Historic cities. Beaches. Ancient ruins. Traditional villages. Festivals. Volcanoes. Guatemala's small stature is no indication of its wealth of natural beauty and unique destinations. More than a stepping-stone for a Central American backpacking venture, it has become an unintentional second home to many a traveler and a permanent staying point for numerous expats. Guatemala’s true draw is its rich culture and warm people, who will truly capture your heart and make you question your flight home. Explore the country, but also explore the culture – attend local festivals and celebrations, spend a few weeks in a small-town homestay, learn some Mayan dialect and treat yourself to beautiful artisan crafts. Don’t be too concerned with jumping around and seeing all the sights. Give into the temptation to sit back with local friends and a Gallo beer for a few days (weeks?) longer than planned.Photo Credits: Rémi.
Guatemalan Spanish tends to be slower and clearer than other dialects - take advantage! Affordable classes can occupy your mornings; later, the kind, friendly locals are an opportune population to practice while learning about Guatemala’s rich culture, tradition, history and hope for the future. Popular cities to take Spanish classes are Antigua, San Pedro and Quetzaltenango - either private lessons or small groups of gringos - but in nearly every corner, you can find someone willing to teach you. You can enroll online ahead of time or check out ads and ask around at hostels once you find the city where you’d like to study. Two recommended language schools on Lake Atitlán are Jabel Tinamit in Pana (with Skype option) and Cooperativa Spanish School in San Pedro.
Already a Spanish whiz? Truly challenge your linguistic limits by immersing yourself in a Mayan dialect like Tzutujil, Ixil or Kaqchikel. Structured classes may be harder to find, though native speakers will be zealously impressed with just a few simple phrases!
Like many Central American countries, Guatemala’s wealth of culture and kind people is not a reflection of its per capita GDP. According to the WorldBank, around 75 percent of the population is living below the poverty line and only about a 70 percent literacy rate. The geographical distribution of these stats is drastically varied with indigenous populations suffering the most. Thus, there are a host of organizations within the country looking to do good and boost the population into economic stability and health. Many are always looking for well-intentioned, hard-working volunteers.
Safe Passage/Camino Seguro is a lauded NGO based in Guatemala City with excellent short and long-term volunteering opportunities. Safe Passage works with impoverished families living near GC’s garbage dump, offering educational programs for children and adults. EntreMundos is a Quetzaltenango-based grassroots organization that supports and connects a network of projects in the region with volunteers. For a more structured volunteer experience, check out United Planet’s short-term programs. If furry friends are your passion, AWARE animal rescue near Antigua accepts passionate volunteers.
For those willing to make a 6- or 12-month commitment, some organizations have stable positions with living stipends or other benefits, particularly if you have experience in nonprofit management or marketing, teaching, development or sustainability.
Do your homework before landing yourself in front of an organization’s door - are you on par with their mission statement? Where do their funds come from, and how transparent are they? Is there truly a need for their work in the target area? Keep in mind that unfortunately, even in the nonprofit sector, “practice” and “preach” are not always aligned.
Adventure and Explore
You've recovered from your Antigua backpacker hangover and you're ready to move on to other exploits - more exciting ones, that is. Warm up with a hike to the summit of Volcan Pacaya. Later, you can tackle something more challenging like a multi-day trek in the Western Highlands (leave out of Nebaj) or Central America’s highest peak: Volcán Tajulmulco. QuetzalTrekkers offers guided hikes and all proceeds go to a non-profit in Xela. If you’re a more casual adventurer, explore town plazas or tour a coffee finca and taste delicious brews straight from the source. Bask in the incredible beauty of Semuc Champay, a paradisaical stretch of river 8 hours from Antigua via buses and vans on windy, treacherous roads. Consider a tour through a hostel or other agency.
Further west you can visit the ancient Mayan ruins in Tikal, hike through the jungle, and try surfing or sailfishing on the Caribbean coast. Enjoy the natural wonders but don’t write off everyday thrills – because a short chicken bus ride in Guatemala is more adventure than you could ever find at home.
One joy of this little country is its plethora of places to "hide". If rambunctious foreign travelers are cramping your style, find a town off the beaten path to spend some time. The lakeside village of San Marcos La Laguna is a spiritual retreat where you can find like-minded souls practicing yoga and meditation. Any of the small towns along Lake Atitlán will inspire an artistic spirit in need of a getaway. Connect with local artisans and perhaps contract a private lesson in painting, weaving, sculpture or another media. Later, find your way to the thermal springs of Fuentes Georginas outside Xela.
The beach bum inside every traveler can find herself a hammock in Monterrico on the Pacific coast or Livingston on the Caribbean. Guatemalan beaches are not always the most picturesque but it’s a small price to pay for the lack of crowds.
Consider your interests in Guatemala – do you want to see as much as possible, or would you rather make a home in a particular corner of the country? Are you there to travel, volunteer, or both? If your Spanish skills are nil or rusty, start with a few weeks in Antigua, Xela or Panajachel and later expand your knowledge in day-to-day life. Take advantage of homestay and volunteer opportunities that many schools offer. From there, settle or wander as your heart desires. Hostels, transportation and tours can be booked last minute in most situations, so shop around and ask for recommendations. As Guatemala is a haven for foreign travelers, picking up a buddy for some legs will be quite easy.
Cost of Living in Guatemala
Gap-year travelers can live well on a small amount of savings in Guatemala. Popular destinations like Antigua will be twice as expensive as less-traveled places. Renting a room from a local family might run $200-$300 USD a month, while pensions and hostels have long-term deals for travelers. A hostel dorm averages $10 USD a night, though off the beaten path, nicer hotels and guesthouses run less than that. Some hostels will hire foreigners in exchange for lodging if you want to hunker down somewhere for a few months. Set meals at lunchtime run $3-4 USD. A 3- hour chicken bus ride might be about $8 or a smaller van around $15. Partying, especially in Antigua, will drain your funds pretty quickly so be sure to prioritize.
Beware of the sometimes-inevitable Gringo Tax: businesses charging foreigners more for products or services. Rope in a Guatemalan friend if you can or try frequenting the same businesses more than once – you’ll see the price drop. Keep a sense of humor though – is it really worth arguing over a few cents? You are a guest here, after all.
Culture and Etiquette in Guatemala
Guatemalans are typical Latin Americans in that they are chatty, warm and animated. Traditional Mayan villages may be slower to welcome a foreigner, but patience, understanding and enthusiasm are always a good recipe for bridging cultural differences. Learning a few words of local language goes a long way. While you can expect people and events to be late, try to be punctual yourself. Be very respectful with dress and behavior in regards to religious ceremonies, churches and sites, whether Christian or Mayan. Also, ask before taking pictures of people, especially children. The traditional dress isn’t a costume, it’s everyday life. Ladies, machismo is alive and common here. Just ignore the comments and whistles.
Health and Safety in Guatemala
Unfortunately, corruption and lack of security infrastructure have left parts of this lovely country in the throes of drug trafficking and related violence. While the violence is fairly isolated to certain regions, travelers should always be aware of recent events and warnings. Talk to locals, fellow travelers and residents who will have a good idea of the current situation. Be wary about bus travel in remote areas and consider paying a bit more upfront for more legitimate transportation and lodging options. Guatemala City is notorious for crime – it’s best seen with someone who knows their way around. Take the usual precautions in Central American countries:
- Ask before drinking the water, and follow the “wash, peel, cook” mantra with fruits and vegetables.
- Street food is a risk! Be mindful of your stomach’s limits.
- Ask a trusted source at your hostel or organization about safe ATMs. There have been ATM scams in Antigua in the past.
- Don’t flash money, electronics or fancy anything.
- “Chicken buses” are the general population’s transportation of choice – that being said, they are prone to accidents and sometimes crime in transit.
- Inquire about hikes before attempting them – are guides or police escorts necessary? Is the trail OK during the rainier months? Are certain volcanoes active?
- Guatemalans are very friendly by nature, and most are genuine, kindhearted people. However, tourist scams are plentiful so be aware of your interactions and not too quick to trust. Of course, don’t be too wary either! Some people really are that nice.
As with many travel situations, it’s best to ask on-site for the latest safety and security tips. Hostel owners, trustworthy locals and fellow travelers will have the most up-to-date and legitimate information from the ground. Occasionally, a span of only a few weeks can determine changes in the safety of a particular route or destination.
Why Take a Gap Year in Guatemala?
Go to Guatemala. Pack your bags (bring sturdy shoes and leave your fancy duds at home) and plan to float around this enchanting little country until something, somewhere or someone grabs you and entices you to stay put for a while. Study, explore, chat, experience, give and above all, learn. From a single corner of Central America, you’ll undoubtedly learn about yourself and the world. Appreciate the natural beauty of the landscapes and the people. Dedicate at least a week or two to a volunteer project and don’t worry if you can’t pull yourself away. Guatemala has so many layers to explore and enjoy on your gap year – what are you waiting for?