If you’re going to spend a few weeks or a month volunteering at Villas Mastatal or a similar family farm in Latin America, there are several things you might need to know.

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First off, you don’t really need to speak Spanish coming into the experience. It helps, of course, but you can get by with very limited Spanish if you’re comfortable using gestures and just not really understanding everything or saying everything you might want to say. I’d bring a notebook for writing down words and sentences as you learn them, and a phrasebook or dictionary. We’re using Lonely Planet’s Latin American Phrasebook, and although it’s wonderful for times when we’re actually backpacking, we prefer to use dictionaries to practice with as we’re volunteering on the farm. You’ll definitely want to bring bug spray, a mosquito net, and some kind of itch relief cream or gel. I also wish I’d brought a bunch of anti-allergy tablets or antihistamines, since there’s no way to buy any near the farm. If you have severe allergies, you’ll want to bring an EpiPen, as the nearest hospital is two hours away. When you’re working, you’ll need work gloves (about a dollar at any general store) and boots, although the farm has a few spares lying around.

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Here's a good reason to bring bug spray!

The most important thing to bring is a positive attitude and an open mind. The work here on the farm is hard, and there’s lots of it, but there is also a lot of time to rest and do other things. I’m up at 5:30, about half an hour earlier than everyone else, so I can do my chores before cooking breakfast with Raquel, the farmer’s wife. Then we work from about 8am to lunchtime, and the afternoon is reserved for fun projects like mosaics, building chairs, making glasses from old bottles, planting a garden for the butterflies, or visiting one of the many waterfalls in the area. Be prepared to work hard, but be open to new experiences every day.

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New experiences involving food are our favourite kind!

I asked our host, Javier, why he has volunteers on the farm when the locals know the land and techniques so much better. The answer is that he loves teaching people how his people live, and learning from them how things are done in their countries. Every Wednesday, he tries to organize a “talent class” where one volunteer teaches the rest something unique, be it yoga or how to build stools for the card table in the dormitory. Clara, a German girl who arrived this week, asked Javier what was the most important thing to know before coming to the farm. His reply? La vida es linda. Life is beautiful. And that’s all you need to know.

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This cow expects you to come volunteer.

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