I just spent two weeks volunteering on the Animal Care project in Guatemala and I’ve loved it! My days were spent giving back at a vet clinic and living with a local family in La Antigua. The trip truly changed my life. I now welcome the feeling of adventure and nervousness that comes with stepping out of your comfort zone because I know what you stand to gain! I recommend anyone considering volunteering in Guatemala jumps at the opportunity - and these are my top 10 reasons why:
1. The breathtaking natural landscape
There are a whole bunch of amazing things to see in Guatemala, and a lot of them revolve around stunning natural features that surround Antigua. Lake Atitlan is one of those must do’s! Make sure you explore all around this gorgeous lake and the towns dotted along the shores have to offer, because there are some amazing secret spots. Use the little boats to taxi from one town to the next and take in the different views of the lake which is framed by several volcanos. There are a whole lot of breathtaking churches, buildings and authentic Guatemalan markets - it’s a beautiful way to spend a day, or longer if you have the time!
The guided tour gave me an exclusive, behind the scenes experience to the little towns along the lake. I learned how the authentic textile blankets and scarves are made with real ingredients to color the hand picked cotton. I had no idea that you could extract the colour from a carrot and use it as a vibrant dye. Their textiles are truly a work of art and labour of love.
I walked around visiting local artists and shops and had an amazing lunch with the freshest tasting fish, overlooking the lake. I cannot recommend doing this enough!
2. To get outdoors
The stunning landscapes of Guatemala naturally lend themselves to incredible hiking opportunities. Hiking to the top of Pacaya Volcano was an incredibly rewarding experience. We were lucky enough to see the Volcano Fuego erupting with red lava in the distance as we reached the top and the sun began to set - what an amazing sight! A photograph could not have done it justice, so I decided to simply enjoy it with my eyes.
We trekked down the other side of the volcano and roasted marshmallows on the hot volcano rocks. What a bucket list thing to do!
3. Take Coffee To A Whole New Level
You’ll be a coffee guru after volunteering in Guatemala! A guided tour of the Filadelfia Coffee Plantation is educational and interesting. It’s a beautiful coffee plantation where they produce Dalton coffee - you can learn about the entire coffee process from seed to cup and it’s actually really interesting. Oh, and the Americano at the end of the tour - delicious! Before coming to Antigua I could not drink black coffee and now it is all I drink. When I can home I raved so much about the rich, bold and luxurious Guatemalan flavour to the point where my friend went out and bought me imported Guatemalan coffee, just to shut me up!
4. Amazing Antigua
I loved exploring Antigua. I found new places every day and always enjoyed revisiting my favourites. The beautiful buildings, the cobblestone roads and the friendly, smiling Guatemalan faces saying “Hola” or “Buenos Días” as you passed by were magically uplifting.
Antigua is home to the gorgeous Santa Catalina Arch, the Mermaid fountain in Central Park and some of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen. There are lots of hidden markets and restaurants that initially look like a hole in the wall, but open up to huge private terraces at the back - it really is a fun city to explore.
5. The People
Guatemalans place a lot of importance on their friends and family. It’s a refreshing reminder to value everyone in your life. Guatemalans have generous hearts and will help you and others in anyway they can. It was really different from the professional and competitive relationships I’ve seen at home. They also have the ability to not sweat the small stuff - there is no problem that can’t be solved and this way of thinking is truly contagious.
6. Experience A New Kind Of Commute
Tuk tuks and chicken buses! These little bicycle buggies and colorful buses are driven erratically everywhere and are a cheap, fast and adventurous way to get around. I had never seen transport on this level - it makes getting around so much more fun and will always remind me of life in Antigua.
7. Guatemalan Food
I was slightly unsure about what I was going to eat while in Guatemala as I have several food allergies that are quite inconvenient while dining out at home in Canada. However, I found that most restaurants and even my homestay cooked with fresh ingredients and don’t tend to use much dairy or gluten in their cooking. Their hand-made corn tortillas and salsa verde were to die for.
Here are some of my favorite places to eat and hang out in Antigua:
- Fridas: A restaurant right by the arch, with great Nachos, coffee and late night dancing.
- Tacool: Delicious tacos that are quick and cheap.
- Cerro San Cristobal: Eat some mouthwatering food while up high on a mountain with an unbelievable view of all of Antigua.
- Jungle Party Hostel: Great place to meet a variety of people and sip a drink in a hammock or swing.
8. Meaningful Volunteering
My volunteer placement was at a vet clinic where I walked the rescue dogs, sat in on consultations, watched surgeries and saw all they do there. Not only did the team at the local placement teach me about how they work and their approach to animal procedures, but I also got an insight into their culture, current events and daily lives. They really took me under their wings and added so much to my Guatemalan experience, including helping me practice my Spanish. It really was a beneficial experience and I sure do miss the people there.
9. The Vibrant Culture
I was lucky enough to be in Guatemala on November 1 for “All Saints Day” or “Dia de Todos Las Santos”. This holiday is celebrated with a kite festival during the day, visiting graves sites and processions in the street in the evening. The giant kites are made out of bamboo and tissue paper and take many months to make. It was a pleasure to be a part of this wonderful celebration and is an amazing way to honor their lost loved ones.
10. Find A Home away from home
Living with a local family and other travelers in the heart of Antigua was an absolute privilege. Our house had about 10 bedrooms, four bathrooms, and a beautiful rooftop terrace, where you could see the volcano Fuego erupting at night. I’m an only child, so living in a house with many people, who quickly became family, was a real novelty and an absolute dream. There was always someone willing to go on an adventure, or day trip or explore the city with me.
Final Advice For Volunteering In Guatemala
This amazing trip will forever be very close to my heart. I did miss hot showers and my comfortable bed but I would give it up again in a heartbeat. Not only did this experience help me open my eyes and my heart to the wonderful world and people around me, it helped me discover that I am brave enough to take on any challenge and can travel the world on my own.
I cannot wait for my next volunteer adventure with IVHQ. Not only is IVHQ extremely organized on all aspects before you leave on your trip, but one of the best parts of volunteering through IVHQ is that once you are in your country you are instantly part of both local and international travel community. The local community was my lifeline and helped me truly experience Guatemala. From the instant friends I gained from the other travelers, to the safety and support offered by the local staff. Oh, and the wisdom, tips and tricks shared amongst travelers and locals was extremely valuable.
To the future travellers - cherish every moment, explore as much as you can and have fun!
Want to know more? Click here to find out more about volunteering in Guatemala.