After decades of civil war, the now stable democracy of Guatemala offers a multi-layered, mix-and-match vacation experience with more than a dozen ecosystems to explore in a country the size of Virginia. In mere hours, you can venture from steamy coastal wetlands to chilly cloud forests, or trek to an indigenous Mayan village and be back in town for late-night salsa dancing. The best part? You can do it all while pitching in to improve the country and the lives of its people.
Guatemala is host to hundreds of environmentally and socially conscious projects in need of volunteers, each offering a unique way to experience this culturally and ecologically rich land. So whether you want to spend a day or two saving turtles or weeks building houses, there are voluntourism treks for you. Here are some of the country’s best.
Help a fair trade farm
Comunidad Nueva Alianza is a fair trade organic coffee and macadamia nut plantation with an inspiring history. In the late ’90s, the owner failed to pay the 40 families working here, leaving them without enough money even “to buy a ball of soap,” as one resident tells it. So the families organized, booted the boss, and were awarded collective ownership of the land by the government. The environmentally conscious farm is now nearly self-sustaining with biodiesel, hydropower, and bio-gas from pig and cow waste, but the workers are still paying off the mortgage. Help out by dropping in for a visit or staying on as a farm volunteer. The former owner’s home has been converted to a rustic eco lodge that serves tasty vegetarian meals, and a two-day eco tour ($33) includes a guided hike through the rainforest to learn about medicinal plants, along with visits to scenic waterfalls. Tours leave Xela every Saturday morning from Parque Central. Reservations are made at Café Conciencia in the picturesque city of Quetzaltenango.
Clear the air
In many rural village homes, women spend hours indoors cooking over an open fire for their families. That means they’re breathing in black smoke every day, and their children live dangerously close to open flames. One simple solution is to build an enclosed plancha stove with a chimney to carry the smoke up and out. These stoves also help curb deforestation because they heat more efficiently. Materials cost about $125, though, which is a prohibitive amount for a village family. Enter the Pacaxjoj Community Stove Project, one of several in Guatemala to provide families with cement or adobe planchas built using volunteer help. Pitch in and be a brick-layer for a day and you’ll get a taste of rural village life. Plan to stay in nearby Quetzaltenango, which also makes a great base for gorgeous volcano hikes with Quetzaltrekkers, a guide team that donates all its profits to a school for local homeless children. The best days for stove building are Thursday and Saturday. Trips to the village leave from Quetzaltenango.
Green the Highlands
Tierra Verde means “green land,” and that’s the goal of this new reforestation project in the Guatemalan Highlands. When Hurricane Stan hit in 2005, the devastating mudslides were caused not so much by rain and wind as by the dearth of trees—their roots would have helped keep soil in place on steep inclines. Now, this group of eco-minded expats and locals is rebuilding the villages as well as the forests. They’re currently tending more than 10,000 pine, white Cyprus, and eucalyptus seedlings that you can help plant from June to September, all while enjoying the region’s breathtaking views and misty mountain air (e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org). After a hard day’s work, treat yourself to a hot soak at Las Fuentes Georginas, where natural thermal pools nestled in verdant cloud forests.
Protect endangered turtles
Some experts predict that the leatherback—the largest known turtle—will go extinct within 30 years. You can help the conservation group Arcas reverse this trend for both leatherbacks and the similarly threatened Olive Ridley sea turtles. While staying near the beach town of Hawaii, you’ll assist with nightly beach patrols, search out nesting turtles, and collect their eggs for safekeeping in the hatchery. More intrepid volunteers can also help breed crocodiles and iguanas. Turtle season is June to January.
Bring in a healthy harvest
You won’t want to miss the jungles and ruins of El Peten, in the north, where you’ll be in close proximity to endangered jaguars, tapirs, Morelet’s crocodiles, and scarlet macaws. But you can also get a different perspective on the region by visiting the Equilibrium Fund, an organization that trains rural women to organically farm the nutritious Maya nut. The species once grew in abundance throughout Central America but is now threatened with extinction due to deforestation. Since 2001 the group has planted more than 400,000 trees. You can help them plant June through September.
Build a home
A stint with Habitat for Humanity is more expensive than most volunteer trips in Guatemala ($1,200 to $1,700), but this reputable nonprofit takes the guesswork out of planning. You get: door-to-door service from the airport to everywhere you go; meals and hotels arranged; and an English-speaking local to guide your group and customize extracurriculars. But get ready to work. Half of all the Habitat homes in Latin America are built in Guatemala: 3,000 went up in 2006 alone. For information on hundreds of other projects, check out the database from EntreMundos. The group keeps tabs on volunteer opportunities across Guatemala, and unlike other voluntourist agencies, will help you find a perfect fit for practically nothing (suggested donation $5).
Story by Jennifer Block. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2008.