Plenty of travellers get seduced by Guatemala’s natural beauty, inexpensive cost of living and the hospitality of its citizens. Many choose to put down roots for a while to study Spanish. Similarly there are myriad opportunities for voluntary workers, and dozens of excellent projects, though little in the way of paid work.
The language school industry is big business, with around sixty well-established schools and many less reliable setups. Most schools offer a weekly deal that includes four or five hours one-on-one tuition a day, plus full board with a local family. This all-inclusive package works out at between US$120 and US$310 a week (most are in the US$140–180 bracket) depending on the school and location.
It’s important to bear in mind that the success of the exercise is dependent both on your personal commitment to study and on the enthusiasm and aptitude of your teacher – if you are not happy with the teacher you’ve been allocated, ask for another. Insist on knowing the number of other students that will be sharing your family house; some schools (mainly in Antigua) pack as many as ten foreigners in with one family. Virtually all schools have a student liaison officer, usually an English-speaking foreigner who acts as a go-between for students and teachers.
Where to study
The first decision to make is to choose where you want to study. The three most popular choices are Antigua, Quetzaltenango and Lago de Atitlán. Beautiful Antigua is undoubtedly an excellent place to study Spanish, though the major drawback is that there are so many other students and tourists here that you’ll probably end up spending your evenings speaking English. Quetzaltenango has a different atmosphere, with a stronger “Guatemalan” character and far fewer tourists; here students tend to mix more with locals away from school. The third most popular location is now Lago de Atitlán, which is popular with young travellers and has very cheap rates. Though standards are not generally as high as the other two places there are decent schools in San Pedro La Laguna and Panajachel and new places now in San Marcos La Laguna and Santa Cruz La Laguna. Other towns with schools include Cobán, Flores, Huehuetenango, Monterrico, Nebaj, San Andrés and San José in Petén, Todos Santas Cuchumatán and, in Honduras, Copán.
Many schools lay on after-school activities like salsa classes, cooking, visits to villages, films and cultural lectures, and even hiking trips. In Quetzaltenango most schools have a social ethos and fund development projects in the region.
Links and resources
You’ll find some schools have academic accreditation agreements with North American and European universities. The websites
w guatemala365.com and w 123teachme.com have feedback from students and some good tips about the relative advantages of different study centres.
Volunteer and paid work
There are dozens of excellent organizations offering voluntary work placements in Guatemala. Medical and health specialists are always desperately needed, though there are always openings in other areas, from work helping to improve the lives of street children to environmental projects and wildlife conservation. Generally, the longer the length of time you can commit to, and the higher your level of Spanish, the more in demand you’ll be. The best place to start a search is on the web (or in Guatemala itself).
Two organizations provide links between volunteers and projects in Guatemala. Quetzaltenango-based Entremundos, 6 C 7–31, Zona 1 (t 7761 2179, w entremundos.org), has contacts with about 130 development projects in the Xela area and a few further afield. They charge just US$3 for those already in Xela wanting to volunteer; if you want help in advance there’s a US$40 registration fee. Project Mosaic Guatemala (w promosaico.org) has links to over a hundred projects in Guatemala though you’ll be charged a US$270 registration fee.
As for paid work, teaching English is your best bet, particularly if you have a recognized qualification like TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). There are always a few vacancies for staff in the gringo bars of Antigua, and in backpackers’ hostels. The Revue and noticeboards in Antigua and Quetzaltenango also occasionally advertise vacancies.
w aktenamit.org. Health, education, business training and agriculture volunteer positions in a large, established project, working with Q’eqchi’ Maya in the Río Dulce region.
w animalaware.org. Help out in an animal welfare centre for abandoned pets near Sumpango.
w arcasguatemala.com. Volunteers needed in Petén to help rehabilitate wild animals including monkeys for release back into forests, and opportunities to help out in a sea turtle reserve at Hawaii on the Pacific coast. You have to pay to volunteer on these programmes.
w casa-alianza.org. Charity helping street children in Guatemala and throughout Central America. The work is extremely demanding.
w casa-guatemala.org. Skilled workers (particularly teachers and medical staff) and helpers needed to work with street children and orphans in the Río Dulce region. Long-term volunteers pay a US$300 upfront fee, while helpers are charged US$235 weekly (this includes full board).
w casaxelaju.com/cex/volunteer. Language school with myriad opportunities and links to social projects in the Quetzaltenango region.
Escuela de la Calle
w escueladelacalle.org. Help educate and mentor street kids in Quetzaltenango. Linked to hiking group Quetzaltrekkers.
Habitat for Humanity
w habitatguate.org. House-building projects; over 25,000 homes have been built in Guatemala since 1979 by this charity.
Hospital de la Familia
w hospitaldelafamilia.com. Medical staff needed for a remote hospital in the highlands.
w idealist.org. A massive database of links to a wide range of projects in the region – from ecotourism to human-rights work, with both voluntary and paid work opportunities.
w nisgua.org. Coordinates the Guatemalan Accompaniment Project, which monitors human-rights workers and campaigners deemed to be at risk in Guatemala; minimum commitment of one year.
w ecoquetzal.org. Opportunities in the Verapaces region for people with experience in ecotourism, environmental education or agriculture. A three-month commitment is necessary.
w safepassage.org. Teachers, helpers, admin staff and cooks needed to direct, support and educate children who work on the Guatemala City rubbish dump.
w upavim.org. Community development on the outskirts of Guatemala City, with opportunities for nursery workers and kids’ tutors.