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Teaching English and Living in Guatemala

A path to an English language school in Guatemala.
A street in busy Antigua, Guatemala.

While many people could not point to it on a map, for me, Guatemala is one of the most beautiful and intriguing places on the planet. Its volcanoes, ancient Mayan ruins, and sprawling mountain lakes are genuinely breathtaking (due to the altitude, sometimes literally so). There is a wide variation of indigenous peoples, over 20 spoken languages, and an incredibly diverse variety of produce, plant life, and fauna. All this explains why I am now living here for the third time.

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. In the south, the gangs of Guatemala City are notoriously vicious, territorial, and omnipresent. I don't know anyone in Guatemala who hasn't been robbed at least once. I'm happy that I didn't witness the validity of this reputation the first time I came here to work, or I might not have visited.

My wife Emma and I first came here in 2008 to teach English in Guatemala City (known simply as "Guate"), where most of the jobs and violence are centered. As we backpacked our way down from Mexico, we heard more and more horrifying stories about our new adopted 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 we were both terrified by the time of our arrival. Why had we signed ourselves up for a job in this country? Thus, this is the origin of our unexpected love affair with Guatemala.

Finding Work in Guatemala

Guatemala is better known as a cheap place to learn Spanish than to teach English. However, as tourism increases, the inevitable need for English only grows. Additionally, many American companies outsource their service call centers to Guatemala. Guatemalan students with post-graduate ambitions, especially those attending a U.S. university, will ultimately need English. Thus, while the pay is humble by U.S. standards, an EFL teacher will be fine finding work and living 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 with the ubiquitous Berlitz language school, it also has a location in Guatemala. Xela, the country's second-largest city, also has some potential employers.

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. Still, the postings are few and far between because such a large expat population is 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.

Working Life

We arrived in Antigua, Guatemala, the day before we were scheduled to be in Guate, an arrival date we established with Oxford Language Center two months ago. Then, we promptly received our first lesson in fijese que, the Guatemalan art of saying things will be differently from what was expected and desired. The school, foreign-owned but by expats who have aptly adapted to the local lifestyle, had yet to really prepare itself for our arrival. Our first assignment was, "Why don't you stay in Antigua for a couple more days and enjoy yourself." A good start...

Eventually, our schedules filled up, and we began working five and a half days a week (on Saturdays, the school opened later and closed earlier). As 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, are amongst my favorites in the world. Additionally, there is a Korean population of 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, offer services to the children of very well-to-do locals and expats. The schools pay good wages relative to the location and have a great staff of foreigners who readily befriend one another. I've known many, many of the teachers at both of these schools, and I've heard very few complaints. In addition, these places work a little above board compared to the private language schools.*

*In general, Guatemalan expats don't bother trying to go the official route of getting a work visa; instead, we 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 the list of "most dangerous" cities in the world, and it probably isn't for the faint of heart. The city buses are notorious for being robbed by gangs, the bus drivers are shot for not paying neighborhood tariffs, and specific zones are better left as dark mysteries (the city is mapped with an indecipherable collection of numbered zones). It could be a more pedestrian-friendly place; the traffic/pollution could be better, and going out at night requires either a taxi or a car.

However, Guate isn't all bad. Zona Viva in Zone 10 caters well to tourists, offering a nice open-air mall, some kitschier bars with outdoor seating, and/or international sports viewing. It is one of the few spots where it's relatively safe to 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 lovely public square to enjoy. It is important to stay around the Parque Central area, though, as there are 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 newish malls, three that are less than a 10-minute walk from one another (all near Zona Viva), and a PriceSmart outlet. There is also a grand new complex, La Pradera Concepcion, on the city's outskirts. Neither Emma nor I are particularly keen shoppers. Still, we did frequent malls more often than usual because they are safe places to stretch out a bit and offer easy access to cafes, ice cream, and other life comforts.

Most expats 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 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 and Honduras and a visa run to Belize.

All in all, Guatemala City was not a place I would choose to live in again. I'm glad to have lived through the experience. Nevertheless, the restrictions on being safe in the city proved very difficult in the long term. That said, the country of Guatemala is the only place to which I have returned after living and leaving. During our time in Guatemala, 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. Eventually, we returned to do an art project with the school, spent a few more months at "the Lodge," and remained in Guatemala.

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Jonathon Engels Jonathon Engels earned an MFA in creative writing. He has lived, worked and/or volunteered in seven different countries, traveling his way through nearly 40 countries between them. His many interests include permaculture, veganism, and ways to live sustainably.

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