I spent two weeks volunteering on the Animal Care/Animal Rights project in Guatemala. 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! Here’s some of my favorite reasons you should put Guatemala on the top of your bucket list:
1. 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. Even in the workplace. It was very different from the professional and competitive relationships we foster at home. They also have the ability to not “sweat the small stuff” - there is no problem that cannot be solved and this way of thinking is truly contagious.
2. For The Breathtaking Natural Landscape
Lake Atitlan is a must do when in Guatemala! Make sure you explore all this gorgeous lake and the towns dotted along the shores have to offer. 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. 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 a carrot could extract its color into 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. There are many breathtaking churches, buildings and authentic Guatemalan markets sprinkled throughout the towns, so make sure you explore them while soaking up some sun.
3. 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. A photograph could not have done this amazing sight any 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 item! This hike pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and I am so glad that it did because that’s when you make great memories!
4. To Take Coffee To A Whole New Level
You’ll be a coffee guru after this! A guided tour of the Filadelfia Coffee Plantation is educational and interesting. You’ll learn about the entire coffee process from seed to cup. It’s a beautiful coffee plantation where they produce Dalton coffee. 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. The rich, bold and luxurious Guatemalan flavor to the point where my friend went out and bought me imported Guatemalan coffee, just to shut me up and I have to say, it tastes almost identical. I was over the moon with excitement and happiness. I know where I will be getting my coffee from now on.
5. Because Antigua Will Leave You In Awe
I loved exploring Antigua. I found new places every day and always enjoyed revisiting my favorites. The beautiful structures and 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 have ever seen. There are many hidden markets that you must explore to find and restaurants that look like little “holes in the walls” at first but will expand to have huge private terraces once you walk thru to the back.
6. To 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 and it will always remind me of life in Antigua.
7. Guatemalan Food
I was slightly concerned 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 restaurants and my home stay, cook with fresh ingredients and do not tend to use much dairy or gluten in their cooking. Their hand made corn tortillas and salsa verde were to die for, so naturally I ate them as often as I could.
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. For The Meaningful Placements
My volunteer placement was at a vet clinic where I walked the rescue dogs, sat in on consultations, watched surgeries and saw all that 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 also about their culture, current events and their daily lives. They really took me under their wings and added so much to my Guatemalan experience, including helping me practice my Spanish. I was greeted by their friendly smiles every morning and I sure do miss them.
9. To Experience 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 that 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. To 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, 4 bathrooms, and a beautiful roof top terrace, where you could see the volcano Fuego erupting on some nights. I am an only child, so living in a house with many people, who quickly became family, was an absolute dream. There was always someone willing to go on an adventure, or day trip or explore the city with me.
Final Words Of Advice For Volunteering In Guatemala
This amazing trip will forever be in my memory and 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 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 thru 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 travelers - cherish every moment, explore as much as you can and have fun!