Central America

Staying safe in Guatemala

Before I came to Guatemala several people and especially my parents told me that Guatemala is extremely dangerous and I shouldn’t go.

The Canadian government tells Canadian travellers to exercise a high degree of caution because of violence, roadblocks, strikes and demonstrations that happen periodically. It also mentions that Guatemala has one of the highest rates of violent crimes in Latin America.

I have been in the country close to a week now, and even though that isn’t much time, I have picked up a few tips to staying safe.

First of all, the Canadian (and probably American) government websites say never to travel on the local public buses called Chicken Buses… this is something I do every day to get to my placement in another city. The chicken bus only costs 3.50 Quetzales (about $0.45), and often I’m the only none local person on the bus. (Though I have run into other volunteers periodically). I’m glad that this is the way that I have to get to work, because it gives me a better idea of what  it’s really like to live her. But I still do several things to stay safe – I always make sure I have nearly exact change for the fare and I put it in my pocket before I get on the bus, so that I’m not routing through my bag inside. If I don’t have exact change, I make sure I never give them more than 10 Quetzales because I don’t want to show too much money. I also don’t bring more than about 60 Quetzales with me to my placement (about $7.80) and leave my passport, iPhone and camera at home. I carry a small bag and keep it on my lap and I keep my head up and stay aware of my surroundings…. so far I have had no problems.

When taking a chicken bus, there is a helper who hops on and off frequently, often before the bus comes to a full stop. Just tell him where you want to go and you’re good to go.

Secondly, I never walk alone at night… (anytime after about 7:30 p.m.). When I do go out, I again make sure I only have the bare minimum with me and keep my bag out of sight.

Another hazard in Antigua at least is trying to cross the roads. There are no traffic lights and stop signs are treated as a suggestion, but as long as you have about 15 metres between you and the car, there is time to cross… because the cars cannot travel quickly on the cobblestone. Watch out for motorcycles and scooters though… they never stop.

Most of these tips are common sense… but when I’m walking around, I’m shocked by how often I see tourists with huge cameras around their necks gawking at buildings with their bags unattended. They’re just making themselves a super easy target for robbery.

Central America

Settling in to life in Antigua, Guatemala

It’s hard to believe that I have only been in the country a few days; I have done so many things since I arrived on Sunday.

My first taste of life in Guatemala was getting a handle on “Guatemala time” at the airport. My flight arrived half an hour early and I was excited about the idea of having much of the day to myself. I was on the flight with another girl who is volunteering here with me and we made it through customs without any problems. We found the driver right away and were excited to get on our way. But the driver told us he was still waiting for another flight at it would be “veinte minutos” (twenty minutes). As I mentioned, our flight had arrived early, so we figured it would be no problem, but 30 minutes later there was still no flight. We asked the driver again and was old “cinco minutos” (five minutes). Finally, about 20 minutes later two more girls showed up. We were a bit upset that 20 minutes, was actually 50 minutes, but thought that maybe their flight was delayed and brushed it off. Then the driver said we were actually still waiting for another flight. When I asked how long it was and he said again “cinco minutos” I replied back “actually five minutes or is it more like 30?” He assured me that it was actually five minutes. Of course it wasn’t. A full hour later, the other girl showed up and we were finally on our way.

I’m staying in a house with about 10 other volunteers and managed by a “Host mom” named Mary. We eat all our meals together at 7 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. The food is good, but it involves a LOT of carbs. Yesterday our lunch was chicken with both rice and potatoes on our plate, and dinner was spaghetti with leftover potatoes and bread.

In the mornings, I am taking Spanish lessons one-on-one with an instructor. I’m learning a lot and I feel confident speaking with shop keepers and my host mom in Spanish.

In the afternoons, I take a “chicken bus” to my volunteer placement in another town about a 25-minute drive away. The buses are super old school buses that are painted in outrageous colours and the ride is extremely bumpy!!! Chicken buses are how Guatemalans get around and there are only ever locals on the trip with me. I don’t ever take anything valuable with me and keep my bag in my lap, so I feel relatively safe.

My placement is at an after school program for under privileged kids in the town of San Antonio Aguas Calientes. (San Antonio Hot Springs… though I’ve been told the hot springs dried up a long time ago.) It is summer vacation now, and while I’m supposed to be teaching the kids English… they’re not very interested in learning much. Mainly I just speak to them in English while they play their games and try to get them to understand and say a few words back.

The kids all come from poor backgrounds and get a hot meal at the program as well as tutoring services to help with their schooling. Their school fees (about $100 US) are paid for by international sponsors. The kids are nice enough and I’m actually learning a bit of Spanish from them. They are writing letters to their sponsors for Christmas and wanted me to translate them into English, so I worked with the kids to try to understand words that I didn’t know and I think it also helped their English.

Tonight I am doing a free salsa lesson (and snacking on guacamole) and then going out to dinner for Indian food with my house. There are some volunteers who have never had Indian food before, so it should be fun.

Central America, South America

All packed up and off I go


It’s less than 24 hours until I leave for Guatemala. I’ll be there for the next three weeks, volunteering and travelling the country.

It’s my first time volunteering abroad, but it’s something I’ve considered for years. In university, I actually tried to do an “alternative spring break” trip with the school, which would have had me building an elementary school classroom in Colombia, but my application wasn’t selected.

On this trip I’ll be spending two weeks teaching English for half a day and learning Spanish for half a day. I’m not really sure what to expect. I’ve been told that depending on the week, the work will vary and I might be teaching adults or kids and the work might be at a community centre, public library or school. My days will be spent doing things like providing tutoring, setting up workshops, assisting local teachers and organizing educational games and activities.

For the Spanish, I’ll be in a class with 5 to 7 other people and it’s supposed to be more of an informal style that concentrates on conversation and vocabulary, not on grammar. I’m excited for that!

After two weeks of volunteering, I’ll be heading out on a tour of the country with the organization. Part of the tour includes a half-day hike up the active Pacaya volcano, which should be a really cool experience. We’ll also be heading to Tikal, one of the largest Mayan ruins in the world. It was built about 1700 years ago and abandoned, 1100 years ago. (It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)

My flight leaves Toronto at 6:15 a.m. tomorrow and I’ll be arriving in Guatemala City around 12:30 p.m. One of the people from the organization I’ll be working with will meet me at the airport and bring me to their office for an orientation centre. I’ve connected with another Canadian on Facebook, so we’ll actually be flying down together. It’ll be nice to know someone before I even arrive.

I’ll actually be based out of Antigua, during most of my trip. It’s about 30 minutes from Guatemala City and the downtown core is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Spaniards built it, when they first arrived in the 1500s and it was originally the capital of the country. Earthquakes destroyed much of the city in the 1700s and the capital was moved to Guatemala City. Antigua was mostly abandoned, which helped preserve much of the old architecture. (There are also a lot of preserved ruins.) Oh and its full name is actually “Antigua Guatemala” i.e. Old Guatemala City.

When we arrive in Antigua tomorrow we have a quick lunch at the orientation centre, then we’ll be taken on a tour of the city and then brought to our accommodations. I might either be staying in a volunteer house or at a homestay (with 2 or 3 other volunteers). I’m going to pick up some maple candies at the airport tomorrow in case I do end up at the homestay, so I have a thank you gift to give the family.

I will have internet access at the organization, so I’ll try to post either before or after my daily Spanish classes, but I might not always get the chance.