""Where I went, and for how long""
I spent just under 1.5 years in Central and South America, travelling slowly. Amongst the highlights of my trip where the few occasions i stopped travelling entirely to volunteer at local projects - for a total of 4 months.
1) Inti Wara Yassi - a wildlife conservation project in the Bolivian jungle. I stayed for just over a month.
2) Comuna de Rhiannon - a permaculture community in the hills near Quito, Ecuador. I stayed almost three months.
Before learning of these projects by word of mouth on my travels, i had no idea they existed. They are not really advertised, they're not profit making and, unless you know of them, you're unlikely to find them. This made them more 'local', far cheaper and far more appealing than any of the expensive organised experiences many tour operators offer.
INTI WARA YASSI
The Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY), is an environmental movement in Bolivia, set up to rescue and rehabilitate wild life. They manage three parks: Parque Machia (Cochabamba), Ambue Ari (Santa Cruz) and Jacj Cuisi (North of La Paz). All their parks have a slightly different focus regarding the development of the park and the animals they specialise in.
I volunteered at Ambue Ari which focuses on big cats. They care for Ocelots, Pumas and Jaguars in captivity. It is generally illegal to release big cats once captured as they are no longer be wary of humans and might wander close to settlements. To that end IWY take in the cats and provide them with the best possible life given that they can never be released. Many were rescued from illegal captivity and traders/smugglers.
What was great?
Awesome travel photos! Indiana Jones material. I'm not going to lie, most people's initial desire to come here revolves around getting a cool photo with a real, live and wild big cat. There is a lot to be said for a corrupt country with no ambulance chasing lawyers or health and safety laws!
Working one to one with a big cat is however an incredible experience...nay, privilege...that is enjoyable long after you're tired of taking photos of what is now a daily routine!
- Ocelots are small and spotty - though can still be up to a meter long (inc. tail)
- Pumas/Cougars/Mountain Lions - bigger, plain beige/black and over 2m long.
- Jaguars - big (up to 3m), spotty, huge, powerful and their roar put the fear of god into me.
I got Carlitos, a Puma.
Girls are generally given an Ocelot as they're smaller. Pumas are managed by 1-3 volunteers - they're the middle ground. Jaguars have 2-4 volunteers per cat, with 2-4 leashes held in opposite directions…so if it tries to pounce a volunteer the other 3 can try to hold it back.
Size is no indication of anything other than raw power and strength. An angry ocelot could still shred you with its razor sharp claws. Best of luck dealing with a Puma that wants you… And Jaguars? 2, 4 or even 10 volunteers won't make a difference if they decide to get mad - they're a like tigers with different stripes - a serious big cat. Pray! (or prey?). But this doesn't happen.
They have moods and feelings, just like we do - and you quickly get good at reading them. Grumpy and playful are as bad as each other in terms of risk posed to you by sharp claws. What i'm getting at is that there is a certain symbiosis going on when you are allocated a cat. Only volunteers staying over a month can work with a cat. When you are allocated one, nobody but you can even come within 500m of it. This helps it form a relationship with you. They can smell fear, that's no cliche, but once trust is built up they seem to appreciate what you do for them and they don't actually want to harm you!
A typical day:
- Breakfast (which you might have to help with a few times a week)
- Camp duties (feeding/cleaning/caring for other camp animals - birds, quarantine, monkeys, anteaters etc)
- Cat time 1: long walk, swim and clean enclosure
- Cat time 2: feed cat, long walk
- Dinner (again, you might have to help)
Aside from feeding and cleaning the cage, your main role is essentially that of a moving anchor. Cats in the wild have territory and trails that they patrol. These captive cats also have several trails each. It might run the whole way, it may stalk something, nap for a few hours leaving you standing in a swamp or try to climb up a tree - there is no way to know what to expect.
They purr, sounding much like an engine idling. They like to play. If you make the mistake of letting it around a corner on too long a leash, next time you see it it will be low to the ground, eyes on you, ears pricked up, ready to pounce. It is now hunting you. Though it is only playing (hopefully!), you will get pounced. The claws sometimes shear through your clothing - straight edge razors seem blunt by comparison…and we don't have thick skin and fur for protection like they do!
Once a week, during the dry season, you spend the afternoon clearing fire breaks around the park (hacking down swarths of jungle with machetes). The novelty soon wears off - you get bitten, blister, sweaty and dirty. The evening is spent removing ticks from your skin. Occasionally, one of the tame monkeys that hang around the camp might help you. They sit on your shoulders, ruffle through your hair looking for ticks, pluck them out and proceed to eat them. The catch? You need to return the favour (they don't seem to mind if you don't eat them, thankfully!).
After working with a big cat for 8 hours a day, every day, you will realise that the tigers/lions you saw in Thailand were not 'right' and almost certainly drugged. There is NO WAY a big cat can be that predictable, sleepy and calm in those conditions.
Occasionally 'something' happened to keep us on our toes. One of the jaguar teams had a wild pig break cover during their afternoon walk. All three of them got dragged behind their jaguar as it pounced, tore its prey apart, devoured it and then passed out for a 3 hour nap. Then there was the night 2 cats escaped (exceedingly rare). We were out walking the jungle in pairs calling out their names, though they both returned to their respective enclosures a few days later, of their own accord. That's something you might choose not to share with worried parents back home!
Animals aside, it is obviously a pleasure being able to stay in the jungle long term (in as much as 40C heat and 99% humidity ever is), to go for a night time walk through it, work with a purpose in the day and hang out with a good mix of travellers and long term volunteers in the evenings. The locals do benefit from our presence - we need to buy Oreos, beer and snacks after all - but there are no tourist prices, no souvenir stalls and no hawkers. More than anything else they seemed to like the fact that we were there, in a remote part of Bolivia, trying to do something we perceived as good. They probably thought we were mad, but it was a refreshing change of attitude and pace - and welcome break from the Gringo trail.
What was a letdown?
Some things there might elicit a raised eyebrow, but IWY are one of the few organisations involved with conservation in what is one of the poorest and probably most corrupt countries in the Americas. Their heart is in the right place but they suffer from a lack of funding and paid professionals - so whilst it isn't perfect, they are trying to help in a place where nobody else really cares.
Some volunteers there were probably less than ideal. They banned drinking for 6/7 nights a week. Why? Because many went over the top, to the detriment of others/the animals/the project. In all fairness what i witnessed every 7th night made me understand their concern. Maybe people just go nuts in the jungle heat… I'm all for occasional madness, but moderation would be better.
What does it cost?
The cost has gone up since i was there - it is now £300 for the first month and then £6 a night. That covers accommodation, 3 meals a day, water etc … and pays for the land lease, park upkeep, local staff wages and most importantly food for the animals (no small deal - big cats eat meat, and lots of it!)
You will probably spend $10-15 on old tatty clothing from the market to work in, and maybe the same again for some wellies if you want your own. Add on $20 a week for snacks, beer, 98% alcohol (no hangover! or liver…) and treats like that.
Getting there depends on where you're coming from. If you're already in South America, long distance buses are about $1/hour from wherever you are. Flights from the UK would be easiest into La Paz but are much cheaper into Lima - any you could then spend a few days getting to Bolivia and the parks via Machu Pichu, Lake Titicaca and La Paz. Flights to Lima can be had for £550 return.
There's no Live Comfortably or Pimpin' option when volunteering in the jungle. Roughing It is where it's at. You are 4 to a room in bunks with saggy mattress and old mozzie nets (bring sticky tape). Ants and spiders scuttle about after dark and if a monkey gets in it will swing from the ceiling and probably piss everywhere (on purpose, they're like that). The food is fine, the water drinkable and the showers cold (a good thing). Within an hour of walking up, everyone is sweaty, smelly and dirty, despite best efforts - but that's why you want to stay in the jungle, right?
Tips on being prepared
http://www.intiwarayassi.org has a long and detailed section for potential volunteers. Generally it is spot on, but i would add a few things…
- If you have big feet, bring wellies/gumboots that fit. When i was there the camp ones were free to borrow and i found some to fit even me, with my UK12 feet…but i'd still bring my own next time. Wet or dry, wellies are the best jungle footwear
- Most people don't bother with socks. They cut small holes all over their wellies to let air in and water out, whilst maintaining a good deal of protection against snakes (not common)
- Mozzies abound, even in the dry season
- Natural repellent only is permitted there, and then only when off-duty. Bring citronella or something similar as it's hard to find locally
- During the wet season you'll want a mozzie head net…or even a full suit of net clothing. There are literally swarms of them. Rubber gloves help keep the hands bite free.
- Malaria isn't something that bothered most of the volunteers. Nobody was taking antimalarials during my time there
- There is no electricity at Ambue Ari. Bring multiple camera batteries and pick up a mains power extension cable/splitter so you're always guaranteed a charging point whilst out on the 1 night out a week in the 'local' bar (which you get to by spending 15 minutes hanging off the back of a lorry)
- Don't buy/bring your own machete. You'll look like a nob
Comuna de Rhiannon
Comuna de Rhiannon (CdeR) is working farming community seeking to live simply, sustainably and close to nature - with a focus on permaculture, vegetarianism, yoga, reiki, spirituality and meditation. It is located in the hills a few hours away from Quito, Ecuador.
That all sounds a bit like a hippie community. A girl i met in Cartagena (Colombia) had spent Xmas here and had a great time there - so i thought i'd check it out, especially once i found out that nothing there is compulsory (other than sticking to veggo food and working 5 hours a day 5 days a week in exchange for food and board). I figured i could always leave if it did not suit me or once the hippie novelty had worn off. What i found there was nothing like i could have expected. I ended up staying 3 months.
The Rhiannon Community Center is run by two girls from the UK that decided to eschew the conventional lifestyle and develop the community here in Ecuador. It started from just about nothing 6 months ago and is being developed in a vegetarian, permaculture and spiritual.
What was great?
- The variety of people. One place with (at one point) 25 volunteers from over ten nationalities, spanning a wide age range, at least 5 first languages and countless life stories, reasons for begin there, perspectives and all bringing something worthwhile to the community. Some here for a month, some planning on staying years. From the serial volunteers and organic crusaders to older long term travellers to the 18 year old Brit that was there because he'd lost his passport and cash to the Colombian artist to…well…there was absolutely no shortage of characters you would never otherwise meet. Essentially the best aspect of travelling whilst staying in one place.
- The location. Amazing. Up in the hills with amazing sunset views where the hills stick up between the clouds. A couple of hours from Quito, the last 15 minutes of which are in a 4x4 taxi, in a place you will encounter no tourists.
- The locals, in their small towns and villages dotted around. They don't rely on the community begin located nearby, far from it, but they are involved. They sold us some wood and building materials, helped care for the animals / vet services, helped us source hard to find components (all on a paid / favour return basis). A couple of us went with them to a local livestock market and they helped us buy a donkey, 4 piglets (one was named after me!), a load of hens and a cockerel (not a great purchase…it, rem, showed no interest in the hens at all….). We even entered a team into the local taxi drivers football league, taking it in turns to host the post match fiesta.
- The permaculture philosophy, principles and implementation - organic agriculture methods, crop rotations etc. Massage, reiki, meditation, yoga and sweat lodge ceremonies - all practices new to me. This spiritual aspect is something that you can partake in as much as you want - whether that means never, dipping a toe in or each and every opportunity. This is where the open minds comes in - don't knock anything until you have tried it.
- The work. During my time there, it was very much a construction phase. Steam lodge, water tower plus underground irrigation system, crop/livestock rotation pens, solar showers, animal pens, paths, greenhouses, yurts and teepees. My niche was construction. Others were more involved with the agricultural and animal side of things, depending on needs and preferences. The whole community is basically a democracy; a few people wanted bees…so bees were obtained, hives built and books bought. There are now three beehives and honey for breakfast. There also also the more mundane chores - chopping wood, baking, cooking and cleaning.
- The animals. Dogs, cats, guinea pigs, pigs, goats (hell to milk - whatever you do, don't accidentally dip a teat in your hot coffee!), bees, chickens and a donkey. It borders on a zoo, with all the adventures that brings. None are eaten. The horse drags a cart, hens provide eggs, goats give milk and the rest poo and root around in the soil to enrich it as part of the crop rotation cycle. The cats kill mice and the bees play fetch. Or maybe that was the dog?
- Living with people the old fashioned way. What to do with no electricity, TV, radio or internet? Talking, playing games, reading, playing music. Being completely out of touch with the world was also rather nice - should the world have ended whilst we were there, we probably wouldn't have realised for a couple of weeks!
- The Shamanic Ceremony involving San Pedro (a cactus derived hallucinogen, sacred to many of the locals). I had the pleasure of being there for the first Shamanic Ceremony they held, when a local shaman was invited to perform a ceremony and also bless the house and the land. I understand they have held a couple more since then. If i had to pick defining points of my life and highlights of my travels, this would probably be in the top spot. It was a pretty serious undertaking (there are much easier ways to simply get high!) that i wouldn't want to repeat without a good reason. It is hard/impossible to even begin to explain the experience.
What was a letdown?
There were no let downs, assuming you enjoy the place, people and way of life. I didn't know i would, but i also didn't care - i was already in South America and had no return ticket or agenda. It turned out perfectly, i loved it and stayed until my Ecuadorian visa expired.
If you like the sound of it but have never done anything like this and are not already here, maybe find somewhere similar locally and check it out before buying flights over here (unless you are of an adventurous bent!). www.HELPEX.net is a good place to start looking.
What does it cost?
About $65 a month, assuming you work 5 hours a day, 5 days a week. You then get 2 days off - some left to go explore, others stayed and made use of their free time on-site. The cost of some things, including the monthly contribution, is dependent on your financial situation. If you are truly skint you can come to an agreement with them.
There is a 'shop' that runs on an honesty basis - wine, snacks, beer, chocolates, baked goods etc. priced about the same as local stores in town (cheap). Massage and Reiki are on a donation or direct exchange basis. Daily yoga and frequent meditation workshops are free
Flights from the UK are
Tips on being prepared
- No electricity here… bring multiple batteries or a decent solar charger.
- No phone line or internet here. Mobile reception is fine. Internet cafe a 30 minute bike ride away.
- You can do laundry by hand here, but many take theirs to a local town for a service wash for a few dollars.
- Up in the hills it gets chilly in the evenings. Bring warm clothing - ideally a down jacket.
- The food is pretty good but bring snacks with you - bread especially will bolster the meals.
- Come here with an open mind and you will have an amazing time.
- They have a website and a Facebook group, but you might not get a reply to your email until someone goes into town to check.
There are a lot of places to explore locally on days off or spells away from the 'farm'
- Quito - the capital, the big smoke. Nightlife, shopping, restaurants, backpacker ghettos
- During an off-day in Quito, I went and scrambled up a 4700m peak overlooking the city
- Otavalo is a short bus ride away. Large indigenous population, markets and waterfalls
- Trekking around Quilatoa Lake (inside a volcano) and the surrounding hills and villages
- Banos - the extreme sports centre of Ecuador: hot springs, mountain bikes, hiking, rafting, bridge jumping
- Climbing Cotopaxi (5900m), the worlds highest active volcano