When I was researching volunteer placements I found it all quite stressful. There were so many options of types of placement, location, which charity to go with etc. Of course you do have to be careful that you choose a reputable charity to go with, or reputable company, but applying to the charity directly will always be better, and most likely cheaper.
I found Máximo Nivel online and applied to their conservation projects. I was also accepted by two other charities/ companies, but I liked the look of Maximo the most. I later found out that one company I'd applied to, IVHQ, places volunteers with Maximo anyway, so I was glad I went with them directly. I found several negative reviews of IVHQ which is what swayed me away from accepting the offer.
I received an email from Maximo asking which conservation project I was most interested in. This surprised me because I thought there would only be one. One of the only criticisms I have is that the website wasn't completely clear on some things. The information was emailed to me once I'd applied, but it would have been useful to have it upfront.
There was a choice between an Andean village project, a jungle conservation project and an animal conservation zoo project. I slept on it and decided to go with the zoo project. It was conservation but without being plonked in the middle of the Amazon. The negative reviews of other charities had shaken my confidence a bit, if I'm completely honest, but seeing how Maximo operates, I'm sure the jungle would have been fine.
Maximo Nivel require a criminal background check prior to your start date. For UK citizens, this doesn't mean you have to fill in an entire Criminal Records Bureau check. You need to send off an ACRO-SAR form, which you can print off online. If unsure about anything, give your local police station a call and they will probably put you through to the Data Protection department and they can talk you through it.
It costs £10, which you need to include in the envelope, most likely in cheque form. Cash is not accepted. That includes the cost of postage back to you.
They are legally obligated to get the background check back to you within 40 calendar days (not working days). But this is from the date the local office receives your form, not the central office you post it to. For me there was a difference of five days, and they email you the date the local office received it.
For me I had exactly 41 calendar data from the date of receipt and when I was due to start volunteering. This was kind of terrifying, just in case something went wrong, but it arrived with a week to spare, and my dad scanned it in and emailed it to me. It was going to happen!
The Máximo Nivel Experience
I paid in advance (because you have to) and my two weeks cost me US$815, which included for me:
Airport/ bus station pick-up
Escort to the project on the first day
The project itself
Accommodation from the Sunday before you start your project until the Saturday after you finish (in my case just one day either side)
Two or three meals a day, depending on the family
Daily Spanish classes (either one-hour private lessons or two-hour group lessons)
Weekly two-hour salsa classes
So as volunteering goes, I think this is a good deal. Especially with the Spanish classes. They were a big draw for me. Of course you can find free volunteering placements, that don't include food or accommodation, so that's also an option. But they are much harder to find, especially from overseas in my experience.
With the accommodation, I went for the option that didn't cost any extra, which was a shared room (although no one booked the other bed in my room, so it was basically a private twin room!) in a homestay. You can pay extra for a private room or to be in their Family House, which is a bit like student accommodation in set-up.
And the staff. Oh they are fantastic. And genuine. Genuinely nice and willing to help. I didn't feel any of my questions were a burden, and I will miss them. They even gave me an extra Spanish lesson for free because there had been a few mix ups with my classroom and I'd lost some time. I thought that was especially good of them.
The Zoo Project
So, what did I actually do for two weeks?
The zoo is in Cusco, conveniently a ten-minute walk from my homestay house. It's within the grounds of the university. It cares for injured animals that wouldn't survive in the wild.
I was expecting it to be quite small, with lots of empty cages. And it wasn't huge. But they had so many animals. Here are some of my favourites - condors, an iguana, parrots, macaws, turtles, owls, vultures, eagles, deer, an ostrich, bears, monkeys, a free-roaming llama, foxes, a puma, tayras, coatís, and one eternally surprised spider monkey. So quite a collection!
I was put on the morning shift - 8am til 12pm, Monday to Friday. And my day would generally consist of:
Taking the animals who were inside during the night back to their enclosures. The best part of doing this was pushing a wheelbarrow full of turtles to their cage. And whenever I would pick one up its flippers would go crazy like it was trying to fly. I liked the turtles a lot. The iguana was great too. Picking him up he'd cling to my chest and I'd have to unpick each claw from my jumper when it was time to set him down on his rock.
Washing off the boxes and cages the animals had been in.
On alternate days we'd clean the food preparation surface and sweep and wash the floor.
Preparing the fruit and bread to feed the animals.
Feeding the animals and emptying their old food and water containers.
Playing with the llama. I decided he was called Sebastian. (I also later found out he was a she).
Generally cleaning and sweeping leaves.
Cleaning the animals' enclosures. And shaking hands with the spider monkeys.
One day I assisted with giving some of the animals their vaccinations, which was slightly intense, but interesting.
It was good because I wasn't just a poo-sweeping slave there, I would do the same jobs as the employees and help them out.
And that would normally bring me to the end of my shift. I'm not going to lie, the interesting parts were when I was dealing with the animals directly, and the cleaning and sweeping could be a bit dull. (Bring rubber gloves for the cleaning, and wear waterproof boots or shoes). But they didn't mind me listening to my iPod so that was fine really. They also have the radio on in the food room, and once the owner asked me what music I like and then put a salsa radio station on. Amazing.
The owner speaks a little English, mainly key words. And the other employers speak just Spanish. This is great for immersion, but could be slightly stressful at times. There would be a language barrier with whatever placement you do though.
And after that I'd return home for lunch, do my Spanish homework and then go to the Maximo Nivel HQ on Avenida El Sol for my lesson. Then the evenings and weekends were my own.
By the time I leave on Wednesday I'll have been in this house for three weeks. And it's been great. Of course the homestay was slightly nerve-racking before I arrived, in case they turned out to be horrible. But I struck gold.
They are a retired couple called Leonor and Mario. The kind of retired couple who when they look at each other you can still see the love there. And you can feel the love towards you as well. The meals are beautifully prepared and delicious. All with fresh fruit juice, and sometimes with homemade yoghurt and fruits for dessert.
The house is a 20-minute walk from the Maximo Nivel HQ and a 25-30-minute walk to the main square in the historical centre, Plaza de Armas.
Mario even took me to buy my train tickets and entrance tickets to Machu Picchu. They used to live in Aguas Calientes, so they know the drill about how to get there.
They also operate as a hotel, and are on Expedia, booking.com and other websites under Panaka Casa Hospedaje. I'm sure you'd get the same warm welcome as I did if you stayed with them.
The only thing that is a slight shame is that I pay Maximo US$22.50 per day for the homestay, and Leonor told me this evening that they receive US$10 per person per day. So I'm not sure where the other half of that goes...
My overriding feeling, with three nights left in Cusco, is that Máximo Nivel has made my time here. I will miss my host parents, the zoo, and the city. And of course my sister from another mister, Sarah, who is in the same homestay as me. Leonor and Mario even said that we look like brother and sister.
I know volunteering is a big decision, whether it's part of a bigger trip or the primary reason for going abroad. I'm not saying Máximo Nivel is the only option, but in my opinion, it's a damn good one.