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Known as a biodiversity hotspot, Guatemala is steeped in natural and political history from coast to coast. Life since the 1996 Peace Accord ending the 36-year civil war can be less than peaceful though, in the country with the lowest literacy rate in Central America. Volunteering in this poverty-stricken country allows for a truly rewarding experience with plenty of opportunities to make a real difference in the life of a child or even a whole community. Work to educate an orphan, provide health care for a rural community, empower women with preventive health care, and help grow local businesses all before the backdrop of Ancient Mayan ruins and active volcanoes.
Education/Youth Outreach: With the lowest literacy rate in Central America and a high rate of poverty, volunteers can make a difference for Guatemala's children. Volunteers are needed to be caring mentors to teach life skills, English language and to offer emotional support to keep them off the street.
Healthcare: Volunteers with a background in healthcare and medicine are especially needed in Guatemala. Many volunteer organizations in Guatemala look for medical and dental professions to offer services in orphanages and rural villages where poverty is rampant.
Community Development: There is plenty of community development volunteer work to be done in Guatemala. Work with organizations contributing to growing the employment rate and economic growth at textile factories, building projects using recycled materials such as bicycles, farming and building homes for poor families.
Small Business Development: With much of the country living in poverty, supporting microfinance and small local businesses has an important long-term effect on the local community. Support local businesses by teaching and employing office skills, project management, and marketing.
For volunteers interested in providing aid and support to a country in serious need, there is support available to deal with the potential dangers. Organizations working in Guatemala provide homestays with reliable families who provide three meals a day for volunteers. Support organizations also have databases to find the right volunteer opportunity for each individual and open office hours for volunteers looking for a friendly face and a consultation regarding project placement and culture shock.
There are many volunteer programs in Guatemala that are free of charge to the volunteer, excluding travel expenses, and included room and board. Talk to support groups and the organization before your trip to ensure you will be safe and useful during your stay. Guatemala is a country in which a volunteer can feel useful in his/her work so long as one takes care of his/her health and safety first.
Guatemala is very much a developing country and while it is rich in culture and biodiversity, it can also be a dangerous place to visit. Volunteers should make sure to take extra precautions to secure valuables and ensure their own personal safety while traveling. Guatemala has wide income disparities and excesses of weapons leftover from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, which are now used in violent crimes throughout the country. Travelers should be aware of pickpocketing and other schemes locals may use to rob foreigners of cash and other valuables. Do not trust local law enforcement to be of much help in these situations - getting in touch with the local US embassy will be the best option. It is also recommended to carry a copy of one's passport at all times and to keep the real passport in a safe, secure location.
Demonstrations have been known to break out suddenly, which can cause traffic disruptions. These demonstrations are usually peaceful, but there is a possibility for them to turn violent and it is best to avoid these situations as a foreigner. The country has also had issues with child knapping in the past and it is recommended to stay a safe distance from children, particularly in the countryside, so as not be accused of this crime.
Other safety concerns are earthbound, such as earthquakes, volcanoes and hurricanes. Guatemala has 37 volcanoes, 4 of which are active, 2 of which erupted most recently in 2010, though all clean up from those eruptions is complete.
US citizens travelling to Guatemala do not need a visa for a trip up to 90 days and there is a $30 exit fee to leave the country by air.
While Guatemala can be unsafe in certain places, it is also a rewarding country where volunteers can make a true positive impact on the local community. The country needs any and all aid the international community is willing to offer. By pre-planning and staying organized a foreign volunteer can have a safe and productive experience in a country that is working hard to develop and bridge the wide income discrepancies that exist. In exchange for their expertise, time and hard work, Guatemala offers volunteers a chance to see amazing geographical sites, experience the power of ancient Mayan ruins and help a variety of organizations make a real difference for the local population.
Leah is a world-traveler and regular contributor to FlipKey.com, which offers a range of short-term rentals in Guatemala and around the world. When she's not writing about traveling and volunteering, Leah works as a teacher in Colorado. Learn more about international rentals on The FlipKey Blog.
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