbacks, for example, start at more than $700 a week (and that’s without airfare). While some voluntourism trips are much cheaper, others can cost more than double that.
“Despite the economy, we’re doing really well,” said Calie Yousha, a spokesperson for Global Vision International, which runs programs for conserving the Amazon Rainforest and studying dolphins in the Ligurian Sea, among others. “We’ve actually seen a pretty significant increase in volunteering.”
The sentiment was echoed by Mireille Cronin Mather, Managing Director at the Foundation for Sustainable Development, who says the organization’s programs—which operate in places like the drought-ravaged deserts of Rajasthan—have doubled in size since last year. “People who suddenly find themselves between careers, or who want to give themselves a competitive edge for their next job,” she said, “realize that cultivating global development skills is really important.”
But that’s not the only reason people are devoting their “down time” to ecological causes these days. “This seems like a period where people are taking stock, in general,” said Bruce Kanarek, who runs volunteer programs for the Sierra Club in several U.S. national parks. “They’re realizing that instead of taking a vacation at a spa and turning their energy inward, it’s actually more rewarding to direct your energy back at the world.”
And some of these activities do require energy. On my Costa Rica excursion, we patrolled the beach for nearly two full nights without seeing a single turtle. But in the wee hours of the second night, our guide suddenly stopped us; just ahead of us, he whispered, was a female leatherback digging her nest in the sand. Creeping up slowly, we gathered behind the turtle—and when our guide turned on his dim red flashlight to illuminate her, we all gasped. She was monumental, as ancient-looking as a stegosaurus; her back flippers, scooping methodically into the sand, were the size of manhole covers. Soon, our guide murmured, she’d start to lay, and it would be our job to collect her 100-odd eggs for safekeeping in a hatchery, away from predators and the tide. He held out a plastic bag and a set of rubber gloves. Who, he asked, wanted to help “deliver” the turtle eggs?
I didn’t hesitate for a moment.
Leatherback sea turtle conservation, Costa Rica
Where you go: Between late March and early July, to the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast (for the rest of the year the program switches to the country’s Pacific Coast, where the turtles nest during that time). Gandoca’s long stretches of beach, where the volcanic black sand abuts lush rainforest (and howler monkeys jeer from the trees) are where critically endangered leatherback sea turtles come to lay their eggs every year.
What you do: During the early months of the nesting season, volunteers (who can stay for as little as a week) patrol the beaches in nighttime shifts to monitor nesting leatherbacks—measuring and tagging the enormous turtles, which can weigh more than 500 pounds, and collecting their eggs for relocation to a protected hatchery. Volunteers during the later months get the payoff: helping to release turtle hatchlings into the sea.
Roughing-it rating: Medium-to-high. Program volunteers stay in locals’ homes in the tiny (pop. 175) community of Gandoca, where showers are cold, electricity is temperamental, and phone calls can only be made at the single pay phone on the town’s unpaved main street. On the plus side: the home-cooked meals are delicious and accompanied by lots of local fresh fruit (you can also hit the village’s single restaurant for a burger or the open-air bar for a beer).
Cost: Starting at $788 for one week; $300 for each week thereafter.
Organic farm work, all over the U.S.Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) USA
Where you go: Any of the more than 1,000 organic or sustainably minded farms scattered across the U.S. These can range from commercially operational, several-hundred-acre organic dairy farms to small, family-owned orchards, apiaries, and vegetable plots that turn out produce for their own consumption or farmers’ markets.
What you do: “Wwoofers” work at widely varying tasks, depending on the seasons and the property they choose. They might find themselves planting, tending, or harvesting crops; feeding and caring for livestock; building or repairing fences, greenhouses, and storage areas; and prepping produce for market or preservation (cheese-making, canning, pickling). Volunteers communicate with host farms before they arrive to work, and agree on the terms of service beforehand, including the length of their stay and the projects they’ll be expected to help with.
Roughing-it rating: Variable. While many Wwoofers stay in farmhouse guest rooms with their host families, other properties accommodate volunteers in bunkhouses, cabins, yurts, or Airstream trailers. Some allow children and pets to come along, others prefer single laborers (or vegetarians, or non-drinkers). All Wwoofers, however, should be prepared to do hard, physical work, and to have a positive attitude toward what can be ad-hoc (but very educational) duties.
Cost: Just the $20 WWOOF membership fee. (Some farmers offer volunteers a small stipend, but most provide just room and board.)
Water-resource development, Rajasthan, IndiaFoundation for Sustainable Development
Where you go: FSD places volunteers with small, community-based organizations in several communities throughout the desert state of Rajasthan, where severe, near-perpetual droughts have decimated landscape, agriculture, and livelihoods.
What you do: Volunteers willing to make a long-term (minimum 4 weeks) commitment can help research water-harvesting and water-conservation solutions and help to implement them—perhaps by building rain-capture or water-storage tanks, digging irrigation ditches, or collaborating on sustainable water-use strategies with local farmers. Those with professional business or communication skills can also contribute in less sweat-intensive ways, by writing grant proposals or documenting projects for possible funding.
Roughing-it rating: Variable. All volunteers are placed in local homes for the duration of their project work, and while some lodgings can be very basic—without running water or electricity—others are stately homes with modern amenities owned by relatives of maharajahs. All volunteers get intensive training before starting their fieldwork, but this needn’t include language study—most Rajasthani locals have a working knowledge of English.
Cost: About $2,800 for 4 weeks.
Panda conservation, Xi’an, China
Where you go: The Shaanxi Province Animal Rescue & Breeding Centre, set at the foot of the remote Qinlin Mountains in Central China. The center, though home to many species of indigenous Chinese wildlife, is best known for its population of resident pandas (about a dozen—which is a lot, considering the worldwide population currently hovers around 1,000 bears).
What you do: Volunteers (who must commit to a 2-week minimum) stay at the animal center, and their duties are largely confined to the premises: feeding animals and cleaning their enclosures; documenting their behavior; and, on occasion, helping senior staff with wild panda rescue and the onsite panda breeding program. They may also be called upon to lead visiting tourist groups through the conservation center (or use their English skills to help others translate).
Roughing-it rating: Low. The center has four double-share rooms, all of them new, with clean, modern baths, phone, and Internet access—and all of which look right onto the panda enclosures (you may wake up to find them looking in your window). As for meals, most are taken in the nearby village of Lou Guan Tai, where the panda program has a partnership with an excellent traditional restaurant.
Cost: Starting at $1,540 for 2 weeks, $400 for each week thereafter.
Best Save-the-Earth Trips
U.S. National Park conservation, parks around the U.S. Sierra Club
Where you go: The Sierra Club’s Service Trips division runs 80 different voluntourism efforts (most lasting 5 to 7 days) in national parks all over the U.S. These include some of the best-known ones (the Grand Canyon, Arches National Park in Utah), as well as many under-the-radar gems (like Peaceful Hart Prairie Preserve, in Arizona, and North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest).
What you do: Volunteers perform all kinds of tasks, depending on the park they choose—but nearly all of them have to do with maintaining and protecting the parklands themselves. Trail-clearing and “exotic plant removal”—otherwise known as weeding—are usually on the agenda, but some projects, like those in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon or Gila National Forest, also offer the opportunity to help maintain ancient archeological sites.
Roughing-it rating: Medium-to-high. Campgrounds are often the lodgings of choice for national park projects; while some have electrical hookups and modern showers, others don’t. There are some trips, however, that even the tent-averse can enjoy—like those in California’s Channel Islands, which have relatively comfy, hot-water bunkhouses.
Cost: Most programs run between $500 and $650 for a week.
Dolphin and whale research, Ligurian Sea, Italy/FranceGlobal Vision International
Where you go: The Ligurian Sea Cetacean Sanctuary, a Mediterranean marine preserve set roughly between northern Sardinia and France’s Cote d’Azur. Many protected species make their home in these waters (which volunteers ply in a live-aboard sailboat)—including pilot, large-fin, and sperm whales, and striped and Risso’s dolphins.
What you do: Volunteers (who can join the project for as little as a week) spend most of their days collecting research on the sanctuary’s cetacean inhabitants. Duties include photo identification, acoustic monitoring, and remote tracking of dolphins and whales—but also computer data entry, preparing group meals, and navigating and crewing while under sail.
Roughing-it rating: Low-to-medium. The program’s 69-foot sailboat can accommodate up to 11 volunteers in shared quarters (one with two single beds, one with six, and two with four beds). Each room has a private bathroom, with hot-water showers; three meals a day are served onboard. Obviously, since volunteers are usually at sea, Internet and phone access are sporadic.
Cost: Starting at about $1,100 per week.
South African wildlife preservation, Eastern Cape Worldwide Experience
Where you go: Shamwari Game Reserve, a nearly 60,000-acre preserve on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, where the “Big Five”—lions, leopards, Cape buffalo, elephants, and black rhinos—make their home along with dozens of other wildlife species.
What you do: Volunteers at Shamwari (who work on the reserve for a minimum of 2 weeks) take part in all kinds of projects that help maintain the protected environment and its resident animals—including game counts and monitoring, brush clearing, and fence patrols (to discourage poachers). Program participants may also help on the reserve’s two Born Free Big Cat sanctuaries—where lions and leopards who’ve been rescued from captivity are rehabilitated.
Roughing-it rating: Low. Volunteers are housed on the reserve in a modern lodge, where the 16 double rooms all have their own baths. There’s also a communal lounge with satellite TV and a shared computer, as well as a swimming pool and an area for evening braai (barbecues).
Cost: About $1,800 for 2 weeks.
Amazon rainforest conservation, EcuadorGlobal Vision International
Where you go: Deep into the Yachana region, which encompasses some 4,500 acres of Amazonian rainforest in the eastern part of Ecuador. This is the real deal—hot, humid, outrageously lush wilderness that hums with the sounds of thousands of birds and insects.
What you do: Long-term volunteers (who must commit for a minimum of 5 weeks) work alongside scientists, researchers and local students to document the conservation value of the area by identifying and cataloguing local mammals, reptiles, birds, and plants. Some participants also teach English and collaborate on sustainable agriculture practices among local villagers.
Roughing-it rating: High. Though volunteers stay at a base camp with dormitory-style rooms, cooking facilities, showers and toilets, this is about as remote as remote gets (wandering alone into the forest is strongly discouraged, as it’s easy to get lost here). Program participants should expect to get dirty and mosquito-bitten, and should also be strong swimmers (some fieldwork transport takes place via motorized dugout canoe). Phone and e-mail?Forget about it. Amazing wildlife sightings in the planet’s most biodiverse landscape?Count on it.
Cost: $2,690 for 5 weeks.
Climate-change study, Arctic Circle Earthwatch Institute
Where you go: Far, far north. For 11 days, volunteers are based at one of two project headquarters in Canadian polar territory—either a coastal station on Manitoba’s Hudson Bay, or a more remote lodge in the MacKenzie Mountains of the Yukon Territory. Both are surrounded by pristine, sweeping landscapes of tundra and boreal forests, where global warming puts the year-round permafrost and icepack at risk.
What you do: Most daily tasks involve data collection—like taking snow core samples, recording snowpack temperatures, and measuring snow density—that helps scientists monitor the effects of climate change in this critical environment. Volunteers don’t need to be lab geeks before they arrive, though; project leaders give thorough instruction each day before bringing volunteers into the field (usually via snowmobile-pulled sleds).
Roughing-it rating: Mixed. Though the temperatures can plummet to -40 degrees F during winter trips, and mosquitoes swarm during warm-weather months, both program base camps have comfy dorm rooms or cabins, and volunteers—according to one recently returned participant—“eat like kings.” (Those who prefer kingdoms with daily showers and e-mail access, however, should definitely request the Hudson Bay station.)
Cost: $2,950 for 11 days.
Coral-reef study, Oman, United Arab Emirates Biosphere Expeditions
Where you go: Oman’s Musandam peninsula, where the Western Hajar mountains descend fjord-like into the startlingly clear waters of the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. The coral reefs surrounding the peninsula are vibrant with sea life, and—as yet—unsullied by commercial industry or tourist traffic.
What you do: Only certified divers can sign up for this trip; the conservation efforts all take place underwater. Volunteers spend several hours a day documenting the concentration of myriad reef species, including parrotfish, butterfly fish, manta rays, sea whips, and hard and soft corals. The resulting data helps the government and NGOs outline measures to protect the health of the reef.
Roughing-it rating: Low. Volunteers make their home base on the program’s cushy 98-foot dhow (a traditional Arabian boat), which has modern bathrooms and showers, a dive platform and tank-filling station, and a fully equipped kitchen where a professional cook whips up sumptuous daily meals. Each of the eight air-conditioned rooms sleeps two people (so you might want to bring a buddy); you can also choose to sleep on deck under the stars.
Cost: About $1,600 for 7 days.