South America is a diverse, dramatic and often dreamlike continent that is seen by many gap year travellers as the perfect destination. Those who choose to work or volunteer in this wondrous area of the planet will be faced with a tricky conundrum as to where to visit, but with so many highlights, it is certain you will find something that ticks all your boxes.
The Andes, the longest mountain range in the world, forms the spine of South America, passing through Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela. Such is the geographical variety, however, the continent is also home to the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon, as well as the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world.
Of course, while geographical, biodiversity and the amazing wildlife that comes with it will delight visitors, it will be the people of South America who will leave a lasting an impression. Spanish and Portuguese cultures have left indomitable marks on the continent, but there are plenty of opportunities to experience and interact with indigenous cultures too.
There are a vast wealth of environmentally significant areas in South America aside from the Amazon rainforest. The tropical wetlands of the Pantanal are teaming with exotic birds while jaguars, caimans and capybaras – the world’s largest rodent – are also prevalent. Add to that the glacier fields of Patagonia and it is no surprise that environmental and conservation volunteer projects are extremely popular for people looking for a year out.
There are also lots of gap year opportunities for teaching English, or indeed teaching in general, and community-based projects, such as working to help alleviate the plight of street children in some of the big cities. These can provide a rewarding and eye-opening experience whilst also being of benefit to your CV.
Adventure travel is also high on the list of priorities for many taking a career break to visit South America. There are some very challenging and extremely rewarding trekking opportunities such as tackling the continent’s highest peak, Aconcagua, or the more manageable Inca Trail, which rewards the effort with stunning views of the Inca settlement of Machu Pichu.
While South America is vast, it is relatively easy to get around with a good and reliable network of buses. Of course, if you are seeking to visit some of the more remote places, such as an outpost in the jungle, it is likely you will need to rely on planes and/or boats.
In terms of health and safety in South America, almost all travellers find a welcoming and safe environment. If you are planning to venture into the jungle, anti-malarial medication will probably be required, while some vaccinations may be required for some destinations throughout the continent. Always check with your local travel clinic for the latest medical advice and be sure to read the latest GOV.UK travel advice as some areas of South American have been known to experience political unrest at times.
As is the case when travelling anywhere, basic precautions should be taken, especially in the bigger cities. However, with a little common sense, an open mind and a sense of adventure, your time in South America is likely to be memorable for all the right reasons: outstanding natural beauty, exposure to new and welcoming cultures and adventures that can be found nowhere else on the planet.