Guatemala is known for its exceptional biodiversity and its stunning nature. It is also a land steeped in history, having been home to the great Mayan civilization for centuries before being colonized by the Spanish. This combination makes it one of Central America’s most appealing destinations for culture buffs, animal lovers, and adventure seekers.
However, years of conflict have left their mark in this Central American nation. Though things have been steadily improving since the civil war ended in 1996, poverty remains high and development slow. Volunteers to Guatemala have the opportunity to make a real contribution to the growth and recovery of the country, whether it be by preserving its wildlife or helping its people prosper.
Guatemala has the lowest literacy rate in Central America and one of the highest poverty rates. Combined with the environmental challenges it faces due to global warming and deforestation, the country faces a series of unique problems that volunteers can help with.
There are various conservation projects in Guatemala dedicated to the protection of sea turtles. Volunteers move eggs to hatcheries, build hatcheries, clean up the beaches, and return turtles to the sea when the time is right. These projects are usually in remote seaside towns and can be both very fun and incredibly rewarding, as long as you are willing to roll your sleeves up and do some hard work.
There is high demand for teachers in deprived areas of Guatemala since lack of resources means that there are shortages of staff in public education. Volunteers are often brought in to teach English, but Spanish-speaking volunteers may be able to get placements in other subjects if they prefer it.
Education projects are available throughout the country, from larger schools in Antigua to small community classrooms in rural areas.
Community development projects in Guatemala can take a variety of forms, from youth outreach groups to small business support, construction, and women’s empowerment schemes. You will either be placed within a specific project for the duration of your stay, or you will be asked to work in various ones as needed, which can be an exciting way to get stuck into various areas.
Planning Your Trip
Guatemala is a popular destination for volunteering, which can actually make it harder to choose a placement. Go for the organization that best aligns with your values, and which can best demonstrate real, tangible impact through its operations.
Where to Volunteer in Guatemala
Perhaps the single most popular city for volunteering in Guatemala is Antigua, the old capital. This is where most projects in education and community development are based. Antigua is a beautiful city, filled with historical buildings, and is probably the most exciting option for everyday city living.
If you are interested in conservation and wildlife projects, you are likely to stay away from Antigua, either on the Pacific coast or in the jungles. There are also various community development and cultural immersion projects in rural villages, including some with traditional Mayan communities.
Housing & Accommodation
Housing will usually be simple, but fairly comfortable. Some projects place you in a house share, some have dormitory-style accommodation, and some may house you within a local family. The first is most common in city placements, the second with seaside and wildlife projects, and the last with cultural immersion and agricultural volunteering.
Language Requirements & Tips
Spanish-speaking volunteers will find it easier to navigate the country and speak to locals, so it can’t hurt to brush up on your Spanish before you go. This is especially true if you are going to be staying in a rural community, where the inhabitants are unlikely to speak English.
Guatemala is hot and humid, so pack appropriately. Quick-dry, comfortable clothes in breathable fabrics are best. The rainy season runs May to October, so bring a rain jacket if you are going to be staying during that time.
Guatemalans tend to dress relatively conservatively. If you are going to be spending most of the time with other volunteers (for example, on a conservation project), you can get away with short shorts and sleeveless tops, but it’s always a good idea to bring some leg and shoulder-covering options for visits to churches or local families.
The local currency is the Quetzal, but US dollars are usually accepted in major cities. If you do use dollar bills, make sure they are crisp, unmarked, and intact, or they may not be accepted. Most places outside of the cities do not take credit card, but ATMs are available throughout the country.
Internet and cell coverage in the cities is decent, but it gets quite patchy once you go into rural areas. There is absolutely no coverage in national parks, as it is forbidden by law to install antennas in them.
Health & Safety
Guatemala is generally safe, and there are no major health concerns. There are warnings of high crime rates in the cities, but common sense can help keep you safe.
Healthcare is relatively cheap and usually quite good, but you should still travel with health insurance in case something serious happens. The biggest health concern is contaminated food or water. Eat in busy places, practice good food hygiene, and drink only bottled, boiled, or purified water.
There is a risk of malaria in some rural and mountainous areas. Check with your volunteering organization whether this is the case, so you can get medication. You should also bring plenty of DEET-containing mosquito repellent and use mosquito nets at night -- these might be provided.
Like many countries in Central America, crime in Guatemala is not unheard of. However, it is a generally safe country, and violent crime rarely happens to foreigners. Many of the main risks, such as robbery in the streets or on walking trails, can be prevented by being with a group. It’s also recommended to travel by day wherever possible.
As always, stay aware of your stuff when in crowded city areas and do not carry more cash than you need. Expensive possessions such as phones and cameras are best kept hidden or, if you won’t need them, in a safe back at your accommodation.