Rough It in One of Panama’s Largest Indigenous Reservations

LOCATION: Soloy, Panama

The Ngobe People of Panama

The Ngobe People of Panama


WHAT VOLUNTEERS CAN DO: Teach English on an indigenous reserve, Build latrines and install drinking water systems, Develop a small village’s potential for ecotourism, Create their own projects
COSTS: Volunteering – Free!, Accommodations – US$36 per week (meals included)
MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS: Two-week time commitment, Intermediate Spanish, Medical insurance
This opportunity just flew into our inbox from the We think it sounds pretty life-changing and just what you might need to transition into the fall. And when we say ‘roughing it’, we mean it. This isn’t Glamping for ladies who lunch.
The Ngöbe Indians who call Soloy home lack safe water, latrines, and adequate housing. Many cannot read or write, but they know well the value of their ancient culture and of the natural beauty that surrounds them. The Ngöbe are taking the reins of their own development, careful to grow slowly and not pay too high a price for it. With visionary grassroots leadership and a real need for volunteers, a local organization, Medo, is helping the community make the transition.

To volunteer with Medo is to live a life far different from any you’ve known. It’s not only a step into another culture but also a step back in time. Proud of their vivid culture, the Ngöbe people live today much as they did a century ago, farming small plots of land to feed their families, piously worshipping their native god, and celebrating their colorful traditions. Without electricity or running water, this volunteer opportunity cannot be called comfortable. However, for anyone looking for a meaningful cultural experience (and up to the challenge), living amongst the Ngöbe is the opportunity of a lifetime.


Everyone knew Adán Bejerano was bright. Still, it was an exhilarating surprise to the community when he was offered a two-year scholarship to study natural resource management in the United States. Adán studied hard, and when he returned in 2003 he began using what he’d learned abroad to better his community.

In 2005, with the help of Canadian and American friends, Adán founded a non-profit. He called it Medo after a local legend who freed the Ngöbe people from oppression. Its mission is both simple and broad, fitting of a truly homegrown organization: to improve the lives of Soloy’s people. Over the years, that mission has lead to a variety of small-scale projects in agriculture, health, business development, education, women’s issues, and more. Whatever community needs arise, Medo responds with whatever resources it can muster. The organization’s ultimate vision is an economically developed Soloy that has preserved its environment and Ngöbe culture.

Panama (c) Ryan Lash Photography

Panama (c) Ryan Lash Photography


Medo is a tiny organization with incredibly limited staff and resources. Volunteers are vital to the organization’s success. In fact, many programs cease entirely when there are no volunteers to take charge of them. The limited resources also constrain them to hosting only four volunteers at a time. Therefore, it’s critical that every volunteer they accept be independent and capable of taking on a great deal of responsibility. Medo volunteers can choose to work in several different areas:

Medo envisions a future where Soloy has become an ecotourism hotspot. With vast untouched forests surrounding it, the tiny village clearly has potential. But Soloy has a lot of work to do before it can take full advantage of Panama’s booming tourism industry. Volunteers in the ecotourism program help local families set up hostels, restaurants, and tourism activities as well as market the village as a tourist destination.

Soloy has a charming cinder block school with a little over 100 students (aged 6 to 12) that welcomes volunteers to teach English classes. Experience, while not required, is preferred because this post is not a particularly easy one. Class sizes are large (up to 30 children) and the students’ level of proficiency is low. But Adán, in addition to running Medo, heads the school’s English program so volunteer teachers receive plenty of oversight and support.

Typically, volunteers in this program also hold English classes in the evenings for adults. Teaching resources are in short supply, so bringing an ESL book with sample lessons is encouraged.

Many homes in Soloy’s nearby rural communities lack access to clean water and basic sanitation. The health implications of this are profound (and depressing). When it can find funding, Medo works with families to install rain catchment systems and build latrines. Medo provides the materials and know-how, and recipients of these life-saving home improvements participate in the process by donating the necessary labor. Building a latrine takes two full weeks. During that time the recipient family is educated on water safety and sanitation as well as a number of other important health issues. Volunteers in this program hike to the rural communities each day to help with construction and provide basic health education.


Traditional Ngobe Dance

Volunteers with their own project ideas are welcome. Adán figures himself a good judge of what projects have the potential to succeed in his community. If a project is worth doing, he can get the community behind it. Note: If your project requires funds you will have to secure them yourself.


Incoming volunteers receive a tour of the village and an informal presentation on the Ngöbe history, culture, and language. Work-related training happens on the job.

There’s not much electricity in Soloy, which makes for early nights and early mornings. Workdays always start at 8 a.m. Some volunteers choose to contribute just two or three hours a day; others work a full eight. It’s your choice. The work week is Monday through Friday. Volunteer teachers should be aware that school ends at 2 p.m. and is closed on Fridays, leaving three-day weekends for exploring Panama.

Medo arranges homestays with local families for their volunteers. They cost US$36 per week and include all meals. People in Soloy live in very simple wooden shelters without electricity or plumbing. While rustic, many volunteers list living with a traditional Ngöbe family as a highlight of their experience.

A second option is to live in the Medo office with Adán and his brother. The office has a tin roof and cement floor, easily making it the nicest place in Soloy. Volunteers pay only US$5 per week for the spare room that they share with, at most, one other volunteer. Meals are not included and there is no kitchen, so volunteers who stay at the office have to eat out for every meal.

Regardless of which housing option they choose, volunteers can expect bucket showers and outside pit latrines. Bathing in the river is also common. Note that bathing suits on women are considered culturally inappropriate. Ngöbe women bathe in the river fully dressed and female volunteers are asked to do the same.

Homestay arrangements include three meals a day. The cuisine is traditional Ngöbe, meaning simple plates of rice, beans, and seasonal fruits or vegetables. Meat is expensive and therefore rarely served. A few humble restaurants sell fried chicken if you need a treat.

The pace of life and work in Soloy is slow. Volunteers have a lot of downtime. Hiking to other villages, horseback riding, and learning the Ngöbe language are the most popular pastimes. The Peace Corps has two members in Soloy who are good at welcoming new volunteers to the area. It’s common for volunteers to take the bus to the beach or David on the weekends, especially since drinking alcohol in Soloy is forbidden.

Soloy only recently received cell phone coverage. Volunteers can pick up a prepaid phone in David or Panama City for US$20. Getting online requires a bus trip to David.

Soloy is not an easy place to stay healthy. Volunteers should bring a mosquito net and lots of iodine tablets for purifying water. Bug spray is worth its weight in gold. Also important to remember are a flashlight and, for women, conservative clothing.


Volunteers are asked to commit a minimum of two weeks with Medo. Applicants should hold a college degree (or be working toward one) and speak intermediate Spanish. Volunteers are also required to procure health insurance for the length of their stay.


Volunteers do not pay any fees to volunteer with Medo. They must, however, cover their own living and eating expenses (approximately US$40 per week). Anyone coming from abroad is encouraged to bring school supplies. Cash donations are also welcome. To make a financial donation from abroad, for detailed instructions.


Adán is happy to meet volunteers in David if they need it. Those who are comfortable taking the bus to Soloy are met at the bus stop.


Download the volunteer application from the web site and fill it out. Along with the basics, it asks some open-ended questions about what you hope to accomplish and why you are interested.

There is no Internet access in Soloy so it may be several weeks before you receive a response. If you don’t hear back after a month, follow up with a phone call. Medo has been able to accommodate walk-ins in the past, but prefers applications be submitted four months in advance to allow time to arrange housing. Medo accepts no more than four volunteers at any one time.

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