Volunteering at a Mountain Refuge in Argentina

A hikers' refuge in Argentina. CC0 Pixabay.com


Max shares his advice for would-be Workaway.info volunteers.

 The thick fog blanketed the Argentinian Andes in a misty shroud.

“You can see some of the refuges up on the hill, but ours is higher,” said Sandra, the owner of a mountain refuge in Argentina’s Cordon del Plata range, as she drove slowly up the dirt road snaking its way up into the highlands. I would be volunteering at Sandra’s refuge on the Argentina-Chile border for the next week.

My decision to do so had been somewhat last-minute. While scrolling through Workaway.info (a website that I highly recommend for all travellers wishing to volunteer while on the road) I found Sandra’s refuge tucked deep within the host list. A cozy refuge for trekkers and backpackers looking to explore the mountains of the Cordon del Plata, Sandra’s hostel needed help with cooking and cleaning duties. I shot off a message expecting to hear nothing back. Surprisingly, I received a message from Sandra asking if I could meet her at the bus stop in a small village called Los Zorzales.

However, prospective volunteers should be aware that getting to hosts situated in the countryside can often be a pain. Obscure bus routes, a lack of well marked road signs, and ill-defined village boundaries can all present problems when trying to find your way to your volunteer placement. After a nearly two-hour bus ride through villages in the foothills of the Andes, I was dropped off at a small dirt intersection. Luckily, Sandra was standing right by the stop next to her truck.

Off into the mountains we went.

When I arrived at the San Bernadino refuge, the first thing that struck me was the absolute natural beauty of the location. Mountain peaks, free-ranging horses and cattle, and rushing rivers dotted the landscape. The party atmosphere of Mendoza was certainly not going to be a reality here. The refuge itself was styled as an old-school mountain lodge. Snowshoes and old skis hung on the walls along with pictures of various mountaineers. San Bernadino was a trekkers' paradise.

One of the larger hurdles that Sandra and I had to overcome was the language barrier between us. Sandra could speak fluent Spanish and French, but no English. I could speak English, but little Spanish and no French. The small amount of Spanish I did know allowed us to communicate basic ideas and the rest we were able to handle through pointing at objects or making hand motions.

This is another good point to remember for those wishing to volunteer in the countryside. Be aware of your host’s language abilities relative to your own. By no means should you discount a volunteer host simply because they do not speak your language. Learning someone else’s language while teaching them pieces of your own can be one of the most rewarding experiences on this Earth. Simply be aware and be ready to adapt.

My primary tasks around the refuge consisted of helping Sandra prepare dinner for the guests and various cleaning. Dinner usually consisted of a vegetable soup, a type of lasagna or empanada dish, and ended with fruit for dessert. Sandra and I had great fun trying to teach each other the names for various vegetables and dishes in our respective languages. There were not many guests during my time volunteering at the refuge, so I also had plenty of time to explore the surrounding countryside.

One of my favourite parts of volunteering at the refuge was simply standing on the terrace and taking in the views.

Above, one could see the towering peaks of the Cordon del Plata range. Below, views of the fog covered valley and various farm animals were nearly as impressive. Walking up the slope towards the mountain reminded me just how hard trekking in the Andes had been after spending so much time in the lowlands of northern Argentina. As I walked further up the foothills, I found dozens of other refuges, a ski lift, and of course, lots of cows. These simple treks through the beauty of nature can make volunteering in the countryside a worthwhile experience on their own.

When it was time for me to leave the refuge, I had to figure out my own way back off the mountain. This is another point for travellers wanting to volunteer in the countryside. Sometimes hosts will be willing to drive you to the nearest town, while other times you may just have to figure it out yourself.

I am thankful that Sandra did not have the time as walking down the mountain valley was an experience I’ll never forget. With my duffel bag slung over my arm and the thick fog surrounding me, I felt a sense of adventure that I've known only a few times before. Herds of horses, flowing creeks, and green rolling hills greeted me around nearly every switchback. About an hour and a half into my walk, a lovely Argentinian family picked me up and gave me a ride to the nearest town.

Volunteering in the countryside can be an amazing experience with beautiful views and tranquility but it can have its downsides as well. Depending on language barriers and how many other people are at the site, loneliness can hit hard. Also, make sure you bring any personal items you may need with you as stores may be dozens of kilometres away.

Overall, just make sure you’re prepared before you go and be ready to adapt!

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Max Olson

Max is a 25-year-old investigative journalist and travel writer from Arizona. Max is currently working his way through Latin America, immersing himself in each location. He is focusing primarily on covering political unrest, economic conditions, and what life is like for each country’s most vulnerable people.

Website: https://www.instagram.com/maxthepilgrim97/

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