Know Before You Go: Volunteering Abroad in Guatemala

by Laura Jelich

Guatemala is one of the most-visited, least developed countries in Central America. With under two percent of its landmass urbanized and a large indigenous population, Guatemala remains a predominantly pristine mountainous landscape and is home to some of the world’s most colorful and vibrant people. Not only will those who volunteer in Guatemala have a wide range of program options to choose from, but because of the large need for volunteer assistance, their experience will be especially rewarding.

Cerro de la Cruz

Cerro de la Cruz, Antigua

Before heading off to volunteer abroad in Guatemala, check out this quick list of twelve things you need to know before you go!

1. Punctuality is optional.

Timeliness holds little meaning and life seems to move in slow motion in Guatemala, like many Latin American countries abroad. Locals care more about the company they keep and the quality of their time than the strictness of the schedule their days run on. Volunteering abroad in Guatemala will offer an escape from the stress of minutely-planned days and serve as a much-needed reminder to enjoy the little things in life.

2. Though time runs slower, cars certainly don’t.

Commuting can be a scary experience for first-timers in Guatemala. Despite the lax punctuality, drivers in Guatemala sure seem to be in a hurry! Before long, however, volunteers will grow accustomed to the hum of honking horns during their daily trip to and from their project location.

3. Guatemalans may be the world’s most colorful people.

Mayan culture remains a very prominent part of Guatemalans lives still today. With more than half of Guatemalans descendant of the indigenous Maya peoples, over 20 indigenous languages are still spoken today and many retain traditional dress and customs. Ancient archaeological sites, like Tikal, vibrant apparel, and a warm hospitable nature serve as additional evidence of the not-so-in-the-past heritage of the Mayan people.

Guatemalan cuisine

Guatemalan nachos

4. It will rain.

It will rain, and depending on the season, it may rain more days than not. Winter in Guatemala is considered the rainy season and lasts from May to October. Investing in quality rain gear before volunteering in Guatemala will be beneficial, especially for volunteers working on outdoor projects during the latter months. During winter, rain can be expected every afternoon for a couple hours. The rest of the year makes up the “dry season,” though rainy periods are not uncommon.

5. There’s no such thing as too much rice, beans, and tortillas.

White rice and black beans are two Guatemalan staples and volunteers can expect corn tortillas to accompany most of their meals while volunteering in Guatemala. Breakfast may incorporate this power duo scrambled in eggs with a side of fried plantains, or alongside various meats and vegetables for lunch and dinner. Tamales and empanadas are also prominent dishes in Guatemala, typically featuring cornmeal, potatoes, and meat stuffed in fried pastries. Healthier snacks and sides feature fresh fruit from the nearby rain-forest. Volunteers will discover that the best and cheapest authentic meals can be found at comedores, small hole-in-the-wall restaurants that are often family-run.

6. Extracurriculars are endless.

With thirty-three volcanoes, world class whitewater rafting, a lush bio-diverse ecosystem, and Pacific coast shorelines at the tip of one’s fingers, volunteers will be itching to explore more of what Guatemala has to offer before their volunteer program ends. Antigua, the previous capital city of Guatemala, is also an extremely popular tourist destination, boasting colonial architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site title. Not to mention, Guatemala’s nearby neighbors of Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador are ripe for exploration. Volunteers will benefit from taking extra time during their volunteer program in Guatemala, or at the end, to take advantage of some free-range travel with new-found volunteer or local friends.

7. Everyone has a “special price for you”.

Although volunteers may think they are getting a deal the first time they are offered a “special price for you”, the asking cost of an item is almost always exaggerated and bargaining is not only acceptable, it is expected! It is worth noting that Guatemalans are very persistent sales persons and volunteers shouldn’t feel pressured to purchase everything. However, shopping local markets is a great way to find inexpensive, handmade (and colorful) souvenirs while supporting local artisans in the community.

Santa Catalina Arch

Santa Catalina Arch

8. Less is more.

Most often, volunteers can expect to live in fairly basic conditions. Accommodation will vary based upon the type of program and housing offered, but generally homestays or designated volunteer group living are offered. Although, volunteers may find themselves without hot shower water or laundry machines. The cost of living in Guatemala is less than volunteers’ expenses at home, most likely, so volunteers will be able to eat, live, and get around easily on next to nothing.

9. You will count your blessings.

As one of the poorest nations in Central America, poverty is a very real and visible part of life in Guatemala. During a 36 year-long civil war that ended in 1995, a vast migration of residents to Guatemala City seeking employment led to significant resource depletion. Additionally, insufficient funding, expensive school supplies, lack of qualified teachers, and limited curriculum to accommodate the over twenty languages spoken by indigenous Mayan groups have contributed to Guatemala’s literacy rate remaining the lowest in Central America.

As a result of these societal issues, a large number of volunteer placements in Guatemala involve working with impoverished groups and children. While volunteers can make a significant difference in the lives of locals, they may be surprised to find just how touched their own lives are by their volunteer work, and the lasting impact on their being left by the happy and vibrant people of their host country.

10. It’s not difficult to fall in love with the people of Guatemala. 

International volunteers are generally much appreciated, and volunteers are always made to feel very welcome. Many volunteer programs in Guatemala connect volunteers with at-risk youth or children from low-income families, who tend to be very eager to get to know international volunteers, so volunteers can expect to have many little followers hanging on their shoulders and their every word.

11. Plan to wear a one-piece.

Despite its reputation as the “land of eternal spring”, Guatemalans rarely skimp down their dress during warm weather. Contrary to what volunteers would wear in most Western parts of the world, when volunteering in Guatemala individuals should err on the side of “modesty” when packing for their trip. Short shorts and miniskirts are a definite no, shirts should have more than just skinny straps, and the minimal swimwear should mean a full coverage one-piece bathing suit.

Guatemalan market

Guatemalan market

12. You should learn a little Español.

Although Spanish is the official language of Guatemala, it is only spoken by about 60 percent of the population. While Spanish fluency is generally not expected of volunteers, some level of proficiency will prove beneficial, since English is not widely spoken. As a result of the country’s vastly influential Mayan heritage, numerous indigenous tongues make up the majority of the remaining 40 percent of languages spoken, so volunteers will have the chance to get to know various native dialects as well.

Now you are prepared to volunteer abroad in Guatemala, all you have to do is select your program and placement and you are well on your way to an incredible international experience.