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Volunteer with Constru Casa in Guatemala

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Constru Casa works with partners and individual families in a variety of support programs.
Constru Casa works with partners and individual families in a variety of support programs. Photo © Logan Sierra, courtesy of Constru Casa.

Based in Antigua, Constru Casa seeks to provide basic, safe housing to families across Guatemala who live in extreme poverty. Similar to the model used by the international organization Habitat for Humanity, Constru Casa’s recipients participate in the construction of their home and pay for a portion of it (roughly 25 percent) through an interest-free, four-year loan. The target beneficiaries are families whose income is US$65-270 per month. Volunteers and the home recipients work together under the supervision of a local mason to build a three-room, concrete and corrugated iron house in two weeks’ time.

[pullquote align=right]They built or improved approximately 90 houses and community projects in 2012.[/pullquote]Constru Casa also works with partners and individual families in a variety of support programs, such as helping with small-scale health care and educational projects, paying teacher salaries, offering improved stoves and water filters to beneficiary families, and carrying out home maintenance. They built or improved approximately 90 houses and community projects in 2012.

Volunteer workdays are 8am-5pm, with a break for lunch. Cultural experiences such as climbing a volcano, taking a tour to visit traditional weavers, visiting a coffee or macadamia nut farm, or making an excursion to Lake Atitlán can be organized for the weekend. The cost of weekend trips ranges from US$10 for a half-day excursion to US$45-250 for an overnight trip.

Antigua is a lovely historical town full of colonial churches and adobe-walled homes. Founded in the early 16th century, it was the capital of Guatemala until 1773. Locals flock to Antigua from Guatemala City on the weekends to walk its cobblestone streets, eat in its many restaurants and cafés, and shop for high-quality handicrafts. Although beautiful, Antigua still has some petty street crime, so volunteers should be careful with their personal belongings, avoid flashing expensive jewelry or electronics such as MP3 players, be discreet with their cameras, and avoid walking alone at night, especially on dark or quiet streets (taxis are inexpensive). When taking a hike or nature walk outside of Antigua, it is recommended to go in groups rather than alone.

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Constru Casa

Antigua, Guatemala
tel. 502/7832-8348

Application Process: To apply, send an email. Volunteer slots can fill up in advance, especially during busy times of the year. Individual volunteers must be at least age 18; those age 16 and 17 may volunteer with parental permission and an adult chaperone. Families with children age 13 and older are welcome.

Cost: Volunteers are asked to fundraise for the house they will work on: US$350 for individuals and US$4,000 for groups (which covers the entire cost of a house). There are no other program fees. Volunteers are responsible for their own expenses.

Placement Length: A minimum placement of at least two weeks is encouraged, in order to stay to see the house built.

Language Requirements: Spanish is useful but not required.

Housing: Constru Casa can arrange local accommodations, either in a homestay (US$90/week, meals included) or in a hostel or hotel (US$9/night and up). Volunteers who stay in a hostel or hotel are responsible for their own meals.

Operating Since: 2004

Number of Volunteers: Approximately 220 in 2012.

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Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America.


Volunteer with Long Way Home in Guatemala

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Long Way Home's current primary project is the construction of an elementary and vocational school using rammed-earth tires and polypropylene bags, water harvesting, and trash-filled bottles.
Long Way Home’s current primary project is the construction of an elementary and vocational school using rammed-earth tires and polypropylene bags, water harvesting, and trash-filled bottles. Photo © Genevieve Croker, Long Way Home.

Located in a small town in the southwestern highlands of Guatemala, Long Way Home uses “sustainable design and materials to construct self-sufficient schools that promote education, employment and environmental stewardship.” Founded in 2004 by a former Peace Corps volunteer, Long Way Home has since received international attention for its innovative leadership in combating waste. In addition to alternative construction, their projects include environmental education and water distribution.

[pullquote align=right]Founded in 2004 by a former Peace Corps volunteer, Long Way Home has since received international attention for its innovative leadership in combating waste.[/pullquote]The organization’s focus is on the promotion of green and alternative building practices. Their current primary project is the construction of an elementary and vocational school using rammed-earth tires and polypropylene bags, water harvesting, and trash-filled bottles. October 2014 marked the end of the first successful school year for kindergarten to 6th grade; 2015 will see the addition of 7th grade with secondary school planned for opening in 2016. Long Way Home has also partnered with Engineers Without Borders to help bring running water to rural villages near Comalapa; they have built wood-burning cookstoves and water storage tanks for families who do not consistently have running water.

Volunteers work 7am-4pm Monday-Friday, and the tasks are physically demanding: pounding dirt, plastering walls, creating art, or offering engineering services. Alternatively, volunteers who can commit to two months or more can choose to support Long Way Home’s educational efforts by teaching English, environmental education, or other skills in local schools. Long Way Home also suggests ways for supporters to volunteer from home, either before or after their trip. Volunteers can sign up for Spanish lessons as well as day trips, for an additional fee.

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Long Way Home

San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala
tel. 502/5703-5238
U.S. tel. 936/275-7807

Application Process: An application form is available online, which requires three references (at least two of which should be professional). The minimum age for individual volunteers is 18. Spots can fill up well in advance.

Cost: Individuals pay US$75 per week or US$300 per month, which includes the accommodations (volunteers are responsible for their meals). One-week group trips are US$600 per person and include accommodations and meals, as well as transportation between Guatemala City and Comalapa, one town tour, one cultural night, and one overnight excursion to Antigua or Lake Atitlán.

Placement Length: The recommended placement length is 1-3 months for individuals and one week for groups.

Language Requirements: There are no language requirements for building projects. Intermediate Spanish is required for teaching.

Housing: Volunteers stay at a guesthouse at the community park. The guesthouse has a kitchen, and volunteers typically purchase and prepare food communally (meals at the guesthouse are mostly vegetarian). There is electricity but no hot water. Homestays are available for an additional fee (US$10 per week), or volunteers can stay in a simple hotel (US$20 per week).

Operating Since: 2004

Number of Volunteers: Approximately 200 in 2012.

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Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America.


Volunteer with TRAMA Textiles in Guatemala

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A woman represented by TRAMA textiles.
TRAMA represents Guatemalan women from the western highlands of Sololá, Huehuetenango, Sacatepéquez, Quetzaltenango and Quiché. Photo courtesy of TRAMA Textiles.

TRAMA Textiles is a women’s weaving association in Guatemala’s second city, Quetzaltenango (more commonly referred to by its indigenous name, Xela, or SHAY-la). Xela’s population of 225,000 is just over 60 percent indigenous. The association works with 17 weaving cooperatives representing roughly 400 women from five regions of the Guatemalan highlands. Their mission is to “create work for fair wages for the women of Guatemala.”

[pullquote align=right]The association works with 17 weaving cooperatives representing roughly 400 women from five regions of the Guatemalan highlands.[/pullquote]Volunteers work in the TRAMA office in Xela. Possible responsibilities include: helping out in the store, fundraising or marketing, researching international sales possibilities and updating the product catalog, managing the website and graphic design, or, for those with multiple language skills, translating. Volunteers who learn how to weave may assist students in the weaving classes.

A group of Guatamalan women with a weaver working on a loom.
TRAMA’s mission is to create work for fair wages for the women of Guatemala. Photo courtesy of TRAMA Textiles.

While there are no minimums in terms of time commitment or language skills, the longer one can stay and the more advanced the Spanish skills, the more complex the projects volunteers can take on.

For those who want to start or improve their Spanish, there are many language schools in Xela. Through the schools or independently, volunteers can visit nearby indigenous villages and markets, take salsa classes, play soccer, visit hot springs and volcanoes, and learn the ancient art of backstrap loom weaving. TRAMA offers weaving courses that range from one hour (US$5) to 30 hours (US$130).

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TRAMA Textiles

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
tel. 502/7765-8564

Application Process: An application form is available online, which must be downloaded and then submitted via email. Families are welcome.

Cost: None. Volunteers are responsible for their own expenses.

Placement Length: There is no minimum.

Language Requirements: None.

Housing: Volunteers must make own arrangements.

Operating Since: 1988

Number of Volunteers: Approximately 75 in 2012

Guatemalan women hand weaving on a loom.
Photo courtesy of TRAMA textiles.

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Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America.


An Introduction to Guatemala for Volunteers

Guatemala is part of Central America’s “Northern Triangle”—bordered by Mexico to the north and the west, by the Pacific Ocean to the southwest, El Salvador and Honduras to the southeast, and Belize to the east. Studded by volcanoes, much of southern Guatemala is mountainous highlands, descending to a tropical environment along the Pacific coastline. The low-lying northern region of Petén is sparsely populated in juxtaposition with its history of thriving Mayan kingdoms, as evidenced by the ruins at Tikal, Yaxhá, Quiriguá, and elsewhere. Fourteen ecoregions with a wide assortment of rivers, swamps, forests, and lagoons make Guatemala a biodiversity hot spot, home to 1,246 known species of fauna and countless more species of flora.

[pullquote align=right]Guatemala’s population of 15 million is the largest in Central America.[/pullquote]Guatemala’s population is just as diverse. Approximately more than 50 percent of the population is indigenous, composed of 21 distinct Maya groups speaking 20 or more different languages, with Spanish the second language for many. Guatemala’s population of 15 million is the largest in Central America. Unfortunately, more than half of those people live in poverty (the World Bank estimates the gross national income per capita is US$2,870).

A trio of baby sea turtles return to the ocean on the coast of Guatemala.
Akazul monitors the nesting beach in order to better understand Guatemala’s sea turtle populations and provides educational activities and community initiatives. Photo © Tomas C C, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

As a result, most of the volunteer organizations working in Guatemala are focused on people, with many opportunities to teach and care for children at schools and orphanages, provide medical services such as checkups and dental care, help families improve homes through new construction (or the installation of less-polluting stoves), or empower women and preserve culture through the development of textile weaving projects. Those interested in conservation can teach environmental education to children or participate in the construction of green schools, built with recycled waste such as used tires and discarded bottles.

With the chance to explore colonial towns and extravagant crafts markets, hike volcanoes and lake ridges, and visit Mayan ruins or Pacific beaches, volunteers will find in Guatemala a unique combination of cultural immersion and local opportunities.

Color map of Guatemala

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America.

Ecoutourism Treks in Guatemala

Sunlight comes in at an angle illuminating a farmouse and fog laying low in a pastoral valley.
Morning in beautiful Nebaj, Guatemala. Photo © Javier Ruata, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Community tourism initiatives, whereby local Maya guides take travelers to seldom-seen locales in Guatemala’s rugged countryside, make for some extraordinary cross-cultural opportunities. You’ll have the chance to stay in basic accommodations with Mayan families along the way, thus contributing directly to their economic well-being and greatly enhancing the cultural experience. Although many areas of Guatemala feature community tourism initiatives, this strategy details a selection from highland regions of the country.


There are several excellent treks leaving from the town of Nebaj, in El Quiché department’s Ixil Triangle. Perhaps the most popular hike from here is a three-day Nebaj–Todos Santos trek across the Cuchumatanes mountain chain, where you’ll encounter Andean scenery the likes of grassy plains strewn with rocky boulders in addition to Mam-speaking indigenous peoples herding sheep and llamas. Other overnight hikes from Nebaj lead west to picturesque lagoons near an area known as Las Majadas or to the villages of Xeo and Cotzal. Many hikers favor this route for the chance to get up close with the local culture in seldomvisited Mayan villages. The Ixil Triangle, as you may recall, was hard-hit during the country’s civil war but is today one of Guatemala’s best-kept secrets. The scenery alone makes the trip worthwhile, but the chance to take in the friendly indigenous Maya culture makes this trip memorable.

Uspantán and Around

This town lies along a back-door route between the departmental capital of Santa Cruz del Quiché and Alta Verapaz, to the east. Recreational opportunities include hikes through the backcountry to the wonderful waterfall of Los Regadillos, hikes to Peña Flor and the neighboring site of Tzunun Kaab’, and hiking or biking to the agricultural village of Cholá, where you can bathe in a refreshing spring-fed pool. You can also visit Laj Chimel, the birthplace of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú and the gateway to Guatemala’s fourth-largest cloud forest. You can try your luck at spotting the elusive quetzal (Guatemala’s national bird) and other exotic species. Local Maya guides take visitors to far-flung locales such as Mirador El Quetzal, with spectacular views of the Ixil Triangle flanked by the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, and lovely Laguna Danta. The community provides camping in a covered platform and basic lodging in an adobe guesthouse.

East of Uspantán, the town of Chicamán has also caught on to ecotourism and serves as the gateway to the seldom-explored Rio Chixoy. About 14 kilometers away, it’s most easily visited from the hamlet of El Jocote via a community tourism initiative. A full day of river tubing includes three hours afloat on the cool, turquoise-colored river ending at a spectacular waterfall, a jungle hike, and lunch in a local community. You also have the option of staying overnight in a very comfortable and quaint wooden cabin.

Sierra de las Minas

Some of the best hiking anywhere in Guatemala, and Central America for that matter, can be found in the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve. Several trails wind through this remote wilderness, allowing the opportunity to spot Guatemala’s national bird, the quetzal, and explore its unique cloud forest habitat. Starting in the village of San Rafael Chilascó, hook up with the local Community Tourism Organization for hikes to the nearby waterfall of El Salto de Chilascó, one of Central America’s highest waterfalls. Longer, more challenging hikes take you up the mountain spine of Lomo del Macho and deep into the cloud forest to a research station at Albores and the Peña del Ángel rock formation.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Guatemala.

Going to the Cinema in Guatemala City

A stock photo of an 8mm film reel.
Photo © Fernando Gregory/123rf.

Map of Guatemala City
Guatemala City
Guatemala City has a number of excellent movie theaters, with movies sometimes opening on the same day as their U.S. release. The city’s IMAX movie theater can be found at Cines Pradera Concepción (tel. 2329-2550), located at the Pradera Concepción shopping mall along Km. 17.5 of Carretera a El Salvador, where you can have the IMAX theater experience for just $6. Located in one of the city’s most popular shopping malls is Cinépolis Miraflores (Centro Comercial Miraflores, 21 Avenida 4-32 Zona 11, tel. 2470-8367). Cinépolis (a Mexican chain) recently opened a second location in Zona 10’s Oakland Mall (Diagonal 6, 13-01 Zona 10). Five of Oakland Mall’s theaters are VIP lounges, in which you can order a meal and/or drink while you watch a movie.

Not to be outdone, U.S. franchise Cinemark recently opened its first Guatemalan location at Cinemark Eskala Roosevelt (Calzada Roosevelt Km. 13.8 Zona 11, tel. 2250-7084) featuring 3-D movies.

Check the Prensa Libre newspaper or the theaters’ websites for showtimes. Movies at all of these venues generally cost between $4 and $5 and all have stadium seating.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Guatemala.

Religion in Guatemala: Mayan Spirituality, Catholicism, and Christianity

A wooden cross and figurines of saints in orange robes propped against a wall.
Saints displayed in Santiago de Atitlan’s Catholic church. Photo © Valery Shanin/123rf.

Religion in Guatemala is fairly complex, with traditional Mayan spirituality still very much a presence, particularly in the highlands, along with Catholicism and the more recent incursions of Evangelical Christianity. In much smaller numbers, Guatemala’s Jewish population is centered in Guatemala City. There is also a small Muslim population with at least one mosque in Guatemala City.

Mayan Spirituality

[pullquote align=”right”]The Mayan calendar is still in use in parts of Guatemala today, particularly in the Western Highlands, and is pegged closely to the agricultural cycle.[/pullquote]Mayan spirituality has its origins in pre-Columbian religious practices and a cosmology that venerated natural phenomena, including rivers, mountains, and caves. The soaring temples built by the Mayan and other Mesoamerican civilizations were built to mimic mountains and were usually built in alignment with the cardinal directions. The solstices were very important in this regard and many of their temple pyramids and observatories were built in precise fashion so as to mark these events. Caves were also sacred to the Mayans and believed to be passages to the underworld, a belief that persists to this day. Archaeologists speculate that at least one powerful economic center, Cancuén, lacked buildings of strictly religious significance because of its proximity to the massive Candelaria cave network nearby.

The Mayan calendar is still in use in parts of Guatemala today, particularly in the Western Highlands, and is pegged closely to the agricultural cycle. Maize is a sacred crop and is believed to have been the basis for the modern formation of man by the gods, as told in the K’iche’ book of myths and legends, the Popol Vuh, discovered by a Spanish priest in Chichicastenango in the 18th century. Although the vast majority of the Mayans’ sacred writings were burned by Bishop Diego de Landa in a 16th-century Yucatán bonfire, three Mayan texts, known as codices, survive in European museums. The Chilam Balam is another sacred book based on partially salvaged Yucatecan documents from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Modern-day Mayan religious practices, also known as costumbre, often take place in caves, archaeological sites, and volcanic summits. They often include offerings of candles, flowers, and liquor with the sacrifice of a chicken or other small animal thrown in for good measure.

Another curiosity of the Western Highlands is the veneration of a folk saint known alternatively as Maximón or San Simón, with a particularly persistent following in Santiago Atitlán and Zunil. The cigar-smoking, liquor-drinking idol is a thorn in the side of many Catholic and Evangelical groups, whose followers sometimes profess conversion to Christianity but often still hold allegiance to Maximón, who is thought to represent Judas or Pedro de Alvarado. Syncretism, combining Mayan religious beliefs and Catholicism, is a major player in highland Mayan spirituality.

The cult following of folk saints is also tied to the presence of cofradías, a form of Mayan community leadership with roots in Catholic lay brotherhoods wielding religious and political influences. The cofradías are responsible for organizing religious festivities in relation to particular folk saints and a different member of the cofradía harbors the Maximón idol in his home every year.

The Catholic Church

Catholicism has played an important role in Guatemala ever since colonial times, though the state increasingly took measures to limit its power starting in the late 19th century, when liberal reformers confiscated church property and secularized education. More recently, the Church wrestled with its official mandate of saving souls and its moral obligation to alleviate the misery and injustice experienced by many of its subjects, particularly the Mayans. Many parish priests, faced with the atrocities and injustices of the civil war, adopted the tenets of Liberation Theology, seeking a more just life in the here and now and officially opposing the military’s scorched-earth campaign throughout the highlands. Many clergy paid for their beliefs with their lives or were forced into exile. Even after the civil war ended, Bishop Juan Gerardi was murdered in the days after his issuance of a scathing report on civil war atrocities perpetrated mostly by the military. The Church remains a watchdog and defender of the poor, which is evident in the ongoing work of the Archbishop’s Human Rights Office.

Although there are many churches throughout the country, the Catholic Church often has trouble finding priests to fill them, a factor that has contributed to the explosive growth of Evangelical Christianity. Pope John Paul II visited Guatemala three times during his term at the helm of the Vatican; the last visit was for the purpose of canonizing Antigua’s beloved Hermano Pedro de San José Betancur.

Catholicism can still draw a big crowd, though, most noticeably during Holy Week, with its elaborate processions reenacting Christ’s crucifixion, and the annual pilgrimage to Esquipulas on January 16 to pay homage to the Black Christ in the town’s basilica.

Evangelical Christianity

According to some estimates, a third of Guatemala now claims adherence to Protestantism and, more specif ically, Evangelical Christianity. The growth of this sect will become obvious as you travel around the country and hear the sounds of loud evening worship services, known as cultos, emanating from numerous churches, particularly in the highlands. The trend toward Evangelical Christianity dates to the aftermath of the 1975 earthquake, which destroyed several villages throughout the highlands. International aid agencies, several of them overtly Christian, rushed in to Guatemala at a time of great need and gained many grateful converts in the process. During the worst of the civil war violence of the 1980s, many Guatemalans sought comfort in the belief of a better life despite the hardships of the present. Other factors making Evangelical Christianity attractive to Guatemalans include the tendency toward vibrant expressions of faith, spontaneity, and the lack of a hierarchy, which makes spiritual leaders more accessible to common people.

A notorious legacy of Guatemala’s trend toward Protestantism was the dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt, a prominent member of Guatemala City’s Iglesia El Verbo (Church of the Word), who sermonized Guatemalans on subjects including morality, Christian virtues, and the evils of communism via weekly TV broadcasts. Meanwhile, a scorched-earth campaign aimed at exterminating the guerrilla presence raged in the highlands, though violence in the cities was widely curtailed and order somewhat restored. He faces charges of genocide in a Spanish court, though it’s doubtful he will ever be brought to justice. Also disturbing was the brief presidency of Jorge Serrano Elías, another self-proclaimed Evangelical now exiled in Panama after he dissolved congress in a failed autocoup, which ended in his ouster a few days later. His government faced widespread corruption charges.

On a more promising note, it is a well-documented fact that some Guatemalan villages have converted to Evangelical Christianity almost in their entirety with astounding results. The town of Almolonga, near Quetzaltenango, is a particular case in point. Alcoholism, which once ran rampant (as in other parts of the highlands), is now virtually unheard of and the city jail has been closed for years. It is hailed as a “miracle city” by Evangelical leaders, who like to point out that it was once a hotbed of cult worship for the folk idol Maximón. The town exports its fantastic fruits and vegetables to El Salvador, including carrots the size of a human arm, making it very prosperous.

Evangelicals these days, while still adhering to the belief in a better afterlife, are also very much focused on making things better in the here and now. There is a growing movement toward producing a generation of morally grounded political leaders with a vision to develop the country along inclusive lines that address Guatemala’s substantial needs and challenges, though it remains to be seen if they can overcome the unfortunate legacy handed to them by the substandard Christian leadership experienced by Guatemalans thus far.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Guatemala.

Guatemala’s Ancient Wonders of the Maya

View of temple ruins rising up amongst dense trees.
Ruins of Tikal visible above the treetops. Photo © Victoria Reay, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.
Map of Petén, Guatemala

In Guatemala, not only can you take in the ancient Mayan wonders from long before the arrival of the Spanish, you can also visit the Postclassic highland ceremonial sites that greeted the conquistadors upon their arrival in 1524.

Most of the Mayan ceremonial sites that were at their cultural zenith during these time periods can be found in the country’s northern Petén region. Among the largest and most sophisticated cities from the Preclassic period is El Mirador, which flourished between 200 B.C. and A.D. 150. No self-respecting archaeology buff would come to Guatemala without visiting the ruins of Tikal at the center of a 575-square-kilometer (222-square-mile) national park protecting the historical site and surrounding rainforest ecosystem. Farther north is the interesting astronomical observatory at Uaxactún. West of Tikal are the sites of Nakum and Yaxhá, the latter of Survivor TV fame.

Real history buffs might want to check out the ceremonial sites found and subjugated by the Spanish at the time of the conquest, thus completing the picture of Guatemala’s pre-Columbian archaeological heritage. When the Spanish arrived in Guatemala, they first secured an alliance with the Kaqchikel, who had their capital in Iximché in Guatemala’s Western Highlands. The Spanish would eventually establish their first capital on the same site. You can visit the restored ruins of Iximché, very conveniently situated just a few kilometers from the Pan-American Highway about an hour from Guatemala City.

With the submission of the Kaqchikels, the Spanish were now free to turn on the K’iche’, whom they met in battle near present- day Quetzaltenango. The K’iche’ invited the Spanish to their mountain fortress at K’umarcaaj, the site of a failed ambush against the European invaders. Today, the largely unrestored ruins are still the site of Mayan rituals and feature a noteworthy underground cave tunnel.

Near the city of Huehuetenango, the inhabitants of the Mam ceremonial site of Zaculeu were done in by starvation after Pedro de Alvarado’s brother laid siege to the city for two months. Northwest of Guatemala City, the ruins of Mixco Viejo were once the Poqomam capital and ceremonial center, falling to Pedro de Alvarado in 1525 after a typically ruthless attack. In addition to temple pyramids, the site has two ball courts decorated with twin serpent sculptures harboring human skulls in their open mouths, a rather unusual embellishment among Postclassic highland sites and further evidence of the Toltec and Aztec influences of the times.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Guatemala.

Biotopo Monterrico: Nesting Sites for Guatemala’s Sea Turtles

People gathering around the entrance to a beach with banners hung touting conservation.
The beach at Monterrico during a Leatherback hatchling release. Photo © Marina Kuperman Villatoro, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Map of Monterrico, Guatemala
This protected biotope encompasses the beaches and mangrove swamps of Monterrico and those of adjacent Hawaii, which are the prime nesting sites for sea turtles on Guatemala’s Pacific seaboard, including the giant leatherback and smaller olive ridley turtles. Locals are involved in a conservation project with the local turtle hatchery whereby they are allowed to keep half of the eggs they collect from nests and turn in the other half to the hatchery. Sadly, leatherback turtle arrivals have declined dramatically in recent years.

In the heart of town and run by the San Carlos University Center for Conservation Studies (CECON), the Tortugario Monterrico (on the sandy street just behind Johnny’s Place, 8 a.m.-noon and 2-5 p.m. daily, $1) encompasses a turtle hatchery right on the beach, where collected eggs are reburied and allowed to hatch under protected conditions. There’s also a visitors center. In addition to baby sea turtles, the hatchery has enclosures housing green iguanas, crocodiles, and freshwater turtles bred on-site for release into the wild. The staff at CECON is always on the lookout for Spanish-speaking volunteers.

Monterrico-Hawaii and Its Sea Turtles

If you’re traveling to the Monterrico-Hawaii area between June and December, you might have the opportunity to witness a sea turtle coming ashore to lay its eggs or watch baby sea turtles making their maiden voyage out to sea. Turtle nesting peaks during August and September, when you might be able to glimpse a large leatherback (baule) or the smaller olive ridley (parlama) coming ashore to lay eggs. Unfortunately, locals are also on the lookout for egg-laying sea turtles to snatch up the eggs and sell them, but under an agreement with the CECON monitoring station at Monterrico and ARCAS in Hawaii, they donate part of their stash toward conservation efforts. Your best bet for seeing a nesting turtle is to go with one of the CECON-trained guides or volunteer with ARCAS.

Volunteers are welcome at both stations. Among the duties are the collection of turtle eggs after the mothers have come ashore and moving them to a protected nesting site, where they are reburied and allowed to hatch. Typical incubation periods for olive ridley eggs is 50 days, 72 for leatherbacks. After a few days in a holding pen, the young turtles are released, either at sunrise or sunset, and make their way across the sand and into the ocean. As the young turtles scamper across the sand, they are being imprinted with the unique details of the beach and its sand, where they will return and nest when they are adults. All this assumes they make it to adulthood, a big assumption when taking into account that only one turtle in 100 makes it to adulthood. Sea turtles are threatened not just by the collection of their eggs but also by fishing activities, where they often end up in nets, and sea pollution. Plastic bags, for example, are often mistaken for jellyfish by hungry sea turtles. The CECON station at Monterrico releases about 5,000 sea turtle hatchlings per year. Turtle races, involving the release of new hatchlings on their maiden voyage to the sea, are no longer held because they were disruptive to the baby turtles’ development and shortcircuited the very conservation efforts they were meant to support. A newer initiative is the annual Festival de la Tortuga Marina, which takes place sometime during October or November. It features turtle releases, live music, and a surfing competition.

The ARC AS turtle hatchery in Hawaii also releases sea turtles. Visitors are allowed to witness turtle releases in limited numbers for a donation of about $3.25 (includes admission to the hatchery). If you’re interested in volunteering with sea turtle conservation efforts, check out local grassroots turtle conservation group Akazul.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Guatemala.

Exploring Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla

View from the dock looking up at the prow of a mid-sized cruise ship.
An Oceania cruise ship docked at Santo Tomás de Castilla. Photo © Victoria Herring, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Cruise ships dock in Santo Tomás de Castilla, just across the bay from Puerto Barrios, where those wishing to go ashore will find some of the country’s best bird-watching, lush tropical rainforests, and refreshing jungle rivers. Local tourism authorities in nearby Lívingston and Río Dulce are improving the quality of their services to cater to arriving visitors.

The history of Santo Tomás de Castilla actually dates to 1604, when it was founded as the coast’s original colonial port. It was abandoned within a few years but later became the site of an ill-fated Belgian colony in 1843 after Guatemala’s independence from Spain.

A paved road from Puerto Barrios leads to the main shipping center. From there, a dirt road continues along the coast to some of the area’s natural attractions.

Map of El Oriente and Izabal
El Oriente and Izabal

Cerro San Gil and Río Las Escobas

This idyllic park, centered around the Cerro San Gil mountain, comprises more than 7,700 hectares (19,000 acres) of lush rainforest. Bathed in rainfall throughout most of the year (averaging 255 inches) as warm, humid air rises over the mountains from the sea to elevations in excess of 1,100 meters (3,900 feet), the preserve harbors an astounding level of biodiversity. Among the wildlife protected here are 56 species of mammals, including tapir and jaguars, 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, and more than 350 species of birds, including toucans, black and white hawk eagles, and keel-billed motmots. More than 90 neotropical migrants winter in the area and include the blue-winged warbler and wood thrush.

The park also protects the important watershed of the Río Las Escobas, which supplies water to Puerto Barrios. Part of the watershed is open to visitors ($8, including guided tour), who can bathe in Las Escobas’s cool, clear waters and hike a series of nature trails winding through the park. The park is administered by the private conservation group FUNDAECO (tel. 7948-4404), which in partnership with The Nature Conservancy has been able to buy large tracts of this rainforest ecosystem for preservation.

Facilities for visitors are found at Las Pozas (tel. 5708-0744 and 5004-1143, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily) and include a visitors center, tropical gardens, a snack bar (open on weekends and when cruise ships are in town), and picnic areas. An excellent system of trails winds through the river and waterfalls and includes wooden bridges with stops along the way for swimming in stunning turquoise pools. More adventurous types can explore areas deeper into the reserve beginning at a trailhead just up the mountain and going from there to the Río Las Escobas through a dense stretch of forest (one hour) or to Cumbre Las Torres (four hours there and back), or encompassing multiple days of strenuous jungle hiking to the village of Carboneras (where there is a basic eco-lodge) and down the mountain to Río Dulce. Contact FUNDAECO if you wish to explore these options, as you will need prior authorization. A guided trek of either of the first two options costs $30 per person. Rates for the longer trip are negotiable.

The park is an increasingly popular day trip with cruise-ship passengers, many of whom reportedly state this to be their favorite stop after the crass commercialism of places such as Cancún and beaches that all pretty much look the same. The park lies just off the road, hugging the coastline from Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla to the beach of Punta de Palma. Social Travel (based out of Amatique Bay Resort, tel. 7948-1836 or 4172-2104) provides trips to Cerro San Gil and Río Las Escobas departing from Puerto Barrios, Lívingston, or Río Dulce. Prices range from $60 per person (two-person minimum) for a half-day tour to $150 per person for a trip including a stay of two nights. They can also arrange day trips and overnight stays at the eco-lodge in Carboneras (from Río Dulce) for about the same price.

Green Bay Hotel

Farther along this same road is the 50-room Green Bay Hotel (tel. 7948-2361, $60 d room-only or $130 d all-inclusive), which was built far ahead of its time in the early 1990s but now seems perfectly situated to cater to cruise-ship day-trippers. The comfortable thatched-roof duplex bungalows are built into the side of a beautifully forested hillside near the water’s edge and have all the comforts, including air-conditioning, TV, private hot-water bathroom, and bay windows that look out to the jungle. Although the exteriors are thatched-roof, it’s really only for show, as the room interiors pretty much look like any standard modern hotel room. There is an airy, thatched-roof restaurant and bar overlooking the swimming pool and Bahía de Amatique. In addition to seafood, the restaurant serves international dishes including pasta, sandwiches, and grilled steaks. It’s a bit overpriced at about $8 for a basic pasta dish.

Out front is a dock from where you can book a tour of the bay or a motorboat transfer to Punta de Palma, Punta de Manabique, Lívingston, or Río Dulce. Otherwise, you can catch some rays on the lagoon-front beach or explore the waters in a kayak. Two small mangrove islets, known as the Cayos del Diablo, lie just off the coast. Mountain bikes are also available for rent and there’s a sandy beach volleyball court. As at most of Guatemala’s Caribbean beaches, the water here is not clear like that along the Yucatán Peninsula, but more emerald in color. It’s what the tourism promoters have called “a different Caribbean.”

Punta de Palma Beach

The road continues north from here to the beaches of Punta de Palma, a popular weekend getaway for folks from Puerto Barrios and where a sliver of sand meets the Caribbean Sea. There are some refreshment stands but little else here. Although locals might try to talk it up, you’ll probably be very disappointed, as the Riviera Maya this is not. If you really want to hit the beach, there are some better options near Lívingston and across the bay at Punta de Manabique.

On the up side, there is at least one pleasant villa available for rent fronting its own private beach in Punta de Palma. Villa Weyu ($750 for three nights) has 4 bedrooms, all with private bathroom, and sleeps eight. It’s got a full kitchen and open-air living room fronting the house’s infinity-edge swimming pool. It makes a nice secluded getaway or a good base for area explorations. The rental fee includes a cook and maid service.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Guatemala.

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