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Gap Year: Stay put and explore the culture

Perhaps the hardest part of taking a gap year is choosing where to go and what to do. The range of projects on offer is overwhelming. Many people overcome this by booking round-the-world tickets and trying to go everywhere and do everything. It's now common for a gapper to jump from South Africa to Thailand to Australia to Buenos Aires and pass through LA before returning home, having covered six continents in six months.

While this makes for an action-packed trip, many travellers prefer to spend their time getting to know a country and its culture. "When else in your life are you going to get the chance to work with jaguars?" asks Verity Alters, who spent three months working in an animal sanctuary in the jungles of Bolivia with Quest Overseas. "I fell in love with the Bolivian people and culture and it inspired me to live in South America, which I'm now doing."

If this kind of experience is your cup of tea, then Central and South America is the place for you. The colourful cultures, striking scenery and salsa music is bewitching. "I chose South America because it's easily accessible to backpackers and still authentic," says Greg Williams, from Bristol, who spent his gap year travelling across the continent. Save sea turtles on the coast of Costa Rica with Frontier, teach English on the Galapagos Islands through Teach Abroad or take part in Amazon conservation with PoD (Personal Overseas Development). For more independent travellers who want a project without the support of a gap-year organisation, or indeed the cost, there is VolunteerSouthAmerica.net. This website offers free and low-cost volunteer opportunities throughout Central and South America.

Starting your gap year by doing a project is wise. "It's a good springboard into the rest of your gap year," says Williams. "It eases you into the culture. I would really recommend learning Spanish if you're going to South America. My friends who did language courses had the most fulfilling gap-year experiences. They lived in local houses, made local friends and came away with an invaluable skill: fluency in another language."

While many projects on the continent offer two-week language courses, the reality is that you don't learn much more than "¿Como se dice en espanol?". Also, if you think you are going to pick up the language through travelling, think again. "I've just gone from Mexico to Colombia and spent the whole time speaking English to other backpackers," says Krishna Bilkin, a backpacker from San Francisco. "To really learn a language, you have to stay put somewhere. That's why I've decided to live in Bogota for five months."

Learning the local language gets you out of some sticky situations, and helps you get under the skin of a culture. One of the cheapest places to study Spanish is in Quito, Ecuador, where at £60 for 20 hours a week Spanish lessons can be half the price of those in Lima or Buenos Aires. If you are organising your language course through a gap-year company, however, the average cost is more like £150-£250 a week, including accommodation with a host family and all meals.

RealGap offers a month-long Spanish course for £649 in Guatemala and Cactus has a similar course in Cartagena, Colombia, for £609. Guatemala and Colombia are popular places to learn Spanish because its inhabitants speak the clearest and most easily understood form of the language. Combining a language course with a volunteer project is a good idea.

After volunteering, most gap-year students head for the Pan-American Highway and work their way either up or down the west coast from Ecuador through Peru to Chile and hop over to Buenos Aires and up to Rio de Janeiro. There is a well-trodden backpacker trail, although it's still possible to escape the tourist crowd and get lost in indigenous villages. If you really want to lose yourself, make for Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana, where it's unlikely you'll bump into many other foreigners.

Gappers increasingly include Colombia in their itineraries. The country is safe as long as you don't do anything silly, such as wander off into the jungle by yourself, and has some of the friendliest people and the most unspoilt scenery on the continent, with a wild and rugged Caribbean coast.

No matter what you are hoping to get out of your gap year, you can be sure that travelling through Central and South America will be unforgettable.


The writer lives in Bogota, Colombia