Can a vacation be both fun and meaningful at the same time?
Chris Braunlich knows first-hand that it can. The San Francisco Bay Area resident is the CEO of Conservation Volunteers International Program, an all-volunteer nonprofit that organizes “volunteer vacations” to a few of the most spectacular places on the planet. Their trips contribute much-needed trail work to several cash-strapped national parks.
The REI Blog recently chatted with Chris by phone as she was getting ready to head off to volunteer in southern Chile’s stunning Torres del Paine National Park.
REI: How did you first get involved with volunteering and CVIP?
My work background is in finance, but my real love is hiking. For my husband and me, one of the things on our life list was to hike in the Torres del Paine. We saw this newspaper article about a volunteer vacation, and it sounded great. The trip was led by English speakers who really knew the park and handled the logistics, the itinerary and all of that. When we got there, I was bowled over by the park. Even though I was a lifelong hiker, I’d never done volunteer trail work before. This was a totally new activity to me, and we had fun. So we went back again the next year. After that trip, the leader mentioned that the CVIP needed a finance person and would I be interested in joining?
REI: What made those trips so rewarding?
The first thought is work, but it was really a lot of fun. There was this group of great people with similar interests and wonderful stories. It made us all feel good to be able to help sustain one of the most beautiful places on earth. My memory is really about how much fun we had, and not the work.
REI: Now you’re returning for your sixth volunteer trip to Torres del Paine. Why is this place special?
I love mountains, and the mountains there are the highlight for me. Many people, though, also go there for the wildlife which includes guanacos and condors. The glaciers, too, are pretty spectacular. At Grey Glacier (shown below), the boat goes right up to the face of it.
REI: What are your Torres del Paine trips like?
The park has so much to offer, and every trip we run is different. It’s a very large park—almost 900 square miles—with an extensive trail system. The needs of the park change, so we do what the park asks us to do. We are in different parts of the park each time, but they are all spectacular.
REI: What is the mix of work and free time on these trips?
Free time varies by where we are at in the park. For example, Gray Glacier is fairly remote so there is a travel day between that area and the Towers (Torres del Paine) area. There is usually 1-1/2 days of free time out of 8 days, but it varies. Our trips are flexible, but there is always some time where volunteers get to see highlights of the park.
REI: What would you say to someone who is considering their first such trip?
You’re actually helping the park when you visit, and many volunteers are surprised at how much the park rangers appreciate our efforts. Because we work with the park and the rangers, we get to know the park in a much more intimate way than other visitors. Perhaps best of all, you get to work with other people who are pretty similar to you in that they want to help the park.
REI: Why do trip members have to pay to go do volunteer work?
I get asked this a lot, and I totally understand because I have to pay to go, too. This region (Patagonia) is an expensive place because it’s remote and it’s really at the end of the world. We stay in refugios, which is the most economical lodging available without having to stay in tents. The food has to be brought in from long distances. The money doesn’t go toward paying our salaries because we don’t get salaries—all of us are volunteers. We do this because we believe in it, and we want to do it. The park itself has very little money. Some 80% of the park’s visitors are foreigners, so doesn’t seem right to ask the park to help pay for our visits.
REI: How does working at CVIP fit in with the rest of your life?
I’m retired now, so I have time to do this in addition to doing family and personal things. My husband is a structural engineer who realized that the park needed assistance in designing bridges over the many deep gorges. We’re about to spend 2 months down there. We got half of one bridge built last year and we hope to finish it this year.
REI: Does CVIP plan to expand into new locations?
It’s definitely on our list, but it’s down the road a little ways. We are a nonprofit managed and run completely by volunteers, including the board and my position, so we try to carefully manage our trips to ensure a good experience.