What a Volunteer Vacation in Guatemala Is Really Like
We love being able to give you an inside glimpse into our immersive journeys of culture and service. Most recently, we shared a vivid illustration of what a typical day on a volunteer vacation looks like.
Now, we want to give you a detailed look at the day-to-day activities, excursions, and feelings that could occur on a volunteer vacation in Guatemala. The best part? It’s straight from the mouths of our travelers, who kept a group journal while they were there. Though we’ve lightly edited the entries for brevity and privacy, you can be sure this is an honest account of what our travelers were thinking and doing during their Guatemala trip with Next Step Travel.
So, if you’ve ever wondered just what happens day-in and day-out on one of our volunteer vacations, keep reading!
Seven people, including four RPCVs (Liberia, Niger, South Africa) came from Miami Beach, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; near Portland, Oregon; Columbus, Ohio; Charleston, Illinois; and Lexington, Kentucky to learn about Guatemala and to offer a little service to several primary schools. – Angene
Sue (RPCV Colombia, 1990s Consul-General at U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City, now has lived in Antigua for 17 years, founder of WINGS) shared information about Guatemala with us, like the fact that 28% of women give birth before age 18. We also met with Tara, another RPCV guide. After 53 years of marriage, my husband and I demonstrated traditional Maya wedding clothes and dancing – and then the weavers offered wedding cake! – Angene
Why, oh why didn’t I try to learn more Spanish so I could communicate better? I took a deep breath, counted to 10 (diez), embraced the day, and went to school! The school, named Pacaja, has about 600 students. When we arrived, all of the students and teachers were assembled in the courtyard where the sixth graders entertained all with an end of the school year pageant. We then toured all of the classrooms and were welcomed with cheerful greetings, some even in English! – Carol
Back to school. There are ways this school reminds me of my post in Niger. The undersupplied classrooms, the difficulty in containing noise, the lack of ventilation. I have great admiration for the teachers. I love watching the children. They appear to be like young children everywhere: bright-eyed, energetic and enthusiastic. They pull my heart strings with their big dark eyes. – Cynthia
We did Tai Chi, led by Cynthia, this morning. Off to school with us, where we all worked crafting instructional materials and I did the so-called behavior management workshop with four more teachers. The teachers here are incredible! They have to use every resource in their repertoire and do what they can in a very disempowering environment. Extreme poverty, uncooperative parents, children who are malnourished and come to school with no breakfast. Shared the info with the group and we have decided we want to do something to honor these incredible teachers. We are taking the bunch to a restaurant and just spent a couple of hours making glittery stars we are giving them at the dinner. – Eda
We all had rambuton (fruit) as a lunch appetizer after Tara provided a lesson on how to husk and eat. Susan took pits home to try to grow. Off to Aguas Georginas Hot Springs. What a beautiful drive it was — up another 1,000 feet of very narrow twisting road. Deep valleys with mountainsides covered with patchwork fields of onions, cabbage, bright red radishes the size of baseballs and deep purple beets the size of baseballs and very long carrots. Fields and valleys crisscrossed with white PCV irrigation pipe. Lingering questions… How do people get up and down these steep fields to plant and harvest? Where are the weeds? Fields are so clean. What does a quarter acre of cabbage or beets bring on the market? Does each farmer have a greenhouse for seedlings? – Jack
Surprised and delighted by a ceremony in our honor. Children in folkloric clothing performing dances to lively tunes. Little cabelleros twirling senoritas taller than themselves. Then pairs of first grade girls presented us “diplomas” and pencil holders disguised as miniature muchachas. Tears. Hugs. Our hearts were deeply touched. Piled into the Discovery Corps van, Nayo at the wheel, and traveled through scenic countryside to the village of San Andres Xecul. A central attraction: the church, built in the 16th century, where Catholic and Mayan spiritual traditions are mingled. Back at home base, we went to a nice Chinese restaurant where we treated all 20 teachers of Pacaja school. Teachers arrived, nicely dressed, in high spirits. An evening of speeches, presentations, good food, lots of chatter and laughter, kissing of cheeks, snapping of photos. – Peggy
So today we left base camp in Xela for Lake Atitlan. Once we got settled, we all went for a boat trip over to the villages of San Juan and Santiago. While there, I bought some paintings and some jewelry. The people in both villages were friendly and had beautiful things to sell. – Susan
Market day in Chichicastenango! We rose early and had a wonderful breakfast in the courtyard. I cannot get enough of the platanos – will have to explore that when I get back to Columbus. Tara led us back thru a section of the market where food items are sold. There were baskets of beans, peppers (yellow and red), cilantro, bananas, and plantains. After dinner (at home base), we watched several short films, including “A Recycled Life,” which tells the story of the Guatemalan guajeros who live in and around the garbage dump in Guatemala City. – Cynthia
After lunch, we returned to the school and began to fill in the world map we had outlined. The ocean blue went quickly and provided encouragement to paint the many countries. The rain brought cold temps. All agreed a shot of “fruit soup” would be good to warm our insides. After dinner, we watched a National Geographic special on the ancient Maya. How did such a civilization develop and fall? Will the same mystery surround the U.S. in a 1,000 years? – Jack
Arturo Gonzalez, a community leader supporting the indigenous people of Guatemala, came to talk to us about history and politics in Guatemala. Naturally the role of the U.S. in Guatemala’s history is and has been very critical. Thus, this was probably the most lively, fun, interesting discussion so far. The speaker kept us on our toes and we did the same for him and for each other. We had some basic agreements such as the role of corporate America in U.S. policies — but we also had some strong disagreements such as what so-called communist governments actually do for their people. We talked about hopelessness, but we also talked about hope. Arturo does the work he does because he ultimately does have hope. – Eda
Iximche, or “the place of the great corn tree,” is a sacred site, with ruins of a 15th century city now reduced to piles of stone showing where the temple and a few other important structures once stood. The shaman was waiting for us. He began by welcoming us and saying that Mayan ceremonies were not an exclusive “religion” — but a spiritual practice open to anyone. He explained the symbolism of the four colors used on the altar, adding that human beings are red, yellow, black and white, but all equally human. The (other) shaman, a woman, also told us that the name Guatemala came from the Mayan description of this place: two Mayan words meaning “city of God” and “surrounded by trees.” The Spanish conquistadores could not pronounce it properly but said and wrote it as Guate-mala. – Peggy
It is our last night in Guatemala (Antigua) for Peggy, Cynthia, Eda and me. We leave tomorrow for home! Left to La Azotea to see how coffee is picked, roasted and served here in Antigua. It was very interesting how they grow the coffee plants and incorporate banana trees and avocado trees along with them. At 4 pm, we went to not only buy chocolate but learn how it is made here in Guatemala. There was this young man named Pablo who was our instructor at Choco Museo. He was quite entertaining and knowledgeable. We all joined in and cooked, crushed and then drank the cocoa. It tasted great. . . I am writing in the dark with a flashlight and this pencil tip is getting low, so I will sign off and say I have enjoyed this trip and especially all the people I have met. – Susan
Several of us were up on the roof of the hotel before breakfast watching Fuego Volcano emit plumes of white smoke, and occasionally black ash, before clouds blocked our view. Agua Volcano, not active, was clearly visible. Sunshine and 70s today. After breakfast, finishing banana bread, ripe plantains, fresh strawberry jam on toast and eggs, tomato sauce and beans, we said goodby to Eda, Susan, Cynthia, Peggy, and Orlando who are going to Guatemala City and the airport. – Angene
We took a boat ride to TopoxteI Island, which is a major ceremonial site of the Mayans. To the delight of all, we were greeted by families of Howler Monkeys. They make very loud guttural sounds, almost terrifying if you didn’t know what it was. Hard to describe – you just have to be there to believe it. After a delicious lunch, we went to Yaxha, the place of the blue green water. This was once a very large city: six square miles and on a major trade route from Belize and Mexico. The ruins are comprised of an acropolis, astrological center, palaces, and residences. About 45,000 Mayans lived there. We climbed many (too many) steps to the top of one of the ruins and the views (360 degrees) of the lake and surrounding countryside are phenomenal. You could see Tikal and even Belize. As well as monkeys everywhere, we saw many birds: toucans, parrots, falcons, a quick glance of a pileated woodpecker and many more. There is no single story in this mystical land! – Carol
This was Tikal Day! Our visit began with seeing the Oral Pendula bird in the parking lot. And our luck with birds both yesterday and today, included, with the help of Tara’s good eyes, squirrel cuckoo to Pacific parakeet. We walked about six kilometers to see the incredible Tikal: 90,000 inhabitant complex built up above a plain which actually had no water source except their reservoirs fed by rain through aqueducts. Why do we honor societies that build huge structures? Perhaps Mayan writing is more impressive? Carol, Tara, Jack and Angene flew back to Guatemala City by 7:30 and completed the evening with wine and conversation, goodbyes and good feelings at the conclusion of a wonderful trip. – Angene
A big thanks to our travelers for sharing their thoughts and experiences with us. Do you want to travel to Guatemala now?