Affectionately termed “Guate”, Guatemala’s capital city is filled with colorful surprises for visiting volunteers. Sure, she’s rough around the edges, but Guatemala City is also the heartland of Mayan cultural heritage and the country’s burgeoning art scene. New pedestrian areas pop up every year, transforming old industrial zones into lively destinations. Haggle over handicrafts in the underground Mercado Central, cool off in the lush Jardin Botanico, or wander out to active volcano Mt. Pacaya. Whether you’re an adventure seeker with altruistic intentions or an altruist with a lust for adventure, volunteering in Guatemala City doesn’t disappoint.
Ways to Volunteer in Guatemala City
Guatemala is one of the least developed countries in the region, with high poverty rates and limited infrastructure, so there are always plenty of projects to keep volunteers busy in the capital. From educational programs for at-risk youth to animal welfare efforts, get ready to dive into a meaningful project during your time in Guatemala City.
Popular causes and volunteer projects. One of the most critical sectors where volunteer support is needed is public health. Hospitals and clinics in low-income neighborhoods and shantytowns surrounding the city are consistently underfunded and understaffed. Education is another popular field for volunteers to contribute in Guatemala City. Want to help write lesson plans that engage students, assist in the classroom, or lead extra-curricular activities? Help put the COOL in sChOOL for a cohort of Guatemalan young people! Quality English teaching is in particularly high demand, as limited educational resources make native-speaking educators unaffordable in public schools and low-income areas.
Volunteers who want to work outside with Mother Nature will enjoy environmental conservation programs near Guatemala City. Join ongoing reforestration efforts, participate in marine research, or protect local wildlife by clearing pollutants out of their habitats. If you’ve ever been called a “tree hugger” or been admired for your green thumb, volunteering on an environmental conservation project in Guatemala City is right up your alley.
Consider the length of time. Programs range anywhere from one or two weeks to multiple years and everywhere in between. Choosing how long to stay depends on your availability, local project durations, and program type. A beach clean-up could use extra hands on deck just for the day, but many educational and research programs need volunteers to commit to at least one month.
Do I need to speak Spanish? Volunteers can get away with not speaking Spanish, but la capacidad para conversar (conversational proficiency) will take you far. Though about 40 percent of Guatemalans speak indigenous languages, being able to communicate in Spanish is an undeniable asset when volunteering in Guatemala City, from coordinating with local project participants to ordering buñuelos at lunch.
Life in Guatemala City
Wondering what it’s like to live in Guatemala City while volunteering abroad? This is a city that has earned its mixed reviews the hard way. Sure, the sprawling metropolis gets a bad rep for being dirty and dodgy- yet, at the same time, pockets tucked into Guate’s industrial zones teem with undiscovered personality and culture.
Guatemala City’s biggest challenge is keeping up with migration. Over the country’s four decades of civil war, many migrated to the capital in search of employment and higher standards of living. Unprepared for the influx of new residents, infrastructure in the capital has been straining and reeling ever since.
When volunteering hours are over, get your Mayan art fix at museums like the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, Musea Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, or the Museo Ixchel. Visit the Mapa en Relieve monument for some cartographic reflection, or stroll through Parque Central gazing up at the Catedral Metropolitana. For fireworks and folk dancing, don’t miss the annual Fiesta da la Virgen de la Asunción in mid August. If communal lore and trash burning is more your speed, stick around for the Quema del Diablo just before Christmas season.
For the foodies, Guatemala City is the OG food cart haven. Nearly every corner of the city is graced with a local vendor on wheels, dishing out some of the country’s best cuisine. From tamales -- or the highland variant, pache -- to rellenitos (literally ‘little stuffed things’), Guatemalans know how to pack a punch into a street food snack. If you get burnt out touring the seemingly endless museos, hit the carts for a flavorful cultural adventure.
Less crowded than Antigua, which gets plenty of love from international visitors, volunteers in the capital are always in high demand. As a major urban hub, the city sees plenty of diversity, so no need to worry about sticking out like a sore thumb. Do, however, expect to use your Spanish or be willing to pantomime your way around, as English is not commonly spoken.
GoAbroad Insider Tips
Volunteering abroad means being willing to get down in the trenches and give yourself in service to those less fortunate, and volunteering in Guatemala City is no exception. Known for being gritty, life in the Guatemalan capital can be challenging for residents and visitors alike. Many Guatemalans live below the poverty line and access to basic services like healthcare and education remains a major challenge. This can be confronting, as it means most volunteer placements involve tackling these structural challenges head on. Do let it rattle you and inspire you to make the world a better place for all. Remember: as a volunteer, you’re here to help, and there’s plenty to do!
Guatemala is relatively affordable, so volunteers won’t need to dish out many quetzal to get by. A TransMetro ticket will cost volunteers only 1 quetzal ($0.14), and a night in a hostel runs roughly 100 quetzal ($14). There are plenty of free entertainment options, with an endless array of outside events and festivals. Museums have free days, state-of-the-art performances have student discounts, and nights on the town are more fun than expensive. Furthermore, national travel in Guatemala is cheap as well, with collectivos and buses always at your disposal.
Heads up: credit card theft has become a big issue in recent years. To protect yourself, use ATMs in securitized areas, such as those inside banks or shopping malls. In addition to practicing extra care with money, do play it safe in Guatemala. Even if you are a tough cookie, stick to groups at night and don’t leave bags unattended. However, there are more kind strangers than potential thieves- so take caution, but with an open heart!
Vamonos! Volunteering in Guatemala City is a guaranteed adventure with plenty of opportunities to give back. There’s no better time or reason to go Guate.
Get more inspo with our full guide to volunteering in Guatemala.