Destin-Nation Guatemala: Treating the Tropical Troubles

Voluntourism: Guatemala


Forget Costa Rica. Guatemala's rough beauty and powerful history make it the desirable Central American destination for explorers with a philanthropic agenda.
Forget Costa Rica. Guatemala's rough beauty and powerful history make it the desirable Central American destination for explorers with a philanthropic agenda.

With a diversity of indigenous tribes, like the Maya and the Garifuna, the country has cultural appeal in addition to the obvious virtues of its landscape: volcanoes, mountains, wildlife, ruins and lakes.

Unfortunately, Guatemala also suffers from a wide variety of socio-economic ills. Poverty is rampant. Illiteracy and infant mortality rates remain high and malnutrition is a chronic problem. Organized crime and drug smuggling have also taken seed here, growing up between the cracks in an ineffective government.

Volunteer opportunities in Guatemala are endless, and following these tips should help travelers ensure that their hard work will genuinely help impoverished families, underprivileged children, endangered cultures or jungle wildlife.

Voluntourism Guatemala
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Destin-Nation Guatemala: Treating the Tropical Troubles

Unlike other colonial capitals in Central and South America, spoiled by concrete and congestion, Antigua's old-quarter charm remains intact with ancient arches suspended over cobblestone streets. The government moved the capital to Guatemala City in 1776 after they grew tired of earthquakes and left behind the city's Spanish colonial glory for visitors today to enjoy.  

In addition to its old world charm, the three volcanoes that stunningly outline the city limits –  named Agua (water), Fuego (fire) and Acatenango –  attract hikers from around the world. With magnificent views of the city at over 12,000 feet atop Volcan de Agua, even the most jaded traveler would be impressed.

The influx of tour groups and volcano trailblazers has no doubt fueled the city's tourism industry, but with that comes the demand for English-speaking locals who can give tours and offer foreigners a native's perspective on what surrounds them. 

International Volunteer Headquarters, or IVHQ, places volunteers in Antigua to teach Guatemalans English and help them build a future in tourism, business or teaching. The program's low cost makes it a desirable volunteer opportunity for the helper on a budget, with programs starting at $260 per week. Volunteers work in poor communities, public schools and libraries, and community centers, teaching adults and children alike. Though the program does not require volunteers to speak Spanish, they do offer affordable Spanish lessons via student exchanges, one-on-one tutoring and group classes.

Another noteworthy organization in Antigua is Maximo Nivel. While this program focuses on workforce of tomorrow, the impact is on underprivileged children living in orphanages, shelters, or even on the streets. Volunteers here teach English, help with homework and tutor children.

Getting there: Fly in to La Aurora Airport in Guatemala City, 30 miles from Antigua. For an unforgettable trip, hop on a colorful-yet-crowded "chicken bus" and share elbow room with the locals. 

Overgrown jungle covered the abandoned Mayan ruins in Tikal National Park for over a millenia until they were unearthed in the 19th century. The pyramid temples are noteworthy, but the park is not all about its archeological sites. The fauna that reside here make the visit to the jungle real. Hearing toucans squawking overhead and monkeys calling out as they swing from tree to tree makes the canopy tour experience.

To help keep these animals alive, organizations like Aide Abroad place volunteers with an interest in environmental conservation in a rescue center on Lake Peten Itza. Participants often make Flores, the red-roofed city that floats in the middle of the lake, their home base.

Volunteers help feed, care for and rehabilitate young jungle creatures (think: spider monkeys, macaws, parrots and turtles) that that have been injured or trafficked. Volunteers also lend a hand in constructing new facilities and cages, releasing animals back to the jungle, and researching and observing animal life. 

Getting There: For a quick voyage, Taca and Tropic Air offer direct flights from Guatemala City to Flores. Tropic Air also flies direct from Belize.

Historically, the city of Quetzaltenango, or Xela as the locals call it, was an important player in Guatemalan history. It served as the ancient Quiche Mayan capital of Xelaju, meaning "under ten mountains." The indigenous population, which makes up more than half of the city, celebrates its culture by weaving and wearing the bright Maya textiles the area is known for producing. Somehow, the city has shut out the tourist market and maintained a slow-paced attitude. 

Despite their rich history, the indigenous people now living in Xela face menacing issues. They are poor and the women carry the burden of keeping the home intact. Rampant poverty has led to high rates of depression and alcoholism  and other groups unfortunately associate the word "indigenous" with these problems.

World Endeavors aims to empower indigenous women victimized by racial discrimination, alcoholism, poverty and depression. Volunteers can expect to help put together workshops for these women focusing on handicrafts, human rights, women's rights, reproductive health, cooking and economic development. By contributing to these initiatives, volunteers give indigenous women the tools they need to better themselves and their family's economic and social conditions. 

Getting There: The closest airport is Tapachula International in Chiapas, Mexico. From there, take a bus across the border. It's faster and less expensive than flying in to Guatemala City.

The capital, Guatemala City, is no Paris, no Tokyo, not even a Mexico City. It's as real as it gets with an excessive waste management problem and profuse poverty. Despite the negative light in which the city is often seen, the capital does boast some of the best museums in the country, like the Popol Vuh, and its restaurant and bar scene have shown progress and refinement in recent years.

Cultural activities like these serve as fun distractions for volunteers who head to Guatemala City, which natives call "Guate," to get their hands dirty – literally. The city's famed Zone 3 garbage dump and the surrounding slums are home to children and families living in extreme poverty, and dozens of volunteers converge here to take action.

Safe Passage, or Camino Seguro, serves about 500 children and adults living in these slums and aims to break the cycle of poverty through education. Most volunteers work as teachers' assistants, helping inside the classroom and after school by tutoring and facilitating extracurricular activities. They also help adults enrolled in the program by promoting literacy.

Getting There: Fly into La Aurora International Airport. Continental, Spirit, Delta and American Airlines all land here.

The coastal town of Livingston is one-of-a-kind. The history of the Afro-Caribbean Garifuna people who reside here can be traced back to the island of St. Vincent, where Amerindian and African peoples migrated from northern Brazil before the arrival of Europeans in the New World. Music and dance pump soul into their culture, most notably with the "punta" form of musical expression involving ritual chanting, drumbeats and rhythmic dancing.

Rasta Mesa, a Garifuna Cultural Center in Livingston, helps to preserve and promote the Garifuna heritage while improving the quality of life for the community through programs in arts, culture, education and agriculture. 

Through the NGO Entremundos, volunteers work at Rasta Mesa and promote culture classes, including cooking, drumming, dancing and handicraft. They also travel to the beach with Garifuna children to clean up the shore and promote sustainability. 

Getting There: Livingston is only reachable by boat, and there are two scenic ferries daily from Rio Dulce and Puerto Barrios. There is also a direct boat line from Punta Gorda, Belize, on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Modern hospitals are non-existent outside of Guatemala City, and inhabitants of the rural areas are left with little to no care.

Organizations like Experiential Learning International, or ELI, arrange for medical students and professionals to travel from town to town in the Guatemalan highlands and work with government- and military-sponsored health posts. The highlands region is located in the southwest part of the country, near Xela. It's rich in tradition, and it boasts the highest concentration of native Maya.

Medical volunteers here assist with patient care and promote preventative education, especially geared toward HIV/AIDS. Programs vary from two weeks to four months.

Getting There: Take a bus from Xela to the neighboring small towns. Remember to glance out the window and take in the mountainous views. 

For volunteers that feel more comfortable donating sweat, there is demand for workers to help on construction projects in rural Guatemala. GVI gives American families a chance to help improve the lives of poor Guatemalan families living in rural areas outside of Antigua using their hands. 

Volunteers help save lives by way of building energy-efficient stoves in natives' homes. With poor or no ventilation in homes, indoor air pollution due to burning wood is reportedly the cause of more deaths annually than malaria or AIDS.

The stoves volunteers help build also help families financially, cutting the amount of money families spend on wood by two-thirds. After reaping the positive effects of these ovens, they would also spend less on medicine to treat chronic lung illnesses.

Getting There: Buses routinely from Antigua to surrounding rural areas.


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