Any searches for the best places to volunteer abroad return the predictable listicles, and within them Peru will be featured. But if you’re going to spend months somewhere – if you’re going to give volunteering a concerted stint (and I would recommend that you do) – then a neat 50 words probably isn’t going to quite cut it for research. I have every intention of convincing you that Huanchaco, on the coast of north Peru, and more specifically the Otra Cosa Network, must be considered at the upper end of any declaration on the subject.
There are two criteria by which it’s important to make a judgement on where the best places to volunteer abroad might be, each of these criteria will require personal reflection, but must be considered nonetheless. Firstly, and most importantly, is the organisation itself: what kind of work do they do? How well funded are they? Do they work with, or parallel to, the local community? How sustainable are their projects? And to what extent could their work be done by locals?
The second is not oft discussed but concerns the lifestyle, you do have to live in your chosen destination after all. You’re going to want to know – are you not – what kind of environment will engage your attention among the hours during which you are not volunteering; the choice is host to some serious variety. Everything from cities to towns to villages to island communities to individual farms are available – the crux of this choice is to balance the level of danger and amenities on the former end of the spectrum with the lack of both on the latter. But you mustn’t kid yourself that any one choice is more valid, or more ‘pure’, on this measure alone. The stories I’ve heard of good work being done in varied environments are invariably impressive and interesting.
Let’s first take the consideration of the organisation, for which Otra Cosa Network stands out immediately and for a couple of reasons. The cost of joining the charity as a volunteer is in the range of a few hundred pounds, as an admin fee, which varies slightly by length of stay. This strikes a contrast to the thousands-of-pounds-a-month options of some charities, and allows one to arrive without the entitlements and expectations of having bought the experience as a consumer. Coupled with this it means your fee won’t be the charity’s main source of revenue, so it’s a better bet that the organisation will be ‘plugged in’ to the variety of funding sources necessary to keep its feet firmly on the ground.
The next thing which struck me was the name, I had not previously seen a charity referred to as a ‘network’, but this is the correct terminology in this instance. At first on the website, and then upon arriving, you are witness to the inescapable breadth of the work done by this NGO. Women’s empowerment, literature, youth engagement, environmentalism, social enterprise, English classes; and even that doesn’t do the variety justice. It’s important, as a budding volunteer, not to be so arrogant as to assume you could do anything, so the ability to align yourself with a project to which you’re able to add the most value (and gain the most personally) is best for all concerned. The variety also speaks to the level to which the charity is part of the local furniture, a point which mustn’t be understated.
Be it a ticketed lunch, a raffle, a beach-cleaning day, whatever – the better-off locals welcome OCN as a catalyst to bridge the rich-poor divide. And the locals for whom the charity operates are both inescapably reliant on OCN’s existence and an active part of maintaining a forward heading. It cannot be said that this commendable stance could be the result of anything other than time, effort and good hearts, and is vital to the sustainability of the charity and its projects. Further, the knowledge of what the charity does and the importance of a communal affront to the difficulties faced on the outskirts of the town are, respectively, expanded and hardened.
The lifestyle, to my mind, did not disappoint in any regard. Small enough to be all but perfectly safe, big enough that tourism isn’t the only game in town – and amenities available, even if some quirks and foibles are to be endured in obtaining them. OCN accommodates a range of volunteers, all of whom are friendly and sociable, most put in about 20 hours a week which leaves good time to surf, dine and drink, even on a modest budget.
The showers are not particularly warm, but just warm enough to sooth an otherwise cold shock: fitting for a climate in which taking a hot shower would be an act of masochism. The flesh of avocados and mangos ease from their skin obligingly, and the tomatoes are both ripe and firm. The town is plentifully punctuated with modestly priced and suitably appetising restaurants, many run from the ground floor of local homes. And the community of locals and backpackers are cheerfully welcoming. A balmy, laid back surfer town with good food on the coast of Peru, and an NGO conducting a variety of essential projects, with closely knit local relationships and a great group of colleagues. Huanchaco and OCN must feature in any knowing list of the best places to volunteer abroad.
Written by Ben Allen.