Volunteer while travelling – my favourite Workaways, from making jam in Tasmania to helping in a guesthouse in El Salvador

How to volunteer while travelling with local families or communities

Combining a backpacking trip with volunteering is a great way to extend the length of your trip without incurring any extra costs. It also allows backpackers to get more of a feel for what it’s like to live in that country and make a contribution to the local community.

Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala
My favourite afternoon spot at my Guatemalan Workaway

I’m currently doing a two week Workaway in Uruguay, living in an off-the-grid cabin, helping my hosts develop their nine acre property. It’s got me thinking about the many Workaways I’ve done over the years.

I’ve written extensively about Workaway before and if you’re not sure what it’s all about then have a read of my post here explaining what Workaway actually is.

You can also check out individual posts about my three Workaway experiences in Central America last year below:

Helping in a guesthouse in El Salvador
Butterfly farming on an earthship in Belize
Sustainable building and living in a hobbit house in Guatemala.

In a nutshell, Workaway is a website that matches hosts and volunteers, allowing volunteers to organise stays with hosts in exchange (usually) for food and accommodation. Both hosts and Workawayers pay an annual fee to use the website but apart from that it’s free. Simply email a host you like the look of and see if they’re looking for a volunteer.

Here’s a round up of my favourite Workaway experiences to date.

Making jam in Tasmania, Australia

This Workaway with Ann and Bill just outside Hobart in Tasmania remains one of my favourite stays. I flew into Hobart early one misty morning and Ann and Bill who had that same night crossed from the mainland on the vehicle ferry picked me up downtown. We drove out to their property about an hour away and I was shown my new home for the next two weeks.

I had my own gorgeous little white cabin overlooking the terraced veggie garden and few grape vines stretching down to the shoreline. A bunk bed, kitchenette and table and chair completed the interior, with a wooden deck outside perfect for reading or watching the world go past. My bathroom was in the next building – the jam kitchen and canning shed.

The cabin was stocked with everything I needed for breakfast and I’d be eating lunch and dinner at the main house with my hosts.

The working day quickly fell into a pattern. Meet Ann at 9ish to be given my tasks for the day, ranging from weeding the garden to labelling endless jars of jam. Then help prepare lunch and enjoy wide ranging conversation with Ann and Bill while we ate. The afternoon was my own as long as I took the dog for a walk at some point. Then I was expected for a pre-dinner glass of wine around 7pm.

Each Saturday I was there we had a 6am start to head into Hobart to set up our stall at the popular farmers market, a main draw for locals and weekend visitors from the mainland alike. After helping out with the early rush, I had a couple of hours free to explore the city.

For my days off, we headed to the beach to stay in the family batch or beach cottage. It was great to see a traditional batch and enjoy some nice long walks along the beach. No swimming though – it was winter!

Butterfly Farming at Belize’s first earthship

An earthship, if you’re not sure, is a building made mainly of rubbish! A mixture of cement, tyres, straw and rubbish is used to form the structure. Glass bottles can be incorporated to create interesting designs.

After a weekend adventure caving in San Ignacio, I caught a bus south to Dump where I waited an hour for a local bus out to the Mayan dominated area of San Pedro. Here I walked up the driveway to Alisa’s property outside the gates of Lubaatun Mayan ruins.

I stayed in an dried mud brick (adobe) built by Alisa and her family, with the bathroom block across the garden and all meals cooked by Alisa in the kitchen, another adobe building. The earthship is a showcase building next to the kitchen, housing a small souvenir shop for the regular visitors to the property.

My daily tasks were varied but focused on the four stages of butterfly farming. Eggs are laid on leaves, the eggs hatch teeny tiny caterpillars. The caterpillars eat an immense amount, grow to their full size then form a pupae and eventually hatch into a butterfly, when the whole cycle starts all over again.

Every day I needed to clean out the caterpillar boxes containing caterpillars at different stages of growth, and add more leaves. Once the caterpillars started forming pupae they were sold by mail order to hotels and guesthouses who wanted pretty butterflies around their properties.

I worked from 8am to lunchtime each day then had the afternoons free, apart from, you guessed it, taking the three dogs for a walk. I got in the habit of taking two along a walking track with great views across the jungle, then taking the better behaved one down to the river, where we’d enjoy a swim under the watchful eye of one or two giant iguanas lazing in the trees above us.

Taming bushland in Northland, New Zealand

I flew into New Zealand and within a week had bought a backpacker car to be my home for the next few months. The backseats had been removed, a raised wooden platform and double mattress put in and it came with a camping stove, folding chairs and tables and a full range of crockery.

I immediately messaged a few hosts on Workaway and  the Sandra was the first to reply. I was off to Peria in Northland, at the foot of Ninety Mile Beach and the journey to Cape Reinga.

I found their property ten miles up a gravel road, enclosed on all sides by bushland with a river forming natural swimming holes on one side. I was to sleep in their large motorhome (far more comfortable than my car) as well as having the run of the house.

Taming the bush was my main job here. Given the chance the house would be swallowed up in no time by the fast growing foliage. I spent a lot of time chopping, clearing, swearing and sweating! I’m not sure I made much difference but I had fun. I even got to use a chainsaw and the quad bike.

Every afternoon I swam in the river holes, usually accompanied by a friendly eel or two trying to nibble my toes, then relaxed on the riverbank with my book. On my days off (you usually work five days then have two days free), my hosts invited me to go with them to a small festival held at a friends property where there was some great music and talks by local community leaders.

Working in the vegetable garden at an eco-stay in Portugal

Jacqueline and Menno’s gorgeous plot of terraced land was strewn haphazardly with gleaming white safari tents erected on wooden platforms. There was a natural swimming pool with makeshift bar area and shared evening meals for guests were a feast cooked up by Menno using produce from the garden.

This was my task – to keep the large vegetable plot free of weeds and free-range chickens, plant loads more seeds and periodically move the sprinklers. Two American girls helped clean and remake the safari tents, while my travelling partner helped look after the pool and cater in the evenings.

In return we had amazing group meals, unlimited red wine and trips in the afternoon to a nearby river. We really did feel like part of the family.

We all lived in small sweaty plastic tents around the property. Menno gave us each a tent, mattress and bedding on arrival and free reign of the property to erect them wherever we liked. There was a small toilet and shower block we all shared near the main house. It certainly wasn’t the most luxurious accommodation I’ve had at a Workaway but it was wonderful in the evenings laying in my snug tent listening to the sounds of the village down the valley shutting down for the night.

More about volunteering while backpacking in Uruguay will be posted in a blog sometime soon. I’m a massive fan of tiny house living, so I adore my little cabin. I’m already thinking this might be my favourite Workaway yet…


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