When you think of travel, are you a “hit all the popular spots” traveler or a “take me off the beaten path and find the hidden gems” traveler? With International Volunteer HQ, you can volunteer in some of the most unique destinations around the world while getting a once-in-a lifetime experience off the beaten tourist trail.
If you’re looking for less crowded destinations or adventures that go beyond the bucket list and away from the typical tourist hotspots, this Hidden Volunteer Travel Gems Guide is for you. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite volunteer travel destinations and the most unique volunteer projects that hit that sweet spot between exploring a new country, allowing yourself to be immersed in the culture, and making a positive impact within the local community.
So if you want to have an authentic travel experience that enables you to truly connect with cultures and communities in an immersive way, then keep reading.
Best Hidden Travel Gems in Asia
India has long-been on the bucket list for the discerning traveler but we’ve got a great spot that will give you a true view into the beauty and culture this country has to offer.
Kerala, located at the southern tip of India, is perfect for travelers looking for an authentic Indian experience outside of the hustle of the main cities. IVHQ’s volunteer program is based in Fort Kochi, a charming coastal spot filled with unique character, quaint shops, colonial architecture, and vibrant artwork. Plus don’t forget about the chance to taste traditional Southern Indian cuisine!
While Kerala is a gorgeous spot, there’s still a lot of poverty. Many of the locals rely on tourism as a source of income. As an international volunteer, you can add great value by helping locals learn English on our Teaching, Childcare and Women’s Empowerment projects!
“I volunteered in Kerala, India, and it was amazing! People there are extremely friendly and I thought I would not feel safe there, but I was wrong. I enjoyed my stay, I tasted their traditional dishes. It’s a great opportunity to see other places, other behaviors and other beliefs! It’s amazing! It’s a great experience and I recommend it with all my heart! Get adventurous!” Vacaras, 20 - Volunteer in India
Hua Hin, Thailand
When you search “travel Thailand”, you might see Bangkok, Phuket, or Koh Phi Phi pop up - but Thailand has so much more than that to offer!
Hua Hin is a city on the southern coast of Thailand, a three-hour drive from Bangkok. It’s a region renowned for its beautiful beaches and interesting history, which makes it an incredible destination to explore and truly get to know as a volunteer.
“Being able to explore the country, culture and meet new people was my favorite moment from the volunteer experience. It’s such an experience especially solo or even with others and absolutely any hesitation or worries can be warmly tackled with the IVHQ team. I think the best thing is that no matter what the team is always somewhat there for you whenever you feel uncomfortable or worried about something, so please go for it and evolve! The local team in Hua Hin were wonderful!!! They were so supportive, very accommodating and embraced each volunteer with a good balance of professionalism and a sense of family closeness during my stay.” Ayshealee, 19 - Volunteer in Thailand
Chitwan is a quaint area in Nepal known for its national park and the animals that can be found there. Literally translated to “heart of the jungle” this hidden gem is located to the west of Kathmandu. Get an exciting jungle experience in this municipality, from safaris to canoe rides. You might see wild animals like tigers, leopards and rhinos roaming the jungle to see a crocodile basking in the sun along the marshes.
Featured Volunteer Travel Project: Elephant Conservation in Chitwan
If your heart hurts seeing tourists ride elephants or these beautiful creatures being mistreated, you’ll love this new project. Based in a local elephant sanctuary in Chitwan, you can be assured you’re giving these wonderful creatures a second lease on life!
Elephant Conservation volunteers will assist local caretakers look after rescued, neglected, old and sick/injured elephants. Located on the outskirts of Chitwan National Park, the elephants move freely around and they have a big barn where they sleep at night and can rest during the day. The elephants have free time to do what they want and can go with local staff to graze and eat in the jungle.
At IVHQ, we have a strict animal welfare policy that reflects our commitment to upholding and improving the welfare of all animals we support through our wildlife conservation and animal care projects throughout the world.
“The Elephant Conservation project is a one-of-a-kind experience that IVHQ offers in Chitwan, Nepal. Located in a sanctuary, you’ll get to support 2 retired working elephants with a variety of medical conditions live out their days peacefully and help care for them. That and the Chitwan National Park is a must-see before you depart; so I recommend combining these two factors and spending your volunteer experience on this special project.” Scotia, IVHQ Program Manager - Nepal
Bonus tip: Volunteers who are practicing vets or veterinary students may also have the opportunity to assist with medical treatments and minor surgeries.
Best Hidden Travel Gems in Europe
Miercurea Ciuc, Romania
Popular hotspots in Europe like Spain, France and Italy are all great but can get way too touristy especially during that peak summer season. So if you’re looking for a European adventure that’s not the same ol’ same ol’, then definitely consider Romania!
Volunteer work in Romania is based in the town of Miercurea Ciuc in Harghita County. This charming location is home of gorgeous architecture in baroque and renaissance style. You can visit decorative castles, traditional Csíki houses and wooden gates or even the world’s largest statue of Virgin Mary made of one single piece of wood.
Our 7 amazing projects in Romania, give you plenty of opportunity to volunteer for the causes you care about while exploring sights and experiencing Romanian culture. Don’t forget to pop out for a visit to Transylvania on the weekend!
“My experience in Miercurea Ciuc was very memorable. The local team was fantastic as they were very attentive and welcoming. The orientation week was very helpful as it informed me a lot about Transylvania history and the Hungarian language. The English camps were a lot of fun and the kids in Romania were great to work with.” Noritaka, 63 - Volunteer in Romania
Bonus tip: watch our volunteers talk about their Romania experience and hear it for yourself.
Want a unique experience in Europe, not just a unique destination? Then the Wolf Conservation project in Mafra, Portugal should be at the top of your list!
Mafra is a quieter, more relaxed city than Lisbon, and lets you experience Portugal without the crowds. There’s plenty to explore in this city - it even has one of the most impressive palaces in Portugal; the monumental Palace of Mafra is a must-see.
Featured Volunteer Travel Project: Wolf Conservation in Mafra
The Wolf Conservation project is based in a center for wolves rescued from zoos, illegal trapping or human captivity. In a forested valley in Mafra, wolves live outdoors in large enclosures with the aim of providing them a life as similar as possible to what they would experience in their natural habitat.
“The Wolf Conservation in Portugal was great! The staff was very helpful and friendly, sharing the experience with other volunteers from around the world was a great experience! And of course the actual wolves were an awesome sight to view.” Kelly, 56 - Wolf Conservation Volunteer in Portugal
Bonus tip: if you’re looking for more variety of wildlife to interact with, then check out our Wildlife Conservation project. Based in Miranda do Corvo, Portugal, you can help protect lynx, eagles, wolves, brown bears and other animals as a wildlife conservation volunteer.
Forget about Split, Dubrovnik and the Dalmation Coast and instead head to this quieter side of Croatia and the country’s beautiful mountains in Kuterevo.
Become part of the tight-knit local community while living in a traditional Croatian village surrounded by beautiful forests and mountains. This is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, that’s not to miss!
Featured Volunteer Travel Project: Bear Conservation in Kuterevo
Our new Bear Conservation project is a unique opportunity to protect bear populations and conserve the natural surrounding environment at a sanctuary located in Kuterevo Village.
This sanctuary offers a safe haven for bears who suffered maltreatment or were left in the wild without mothers when they were too young to be on their own.
“I’m so excited to be able to offer this project as part of our Croatia program as it allows volunteers to fully embrace the Croatian culture and way of life while also giving back to the local community. Once you understand the work that they do here in Kuterevo, you’ll be able to pass on what you’ve learnt to visitors, which I think is another great way to spread awareness and really make an impact on this project!” Jasmin, IVHQ Program Manager - Croatia
Best Hidden Travel Gems in Africa & Middle East
If you think of King Julian singing “I like to move it, move it” when you hear of Madagascar, you wouldn’t be the only one, but, there’s far more to Madagascar than its famous lemurs. As well as its vast diversity of wildlife, the island nation off the south-eastern coast of Africa has an interesting amalgamation of French, African and Southeast Asian cultures. Plus some of the most breathtaking scenery and dreamy beaches.
IVHQ’s volunteer projects here are based on Nosy Komba, a small island off the northwest coast of Madagascar and only a few kilometers from the larger island of Nosy Be as well as Ampoagna and the surrounding islands.
Madagascar is a great choice if you really want to experience an authentic multicultural setting. There’s also no shortage of things to do here, so fill your free time with adventurous activities, or simply take in the ‘mora mora’ or ‘slowly, slowly’ Malagasy way of life.
“There is nothing like enjoying the simplest things in life every day, to put into practice living the present, without external noise and with greater connection with people. The communities in Madagascar show you that happiness is in the simplest things. Their laughs, their smiles, their warmth fulfill your soul. The best experience ever.” Paulina, 29 - Volunteer in Madagascar
Staying on the island theme for a moment, we have to mention Zanzibar! Located off the east coast of Tanzania, this archipelago is home to some exquisite scenery and rare wildlife, both below and above the sea.
A lot of travelers may compare it to the Maldives, but here you can get that island vibe, with the clear, turquoise-blue water and outstanding diving locations, at a fraction of the cost.
With IVHQ, you’re much more than just a tourist, as your vacation is based around supporting vital conservation efforts in the area. Choose from two magical experiences either volunteering on the Turtle & Coastal Conservation project or the Rainforest & Coastal Conservation project. Either option provides much needed support for the country’s ecosystems.
“Zanzibar is a country with a lot of culture, nice people and enthusiastic public. It’s easy to blend in, enjoy and at the same time serve the society in multiple aspects. There is a lot to learn here but also a lot to give back. Going in with an open mind will do wonders for you and the community.” Siddhant, 24 - Volunteer in Zanzibar
The capital city of Amman in Jordan is a little hotpot of activity and culture that should be experienced in your lifetime! You can of course still visit the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum desert, and the ancient city of Petra, but we feel the capital is underrated.
We have 6 wonderful projects based here or in the nearby city of Madaba, that allow volunteers to fully immerse themselves in Jordanian culture. You’ll be accommodated in homestays and experience what a traditional family lifestyle is like in the Middle East.
“Volunteering in Jordan was such a great idea. I really enjoyed the middle eastern culture and the program organizers were there for me every step of the way. My host family was amazing and I must stress this, I felt SO SAFE in Jordan. If you are concerned about traveling to the Middle East then don’t be!! Amazing experience.” Sasha, 30 - Volunteer in Jordan
Bonus tip: If you are creative and love working with children, our Arts & Music project in Jordan allows volunteers to work with child refugees in a fun, educational and engaging way.
Visiting the Maasai tribes is an experience like no other, and we definitely recommend experiencing the traditional village life in Maasailand Tanzania while staying in a Maasai boma (hut) at least once in your lifetime. Eat traditional food and live day-to-day life the way the local Maasai tribes do while learning about their unique culture and lifestyle.
Featured Volunteer Travel Project: Maasai Immersion in Tanzania
This unique opportunity is more than just a quick visit to tick off your list. Most people who visit Tanzania will take a moment to visit the Maasai Tribes and experience their culture for a moment. We want to take that further, and immerse you fully into the tribes. Enter our Maasai Immersion Project.
“Volunteering pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to grow as a person in a good way. Being immersed in a completely different environment with people from all over the world opened my mind in ways I didn’t think possible. Just do it! You only live once and the memories you make volunteering will change your life forever.” Natalie, 20 - Volunteer in Tanzania
Best Hidden Travel Gems in Central & Latin America
Located to the north-west of the capital, Buenos Aires, Cordoba is a safer, smaller and more laid back city that we 100% recommend for travelers who really want the true Argentinean lifestyle experience.
Our program here truly is a hidden gem of Latin America. Volunteers stay in homestays and share the house with a local family. You get to feel and experience how Argentinean families live every day. It’s a full cultural immersion as you become part of the family while you’re here and they take you on adventures and excursions as if you’re one of their own.
“If someone was hesitant about volunteering abroad, I would tell them that it is a life changing experience in the best way possible. The friends that I made while I was there and the people that I met made me fall in love with Argentina as a whole, but especially Cordoba. I think that the community positively impacted me more than I impacted the community but I truly loved it! They were welcoming, kind, fun, helpful, and made me feel right at home!” Maggie, 19 - Volunteer in Argentina
An affordable experience on a private island in the Caribbean sounds like it’s too good to be true, but that’s exactly what you get when you volunteer on the Marine Conservation project in Belize.
Based on a private island 16 miles off the coast of Placencia in Southern Belize, it’s not just the location that has us giving Belize a place on this list. The project itself is a unique opportunity to help preserve a fragile reef ecosystem by diving and collecting data on spectacular marine life.
The island is warm, sunny and remote so you’ll be able to rest and relax when you’re not out exploring the breathtaking beauty of the area and its marine life.
“Belize is a beautiful and mysterious place full of beautiful people and magical places. The program itself is something you´ll never forget! Every single moment on the program I felt like I was helping and I felt surrounded by people full of love. When I arrived on the island for the first time, it felt like a giant hug, like I was supposed to be there. Being on the program opens opportunities and will help you to learn about yourself.” Montserrat, 19 - Volunteer in Belize
Mérida is the capital of the Yucatán state on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast. Home of the ancient Mayan people, many people living there today have Mayan ancestry. This vibrant culture mixed with a legacy of Spanish colonialism has left the city with a heady mixture of activities, events, architecture, artwork and atmosphere. Mérida is also said to be among the safest cities in the Americas and extremely clean which is why this is one of our hidden gems in Mexico.
You can make the most of Mérida’s charms and check out the bustling local markets, baroque Spanish architecture, a wide variety of music, art and cultural events, visit a 19th century mansion, sample the local Yucatan cuisine, take a dip in a volcanic crater or watch a Mayan ball game.
Day trips can be arranged so volunteers can explore popular sites in the area, such as Chichén Itzá – the most famous of the Yucatán’s Mayan ruin sites and one of Mexico’s most visited tourist destinations, the impressive Uxmal Mayan ruin site and the historical town of Izamal.
“It was so much fun, I met wonderful volunteers and the program director was awesome. I was able to climb a pyramid, swim in the cenotes, shop in the market places and meet many wonderful people, including my host family. It was a great experience that I will never forget! I encourage everyone to step out of their comfort zones and you will be amazed with the growth you experience.” Susan, 70 - Volunteer in Mexico