My Life Changed Today in Guatemala

(Excerpt from Emma’s blog. She volunteered with our house building project in Guatemala).

My life changed today.

Our new house-building location is located on the backside of a mountain overlooking Antigua.

The drive there was a treacherous 20 minutes passed any similar form of civilization. At the top we had to park the truck and walk down the backside because there was no road, only dirt trails carved by goats and stomping feet. It was walking back up this beaten trail after the day’s work that I the reality struck me. My thoughts today up that steep incline confirmed the feeling that had been growing curiously in my stomach all day.

Guatemala House Construction Volunteering

The village is called “Mano de Leon.” In English it translates to “Lion Hand.” There are only 18 families in the entire village. Fortunately there is a school that serves the 40 children living there with one teacher, Diego.

As we breached the corn field surrounding the village like a makeshift barricade from invaders, the school yard was filled with scrawny, but smiling students running around. Their faces were painted with vivid colors that decorated the pairs of curious eyes that seemed to follow us wherever we went. The children were practicing for a play they planned on presenting later that day.

Guatemala House Construction Volunteering

Continuing onto the construction site we were further welcomed by every type of dog a person could imagine. They led us directly into the family’s yard. There two women were waiting for us: one with long black hair and a once colorful skirt and brightly embroidered top that had surely faded over time, and the other with gray hair tied up in a bun and no teeth except the largest front one that protruded from the crease in her lips.

One was the mother, and the other the grandmother. I wish I could remember their names, it embarrasses me to have forgotten them already, but they were very indigenous. I expect this village was once very heavily influenced by Mayan culture. I do remember the boy. Hugo is 4 years old and too young to go to school yet. He likes cats and playing with his truck.

Guatemala House Construction Volunteering

Carlos, our new head mason, explained [in Spanish] as the day wore on that the hundreds of stockpiled supplies —  dozens of bags of cement, wheelbarrows, and hundreds of iron rods and cement blocks — were carried by the women and children of the village the day before all the way from the point where we had left the truck on top of the mountain. It amazed me.

Today we dug the trenches for the foundation of the house. It was extremely strenuous because there was no shade and the sun did not relax is rays one bit (I did get a small sunburn on my shoulders.).

When we broke for lunch Carlos walked us down to the communal washing well. There were a couple girls doing their laundry. They giggled so much when I tried to open the faucet properly. The water was cool and fresh and felt like a blessing in the heat.

For lunch the family offered us peaches from their tree as a humble sign of their thanks. We graciously accepted them and cut them up to share. They were delicious.

Once we started working again Diego appeared carrying more blocks. Soon an army of children came in a line carrying more blocks balanced on their heads. I stopped shoveling just so I could observe this ant-line of colorfully painted children laughing and smiling as they each dropped off a block and ran off to collect more. They kept coming and coming, no one complained.

Guatemala House Construction Volunteering

Soon mothers were helping too, fathers, cousins, grandpas, baby brothers. It appeared as though the whole village was here helping this family. The sudden busyness drowned out the heat and I caught the energized atmosphere again, soaking it up. It was beautiful.

We finished the foundation trenches and packed up to go home. The walk up the mountain side was exhausting. My back ached from digging packed dirt and clay all day. My legs burned from squatting inside the trenches and lifting shovels full of dirt over the sides.

But I turned around to catch my breath, and I caught something much bigger. I caught the view of the entire village hidden in this little secluded valley. Surrounded by corn fields, orchards of peaches, rows of bean plants, and other herbs and greenery, this little village had no means of support aside from themselves. They grew everything, shared everything, and loved everything. This was the difference.

The other village we worked at seemed so sullen and depressed. It was as if they knew they were poor. But here, even farther away from other villages and the outside world, and even poorer than the previous village, they didn’t seem to know they were so poor because they were, in actuality, so rich.

The children glowed despite their skinny frames. The mothers gossiped good-naturedly despite the back breaking work of harvesting and cooking. Even the dogs barked with enthusiasm instead of with fear of not being fed. These people were happy.

It didn’t matter how poor they were. The fact that there were only 2 concrete buildings in the entire town and that the rest slept on dirt floors and played amongst chickens and stray dogs didn’t seem to phase them- they were happy to be alive in such a beautiful place with beautiful neighbors.

And so I thought- maybe this is the key. It doesn’t matter your financial situation. It is all relative anyways. That isn’t what makes one rich. As long as you surround yourself with wonderful people, all sharing the same thoughts, you will find a happiness. The rich are those that believe they are happy, not the ones that believe they have enough money.

Guatemala House Construction Volunteering

Motorbiking at Sea Turtle Conservation in Guatemala

I rode on the back of a motorbike in Guatemala this past summer.

Don’t try that at home. Or anywhere abroad!

I wasn’t exactly hitchhiking. But I WAS walking on the side of the road — going from the small town of Hawaii back to beach town of Monterrico, Guatemala.

I had just visited our sea turtle conservation project with ARCAS in Hawaii, Guatemala on June 16, 2017.

A nice guy (pictured above) stopped and asked if I wanted a ride. I hopped right on the motorbike and away we went.

15 minutes later we arrived in Monterrico and I got off the bike. I thanked him and offered to pay him something. He politely declined. How about a cool drink or lunch? Again, no gracias.

He did agree to let me take his photo — for posterity. Then we went our separate ways.

Lake Atitlán: Best Beach You Haven’t Heard of Yet

Lake Atitlán in Guatemala was named the “Best Beach You Haven’t Heard of Yet” by TravelChannel.com in 2015:

The best under-the-radar beach does not find itself alongside an ocean, but the most beautiful lake in the world. Situated in the highlands of Guatemala, Lake Atitlán is Central America’s deepest lake. “Nestled in the valley of 3 volcanoes (one of them still active), you’ll not only take in peaceful volcanic views, but also absorb the vibrant pink, yellow and blue colors of the surrounding vegetation,” says Sara Gilliam. “In fact, Atitlán is Mayan for ‘where the rainbow gets its colors.’”

Why do we care about Atitlán? Well, it’s one of the regular weekend excursions for our participants on our Volunteering Program in Guatemala.

Gabriela Sagastume and Andres Ranero posted a travel diary video Lake Atitlan in 2016. They show drone footage of Hacienda Real in Tecpan and San Antonio Palopo in Solola. They also show the lovely towns of Santa Catarina Palopo and Panajachel.

ABC News explains further the appeal of Lake Atitlan:

Lake Atitlán isn’t an ocean beach, but as it’s name suggests, on a lake. Lake Atitlán is the country’s deepest lake, in the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain range.

Surrounded by volcanoes and dotted with tiny Mayan towns accessible by boat, the area surrounding Lake Atitlán is known for its spectacular views and friendly people.

Do’s and Dont’s When Volunteering in Guatemala

Our best advice for getting the most out of your volunteer trip to Guatemala:

  • Don’t drink tap water; only bottled or filtered water
  • Have a cell phone in Guatemala (either from home or buy local)
  • Carry your cell phone everywhere
  • Tight / revealing clothes will draw extra attention from men
  • No jewelry, cash or expensive electronics in public
  • Don’t go alone on excursions or isolated places
  • Tell your host family if you are not going to be home for meals
  • Don’t isolate yourself (ear buds, sunglasses, spending all free time in bedroom)
  • Don’t worry about mistakes when speaking Spanish
  • Do not use ATM’s around Central Park Antigua area due to electronic fraud
  • In Antigua use only ATM’s inside upscale hotels like Porta Hotel Antigua
  • Watch for pickpockets and scammers at all ATM’s
  • Be aware that sexism and harassment are prevalent
  • Bring a rain jacket and small umbrella – it rains often in Antigua and Xela
  • Use your own toiletries
  • No swimming under any circumstances
  • Wash your hands frequently (or hand sanitizer if you can’t wash)
  • Keep your room tidy and clean up after yourself
  • Always ask before taking photo/video of someone
  • Speak softly – shouting and talking loud is impolite
  • No riding in chicken buses
  • Vehicles always have the right of way
  • Don’t ignore symptoms like headache, diarrhea, not sleeping
  • Fight jet lag with water, exercise, and adjusting to local time immediately
  • Always carry contact information on paper for our staff and your peers
  • All illnesses, incidents, & accidents MUST be reported immediately to coordinator
  • Use bug spray at night to avoid mosquito bites

Cerro de la Cruz in Antigua, Guatemala

The Cerro de la Cruz is one of the must-see attractions in Antigua, Guatemala.

La Cruz (“The Cross”) is in an elevated park cut into a hill on the north side of Antigua.

I visited La Cruz a couple of days ago as I was finishing my trip here to host our volunteers in Guatemala.

My photos are at the end of this post.

I still love visiting La Cruz every time I am in Antigua. The place never gets old!

At La Cruz you can see the entire town of Antigua and get an unobstructed view of Volcan Agua.

Go on a clear day for the best possible viewing. It is best to go early morning, say by 8 am, before the clouds roll in and cover things up.

Although it difficult to get lost in Antigua — because of its small size and perpendicular street layout — La Cruz can also serve as a good landmark for newbies to the town.

La Cruz has had a bad reputation for years with robberies and assaults of tourists.

But the city has mostly ended the daytime dangers by having police patrol La Cruz from 8am to 4pm daily.

To reach the top of La Cruz, you must walk about 300 steps. Many of the “steps” are long and flat, so it is not too tough of a journey.

How to Reach La Cruz

  • Go to the street 1a Avenida
  • Turn north on 1a Avenida
  • Look for the entrance sign “Bienvenidos Cerro De La Cruz”
  • Start walking up the steps!

Facts About Cerro de la Cruz

  • Built in 1930
  • About a 15 minute hike from center of Antigua
  • Police patrol 8am – 4pm daily

 

Cerro de la Cruz in Antigua Guatemala

Cerro de la Cruz in Antigua Guatemala

Cerro de la Cruz in Antigua Guatemala

Cerro de la Cruz in Antigua Guatemala

Cerro de la Cruz in Antigua Guatemala

 

Spanish Classes in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

The above is a video of one of our group Spanish classes today in Quetzeltenango, Guatemala.

Normally our students’ Spanish classes are one-on-one, but occasionally the teachers get everyone together for a group activity. The Spanish lesson in the Guatemala video below involved a card game to help the students with vocabulary.

Remember, all of our volunteering programs in Guatemala include ten (10) hours of one-on-one Spanish lessons. You can do the lessons either in the morning or afternoon.

Most volunteer work takes place in mornings, so the Spanish lessons typically take place in the afternoons (after lunch at the host families).

Our Spanish classes in Quetzeltenango, Guatemala take place at the la cafetera.net coffee shop at 15 Av 8 Calle 13-77 Zona 1 in Quetzeltenango. They have a beautiful rooftop terrace with views of the city and surrounding mountains and volcanoes.

 

Hiking Pacaya Volcano

One of the most exciting excursions our volunteers do when volunteering in Guatemala is hiking Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala.

The entire Pacaya Volcano experience is a “half-day” excursion, usually lasting from 8am to 2pm door-to-door from the city of Antigua (where many of our volunteers live and work).

Hiking Pacaya Volcano

Most people who volunteer in Guatemala get the chance to hike the volcano — whether they are building houses or volunteering at an orphanage.

Hiking Pacaya Volcano is an incredibly rewarding experience but also very challenging physically.

You essentially need to be fit enough to walk up a hill for 2-3 straight hours.

You will sweat a lot but the air is windy and cool (especially at the top) so you’ll feel a bit clammy at times. Best to dress in layers.

Pacaya Volcano Album on our Facebook page

You can though hire a horse to take you up the volcano. It costs $20-$30 and there are horses and guides stationed throughout the hike.

Hiking Pacaya Volcano

You can start out on foot to see how you feel, then hire a horse ride if you don’t feel up to hiking.

Pacaya is an active volcano. Its last major eruption was very recent — in 2010, with ash columns up to 1,500 meters high and ash and volcanic debris raining down on Guatemala City and many surrounding small towns.

You probably won’t see any rivers of lava on your hike. But at certain points you can see smoke rising from the ground and feel the lava’s heat on your feet.

In fact at one stop on the hike, our guide gives out marshmallows that you roast using the heat rising from the earth.

Hiking Pacaya Volcano

The volcano and surrounding area now lie within Pacaya National Park which was created to supervise and protect tourism in the region. The park generates its income from entrance fees from tour groups like ours.

The views at the top of Pacaya Volcano are simply spectacular.

The amazing views include the volcanoes Fuego, Acatenango, and Agua as well as Guatemala City, Antigua, and dozens of villages.

Operation Listen to Love

One of our former volunteers has created a project called Operation Listen to Love — to donate items and cash in Guatemala several times a year.

The mission of Operation Listen to Love is to donate items such as new/used clothes, books, toys, school supplies, etc. to Semillas de Amor and other Guatemalan orphanages.

Operation Listen to Love is being run by Janine Kim, a California high school student, who volunteered through Cosmic Volunteers at the Semillas de Amor orphanage in Guatemala in the summer of 2013.

Cosmic Volunteers is providing guidance to Janine and her peer, as well as paying shipping costs for items they will send to Guatemala.

According to their Facebook page, this is how you can help Operation Listen to Love:

> Donate the above items and more kid-appropriate things to me or a participating club!

> Donate money directly to Semillas de Amor.

> Spread the word!!! use this project for your youth group, club, etc.

> Message Janine for more info!

Children and staff at Semillas de Amor:

Semillas De Amor Orphanage