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Clubhouse Carpentry at Dusk in Guatemala
Clubhouse Carpentry at Dusk

Many of us would like the opportunity to both experience a new country as well as to help people there in need. The truth is that there are many possibilities for doing so. However, one problem that prevents many of us from volunteering is the issue of funds. After analyzing the cost of airline tickets, shelter, food, transportation, medical insurance, and other necessities, the prospect of financing such an adventure seems a little unreachable.  Fortunately, there is a way.

Currently, I live in one of the most NGO-dense countries in the world: Guatemala. Here, there are NGOs that provide aid in education, build schools, houses and industries, work to save the environment, provide medical and nutritional assistance… something to fill just about every type of need. Of course, this does not completely solve those annoying money issues, but I have found a great way to do so. Many assistance providers are directly sponsored by or linked to hostels that do something called "work trades."

What work trades generally entail is working a reception shift a few days a week at the hostel in return for room and board. For most hostels, this means a few hours welcoming guests, showing them to their room, handling the phone, and pouring a few drinks, etc. Therefore, it ultimately functions as a great way to meet fellow travelers as well. Meanwhile, during their off-hours, hostel volunteers are free to do as they wish, such as helping with nearby NGO projects.

In addition, working in a hostel in this manner provides contacts all across the country, including participants, even organizers, of aid organizations ranging from eco-friendly construction to turtle conservation. It allows a would-be volunteer to survey the possibilities without spending a fortune on food and shelter. Perhaps the best options are those hostels and guesthouses that involve themselves directly in the process—and they are everywhere.

Antigua, Guatemala: Earth Lodge and Las Manos de Christine

Antigua once was the political capital of Central America, but after suffering massive destruction from earthquakes, the former powerhouse has given way to Guatemala City and settled for being a top tourist/ex-pat hub. Still very pastel and colonial in appearance, with cobbled streets and a beautiful square, Antigua is set in a valley surrounded by three volcanoes, offers endless ruins to visit, and is known for being one of the safest spots in Guatemala.

On the outskirts of the city lies a little village named Aldea El Hato, which is unknown save for one of the most popular destinations in the country, a little guesthouse called Earth Lodge. When “the Lodge” began, El Hato had no running water, no electricity, and was only accessible via a dirt road. Not only was the guesthouse instrumental in the village acquiring these things, the owners—Drew and Bri—have provided the school with assistance for years.

In 2010, my wife and I were asked to come in and pilot an English program for an educational NGO, Las Manos de Christine, which had teamed up with Earth Lodge to start a joint project in El Hato. Now, in its third year, the English classes are still going strong. Classes have even expanded to include a new pre-school. This past summer, we brought yet another NGO, Unfinished Picture Project, into El Hato to have some fun with public art. Now, nearly every Earth Lodge volunteer manages to involve themselves in the school somehow. The initial project has undergone an astonishing evolution.

Happy Times in El Hato, Guatemala
Happy Times in El Hato.

Of course, there is no several such places in this area. While these hostels are not directly involved in NGOs, they also do the work-trade agreement and could definitely provide the chance to volunteer with Antigua-based projects: The Terrace, Black Cat Hostel, and Black Cat Inn. In addition to hostels, Antigua, being so popular with foreigners and locals alike, is home to loads of non-profits doing great work nearby: Camino Seguro, Los Niños de Guatemala, As Green As It Gets, Transitions, AWARE, and many others.

Art class in Guatemala
Capturing the Moment in Art Class—It's Me.
Unprompted Portrait of Jonathon—What an Honor!

Lago Atitlan: La Iguana Perdida and Los Amigos de Santa Cruz

Lago Atitlan is renowned as being one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Like Antigua and much of western Guatemala, the landscape is speckled with spectacular volcanoes, and like any big body of water, Atitlan offers a remarkable range of activities, including scuba diving. Additionally, San Marcos de La Laguna on the lake is famous for its yoga courses and mystical locale. The lake is surrounded by wonderfully unique and lively villages to explore.

Located between Panajachel, where most of Atitlan’s tourist shuttles arrive and depart, and the aforementioned San Marcos, is a village called Santa Cruz, where a cool hostel, La Iguana Perdida, has been operating for over twenty years. “The Iguana,” however, is not simply a hostel but has been instrumental in aiding the village in the mountains above it, as well as a driving force in the effort to keep the lake clean. The hostel is always looking for volunteers to aid in the cleaning.

The Iguana is heavily associated with an NGO called Amigos de Santa Cruz, which provides educational, nutritional, vocational, and health support in the village. The hostel also is a leader in promoting recycled plastic bottle construction to build cleaner sewage systems around the lake. In recent years, the Iguana’s affiliated dive shop has also helped with algae problems caused by lake pollution. Owners Dave and Deedle offer great help in getting involved.

With villages in just about every cove, the lake is full of great spots to visit and, thus, hostels to accommodate tourists. In San Pedro, a popular lakeside spot for younger crowds, there are a couple of other hostels that do work-trade: Zoola and Yo Mama’s Casa. Again, as with much of Guatemala, there are myriad of organizations and opportunities to provide assistance to local communities so rich in tradition. It is a fantastic place to spend some time helping others.

Rio Dulce: Hotel Backpackers and Casa Guatemala Orphanage

Rio Dulce is in the southeast corner of Guatemala, the river linking Lago Izabal and the Caribbean Sea. It has a much more tropical feel than the rest of the country. The weather is hot and the surrounding jungles are full of wildlife, especially migrating birds and waterfowl. The river and lake offer good swimming options, as well as other water sports, and there are loads of nearby sights to see, including waterfalls and the Rasta-like Garifuna community in Livingston. At the mouth of the river, it is possible to take boat trips to Belize or Honduras’s Bay Islands.

Locals on a boat in Rio Dolce
Locals paddling a boat on the Rio Dolce.

Though it has a great collection of rooms, and a restaurant that sits on a deck above the river, Hotel Backpackers is not just a hostel-restaurant. In fact, it is not even exactly a business. Rather, this place runs solely to support a local orphanage, supplying it with both financial backing and with volunteers. The hotel even offers volunteer vacations in which travelers have several opportunities to be part of the wonderful program at Casa Guatemala Orphanage and School.     

Casa Guatemala supplies care and education for children who have been abandoned, abused, and/or were living in extreme poverty. The organization, originally coined "Casa Canada," as it was opened by two Canadians, has been providing aid since 1977, so the motivation behind the volunteer work is to try to ensure continuity. Not only does the place help children in the here and now, but many businesses have also been opened to provide the children of age with viable work. There are a many opportunities to get deeply involved with this awesome project, and a great FAQ page on the website to help prepare Guatemala-bound volunteers and travelers. The organization stresses that it prefers volunteers offering some skills (including teaching), specifies the supplies it needs, urges donations, and breaks down its expenses for transparency.

Other interesting options for responsible travelers and eco-tourists around Rio Dulce include Finca Tatin, which is ecological in its mission, and has some very interesting things going on to preserve the surrounding jungle. Tatin is still in the fledgling stages of the work exchange but could be a very interesting place to try. Backpacker’s Hostel and Tortugal River Lodge is yet another work-trade option. Another great organization where charitable volunteering and community-based tourism is possible is called Ak’Tenamit.

Thatch-roofed huts in Guatemala
Thatch-roofed huts like these, a building style not found in other parts of Guatemala, line the banks of the Rio Dulce.

Guatemala, despite its rather rough reputation, is a tremendous country to visit and offers some extremely worthwhile volunteering options, which benefit locals directly. I am living here for the third time, working with my third different NGO, and on yet another exciting project. Having figured out how to team hostel volunteering with philanthropy, I am able to travel, help locals, and live for a minimal cost. I have met some incredible people with truly inspiring causes and unbelievable drive.

The opportunities listed above are but a small sample of what there is to be done in Guatemala, the wonderful places there are to visit, and the great collaborative efforts being made to improve the lives of people in need.  Anyone of these hostels or NGOs would be a great way to begin a life abroad, get a foothold on volunteering, and experience something beyond the standard 2-week holiday package. The hostels and NGOs that I have found offer something that has altered the direction of many travelers’ lives, and undoubtedly remain in the memories of thousands more. At least as importantly, you will have the opportunity to help make a positive difference in the lives of locals in need.

Jonathon Engels

Jonathon Engels has been an EFL expat since 2005, just after he earned an MFA in creative writing and promptly rejected life as an instructor of freshman comp. He has lived, worked, and/or volunteered in seven different countries, traveling his way between them. Currently, he is in Antigua Guatemala, where most mornings he can be found tucked behind a computer in the corner of a coffee shop. For more, check out Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad or visit The NGO List.

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