Have you ever experienced the real Cancun? The Cancun beyond the pristine beaches and high-end resorts, where most people are not living in paradise but rather extreme poverty.

Forty years ago Cancun was a collection of fishermen’s shacks, it has since grown into one of Caribbean’s most popular tourist destination. While this growth has been a boom for Mexico, it’s left many living far from paradise. In fact, 40 per cent of people living in Quintana Roo, the state where Cancun is located, live in extreme poverty.

Last month my family and I visited Cancun and had the opportunity to experience “the real Cancun” beyond the high-end hotels, through a unique program that connects international travelers with local nonprofits in need of volunteers. The outcome…an amazing experience you won’t find at the beaches or all-inclusive resorts.

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Experiencing the Real Cancun…

The taxi arrived, our family piled into the tiny white car and started down the palm tree lined streets of the hotel zone in Cancun. White beaches on the right and the bay to the left. We zipped past hotels that looked like “castles” according to my six-year-old daughter, Princes Two. Further into downtown Cancun, the castles became shorter, less glamorous and the beaches disappeared. As we turned right, the taxi driver told us, “This Amigo, this is the real Cancun”.

Run down buildings with turquoise paint chipping off the walls. “Jesus Christo” painted on the deep concrete walls that were topped with broken glass and spears for security. Apartment buildings with clothing lines strung from one barred window to the next.

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Honking at a pack of wild dogs in the road, the driver made the final turn. We had arrived at Huellas de Pan, a local nonprofit organization in Cancun that provides basic necessities – clothing, food, and medical needs – to children in need. Our task – to volunteer one day of our vacation through the Give a Day Global program to help make and serve meals to the 150 people they help each day.

I had come across Give a Day Global a few months ago and was intrigued in the voluntourism program with one day of volunteering. The purpose of Give a Day Global is to help travelers who want to get involved with a meaningful experience, even if they just have one day of time to give. This “experience” is aimed at helping community-based nonprofit organizations who are doing impactful work by helping them recruit volunteer labor and expand their networks of support.

I loved the concept of Give a Day Global – to spend a few hours as a family giving back during our Thanksgiving vacation. Most volunteer trips I’ve found require a full week or more, cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars and aren’t always that easy (or safe) for families with young kids. Give a Day Global’s program seemed like something we could actually do; bring the kids along with us all while still doing the “vacation” we had already planned. I was sold but had to do a bit more investigating before dragging my kids deep into downtown Cancun.

When I spoke with Kerry Rodgers, the executive director for Give A Day Global she summed the organization up with the perfect analogy.

Just like AirBnB connects people who have space to share with those who are looking for a place to stay, we connect nonprofits that are in need of volunteers with travelers who are looking for interesting and meaningful daylong activities.”

But are the organization and their locations safe,” I asked her. After all, we would have our two kids along for the ride.

Our vetting process is quite extensive,” Kerry told me. “First of all we look for organizations that are located near tourist destinations and organizations that can easily accommodate one-day volunteers in their daily operations. We focus on organizations in five categories: education, health and nutrition, economic empowerment, environmental sustainability and wildlife conservation. During the vetting process we do a lot of research on the organization, ask a lot of questions to understand its integrity, effectiveness, and community involvement. We also have a representative of Give A Day Global visit the organization to make sure it is a positive experience.”

Huellas de Pan

Inside, we were greeted by Jorge Ortegón, the executive director of Huellas de Pan and Darwin, a volunteer, who was there to help translate. Through Darwin, Jorge gave us a run down of how Huellas de Pan operated, the types of programs it provides for the 150 children and seniors it supports.

The focus of Huellas de Pan is to provide healthy meals and basic necessities to vulnerable members in the community in an effort to elevate not only the human bodies but also spirits and create a sense of community. Maria Elena Ortegón began the organization seven years ago to fight against malnutrition in her community. As Maria Elena put it,

Hunger is violence. There is no need for this type of violence. Huellas de Pan is something we can do to make the community safer.”

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Huellas de Pan doesn’t just dish out food and clothing to kids though. The kids have to “earn their keep”. Maria Elena explained that the children are required to attend school and share their grades to stay in the program. The organization doesn’t want to be a Band-Aid, they want to break the cycle of poverty through education.

Getting to Work

Our job for the day was to accompany Jorge and another volunteer, Louise to collect food from two of the four hotels in Cancun they work with.

These hotels donate food to Huellas de Pan, which feeds about half of the people the organization supports. The food donated has been prepared for the daily buffets but never served or used. Instead of tossing out the food, these hotels help to feed those in need in their own community.

To date Huellas de Pan can only support 150 people; its waiting list is more than 300. There are more than 200 hotels in Cancun and it would only take 16 more hotels to feed the people currently in the program and the additional 300…

It sounded like a no brainer so I had to ask Jorge why they only have four hotels onboard. What are the other hotels doing with their leftovers? His answer was simple, “BASURE” (trash).

When we arrived back at Hullas de Pan with plastic bins filled with scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, sausage, breads and fruit – we had the opportunity to celebrate five birthdays with the elementary school children they support. We also got to enjoy a slice of the most amazing Tres Leches cake. It wasn’t until my kids started passing around pieces of cake and watching as each of the birthday kids received a gift that they began to understand the level of poverty and what Huellas de Pan is really doing.

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Princess One did not believe me – at first – that this was probably the only birthday present these kids would receive, and they may not have a cake or celebration at home. Watching her face I could see the realities coming together for her. She’s used to going to several over-the-top birthday parties each weekend, the concept of not having a party or gifts had never crossed her mind.

Cesar, our taxi cab driver arrived promptly at 2pm. On the drive back to the hotel he was interested in why we choose to spend a day of our vacation volunteering in Cancun. We explained that it’s the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States and we are very blessed to spend it in Cancun. We wanted to give back to the place we’re celebrating our holiday and to have our children see the realities of it.

Not understanding what the Thanksgiving holiday is about Ceser asked us to explain. We told him that it’s a time to give thanks, a day to remember all that we’re thankful for. He was quite for a minute then said, “That should be every day, no?

Yes, yes it should,” The Husband and I both said at the same time.

How to Support Huellas de Pan

If you’re traveling to Cancun and want to spend a day volunteering set it up with Give a Day Global. Huellas de Pan relies on contributions to source healthful meals and safe community space to serve the community. You can make a donation to the organization as well; those who volunteer are asked to make $100 donation ($25 for children who volunteer.)


Elaine N. Schoch is freelance writer based in Denver and shares adventures, travel advice and tips on CarpeTravel.com.