Study and volunteer programs, including Spanish-language programs, are often a great way to travel in and experience a country with greater depth than most independent and package travel allows. Cultural immersion and integration with locals are the aims of many such programs, leading to a richer and more unique experience for many travelers.
Volunteering, in particular, often leads to greater culture sensitivity and cross-cultural learning experiences. Especially in a developing, largely poor country such as Peru, volunteers see up-close the realities of the lack of running water and electricity, the relative absence of luxuries, and simple, home-cooked foods -- not to mention local customs and traditions. And, at least for a short time, volunteers get the rewarding opportunity to lend their abilities and sweat toward addressing some of the challenges Peruvians face. Such aspects of Peruvian life might be considerably more difficult to apprehend if staying in nice hotels and dining at upscale restaurants.
Most volunteer organizations are not-for-profit entities that charge participants to go abroad (to cover administrative and other costs), so volunteering isn't usually a way to get a free vacation. If you're concerned, though, ask about the cost breakdown for costs and field expenses. Any established, reputable volunteer organization should be willing to do this. Then you could always compare those costs to what traveling on your own would amount to.
Below are several institutions and organizations that work on humanitarian and sustainable development projects in Peru. Some international relief organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders (www.doctorswithoutborders.org) and CARE (www.care.org), accept volunteers to work crises and relief efforts. The devastating earthquakes in southern Peru in 2001 and 2007 brought hundreds of volunteers to Peru.
Cross-Cultural Solutions (tel. 800/380-4777; www.crossculturalsolutions.org), with offices in New Rochelle, New York, and Brighton, U.K., offers weeklong volunteer programs in Peru (in Lima's Villa El Salvador shantytown and Ayacucho, formerly a stronghold of the guerilla organization the Shining Path). The "Volunteer Abroad" section lists a number of opportunities for volunteering in Peru, including teaching and environmental research. Projects Abroad (tel. 888/839-3535; www.projects-abroad.org), with headquarters in New York and a local field office in Urubamba (in the Sacred Valley), organizes several unique volunteer and internship opportunities in Peru, including Inca restoration projects (such as the Sacsayhuamán ruins on the outskirts of Cusco), rainforest conservation, teaching, and nursing. ProWorld (tel. 877/429-6753 in the U.S. and Canada, or 0870/750-7202 in the U.K.; www.myproworld.org) has its headquarters in Bellingham, Washington, and it offers work, study and internship programs in Peru in the fields of health, environmental conservation, and social and economic development are based in Cusco and Urubamba. The organization has built schools, irrigation systems, and fish farms. World Leadership School (tel. 888/831-8109; www.worldleadershipschool.com) is a Colorado-based organization that operates 3- to 4-week programs, concentrating on infrastructure and natural disaster prevention in El Carmen on the desert coast; cultural preservation in Ollantaytambo, in the Sacred Valley; and climate change and ecosystem preservation in Puerto Maldonado, the gateway to the southern Amazon jungle. Mundo Azul (tel. 01/99410-4206; www.mundoazul.org), based in Lima, takes volunteers on environmental conservation and sustainable development programs along the coast (marine biology research) and in the rainforest (threatened species). Trips off the coast south of Lima to view and photographically document the large population of playful dolphins may be the most fun you can have doing an environmentally conscious volunteer program.
Other volunteer programs include Habitat for Humanity (tel. 800/422-4828; www.habitat.org), with a base in Arequipa (Comité Nacional Hábitat para la Humanidad Perú; tel. 054/422-724), and Volunteers for Peace (tel. 802/259-2759; www.vfp.org), based in Vermont.
Earthwatch Institute (tel. 800/776-0188; www.earthwatch.org) has a unique mission: It sends travelers out to work in the field alongside scientists involved in archaeology and environmental conservation. There are three Peru research and education trips: You can join a 13-day excavation of a pre-Inca site, assist with research of Peruvian macaws, or document the biology of Andean rivers. But the trips are not all work; they're a way to see a fascinating slice of the country from an insider's -- academic or conservationist -- perspective.
Consider the Local language schools, primarily located in Cusco as well as Lima and Arequipa, and offering both short- and long-term study programs, often with home stays. International Partners for Study Abroad (www.studyabroadinternational.com/file/schools_Peru.html) lists a number of Spanish-study programs in Cusco. GorpTravel (tel. 877/440-GORP ; www.gorptravel.com) occasionally lists Spanish-study programs of short duration in Peru and other South American countries; follow the "Learning Vacations" link on the website for options.
One standout school in Cusco is the Amigos Spanish School, Zaguan del Cielo B-23 (tel. 084/242-292; www.spanishcusco.com); it's a nonprofit school that assists disadvantaged children through its Amigos Foundation. In Lima, El Sol Escuela de Español, Grimaldo de Solar 469, Miraflores (tel. 800/381-1806; http://elsol.idiomasperu.com), marries language classes to cooking workshops, dance classes, and other activities. Other schools to try in Lima are the Instituto Cultural Peruano Norteamericano, Angamos Oeste 160, Miraflores (tel. 01/241-1940; www.icpna.edu.pe) and Instituto de Idiomas, Camino Real 1037, San Isidro (tel. 01/442-8761). In Arequipa, classes are on offer via the Centro de Intercambio Cultural, Cercado Urbanización Universitaria (tel. 054/221-165; www.ceicaperu.com); Centro de Idiomas UNSA, San Agustín 106 (tel. 054/247-524); and Centro Cultural Peruano Norteamericano, Melgar 209 (tel. 054/801-022).
Culinary Vacations & Cooking Classes
Peru's sophisticated, diverse cuisine has attracted a great deal of worldwide attention in the past decade, and gastronomic tourism is beginning to take hold in Peru. Two companies offer food-centric vacations. A Taste of Peru (tel. 01/247-5208; www.atasteofperu.com) is run by two young Peruvian sisters -- one now based in Northern California, the other in Madrid -- with impressive resumes in the culinary world, in the U.S., Europe, Peru, and Asia. They offer half- and full-day culinary experiences, as well as 8-day foodie trips to Lima, Cusco, and Machu Picchu. Their upscale gourmet trips take in food markets and restaurants in Lima and Cusco, and participants attend pisco tastings and ceviche demonstrations.
Pica Peru (tel. 866/440-2561; www.peruculinaryvacations.com), based in Denver, Colorado, is run by Kazia Jankowski, a food writer and author of the Moon Peru travel guide. Her new company offers culinary tours that include cooking classes, beginning in Lima restaurants and then traveling to Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu, or instead venture to the north coast and the surfing capital Máncora. Trips last 9 to 10 days, with a maximum of 8 travelers, and includes four cooking classes.
Aracari (tel. 312/239-8726 in the U.S., or 020/3287-5262 in the U.K.; www.aracari.com), an upscale Peruvian agency that designs excellent custom tours, offers a "Peru for Art Lovers and Foodies" trip and creates personalized culinary tours with exclusive visits to private houses and haciendas offered for private luncheons and cocktails, as well as cooking classes, visits to food markets and dining at some of the finest restaurants in Peru.