Guatemala: The Highlands, Coast, and Everything in between

Guatemala’s land area spans just over 42,000 square miles, roughly the same size as Tennessee. The richness of the culture and the diversity of the natural surroundings of the relatively small country are staggering. I spent the first of three months in Central America travelling through Guatemala with Carpe Diem, a gap year company based out of Portland, Oregon. While we had four weeks in the country and were able to visit 6 different destinations, it felt as though we barely scratched the surface of what Guatemala had to offer.

We were exhausted, uncomfortable, and unsettled when we arrived at our first destination in Guatemala. After a red eye flight from LAX to the capital and a “3 hour drive” that ended up being almost 6 in a cramped microbus, we dropped our large, neatly packed, hiking backpacks on the ground of our rooms and fell onto the beds in a similar fashion. Our resting didn’t last for long, however, as we quickly jumped into our jam packed 3 day orientation. The setting was Casa Seibel, a cozy backpacker hostel in the center of one of the busiest parts of Xela (AKA Quetzaltenango), the second largest city in the country. We had many activities ranging from getting to know you games to group expectations to reviewing the itinerary for the trip. We slowly but surely began to shake off the awkwardness of being in a group of 14 strangers and started to get a sense of who we would be spending the next three months with. While the majority of the time was spent in the interior courtyard of the hostel, we did get a few chances to catch a glimpse of the urban center we were living in. On top of the already chaotic streets, we happened to arrive on September 14th, Guatemalan Independence Day, and the city was alive with hundreds of thousands of people celebrating the 296th anniversary of the separation from Spain. On our first evening in country, we walked to the main square of Xela, where thousands of locals were packed together listening to live music. We could feel the energy of the space, but weren’t able to stay for long as the delicious smell of street food reminded us that our dinner was waiting.

Before we knew it, we were packed up and on our way to the first real activity of the trip, a week of spanish classes at a rural spanish school just a couple hours outside Xela. Escuela de la Montaña (EDLM), the school we worked with, is a beautiful piece of land on a former coffee plantation where students take classes with local teachers. This area of the country is dominated by coffee plantations and other farms, and has been the site of centuries of exploitation, abuse, and even genocide. The US government has played a large role in this mistreatment, usually associated with the American company United Fruit. After years of not being paid, countless strikes, and failed rebellions, some of the locals have finally separated themselves from these farms and established their own communities. Located just a few minutes down the road from a few of these communities, EDLM partners with the local residents and provides some forms of employment, whether it be as a spanish teacher, maid, or host family. This partnership is incredibly beneficial as most of the local families rely on the fathers to be the breadwinners of the household, despite their very sporadic work as for hire construction workers. The regular income from jobs with the school allow the women in the families to start generating money on their own to protect their family and gain independence. In addition, it allows for the students to interact with the locals and learn about their culture through spanish lessons and homestay meals. Aside from individual spanish lessons for four hours during the day, we spent our time in a number of different activities, such as a coffee farm and waterfall hike, a walk to a local shaman, a lesson on the history of Guatemala and the rural communities, and a cooking class. The week was full of education, as we were able to acquire lots of spanish skills during class and then practice these newfound skills at the meals with our host families and learn about their lives. The immense poverty found in these homes was definitely shocking and hard to fathom, but the conversations I had with my host family and the time I shared with them was a humbling example of privilege and put a face behind the poverty statistics we have grown so accustomed to seeing in the media.

Just like that we found ourselves back in a microbus and returning to Xela. We were sad to say goodbye to our teachers and host families from EDLM, but we were looking forward to getting a full week in the city that we only briefly saw before. We had another week of spanish classes and host families, only this time we would be actually living with the families as opposed to just eating with them. Gladis, Fausto, Tina, and Chica (the dog) welcomed me warmly into their home and I settled into my spacious upstairs room. While the house was not a mansion by any means, it was such a contrast from the conditions we witnessed at EDLM that I felt like it was a week in luxury. I had a fantastic week with my host family due to their kindness, humor, and delicious food. We joked about their former visitors, critiqued movies we had all seen, and talked about our days. I appreciated how engaging they were and I got to really practice and improve my Spanish thanks to their engaging questions and curiosity. When I wasn’t at my homestay, I spent 5 hours in Spanish class everyday at Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco (PLQ). My teacher, Vilma, and I instantly bonded and while many of my group mates complained that the weeks lessons were long and intensive, I found myself enjoying every second of class. Our classes were the perfect combination of grammar activities, conversations about culture and politics, and activities outside the classroom. Tav’s teacher (Tav was one of the other students in my group) and Vilma were very close friends so we spent a couple of our classes hanging out as a group of four, walking around the streets of Xela on quests to talk to the mayor of the city, get donuts, visit a thrift store, or shop at market where we bought 10 avocados for $1.30. Since we had class in the afternoon, our mornings were open, meaning we had a various collection of activities coordinated by PLQ. These included but were not limited to visiting a nearby farming community, walking up to the cross/viewpoint overlooking the city, and walking to a giant outdoor market. We also had a fair amount of free time and I was able to explore some of the city on my own which was a ton of fun as I was able to try some of the best hot chocolate in the city and go on some beautiful runs. My week in Xela was definitely one of the highlights of my trip, and it finished with an especially awesome day. On our last day in Xela, I, along with four of my group mates and our two instructors, got up at 4:00 AM to climb Volcan Santa Maria, the fourth tallest volcano in Guatemala. Standing at just under 13,000 feet, the summit was no easy feat, however, after 7 hours of hiking through the rain and mud, we arrived on top of the volcano and celebrated with a dance party to Yeah by Usher. We had a beautiful view of the clouds looming over the city and enjoyed our time before heading back down. After a shower and some grocery shopping, we met up at Parque Central where there were dozens of food stands set up and hundreds of people celebrating a catholic holiday. We enjoyed a delicious dinner and then headed to the soccer stadium where the XelaJu SuperChivos were taking on their bitter rivals from Guatemala City. The passion, excitement, and chaos from the locals made the game a spectacle. I will never forget jumping around with the crowd, screaming the catchy tune of “Vamos Xela” as fireworks and flares light the night in the colors of the team.

The next day I said goodbye to my host family and we made the two and half hour drive to Panajachel on the coast Lago Atitaln. Upon arriving at the lake, we stopped at a lookout and experienced the extreme beauty of the lake for the first time. It is perhaps the most stunningly beatiful lake I have ever seen, and the view was simply breathtaking. We made a deal with a local boat owner and had him shuttle us across the lake in his boat called Nacho. Although he got a little lost along the way, we eventually arrived at the Mystical Yoga Farm and unloaded our stuff before a tour of the grounds. The farm (MYF) was a serene little escape tucked away in the woods below a mountain emerging on the coast of Lago Atitlan. Although we were greeted by some interesting characters, namely one of their employees who’s name was Jahindo and hailed from a star system not too far from the milky way, I was immediately blown away at the sanctity of the property and the dazzling views of the lake. Altough our three days at the farm were a break from Guatemalan culture, they were definitely an emersion into a new and different culture as we were taught many spiritual lessons. While some might describe a lot of what we did as “hippy bullshit” it was an incredible three days filled with learning, thought, and nature. We woke up every morning and had a two hour yoga and meditation session, before heading to breakfast. All of our meals were vegan, and the food was delicious. The days were filled with many different activites, including tea ceremonies, paddleboarding, using a tradition mayan sweat lodge, sound healing, songs, cacao ceremonies, exploring the paths in the mountains, and more. I found that the four staff were amazingly brilliant and shared so much of their knowledge with us. We also had a day of silence witch was hard as someone who loves to talk but very peaceful and relaxing. It was an unexpectedly fantastic three days and we were sad to go.

Luckily, our next destination was just as enjoyable. After another boat ride back to Panajachel and a couple hours in a microbus, we arrived in Antigua. We had three days in the city during which we had a few structured group activities but mostly a ton of free time. Our group activities included a foggy and windy (though it cleared up for some amazing views on the way down) ascent of Volcan Picaya, a chocolate making class where we learned about the Mayan history of chocolate, and a salsa dancing class. During my free time I roamed the cobblestone streets of the city, admired the beautiful colonial architecture, and relaxed. It was a very refreshing few days and we were all re-energized as we piled into another microbus and made our way to the coast.

A few hours later we arrived in El Paredon, a small fishing community with a population of about 1500 on the Atlantic coast of the country. Alex and Lexi greeted us warmly as we settled into our palm leaf huts. We all dropped our bags as soon as we could and ran onto the black sand beach to catch our first glimpse of the ocean on the trip. Later that night, we enjoyed a delicious burrito dinner at the hostel, prepared by Dina and Blanca, two local women who kept us well-fed all week. After hearing our schedule, we hopped into our bunk beds and bug nets, excited for what was to come! We worked all week with La Choza Chula, a social enterprise working in El Paredon to support the community to flourish through educational projects, programs, and partners. Alex, Ben, Maggie, Sonal, Vicks, and Rafa—six of the main staff members of La Choza Chula—led us through different activities all week. Each day was themed, and we kicked off Sunday, International Development Day, with a tour of El Paredon and an introduction to the issues facing the town. We then gathered in the turtle sanctuary to learn about sustainable development, the world’s global goals, and created problem trees. We then hopped into canoes with local fishermen for a tour of the beautiful mangroves. Some of us even managed to catch a few catfish with just some fishing line and a hook. The entirety of the week followed a very similar format. The days were centered around our three consistent meals, breakfast and dinner being served at the hostel, while we jumped around to different family restaurants for lunch. Our stomachs were full, but our days were fuller. La Choza Chula planned an assortment of activities, lessons, and tours for us in El Paredon. Many of the lessons were led by the staff of the organization. One of our favorites was a social enterprise, Shark Tank, where we broke into teams and created our own organizations to address a need in the community. Other exercises included a discussion on Fair Trade and an overview of global citizenship.
Additionally, our time was spent participating in a wide array of activities with the local population. On multiple occasions, we visited the town’s schools. At the primary school we made crafts and games for the large beach clean up we helped out at this Saturday. With the third-year Secondary School students, we took part in a speed dating activity to practice our Spanish and learn more about the day to day life of teens our age in El Paredon. We also supplemented our cultural and global education with some action education as we had two surf lessons. While the group contains a diverse combination of surfing experience and skill levels, we all gave it the “old gap year try” and headed into the glittering ocean. Each of us was accompanied by our own individual instructor, whose constant cheers echoed over the water despite our continuous flopping face-first off the board. With their support, and a second day of lessons, we were all able to make some serious improvement. Since El Paredon is not extremely large, a week was a decent amount of time to explore our surroundings. We ventured to the the local river on three separate occasions, on paddle boards, canoes, and a motor boat. Our guides taught us all about the wildlife in the river and we enjoyed the peacefulness and serenity of the river as a break from the pounding force of the ocean’s waves. One morning, we got up early and headed to the turtle sanctuary to release over 100 baby turtles into the Pacific. It was a magnificent, natural, and breathtaking experience to watch the turtles embark on their journey as we wished them luck from the shore.
La Choza Chula definitely kept us busy, but we also had a fair amount of free time many afternoons. Some of us opted to get a break from the heat and humidity by cooling off in the water, while others decided to relax and read in the hammocks by the beach. Clearly, it was an amazing week full of gorgeous environments, captivating conversations, valuable experiences, and important lessons. We were treated to a gorgeous sunset each night as the sun set on our time in Guatemala.

Four weeks was not nearly enough time to see the entirety of the country but I felt we got a decent glimpse at Guatemala. It is an incredible nation full of amicable people, natural beauty, rich culture, and spirit. Despite an incredibly corrupt government, centuries of abuse from foreign countries, and civil wars, the people will not give up fighting for their rights. Even though they are progressing and developing as a nation, they are holding true to their background and continue to practice Mayan traditions and customs. It was an exceptional four weeks in an exceptional country.

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