Asociación Pop Wuj


Pop Wuj - Spanish School Guatemala (pronounced "pope woo"), set in the Highlands of Guatemala, is a collectively owned and operated Spanish language school that has been serving an international crowd of students since our immersion program began in 1992. It takes its name from the title of the great epic saga of the Maya-Quiché people, Pop Wuj (The Book of Time).

Through a unique mix of intensive Spanish language study and community development, students come to a better understanding of the political, social, and cultural realities of Guatemala, while contributing to a better way of life for families in the rural areas surrounding Quetzaltenango (short Xela). Working side by side with their teachers and community members, students have found themselves moved and inspired by their experiences here at Pop Wuj both in the classroom and in the community environments.



Yes, I recommend this program

Four Incredible Weeks in the Medical Spanish Program

I did a month at the spectacular Pop-Wuj School in the medical Spanish program. Initially, I had doubts about how much ground I could cover, but four weeks at Pop-Wuj were enough to get my Spanish from beginning-intermediate to pretty proficient. By the end, I could spend 4-5 hours in clinic with patients without batting an eye, and I was able to give off-the-cuff presentations in Spanish about cervical cancer screening and depression stigmatization.

Pop-Wuj is a very special place. In addition to the clinic downstairs, which provides free care and medication to a predominantly indigenous population, they run projects to build stoves to subsistence farmers and also support a school that's populated by children of folks who make their living sorting through the detritus left at the town dump. My teacher, Carlos, was one of the most gifted educators I've ever been around, and 4 hours a day with him flew by like nothing.

Xela is a terrific little city with plenty to do, and it's VERY VERY SAFE. Never felt like I had to look over my shoulder, and neither did any of my classmates.

Pop-Wuj is a 10/10 experience. Can't vouch for it highly enough, and hope to return sometime in the future.

What would you improve about this program?
Can't think of much — the school and the clinic are truly top notch.
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Yes, I recommend this program


I worked at Pop Wuj as an Environmental Projects Coordinator for two months, and I had an absolutely amazing time. First of all, I learnt incredibly much about Guatemalan culture, the issues faced in the areas around Xela, and Pop Wuj's work to support communities. I was able to work with so many different projects and with so many different people, that my learning experience really could not have been any better. What I appreciated a lot, too, was the fact that Pop Wuj staff and exective team really place a lot of importance on giving interns and long-term volunteers cultural competency training appropriate to help them understand the culture they are working in and the very projects they are working with. Finally, I also got to practice my Spanish a lot which helped me improve significantly.
Secondly, Pop Wuj has an incredibly familiar and pleasant atmosphere. Everyone is amazingly friendly and open, and my superiors have always been very supportive and patient. I truly felt appreciated and like a part of the team.
Finally, Xela and Guatemala in general really got to my heart. Xela is a beautiful and amazingly authentic city, which allowed me to connect with Guatemalan culture as well as I possibly could have in the time I spent there. I stayed in a host family which Pop Wuj facilitated, where I always felt at home and welcome.

Yes, I recommend this program

General Projects Coordinator

I had an incredible time volunteering as General Projects Coordinator. I started with the standard 3-month internship mid-September to mid-December 2015 and ended up coming back for another 3 months of volunteering in January to March 2016. That's not unusual here -- I know of 5 other intern alumni who ended up staying in Xela or coming back for at least 3 more months because they had such great experiences. Full disclosure: At the beginning of April I became Student Coordinator, so I'm still at Pop Wuj now, 11 months after first arriving.
For me the coolest part of the internship program was knowing that I could make valuable contributions within a sustainable, Guatemalan-run model. Carmen de Alvarado, the Director of Social Projects, is one of the founders of Pop Wuj and has almost 25 years of experiences now overseeing the projects. Pop Wuj also has decades-long relationships with most of the communities where it works. Although I was encouraged to take on independent projects and leadership roles and to suggest improvements, I also understood from the beginning that everything I did was informed by local staff and project participants. As a result I felt that my work was meaningful and contributed to Pop Wuj's larger mission and goals.

What would you improve about this program?
As an intern I really wanted more constructive feedback about the work I was doing. Carmen, the interns' boss, is diplomatic and reluctant to criticize. She fills out the regular evaluations that interns receive, and these err on the side of generous. She can give you concrete feedback, but to get it you sometimes have to ask specific questions ("People seemed to lose interest when I started talking about infant nutrition. How could I present that material differently?")
One of the Student Coordinator's roles is to support interns, and the Student Coordinator while I was volunteering gave more direct feedback when requested.
From my perspective now, as Student Coordinator myself, I understand that a desire not to be unappreciative of work that volunteers are doing can make criticism tricky. My advice to interns is to ask for feedback clearly and often if it's important to you.
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No, I don't recommend this program


I did not have a good experience here. I do not blame the school, I blame myself for not understanding what I was getting into. The town of Xela is not at all what I was expecting. It was filled with exhaust (like black clouds of fumes so thick you could not breathe walking down the street). There was also a lot of trash. NO green spaces to speak of. Stray dogs in the streets and also an open sewage line on the street where my homestay was. I have lived in the third world before, but this was pretty bad. If you like rural or natural areas, this is NOT it. My homestay was also very dirty. I ended up getting sick and had to return home early.

Response from Asociación Pop Wuj

Hi Anonymous! I'm sorry to hear that you had a bad experience as a student at Pop Wuj. We try our best to prepare students and long-term volunteers for their travels, and I would be grateful for any specific feedback about what we could have done to help you get ready for Xela.

As for homestay, all families are expected to maintain clean, welcoming spaces for their guests. Our policy at Pop Wuj is to ask students to tell me ASAP about any problems in their home so that I can work with them and their families to figure out a solution. If we can't resolve the problem promptly, we change placements. A dirty homestay is unacceptable.

It sounds like the city of Xela itself was a bad fit, and I'm afraid we couldn't do anything about that. But if you chose to come to Pop Wuj again, we would certainly do our best improve your homestay and general experience.

Elizabeth Barnes
Student Coordinator

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Yes, I recommend this program

An Amazing Internship Opportunity

I interned with Asociacion Pop Wuj for 10 weeks during the summer of 2013 to complete the internship requirement for my graduate school program. I found the experience deeply rewarding on multiple levels, particularly regarding the opportunity to work directly in communities surrounding the beautiful city of Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala.

While I could write pages worth of information about what sets this organization and its internship program apart from the pack, I will focus on two things: Bang for your buck, and breadth of experience.

First, this internship experience was extremely cheap when compared to other international internship programs. I paid only $25 per week for the internship fee (which was split between Pop Wuj and its affiliate 'mother organization', Entremundos - both local to Guatemala, a HUGE positive in terms of impact on the local culture and economy). In addition to that, I paid an extraordinarily low price of $45 per week for a homestay, which included three meals per day seven days a week, and was also one of the highlights of my stay, as it helped to fully immerse me in the local culture and get plenty of practice speaking Spanish. All in all, including the plane ticket (which was roughly $500), I spent roughly $1,500 over 10 weeks, an incredible value for any cash-strapped college student in need (or want) of international experience.

Even more important than the low price tag, this internship experience provided an incredible breadth of experience and exposure to an array of profoundly impactful projects and initiatives. Where one day I may be building a safe stove, another would find me lending a hand at the medical clinic, distributing scholarships to local families to allow their children to stay in school, playing games or helping with homework at the Family Support Center, or trudging into the mountains to help plant trees.

One final note: Any internship or volunteer experience abroad (or locally for that matter) boils down to building relationships, and that is something that I truly took away from this experience. While I don't often talk to most of the people I met at Pop Wuj and in the surrounding areas, there are some memories that I will never forget, and they begin and end with the amazing people I got to know in my time there. For that reason and countless others, I hope and plan to return.

What would you improve about this program?
I honestly can't think of a single thing I would change.


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Alumni Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with verified alumni.

Why did you decide to volunteer with Pop Wuj in Guatemala?

I wanted to combine Spanish study and volunteer work in Guatemala, having visited Guatemala as a backpacking tourist in 2005 and falling instantly in love with the country and its people. I was interested in learning Spanish and spending some time volunteering in the Mayan highlands, since I didn't have a chance to explore many of the cities and villages in this culture-rich region during my first visit.

Pop Wuj was one of the schools that offered both language instruction and high-impact programs. They also run a free clinic and day care for working mothers, but I was specifically interested in the safe stove project, having read about this type of volunteer project in other Latin American countries. I was also volunteering graphic design with another organization called Proyecto Payaso and this was a good fit for my packed schedule.

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

The project was run from the school and every Wednesday we would gather at the school to meet our teachers, other participants and the village liaison, Lety. We gathered tools, mostly spades, levels and machetes and at around 8:30am, Lety would bring us to catch a local camioneta (chicken bus) to one of the rural villages on the outskirts of Quetzaltenango.

Once we arrived at the home, we would assess what needed to be done and tasks were delegated. Often a stove was in an advanced phase, like adding the chimney, and sometimes it was in an earlier phase, like laying down the concrete brick foundation. When the chimney is added there is some roof-cutting involved with fairly primitive tools, but usually a teacher (or Lety) completes the more questionable-safety tasks. I have mixed concrete, chopped and sculpted concrete blocks, applied layers of cement to the base and installed the stovetops, the "planchas" We usually spent about 4-5 hours working alongside the family.

When I was there last year, the program was not limited to students of Pop Wuj, it was open to all, and had no fees except transportation by local bus to and from the villages.

How has this experience impacted your future?

I'm very interested in sustainable tourism and indigenous culture in Guatemala and would like to either participate more on projects like these in the future or actually create and run similar programs in other developing nations. Working and interacting with families in rural communities gave me an understanding of how the majority of the population of Guatemala lives that I would never have gotten simply backpacking.

I also felt my language practice time was more productive and meaningful when engaging directly with a community of Spanish speakers. My Spanish improved immensely through my interactions with these beautiful families and the experience was incredibly enriching.

It was wonderful to actually contribute a small part of a big improvement on the health and economy of very poor families. I'm actually headed back next month to work with Proyecto Payaso, who I continue to volunteer with from my home in the Bronx.