Guatemala is as varied in local culture and ecosystems as it is in neighboring countries. As a volunteer in Guatemala, you’ll begin to explore this heart of Mayan civilization and quickly understand why so many people have a special place in their heart for Guatemala. With an opportunity to visit idyllic beach towns, wander Mayan ruins, and climb active volcanoes, you can spend plenty of time in Guatemala and never run out of new adventures.
Guatemala has been one of the strongest economic performers in Latin America in recent years, yet it has the highest economic inequality in the region with some of the worst poverty, malnutrition, and maternal-child mortality rates, particularly in rural and indigenous areas. In nearly half of the country’s rural municipalities, 8 out of 10 people are living below the poverty line.
On average, children attend school for fewer than six years in Guatemala, and 26% of children between the ages of five and 14 work instead of attending school. Maternal mortality is high in part due to hesitation to give birth in clinics or hospitals with the cost of private health services. Adolescent pregnancies in both rural and urban areas are common and increasing, often impacting women already vulnerable due to poverty and lack of education.
Join us in Guatemala as we work to end the cycle of poverty by supporting the education of vulnerable children and girls and delivering public health campaigns to those who lack adequate resources.
Volunteering in Tecpán
The town of Tecpán is a mostly rural, tight-knit community inhabited primarily by indigenous people. It is located about two hours outside the capital of Guatemala City and next door to the Iximche Mayan ruins. In recent years, Tecpán has developed into a unique location where tradition intersects with modernity. It’s not uncommon to see people dressed in traditional garb popping in and out of local internet cafes.
The cuisine in Guatemala includes some favorites like homemade guacamole and corn tortillas, and some new dishes that are sure to please, like hearty stews, fresh tropical fruits, and frijoles volteados, another local dish.
Who will support you
During her teenage years, Country Director Virginia Burmester spent a full year studying in the U.S. and shortly therafter traveled to Belgium as a volunteer. Once she had some globetrotting under her belt, Virginia was inspired to become a local community development leader in her native Guatemala. She worked as an English teacher in Guatemala City for 25 years, and later, as a liaison to international exchange students and host families with AFS. She absolutely adores the opportunity to work with international volunteers and is always happy to share some of her deep knowledge of Guatemalan culture and history. Get to know her family, which includes four daughters, two grandchildren, and pet golden, Mia, when you volunteer abroad in Guatemala!
When you support The Child Development Project in Guatemala, you’ll have an opportunity to work with a particularly vulnerable group – children. With the help of our volunteers, our partner organizations provide local children with the basics: a safe place, warm meals, education services, and very importantly love and attention.
When you work with The Global Health Project in Guatemala City, you’ll support a team of dedicated medical professionals as they offer valuable services to members of the community. As a healthcare volunteer, you’ll assist with the social aspects of healthcare, primarily by supporting nurses, doctors, and caregivers. Your presence offers members of the community and healthcare professionals an opportunity for cultural exchange and a fresh new attitude that will increase morale.
Things to Do
In Guatemala, Spanish lessons are divided into levels based on your ability, and tailored to your needs. The first lesson is held in a typical classroom style, but then you’ll have a chance to put your knowledge to the test. Your teacher will take you out into the community and challenge you to bargain for fruits, vegetables, and clothing in Spanish at a nearby underground market. Just another awesome adventure to add to your list!
Cook Guatemalan Cuisine
Our cooks will provide all of your meals for you, with one fun exception: each week, you’ll have a chance to prepare a veritable Guatemalan feast with your fellow volunteers, under the expert guidance of our cooks. Learn how to prepare a traditional Guatemalan “fusion” meal, combining elements of both Spanish and Mayan cuisine, and don’t forget to take the recipe home to replicate for your friends and family.
Learn About Mayan History
Learn about the traditional beliefs and culture of indigenous Mayan people in Guatemala, including the oft-referenced Mayan Calendar, from a local professor specializing in Mayan culture and cosmology. After a discussion of the history and incredible accuracy of the calendar, the professor will identify your unique energy animal, the Mayan equivalent of a horoscope.
Sip Hot Cocoa
Connect with a local family over cups of steaming, frothy hot chocolate and learn their millennia-old family recipe for the traditional Mayan drink. You’ll even have the opportunity to help them roast the cacao beans, peel and clean the seeds, cook the chocolate, and then — and here’s the best part — enjoy the fruits of your labors over conversation with the family.
Visit a Volcano
Journey just outside of Guatemala City to experience some of the most impressive of Guatemala’s 37 volcanoes, including Pacaya and Volcán de Fuego. These are also two of Central America’s most active volcanoes, so trade in your flip flops for a pair of sturdy shoes and climb each volcano to snap some photos in front of the slow-flowing lava. You’ll want to remember to pack a stick or two, because where’s the fun in an active volcano if you haven’t got marshmallows to roast?!
Relax at Lake Atitlan
Formed nearly 2 million years ago, Lake Atitlan has been referred to as one of the world’s most beautiful lakes — and not just by the folks here! Once you’ve shopped your little heart out in one of the region’s many markets, check out all of the outdoor options. Get your adrenaline pumping on a zipline adventure, trek the forests, or climb some waterfalls. No matter what you get into, we promise you’ll sleep well that night!
Scale Ruins at Tikal
Journey to the northern part of the country to marvel at one of the greatest surviving Mayan cities at the Tikal ruins. Arrive early in the morning to avoid the tourist rush and take in the towering temples and intricate pathways in all their serene splendor. It’s an epic spot that’s nothing short of magical, especially when you catch it shrouded in the morning mist. Climb 196 steps to the top of Tikal’s iconic Temple of the Great Jaguar, and explore the Mayan city’s sprawling ruins.
Enjoy the Caribbean
Perched at the very edge of Guatemala’s northeastern coast along the Amatique Bay and surrounded by jungle to the south and west, Livingston is unlike any other place in Guatemala. Sail down the city’s namesake river to a 19th century settlement for emancipated West Indian slaves and take in the rich Caribbean influenced culture of the Garifuna. Nibble fresh shrimp along the waterfront and let the sounds of local musicians’ bongos and turtle shell drums ease you into a Caribbean state of mind.
Stamp your Passport
As the one-time capital of ancient Central America, Guatemala is a gateway to the rest of the subcontinent. Journey north to explore southeast Mexico’s budding sustainable tourism industry. Go snorkeling and diving in Belize’s Barrier Reef, the longest reef in the Western Hemisphere. Chase the break at one of El Salvador’s many coastal retreats. Continue further east to Honduras’ stunning Celaque Mountain National Park and tackle its nearly 10,000-foot peak, or relax in natural hot springs.