Web Exclusive: Turn Over a New Leaf With a Volunteer Vacation
Eight trips that offer a way to give back, from digging for dinosaur bones in Texas to planting trees in the Galápagos
BY STIRLING KELSO
A volunteer with LEAD Adventures makes a new friend in Ecuador; fun with kids at Hope Community School, met during a Spark Ventures trip in Zambia.
Most volunteer vacations involve some work and some play—but every one is an experience that leaves you with a deep connection to a place. Opportunities exist around the world; the trips cited below are only a tiny sampling. Consult the websites and the Additional Resources at the end of this article to find a trip that’s right for you.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS
EarthWatch Institute
During the Cretaceous period (about 65 million years ago), the Dallas–Fort Worth area had a subtropical climate much like that of the Florida Everglades. On this new EarthWatch itinerary, you’ll help archeologists discover traces of dinosaurs, sharks, skates and ancient plant life at a dig site that’s threatened by urban sprawl. Participants excavate the soil, map the specimens found, and spend time in the lab searching for microvertebrates through a microscope and preparing fossils for storage. 800-776-0188; EarthWatch.org; nine days from $2,295* per person; various dates in June, July and August 2012

COTOPAXI NATIONAL PARK, ECUADOR
Adventure Life
Travelers split their time between adventure and volunteer activities while staying in Cotopaxi, an 83,000-acre park in central Ecuador. A typical day may start with zip-lining through a temperate forest and riding horses with chagras (cowboys) and continue with an afternoon spent planting trees and clearing trails. At night guests retire to hacienda-style houses with wicker furnishings, fireplaces and hillside views. 800-344-6118;
adventure-life.com; five days from $930 per person; various dates

NDOLA, ZAMBIA
Spark Ventures
After a trip to Zambia, three Chicago-based execs decided to leave their lucrative careers and create a nonprofit committed to educating children and fostering economic stability in its third-largest city, Ndola, and across the country. Since 2007, Spark Ventures has built an orphanage, a seven-room school and a water well for a Ndola community. Travelers who join the founders on two annual trips can help maintain facilities, work with children and jump-start economic opportunities. (For example, Spark participants recently delivered 5,000 baby chicks to a new poultry farm that the organization started in Lusaka.) 773-293-6710; sparkventures.org; seven days from $1,200 per person; various dates

TIOMAN ISLAND, MALAYSIA
Biosphere Expeditions
Conservation-minded Biosphere Expeditions has a new trip for scuba enthusiasts. Divers survey the 600-plus types of coral around Tioman Island in eastern Malaysia, where marine life has been marred by a boom in population and tourism. Volunteers stay on a 45-foot yacht while diving in seldom-explored waters; they also earn Reef Check EcoDiver certification at the program’s end. 800-407-5761; biosphere-expeditions.org; $2,140 per person; March 18–30 and April 1–13, 2012; prior PADI Open Water Diver scuba certification required

ST. JOHN, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS
Sierra Club
Sixty percent of St. John, a dense swath of jungle ringed in white sands, is a protected national park that attracts some 700,000 visitors a year. Sierra Club volunteers help keep it beautiful by maintaining trails, clearing beaches for nesting turtles and preserving historic mills. It’s not all work; afternoons are left open for snorkeling in the clear Caribbean waters or relaxing with a book in the minimalist eco-camp. 415-977-5500; SierraClub.org; from $1,245 per person, Feb. 26–March 3, 2012

GJIROKASTRA, ALBANIA
Adventures in Preservation (AIP)
Founded by two women who are passionate about architecture, AIP is organizing the restoration of Skenduli, an Ottoman Empire–style tower house in a World Heritage city. The work itself—rebuilding a roof, cleaning and painting—may seem small-scale, but the project has wider potential. Such cultural treasures could bring international attention and tourist dollars that would turn the faltering economy around. 303-444-0128; adventuresinpreservation.org; from $1,200; May 13–26 and Sept. 2–15, 2012

SOUTH AFRICA
Hands Up Holidays
On this new trip with luxury outfitter Hands Up Holidays, travelers get to stay at some of the country’s best safari lodges (Singita, Londolozi, Sabi Sabi) and go on game drives to spot lions and elephants. But they also spend time rebuilding schools, delivering educational materials to teachers, mentoring students and raising funds for water pumps and student scholarships. 201-984-5372; handsupholidays.com; nine days from $7,500; various dates

GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS
LEAD Adventures
Forget standing on the deck of a boat to peer at albatrosses and blue-footed boobies. Travelers with Ecuador-based LEAD Adventures get unparalleled access to the famed islands, thanks to the organization’s links with the Charles Darwin Center. LEAD members can have close encounters with wildlife (swimming with sea lions, petting giant tortoises) and also work at building new habitats and reforesting acres damaged by irresponsible farming. Best of all, a LEAD trip costs considerably less than the average Galápagos tour. All vacations should feel this good. 011-593-2-250-1332; lead-adventures.com; two weeks from $1,490 per person; various dates

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES
Volunteer Vacations: Now in its 11th edition, this book details programs all over the globe. Chicago Review Press; $19

Responsible Travel: This U.K.-based website offers a wealth of ideas for sustainable travel, listing destinations, accommodations and activities, along with in-depth coverage of volunteer vacations. responsibletravel.com

Kutoa Travel: A new green-minded travel company gathers information on hotels and tour operators that contribute to their local communities. Many of these offer voluntourism opportunities. kutoatravel.com


*Prices are given in U.S. dollars and do not include airfare.



NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
Published: January 12, 2012 
Photos: Sandra Fuentes/LEAD Adventures; Tyler Carlson
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