Volunteer Vacations

We’d all love to take time off to help the poor and feed the hungry à la Shakira, but wouldn’t that mean parting with valuable vacation days? Not necessarily! It is possible to combine a fun trip—downtime and sightseeing included—with helping out a cause you feel passionate about. Read on to sample the best of both worlds.

Child Care
If you go gaga over kids, then check out Global Volunteers’ trip to help displaced children in Lima, Peru. Play games with toddlers and preschoolers, create art projects, read and sing to them and prepare the little ones for bed. You can also lend a hand with special-needs children who require physical therapy. During your free time visit the museums and markets that fill the city, walk through the Miraflores district along the boardwalk and, of course, the historical Machu Picchu. $2,595 for two-week accommodations at the Hostal Torreblanca, including all meals, airport pickup, local transportation and work project expenses; globalvolunteers.org

Girl Power
If you’re all about women empowerment (and would rather not be distracted by shirtless, hammer-wielding men) then how about an all-women’s volunteer group? Habitat for Humanity (habitat.org) offers Women Build events throughout the year. And Ambassadors for Children has the Puerto Vallarta Women’s Retreat (October 21-25) where you’ll travel to Mexico to visit schools, participate in various children’s activities and deliver much-needed supplies. On your free day you’ll fly through the jungle on a Canopy Zipline Adventure Excursion. $999 for double occupancy at Golden Crown Paradise Hotel, including all meals, transportation and entrance fee for attraction; ambassadorsforchildren.org

Nature Trails
I-to-I offers a slew of options for the nature lover from conserving natural habitats on the Galapagos Islands to protecting the Amazon rainforest. You can spend one (or twelve) weeks in the world’s second largest botanical garden near Tela, Honduras. Help nurse Lancetilla back to health after Hurricane Mitch caused some serious damage back in 1998. You’ll maintain trails, conduct surveys and participate in community education and marketing activities. $1,028 for one-week accommodations, including breakfast and dinner, airport pickup and training; i-to-i.com

Then sign up for a week at Casa Hoy in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The program offers year-round dates and offers different volunteer options depending on your interests. Sites include a food bank, an animal shelter, elementary schools, a recycling center, an orphanage and environmental projects. You’ll be paired up with a local organization, work during the week and participate in cultural activities during your free time. $300 for one-week accommodations, including six breakfasts, an afternoon cultural activity and local transportation; hoycommunity.org

Keep in Mind
1. Prices often exclude airfare to and from the volunteer location.
2. Be sure you can handle any strenuous activities during the trip.
3. Remember that there’s usually a bigger emphasis on the “volunteer” part of the vacation.
4. Most organizations work in underprivileged areas, so expect basic accommodations.
5. Ask the organization or your accountant if a portion of your travel expenses are tax-deductible.
6. Make the most of your trip. Immerse yourself in the culture and see a side of the country tourists often miss.