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Volunteer in Guatemala for a Small Fee

Work with NGOs and Provide Needed Help

Work with children as a volunteer in Guatemala.
Working with children is popular with volunteers in Guatemala.

Guatemala is undoubtedly among Central America's most beautiful and diverse countries. The country is home to steaming jungles and ancient Maya ruins, dotted with volcanoes and mountain ranges, and shares both the Pacific and the Atlantic coast. Although tourism is growing and the economy is relatively stable, Guatemala still faces many social and economic problems, which are partly the result of a civil war in the past. After the peace agreement was signed in 1996, numerous international aid organizations set up camps in Guatemala to help rebuild the country and assist the indigenous communities — who had suffered most during the war. This significant presence of NGOs and aid organizations — literally found everywhere in Guatemala — has turned the small country into a mecca for international volunteers.

Guatemala: A Country Still in Need of Help

Guatemala is among the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Much of the population comprises native Mayans living in remote and impoverished villages. Guatemala ranks among the top 15 countries in the world for malnutrition. Thousands of children are given up for adoption every year, as many families cannot adequately provide for their children. At the same time, Guatemala has the lowest investment in social development in Central America. The minimum wage is about US$13 daily (around $420 monthly). Still, many working-age Guatemalans need jobs, especially in indigenous Mayan communities. They often depend on subsistence farming and the sale of small cash crops such as corn or beans for their meager incomes. In addition to economic hardship, Guatemalans are affected by poorly developed and under-funded health, social services, and education sectors. This is why many NGOs work in these fields, filling a significant gap between government services and community needs. Due to its geographic location, Guatemala is also frequently affected by natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes, which cause a lot of damage and further impede Guatemala's development.

A Diversity of Options for Volunteers

There are many volunteer opportunities for every skill and commitment level. Many NGOs depend on long-term volunteers for their projects, but there are also many short-term volunteer opportunities. Although the impact of short-term volunteering is often less than that of a long-term volunteer, short-term volunteers can get away from Guatemala's tourist destinations and get an idea of the realities of daily life in Guatemala.

Volunteer opportunities in Guatemala involve every imaginable activity in the social service, health, environmental protection, education, human rights, employment, infrastructure, and construction sectors. If you have professional skills, you can apply them while volunteering in Guatemala. And even if you don't have specific job skills or professional experience, there are still countless hands-on volunteer positions where your help is urgently needed. In addition to assisting indigenous communities with their needs, NGOs in Guatemala are also committed to monitoring human rights, promoting environmental protection, and teaching agricultural techniques and other job skills.

Volunteer with children in Guatemala.
Fighting rural poverty is the primary goal of many NGOs in Guatemala.

Are Spanish Skills Required?

To learn about the Spanish requirements for volunteers, I talked to Rebecca Archer, the director of Entremundos, an NGO in Quetzaltenango that connects volunteers with aid organizations. Although most volunteer positions require some knowledge of Spanish, Rebecca told me there are several short-term volunteer opportunities, such as working at an organic coffee cooperative or helping with construction projects, where no language skills are required. Non-profit organizations with short-term volunteers usually provide a bilingual coordinator for volunteers who need to become more familiar with Spanish. However, Rebecca says most volunteers are eager to attend a Spanish class. Most Spanish schools in Quetzaltenango can put students in touch with non-profit organizations, where students can volunteer, contact the local people, and practice their Spanish.

Where to Volunteer?

Antigua and Quetzaltenango are the most popular destinations for international Spanish students and volunteers. Antigua is a charming historic town with a well-developed tourism infrastructure, cafés, bars, and restaurants. Quetzaltenango, the second-largest city in Guatemala, offers many amenities international volunteers desire, such as cafés, bars, movie theaters, and even a shopping mall. This city is also the center of volunteer activities in Guatemala. The number of local NGOs that work in the city and surrounding indigenous communities is enormous. But in addition to these popular volunteer destinations, there is also a great need for volunteers nationwide in remote villages and towns. Volunteering is essential if you don't mind working for a small NGO in the remote Cuchumatán Mountains or the low-lying rainforest region of northern and eastern Guatemala. However, these areas offer fewer amenities for volunteers, and there will be fewer foreigners with whom to socialize. When deciding on a location for your volunteer work, you must consider your personal needs, such as creature comforts, access to entertainment and social venues, contact with other volunteers and foreigners, and access to the internet and telecommunications. I met a Peace Corps volunteer in the remote town of Nebaj in the Cuchumatán Mountains, who left every weekend for some relaxation and entertainment around Lake Atitlán, a few bus hours to the south.

Finding a Volunteer Position

The cost of doing volunteer work varies from program to program. If you want to keep your expenses low, finding volunteer work after you arrive in Guatemala is best. The need for volunteers is great, and most NGOs are grateful for your help and do not charge any fees for your participation. Usually, volunteers' only contribution to the project is their work. Many NGOs, including Entremundos, can also refer to housing, most commonly a room with a local family, where you will pay a modest fee for room and board. Assume you book a volunteer opportunity with an NGO or referral organization in your home country. However, you will most likely be charged a fee in that case. Some organizations charge a lot for placement and services, such as orientations, volunteer coaching, accommodations, etc. In contrast, others charge only a modest referral fee. Do some research before deciding to find a volunteer opportunity you like and can afford.

Aid work in Guatemala is based mainly on small grassroots organizations that work with a small number of volunteers on specific projects to help the local population. The large number of NGOs looking for volunteers—and the relative ease of finding a volunteer position — make Guatemala an excellent destination for independent travelers who want to seek out their own opportunities and commit to a project they like and need their help.

Resources for Volunteering in Guatemala

Here is just a selection of resources and volunteer opportunities in Guatemala. You can find more in the dedicated Volunteer in Guatemala section of this site.

This NGO, based in the city of Quetzaltenango (locally also known as Xela), offers numerous resources for volunteering in Guatemala, including a free database with descriptions and contact information for over 100 NGOs in Xela and the Western Highlands as well as in a few other regions of Guatemala. Their headquarters, El Espacio, is a center for fundraising events, capacity-building workshops, live music, and conferences. El Espacio also provides housing for long-term volunteers (See Volunteer in Guatemala with Entremundos for more on this organization.)

Quetzaltrekkers is Guatemala's only volunteer non-profit trekking and hiking organization. All proceeds from the treks go to support a school for homeless children. Volunteer guides are always needed.

Peace Corps
For a long-term volunteer commitment in Guatemala, consider the Peace Corps, which assists rural communities in Guatemala in moving from bare subsistence to small-scale commercial agriculture, managing and conserving natural resources, improving health and nutrition, and increasing off-farm incomes.

Asociación  Nuevos Horizontes
Nuevos Horizontes is a Guatemalan NGO that assists women victims of domestic violence and their children and operates a shelter for abused women.

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA
Founded in 1982, the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA (GHRC) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, humanitarian organization that monitors, documents, and reports on the human rights situation in Guatemala, advocates for survivors of human rights abuses in Guatemala, and works toward positive, systemic change. The website provides helpful information about current events in Guatemala.

Related Topics
Volunteer in Guatemala: Articles and Resources

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