Have you ever explored the opportunity to combine vacation and service in one trip? You have probably heard of service trips and, of course, vacations. But there are trips out there that include both. Through a friend, I was able to find a trip that included deep cultural experiences alongside service opportunities while still enjoying local food and wonderful accommodations. Read on for the full experience of the way I did a vacation and serve in Guatemala.
Travel to Guatemala to Vacation and Serve
Guatemala is located just south of Mexico in Central America. To the east is Belize and to the south is El Salvador and Honduras. It’s a small country with a population of around 18 million people. The easiest way to get into the country is to fly into Guatemala City, but many also cross the boarder from Belize to see the northern areas of the country. You can find a number of flights each day into the capital, Guatemala City.
You will need a passport to enter the country. In March 2022 you need proof of covid vaccination as well as a negative covid test, but check current conditions and regulations for updated information.
There are a number of ways to get around while you vacation and serve in Guatemala. You can rent your own car, hire private transfers, or you can use the bus system. We avoided the chicken buses (although it would have been SO fun and culturally immersive), but we were advised not to use them this time due to covid. Next time! Every town we came across also offered tuk tuk rides for short distances. At Lake Atitlan there are public ferry taxis or you can hire a private transfer to take you around the lake from town to town.
The local currency is the Guatemalan Quetzale and can be withdrawn from local ATM’s at hotels, but make sure your credit card has a pin attached to it prior to travel! Some hotels will accept US $ for tips, but they are not widely accepted in general. I found American Express not as usable as my Visa, but even the remote shops had card readers for an extra charge.
The language in Guatemala City is primarily Spanish, but as you wander further outside of the main city there are many indigenous languages that also have several dialects within. When you are in the marketplace you will need to rely on hand motions with lots of smiling and patience to communicate. I had just as much fun practicing my Spanish in Guatemala as when I visited Costa Rica.
What Does it Look Like to Combine Vacation and Service?
I think there is always an opportunity to add in volunteer work to any part of our lives. Having said that, I also think it’s important to get away from the daily coming and going of regular life. So, how do you pair the two and make it work? It’s all about intentionality. Take the trip you want and then add in days or hours to give back while you enjoy.
Below is a list of practical and easy to incorporate ways to open your eyes and your hearts to the needs of the world.
- Choose an organization that is meaningful and aligns with your priorities and contact them prior to your travel to see how you can serve while there or assist in bringing them donations, etc.
- Slow down and listen. Talk to people in the community and non-profits that are up and running in the area to learn what the true needs of the community are.
- Purchase your souvenirs from locals and seek to get as close to the source of the goods as possible.
- Stay in a hotel that gives back to the community. Let your money go to work while you enjoy your stay. Best of both worlds.
- Choose your tour operators consciously, with an eye to make an impact on the local economy.
- Don’t skimp on tips. It is meaningful to tip generously, knowing that money is going right into the hands of a local person.
- Spend one hour or one day with a working organization that gets you into the lives of real people in the area you are vacationing.
How to Vacation and Serve in Guatemala
There is not one single right way to vacation and serve in Guatemala…or anywhere for that matter. This is the type of thing you need to customize for your own family. It surely will look different for everyone. But, I encourage you to step outside of your typical vacation and incorporate some service, especially when you visit a destination that has real needs. And here is a little secret-everywhere has real needs. My next step is to get the kids to do a trip where we vacation and serve together. Stay tuned!
The Vacation and Serve in Guatemala Itinerary
I left my home airport and had a short layover in Atlanta before heading to Guatemala City. It was a 3.5 hour easy flight. Getting through immigration was painless, only having to show passport, vaccination card, immigration form and negative covid test.
After fighting through traffic, our driver delivered us to the colonial city of Antigua. We stayed at Casa Santo Domingo, a beautiful hotel built into the ruins of a convent. After a quick moment to freshen up we met up with our small group of women to do a historical walking tour of the grounds of the hotel and the city. It was the perfect way to start our trip.
Elizabeth, with Antigua Tours, gave us a two hour tour chock full of the history of the town and the earthquake that destroyed it. We learned a lot about the mixing of cultures, the colonial influences of Spain and the indigenous Mayan civilization. To our delight we encountered Lent celebrations and throngs of locals out with family. The Latino spirit was in full swing as we explored on foot and soaked in the culture. Do not miss this rich introduction to Antigua!
After a quick coffee and breakfast sandwich to go, we loaded up in a van with our tour guide, Willie. We took off for a volcano hike at Parque Nacional Volcan de Pacaya y Laguna de Calderas. I love to hike and seek to enjoy the outdoors while traveling, so this was fun for me. It was a 5K hike with some healthy elevation gain and steep sections. The starting altitude was about 6000 feet above sea level, so for those of you who live “low” be warned that you will lose your breath quickly. If you don’t want to hike, there are horses for hire with a trained guide who will stay with you the entire hike. You can also rent a walking stick from the young boys waiting at the base of the hike. I couldn’t resist! And I was glad I didn’t.
The hike itself was beautiful with lovely views and ample shade. And when we reached the top, it felt so good to have a full view of Pacaya before we started downward toward the calderas to “roast” marshmallows in the volcano vents. While we rested our legs, we enjoyed an epic picnic. We “skied” down the volcanic debris to end our hike and ran for the showers when we returned to our hotel.
The afternoon was filled with shopping and wandering through the cobblestone streets of Antigua. We enjoyed the shops filled with jade, Guatemalan textiles and pottery, and people watched to our hearts content.
We packed up our luggage and left Antigua for Lake Atitlan, about a 3 hour drive. On the way, we stopped at Iximche, a Mayan ruins. We were able to hire an English speaking guide who taught us how the Mayans developed their calendar. Let’s just say that they used their fingers and toes! Ten fingers, ten toes, and 13 major joints in the body multiplied together made 260 days in a year for them. That also coincided with the corn crop so it worked! We also learned the correct way to scaled the narrow steps of the ruins. Take them at an angle so that your back is neither toward the sun, nor toward the moon.
After lunch at a farm to table spot, we continued on toward Lake Atitlan in pursuit of pottery. We stopped at a roadside stand that had some nice options, but there was a specific co-op that we wanted to spend time at. In the town of San Antonio you can find location of the original Guatemalan teardrop design pottery. While you are shopping and selecting from the beautiful pieces you can wander upstairs to watch the men and women painting and crafting the pottery. I was able to speak in Spanish to ask a lot of questions about the firing process and the passion and joy in those conversations was precious.
We arrived at Casa Palopo, our hotel for the next two nights and we were welcomed with the most beautiful hazy sunset and the tastiest welcome drink ever! We took a dip in the pool before our dinner reservation at the hotel restaurant and then fell fast asleep after a beautiful day!
We awoke to gorgeous sunny skies on Lake Atitlan and hopped into a private ferry taxi to head across the lake for a full day over in San Pedro. On the docks at San Pedro we met up with Anita who was our cooking instructor. She gave us options for a menu and then we walked up to the market to make our food purchases. It was an incredible experience that everyone should do at least once-visit a local market where you don’t speak the language. It was a very rewarding cultural experience.
After the market we went to Anita’s home to begin our cooking. It was completely hands on with us doing all the chopping, stirring, mixing and more. While we handled our tasks, Anita gave us cooking tips and new techniques. While we sat to eat our meal Anita shared her life story with us. After lunch we went downstairs to the textile co-op that Anita helps run. We shopped and watched the weavers do their work. The cooperative is keeping women employed for a livable wage so they can support their families. It is a day I will never forget. These types of experiences are what travel is all about.
With a bumpy ferry ride and an exciting tuk tuk ride we made our way back to the other side of the lake to relax and absorb the day before we ate dinner again at the hotel.
We started the day with a nice brunch and a visit from the director of Fundamaya, Zoe. Fundamaya is a local organization helping with food insecurity, elder care and education for indigenous people who live around Lake Atitlan. We heard about all the ways Fundamaya is helping meet the needs of the Mayan people and the different ways we can support the organization monetarily as well as through action oriented service.
After brunch we left Lake Atitlan and Casa Palopo to head back toward Antigua to visit and serve at Kids Alive International. Kids Alive International is committed to rescuing children from hard places, redeeming their stories and restoring the hope of Christ in the hearts and minds of vulnerable children. Kids Alive Guatemala provides holistic care for children who have been victims of sexual crimes.
We had the best time meeting the staff, touring the campus, attending their chapel, and eating dinner. We played games and did arts & crafts with the girls and they asked us a million questions and made us practice our Spanish. It was loads of fun, but there is a no photo policy for the protection of the girls there so you’ll have to just believe me that their smiles were huge!
For our last day in country we were up early to walk up to the Cerro de la Cruz for epic view of Antigua. After we got our sweat on, we stopped for a coffee and a pastry before meeting up with tour guide Willie again. He brought bikes with him this time and we pedaled out of cobblestone streeted Antigua to a coffee farm nearby. It was a little dicey, but so worth the experience.
We learned all about the roots of coffee growing and the farm processes it takes to get that delicious cup when we wake up in the morning. We sampled and rode our bikes around the farm and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. When back in Antigua we made our way to a local chocolate making class at Fernando’s. Let’s just say that our bellies were full and our tastes were satisfied. We finished our day walking the streets of Antigua and a last special dinner.
Resources to Vacation and Serve in Guatemala
In the interest of the why behind this trip, I want to take a moment to connect y’all with the people and organizations. I first learned about this trip from a friend that I met through Instagram, and as crazy as that sounds it feels like it was always meant to be. There is no doubt that it takes a little extra work to make a destination work for vacation and to serve, but this was a great introduction to the possibilities out there.
Travel On Purpose
My Instagram friend, Dianne, is the founder of Travel On Purpose. Her aim is to connect travelers with organizations doing good. Not only does Dianne lead group trips that she plans herself, but she also customizes travel for families or groups who want to incorporate service with their travel. She offers everything from full-service trip planning to brainstorming consulting on a trip you already have planned.
Go and Do Good
Another friend from Instagram, Meg, founded Go and Do Good, a comprehensive directory of hotels that are intentionally giving back to their communities. When you stay at one of these hotels, you are also contributing. During my trip to Guatemala we stayed at a Good Hotel, Casa Palopo. I can’t say enough about the beautiful property, the incredible service, as well as the dedication to impact the Maya Kakchikel people nearby who are no longer able to sustain themselves economically in the traditional Mayan ways. Check out their project here.
Fundamaya’s mission is to strengthen their communities by promoting education, well-being, and empowerment. The organization is a US accredited 501(c)(3) operating in the Lake Atitlan area of Guatemala. They provide elderly care, install energy efficient wood-burning stoves, give local school support, provide water filters to villages, gift holiday food baskets for the food insecure and more. Individuals and groups can volunteer in short-term and long-term capacities.
Kids Alive Guatemala & International
The work and call of Kids Alive Guatemala is to provide a safe haven for girls who have been victims of sexual violence. Their desire is for every child in Guatemala to experience the love of God and the beauty of being raised in a loving family. Kids Alive International has a mission is the call of Isaiah 1:17, to serve these children by constantly learning to do good, earnestly seeking justice, standing up to what oppresses them, and advocating for their rights.
Eden por Salud
Edén is a social enterprise in Antigua, Guatemala, dedicated to creating all-natural, wellness products using top-grade, organic essential oils. Each Edén product is handcrafted by, and provides an accessible income, to a local entrepreneur with a disability. Edén recognized the need for a not-for-profit business that could create accessible income opportunities for people with disabilities in Guatemala.
Our market visit and cooking class in San Pedro on Lake Atitlan with Anita was an absolute highlight. I cannot recommend this experience enough. Please reach out to Anita for a cooking class at her Mayan Kitchen for a close look at Guatemalan cuisine and local experience. Not only will be enriched in the culture, but you will be wowed by the personal story and touch of Anita. It is special.