Teaching English and Living in Guatemala
Admiring the view at Earth Lodge—the getaway from Guate.
While many people could not point to it on a map, for me, Guatemala is one of the most beautiful, intriguing places on the planet. Its volcanoes, ancient Mayan ruins, and sprawling mountain lakes are truly breathtaking (due to the altitude, sometimes literally). There is still a wide variation of indigenous peoples, over twenty spoken languages, and an equally diverse selection of produce, plant life, and fauna. This is why I am now on my third stint living here.
However, as is the case with many Latin American countries, Guatemala is plagued with poverty, as well as the violence and corruption that often ensue. In the north, cartels have caused problems after the Mexican federales cracked down on trafficking in Mexico, and in the south, the gangs of Guatemala City are notoriously vicious, territorial, and omnipresent. I honestly don’t know anyone in Guatemala who hasn’t been robbed at least once. I’m actually happy that I didn’t know the validity of this reputation the first time I came here to work, else I might not have.
My wife Emma and I first came here in 2008 to teach English in Guatemala City (known simply as “Guate”), which is where most of the jobs and most of the violence are. As we backpacked our way down from Mexico, we heard more and more horrifying stories about our new home. We had accepted the positions because, while there are plenty of EFL jobs in Mexico and Costa Rica, we had only once seen a posting for Guatemala. The unusual opportunity was just too enticing, even if, by the time of our arrival, we were both terrified. Why had we signed ourselves up for a job in this country? Thus began our love affair with Guatemala.
Getting Work in Guatemala
Guatemala is better known as a cheap place to learn Spanish than a place to teach English, yet, as tourism increases, the inevitable need for English only grows. Additionally, many American companies outsource their service call centers to Guatemala, and Guatemalan students with any post-graduate ambitions, especially going to a US university, ultimately will need English. Thus, while the pay is humble by U.S. standards, an EFL teacher will have no problem finding work and living quite comfortably here.
Emma and I found positions at the Guatemala City branch of Oxford Language Center, one of the more prominent language academies, which also has locations in Coban and Antigua. Other possibilities exist in a private school such as The American School of Guatemala, which is located in Guatemala City. Though I’ve never worked for them or known anyone who has, the ubiquitous Berlitz language school has a location in Guatemala as well. There are also some potential employers in Xela, the country’s second largest city.
Unfortunately, while the jobs are there to be had, the best way to get hired in Guatemala is to be in Guatemala. Companies will sometimes seek teachers online, as was the case for us, but the postings are few and far between because there is such a large ex-pat population here to fill the spaces. Most schools don’t pay for an incoming teacher’s airfare and would rather not risk a no-show, so they seek first to try to hire locally. The good news is that it is a great, inexpensive place to hang out while looking for a teaching gig.
If it isn’t a paid EFL job you seek, then Guatemala has a seemingly inexhaustible number of NGOs offering English education to impoverished communities. I have worked with the Guatemala City-based Camino Seguro (Safe Passage), which assists families that live in, around, and off Central America’s largest garbage dump. I also volunteered for a year with Las Manos de Christine, an NGO that provides English classes at a school in a village near Antigua. Also, check out Ninos de Guatemala, or EntreMundos.
We arrived in Antigua, Guatemala, the day before we were scheduled to be in Guate, an arrival date we established with Oxford Language Center some two months previously. Then, we promptly received our first lesson in fijese que, the Guatemalan art of saying things won’t be exactly as expected or desired. The school, foreign-owned but by ex-pats who have aptly adapted the local lifestyle, hadn’t really prepared itself for our arrival: Our first assignment was conveyed to us as, “Why don’t you stay in Antigua for a couple more days and enjoy yourself.” Not a bad start...
Eventually, our schedules did fill up, and we began working five and a half days a week (on Saturdays the school opened later and closed earlier). As seems to be the case with private EFL academies worldwide, our hours exceeded the agreed upon amount, stretching from 30 to nearer 40 a week, and our daily schedule mutated from mornings or evenings to sprawling day-long affairs. The price of being a reliable employee was that we were constantly asked to cover for the less reliable staff members.
As for the clientele at Oxford Language Center, Guatemalan students, eager to learn but easy-going all the same, tend to be amongst my favorite in world. Additionally, there is a Korean population 20,000 strong, and the children of this community provide a large percentage of students attempting to attend U.S. colleges, needing special help with TOEFL and SAT test prep. Oxford also offers opportunities to teach translation courses, conversation courses, business English, and Montessori education (at their children’s school in Antigua).
The other opportunities in Guatemala City, Collegio Interamericano and The American School of Guatemala, basically offer services to the children of very well to do locals and ex-pats. The schools pay good wages, relative to the location, and have a great staff of foreigners who befriend one another readily. I’ve known many, many of the teachers at both of these schools, and I’ve heard very few complaints. In addition, these places tend to work a little more above board than the private language schools.*
*In general, Guatemalan ex-pats don’t bother trying to go the official route of getting a work visa, but rather we simply extend our 3-month tourist visas to six months. This can be done without leaving the country. After that, you can go either to Belize or Mexico for a day (El Salvador or Honduras don’t require a new visa stamp as there are free border agreements with these nations), and when you return to Guatemala, you receive a fresh 90-day visa. When flying in, you automatically receive a new stamp upon re-entering. When flying out, if you’ve stayed beyond your visa, you can pay a fine at the airport, which is ten quetzals (roughly $1.25) a day.
Living in Guatemala City
People who know the reputation, especially travelers who have been everywhere in Guatemala except La Ciudad, will tell you how awful it is. Guatemala City is no stranger to “most dangerous” cities in the world lists, and it probably isn’t for the faint of heart. The city buses are notorious for being robbed by gangs, the bus drivers shot for not paying neighborhood tariffs, and there are certain zones that are better left as dark mysteries (the city is mapped with an indecipherable collection of numbered zones). For the most part, it is not a very pedestrian friendly place, the traffic/pollution is bad, and going out at night requires either a taxi or a car.
However, Guate isn’t all bad. Zona Viva in Zone 10 caters pretty well to tourists, offering a nice open air mall, some kitschier bars with outdoor seating and/or international sports viewing, and is one of the few spots where it’s relatively safe to take a stroll without being completely on guard. Otherwise, often on Sundays, we would take the 101 bus (never after dark) from Zone 10 to Zone 1, which is the old part of the city, complete with a presidential palace, a great souvenir market (cheaper than Antigua), and a nice public square to enjoy. It is important to stay around the parque central area, though, as there some very rough spots in Zone 1.
Ironically, for all its poverty and crime, Guate also has more malls than any place I’ve ever lived. Zone 10 has four new-ish malls, three of which are less than a 10-minute walk from one another (all near Zona Viva), as well as a PriceSmart outlet. There is also a grand new complex, La Pradera Concepcion, on the outskirts of the city. Neither Emma nor I are particularly keen shoppers, but we did frequent malls a little more often than usual because they are safe places to stretch out a bit, as well as offering easy-access to cafes, ice cream, and other life comforts.
Most ex-pats who live in the city proper reside around Zone 10. For a 2-bedroom place, unfurnished but with appliances, we paid $300/month, which our salaries covered without a problem. Besides being perilous, going out in the city can be a bit pricey, close to your average American city ($3 a beer), so we more or less limited ourselves to one restaurant meal and one afternoon of watching sports at a bar each week. With this regiment, shopping at the local fruit and vegetable market for most of our groceries, we managed to be the only Oxford workers who left having saved money In addition, we took trips to El Salvador, Honduras, and a visa-run to Belize.
All in all, Guatemala City isn’t a place I would choose to live again. I’m glad to have had (and lived through) the experience, but the restrictions of being safe ultimately proved too difficult to live with long-term. That said, the country of Guatemala is the only place to which I have returned after living and leaving. In 2010-2011, Emma and I piloted an English-program in the rural school of Aldea El Hato (four miles outside of Antigua), as well as worked at an eco-hotel, Earth Lodge, which continues to be one of my favorite places in the world. In 2012, we returned to do an art project with the school and spend a few more months at “the Lodge,” and remain in Guatemala to this very day.