I finished university at a time when the post graduation backpack trip around Europe was on its last legs; a relic of years past when favorable exchange rates between the dollar and the franc, lira and peseta made the experience relatively affordable. In 2003, behind the strength of the euro, the days of traveling overland from Paris to Rome on $200/week were gone.
However, as inexperienced travelers unaware of any other travel options, myself along with a few friends touched down in London, backpacks on our backs, Eurail passes in hand, ready to begin our adventure. Ten weeks and fourteen countries later we finally touched down at LAX with hundreds of pictures of iconic European spots, countless stories we would never tell our parents and a massive amount of debt.
Nine years later I look back on that trip and laugh. Although it was an undeniably amazing experience, if I could do it over again I would certainly do it very differently. While the experience of overnight trains, staying in dingy hostels and celebrating the discovery of the cheapest restaurant in the Lonely Planet guidebook is one way to minimize costs while traveling, today there are numerous additional options that can provide equally if not more rewarding experiences.
One amazing resource for finding such opportunities is the website Help Exchange (www.helpx.net). Started in 2001 by British traveler Rob Prince, HelpX is basically a massive compilation of classified ads catering to travelers looking to work in exchange for a place to sleep, possibly some meals and unique experiences. Browsing through the ads reveals opportunities that range from a hostel in Sicily in need of graphic and web designers, to helping to a Fijian local looking for help in starting up a surf camp.
Many HelpX ads resemble those found on the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms website, www.wwoof.org, which has grown to become to most reputable name for volunteers looking to work on organic farms.
On a recent trip to the Patagonian town of El Bolson I came across a newly opened, family-run Eco Lodge called La Confluencia. In addition to the beautiful sixteen-person lodge, the owners built a small dormitory to house the constant stream of one-week to 3-month WWOOF volunteers that passed through to work on their organic farm.
At the time of my visit the team consisted of a Canada couple, two friends from Holland and a 22 year old American named Jason who had just graduated from Columbia University and was about to finish a six week stint on the farm. Jason shared that he had arranged his stay at La Confluencia prior to leaving to US but gave himself three weeks between landing in Buenos Aires and his start date on the farm so he could explore the country. After countless overnight buses and visits to Iguazu Falls, Salta, Mendoza and Bariloche he arrived in El Bolson eager to be able to unpack his backpack and stay in one place for bit.
He and the other volunteers were each responsible for five four-hour shifts per week and were able to spend the rest of their time horseback riding, kayaking the nearby Rio Azul, rock climbing or hiking the endless trials that surrounded the lodge. The volunteers were provided all the ingredients needed to make three meals a day and seemed very satisfied with the conditions of the dorm rooms. They raved about having the opportunity to make friends with the local staff, practice their Spanish and have a chance to see a side of the Patagonia culture that remains hidden to those staying in the nearby hostels.
With his WWOOFing experience nearly finished, Jason planned to continue south through Patagonia for another three weeks along Highway 40 before flying back to Buenos Aires and then heading home. He would return the same way my friends and I did nine years earlier with an amazing experience under his belt, stories to tell and beautiful pictures to share. The main difference being that his twelve weeks in Argentina probably cost a fraction of what our ten weeks in Europe.
About Adam Vaught
Born and raised within the bubble of Orange Country, California, Adam waited until the age of 19 to discover the worlds that exist beyond America's borders. Since then he has spent the last ten years making up for lost time. Since completing a degree in International Relations from UCLA in 2002, Adam has worked in the fields of development and tourism using California, Japan and Cambodia as his base. His work and travels have taken him to nearly 50 countries and countless adventures. Adam now lives in Buenos Aires where he is pursuing a Masters in International Development from Georgetown University.