My Experience as a Volunteer in Bolivia with Bolivia Volunteers


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Anonymous, aged 19, Scotland (UK), a former volunteer in Bolivia with Bolivia Volunteers responded to a recent online questionnaire we sent out to volunteers who have worked in Bolivia, with this about his experience.

In October 2010 I started volunteering in Cochabamba, Bolivia, through Bolivia Volunteers. They are based in Cochabamba, Bolivia (although claim to operate in La Paz and Santa Cruz too.)

I was looking to take a year out and travel. Volunteering seemed a good way to try and do something worthwhile. I hoped to help other people, improve my Spanish and see another part of the world and learn how other people live. I wanted to broaden my view of the world and its people. I had volunteered before, but had not done anything of this nature.

I chose Bolivia before I chose to volunteer with Volunteers Bolivia. I had studied a little Spanish in school so was attracted to South America. Bolivia was in the middle of South America and seemed a fascinating country. Statistically it is also the poorest in South America so perhaps volunteering would be most useful.

The organisation is basically a placement organisation where they will receive you at the airport in Cochabamba; provide you with accommodation, a project and support throughout your stay. They have no projects/initiatives of their own. Only someone who will go out to whatever organisation you would like and ask them if they would accept a volunteer. They do exactly what they say on the tin.

The organisation would accept someone with any [no specific] skills because there is no limit to whatever projects they will provide. If you wanted to volunteer in a local football club, the co-ordinator (Claudia) would go out to a football club and arrange to accept a volunteer through her knowledge of Spanish. Although now I have good Spanish, I could not have arrived on my own and sorted anything out.

I found Bolivia Volunteers via an online search for ‘volunteering in Bolivia’. I did some general research on the internet about the organisation but did not find much. They had put me in touch with someone who had volunteered before. I was still however a bit worried about whether or not they would turn out to be real! The risk paid off and I was met at the airport by Claudia and welcomed into her family.

I paid the organisation a fee of $480 per month. (This has since gone up.) This covered my accommodation (staying with a family) with 3 meals a day (Monday to Saturday only) plus airport pick up and set up of the project etc. I also paid $100 for 20 hours private Spanish tuition.

I stayed in a ‘home-stay’ with a Bolivian family. Bolivia Volunteers is basically a family organisation. The family used to work with i-to-i and receive volunteers but worked out the volunteers were paying too much and they were receiving too little. They therefore set up on their own to try and make volunteering affordable for volunteers and also more beneficial for themselves.

Claudia was my placement co-ordinator in Cochabamba. She lives with her English husband (who came to volunteer about 8 years ago through i-to-i) and their son.

They told me that Bolivia Volunteers was actually managed by a man called Enrique Vargas who lived in La Paz and it was a much larger organisation with projects in every city in Bolivia. Me (and a few other volunteers who were with us) never spoke to this man although on many occasions wanted to.

We were told he was a businessman who was very busy and could not be contacted. When I left, they told me that they had decided they would no longer work with Enrique and Bolivia Volunteers is now totally managed by them. (Claudia and family.)

Anyway, I stayed with Claudia’s mum and stepfather and their daughter who were very welcoming and caring for me throughout my stay.

The food I received was enough although it would have been nice to be given a snack between meals. This was not allowed, not even a cup of tea, which was a shame. I was allowed to use the kitchen to prepare my own snacks though.

At first I was a bit lonely and had not much to do but soon made some great Bolivian friends. I was on my own for the first month in the organisation. However through my Spanish teacher I met some great friends at the university who I am still in touch with now. They really helped with my Spanish and we made so many trips around Cochabamba into the country and had a lot of fun.

I also got a job because of the father of the house, who I was living with, in his English institute and was paid for this. This was night classes in addition to my voluntary work during the day which I greatly enjoyed and allowed me to stay longer.

Volunteers should also budget for a little money for extra food, food on Sundays (which is not included in this project) and any travelling they may wish to do. Compared to most countries, the cost of living in Bolivia is very low.

My volunteer projects in Cochabamba

I don’t think Bolivia Volunteers were particularly honest when in touch by email. The information about the project was inaccurate. When talking to the daughter of the house in which I lived, she told me that Claudia went looking for the project the day before I arrived! Claudia had been trying to prove how good she was at finding projects. I was rather shocked that she had not even planned for my arrival and had been bluffing about the project. I felt that my projects were rather unorganised.

Before coming I was told I would be working in a school, helping out in English classes. I had a week to settle in when I arrived and get going on Spanish classes before starting sporadic classes throughout the week helping with English. It turned out Claudia had never worked with this school before. This was a little disappointing, as I had been told I was going somewhere that volunteers had previously been. This resulted that the school did not really know what to do with me. My Spanish being very little at the time, this was quite hard.

I ended up in a PE class teaching Scottish dancing and learning Tinku which in the end worked out fantastic but this was sheer luck for Claudia I feel. After only three weeks in my placement, the school shut for the summer holidays and I had no project.

Claudia then set me up in the Casa de la Amistad, a Canadian based Church mission which does a fantastic job working with the kids who live in the prisons in Cochabamba. It’s based in the Plaza San Sebastian and has about 120 kids. All the kids eat there and get help with homework but also has two kinder classes and all the kids receive spiritual education. I had a very good and worthwhile time there with many opportunities to go into the prison and help out. I did however feel that I could have walked in myself and asked to help, without paying anyone. I worked 5 days a week there.

Through one of the staff at the Casa de la Amistad I worked at a third project. A school funded by Compassion (international organisation) in the suburbs of Cochabamba. This I felt was my most worthwhile project yet working with very deprived kids helping with teaching and feeding! This was through no contact of Bolivia Volunteers.

Living in the same house was a Dutch girl who was doing her university thesis and using Bolivia Volunteers as accommodation. I became very friendly with her. Two other volunteers also came and went during my 3 month stay with Bolivia Volunteers.

Parting company with Bolivia Volunteers

Although I stayed with Bolivia Volunteers for 3 months, I spent a total of 6 months in Cochabamba. After three months living with the family I became a little tired of family life and realised I was paying too much for my accommodation.

The family were very friendly and helpful to start with. But various things including how much I ate cropped up. In the end I didn’t feel they really cared that much anymore and just wanted the money. I think this family benefits well (financially) from the volunteers they receive.

I found accommodation in a student house type thing with rooms and a kitchen for $150 and fed myself (for around US$100 per month), which was a nice change. I continued working in the Casa de la Amistad and also working in the English institute.

Doing something useful?

In the school to start with I don’t think I was particularly helpful. Although it was fun for the pupils to have a chance to learn Scottish dancing.

In the Casa de la Amistad I think I helped a lot with their work. However this was not due to the help of Bolivia Volunteers. They (Claudia) just walked in and asked if I could help. That was ALL that Bolivia Volunteers did to set up the project. I developed a very good relationship with the staff and kids of the Casa de la Amistad. Claudia has no such relationship.

I learnt a lot of Spanish, how other people lived and also a lot about working with kids. Through my job I also learnt a lot about teaching English.

Not the only dissatisfied volunteer

The two other volunteers there at the same time with me were similarly dissatisfied with the set up of the project.

The first girl was only there for 1 month working in an orphanage. She felt surplus to requirements at this place. She also had a nasty experience with the organisation when she lost her house keys. The family wanted to change all the locks and instantly demanded about 400BS from her to change them.

It was all handled very strangely and she asked to speak to Enrique, in charge of the organisation at the time. She was refused time again and ended up paying. She had not been forewarned of this responsibility.

We at the time began to have serious doubts about whether or not this guy in La Paz was real! I think in hindsight he must have been but it was all very strange at the time.

The second was a German girl who had been travelling and wanted to help the people she had met in South America who she thought were very poor.

She arrived and was staying with Claudia and her husband (the English guy). She was rather disappointed that she did not turn out to be living with a Bolivian family. He is by the way very English and makes little effort to speak Spanish. She was very disappointed not to be living with a true Bolivian family and ended up speaking more English than Spanish.

Her project was promised to be working with street kids but in the end this fell through and she ended up working in an orphanage. She having been travelling and understood the prices in Bolivia was shocked about what she was getting for her money and left the organisation but continued to work in the orphanage as she lived in cheaper accommodation.

Although Bolivia Volunteers markets itself as only charging ‘project costs’ such as accommodation, [I believe] the family are making a considerable profit. Perhaps this is ok though.

Yes I would recommend Bolivia Volunteers, even though I have a lot to say about the organisation and how it is organised and run. My placement was not as it was meant to be and lots of things seemed a bit weird (including the random Enrique.)

I would advise anyone planning to volunteer with them to be strong when arranging their project. Not just accept whatever their recommendations. When I was in touch by email, I first asked what sort of projects were available and what was in need of help. Claudia basically sorted me with what suited her best. So my advice would be to be strong and forceful with what you want to do and you could have a great time. It would be important to request by name an organisation and or project.

However for me, at the time it was perfect. Through them I had an INCREDIBLE experience in Bolivia. They set me up and I learnt how to live in Bolivia. They also did it for a comparatively good cost. It is by far the cheapest voluntary organisation I could find. Also, the way the organisation is run means that there is a lot of flexibility and opportunity to try different things.

I made friends and had an incredible time. I even ended up dancing in Carnival in numerous entradas including the carnival de Oruro with the Tinkus San Simon. I really got to know Bolivia and its people well.

Would I do things differently if I could start again? I would not change anything I did in the past. However in future, if going to volunteer, I think now I would be gutsy enough to turn up on my own, look for accommodation and a project.

Any advice for potential volunteers? Maybe to go for a month with an organisation, then set up on your own when you know the ropes.

A final thought

This is a thought that I had before starting:

It is perhaps rather controversial, maybe even short sighted. However I feel occasionally that short term voluntary placements could be destructive rather than constructive. I speak of large-scale voluntary organisations that accept volunteers for only several weeks at a time in an orphanage. Maybe the constant change of volunteers would be more destructive and traumatic for children than constructive.

I of course am maybe not a great example but flying across the globe, creating a carbon footprint, rather than using local skills is not totally responsible...? Only a thought.

However I believe it is very important for people to experience other cultures and other ways of living. It is important to realise how many people live with so much less.

Readers, what do you think? Should you ever pay a middle-man to arrange a volunteer placement? Do you have experience of volunteering in Bolivia that you would like to share? Get in touch below!

If you accessed this article from our July 2011 online newsletter, click here to return.



Bolivia Volunteers Responded

We were told he (Enrique Vargas) was a businessman who was very busy and could not be contacted. When I left, they told me that they had decided they would no longer work with Enrique and Bolivia Volunteers is now totally managed by them. (Claudia and family.)

Yes, Bolivia Volunteers now has no connection with Enrique Vargas. Towards the end of our association he became impossible to work with, and numerous attempts to contact him to resolve issues with our volunteers came to nothing. We are currently pursuing him through a legal process to recover an amount of US 3750 owed to us.

The food I received was enough although it would have been nice to be given a snack between meals. This was not allowed, not even a cup of tea, which was a shame.

Bolivia Volunteers´ placement fee includes the meals provided - any snacks being the responsibility of the volunteer, the simple reason being that volunteers sometimes take advantage of the hospitality offered to them by their host families - especially with regard to catering arrangements - assuming they have open-access to the refrigerator and food cupboards. ´There´s no such thing as a free lunch´ (or snack !) - Our host families understandably take exception to volunteers helping themselves to endless cups of tea or coffee throughout the day (as sometimes happens) but I do find it hard to believe that a cup of tea was refused.

I don’t think Bolivia Volunteers were particularly honest when in touch by email.

I have reviewed the extensive e.mail correspondence we had with the volunteer and cannot see anything that would indicate inaccuracy or ´dishonesty´. The volunteer was made aware that his visit fell close to the start of the school Summer vacation, and work in extra-curricular activities would be arranged.

It turned out Claudia had never worked with this school before.

A change in the Directorship of the school during the week prior to the volunteer´s arrival resulted in some major confusions regarding the volunteer´s arrival and our previous work within the establishment. Basically, a breakdown in communication between the outgoing Director and her replacement.

Claudia went looking for the project the day before I arrived! .....she had not even planned for my arrival and had been bluffing about the project.

Prior to the volunteer´s arrival I had several meetings with the Director and other staff at the project to make the necessary arrangements, only to be told a day or so before that they were leaving the school at the same time he was due to join them.

Anyone who has spent any time here in Bolivia will know that things rarely go according to plan. More often than not, nothing is confirmed until the eleventh hour and life generally is 99% doing nothing - 1% running around like a headless chicken trying to make things happen !

Not the only dissatisfied volunteer ... The first girl ... felt surplus to requirements at this place. (her project)

I received no feedback from the volunteer whilst she was with us. Had she opened her mouth and spoken to me, matters could have been rectified. I am not a mind-reader.

...she lost her house keys. The family wanted to change all the locks and instantly demanded about 400BS from her to change them.

Losing the keys to your own house is one thing, losing the keys to someone else´s is another. Of course the locks had to be changed, for the security of the family members and other volunteers in the house. (The cost covered 3 new locks and 5 sets of duplicate keys.)

She had not been forewarned of this responsibility.

Yes, she had - in the contract she signed, agreeing:

4) to pay particular regard and abide by the ´House Rules´ of your home stay accommodation, which will vary depending on the accommodation you are allocated, and which will be discussed with you by your host family on arrival, and in addition that you will be required to make any financial compensations / payments demanded of you in the event of any financial losses, injuries or damages suffered by your host family (or any other associated person), both at your home stay accommodation, and at any other associated location, caused by your actions; negligence; errors or omissions; or failure to follow instructions.

The second was a German girl ... (who) did not turn out to be living with a Bolivian family.

3 Bolivians, 1 English. The majority has it so that´s a Bolivian family, I reckon.

...shocked about what she was getting for her money...

What money ? The girl stayed in my home for six days (keys to come and go as she pleased, private room, and three meals a day) without paying a cent to me. Remember what I said previously about some volunteers taking advantage ?

So, to close:

Agreed - Some aspects of your reviewer´s time with us did not run as smoothly as we would have liked, but I would like to focus on the positives:

Yes I would recommend Bolivia Volunteers, even though I have a lot to say about the organisation and how it is organised and run.

However for me, at the time it was perfect. Through them I had an INCREDIBLE experience in Bolivia. They set me up and I learnt how to live in Bolivia. They also did it for a comparatively good cost. It is by far the cheapest voluntary organisation I could find.

They do exactly what they say on the tin.

Regards and thanks, Claudia. www.boliviavolunteers.org



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