Where should I spend my month of studying Spanish and volunteering-- Xela, Guatemala or somewhere else?
February 9, 2010 1:28 PM   Subscribe

I'm hoping to spend a month somewhere in Latin America volunteering and studying Spanish-- where should I go? I'm leaning towards Xela, Guatemala, but open to other possibilities. Have you been to Xela and what do you think of it? Should I be worried about safety in Guatemala? Do you know a great social/economic justice-focused organization I could volunteer with elsewhere in Latin America?

I'm planning to take a month off work this May and spend it somewhere in Latin America, improving my Spanish (which is currently at a low-intermediate level) and volunteering/working with local organizations. I'm hoping to have an enjoyable and fulfilling experience during the month itself, but also looking at it as a way of helping me figure out whether I'd like to spend a more extended period of time (6 months to a year) abroad sometime soon.

The volunteer work is a key part of this for me. I'm basically interested in getting involved with people working together for economic/social justice in their lives, work, communities-- so I'm particularly interested in things like fair trade, worker cooperatives, unions/workers' organizations, community organizing, popular education, etc. (I'm open to other kinds of organizations too as long as they're rooted in empowering local people and are trying to make lasting change to the causes of problems rather than just addressing the symptoms. Basically I'm trying to look at it from the angle of the famous quote: "If you are coming to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you are coming because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.") Anyway, I know that logistically I won't actually be providing a ton of benefit to an organization in such a short period of time (and my very imperfect Spanish will be an additional challenge), but I'm basically hoping to find somewhere (or a couple places) where I can learn about and get inspired by what they're doing, in hopes that it will stick with me and get me excited about coming back longer-term and/or going home and spreading the word and sending donations. (While hopefully not being more hassle than help while I am there!)

I'm leaning towards Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala, because they seem to have a whole bunch of interesting organizations (although I can't tell if it's just that they have a much better internet presence, perhaps due to lots of volunteers) and also they seem to get a lot of people volunteering, including short term, so I'm speculating that many organizations may be better set up to actually take advantage of rather than be inconvenienced by shorter-term volunteers. (There's also a few Spanish schools in Xela which focus on social justice and learning about culture, history, and sociopolitical issues, which is a real bonus for me.)

Besides being very interested in your experiences with/advice about Xela in general, there are two particular questions I have:

-- Terrific organizations: I would definitely be open to going elsewhere if I hear about a group/organization that I'd really love to volunteer with/get to know, so I'd love your stories about organizations/volunteer opportunities in Xela and anywhere else in Latin America.
-- Safety: Does anyone have information/advice on the safety situation right now in Guatemala generally and Xela specifically? It sounds like most of the serious crime (murder, assault, rape, etc) seems to be a result of either not following precautions (i.e. being out after dark) and/or resisting rather than giving up your money/valuables quietly when robbed-- does that sound generally right? From what I understand, Xela is safer than many other places in Guatemala, although I would like to spend a little time in other places while I'm there, like Antigua and Lake Atitlan. I'm most nervous/most unsure about traveling between cities-- it seems like I've read bad things/warnings about any method of travel-- any idea how concerned I should be? In general, I'm willing to stay in at night (and take other reasonable precautions) and I'm okay with the elevated risk of being robbed-- what I'm concerned about is my physical safety. If anyone has informed feedback and would recommend that I choose somewhere else safer, I'd be interested in hearing it-- or if you can offer an informed opinion that safety isn't enough worse in Guatemala compared to elsewhere that it should have a big impact on my decision-making, that would be great to hear too!

Thanks so much for any insight you have to offer!
posted by EmilyClimbs to Travel & Transportation around Quezaltenango, Guatemala (4 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Hi. I'm living in Guatemala at the moment. I haven't been to Xela, but everyone I talk to is either a volunteer or learning Spanish.

Bear in mind that if you're working in a Mayan community it's not so good for Spanish as it's a second language.

Safety - to be honest yeh it can dangerous. If you don't go out after dark you'll probably be ok but can you manage that for 6 months? I know people who've had female friends sexually assaulted..don't wanna put you off, you can go a long way with common sense, but it's a fucked up country in some ways.

Presumably you're a woman in which case I'd say be wary about travelling on your own. I usually go out of town with friends and still watch myself.

For example, we recently went for a night out in the city and got a cab back and the cab driver picked up his columbian friend who was fucked on cocaine..we had to listen to him ranting and foaming at the mouth, trying to persuade us to come back to his house. I wouldn't fancy that on my own.

I live in Antigua de Guatemala which is a more tourist oriented and is kept safe by the police..might be worth considering. There are lots of Spanish schools and social organisations you can volunteer with.

Hope that's not too negative...I 've had a great time.

Let me know if you have more questions.
posted by Not Supplied at 4:17 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I spent about two weeks in Xela about three years ago, I quite liked the city. You're right that there is more of a volunteering vibe going on, most of the Spanish schools will have connections with organizations. Opportunities are not hard to come by in Antigua either, but there seems to be much more of it in Xela. Some schools are specifically oriented toward a particular mission, Habitat for Humanity, battered women's shelters, etc.

I felt like during the daytime it was very safe, and at night it was slightly dangerous outside of main thoroughfares. However, I'm a pretty big guy, so that might effect my perceptions. I had several friends who were victims of petty theft while I was in Guatemala, so it's something you need to take account of.
posted by bluejayk at 7:50 PM on February 9, 2010

Best answer: I spent a couple of months traveling around Guatemala last year, including a month in Xela studying Spanish.

Xela is a neat place with a lot of worker cooperatives and outdoor opportunities and volunteering opportunities. I was a "full time" student at a Spanish school there. We had five hours of one-on-one lessons in the mornings and then in the afternoons we had the choice to do a social activity with the students and teachers or we could volunteer our time to tutor under privileged kids. I did some of the social activities (salsa dance lessons, trips to a local hot springs, soccer games), but I also really enjoyed my time tutoring. Once a week, the social activity was going to a local tech school (one with low fees and underprivileged kids) and having conversation hour with the kids in English class. We didn't need any Spanish to do this and the kids got to have some practice with native speakers as well as some cultural dialogue and experience sharing. I also went to private homes once or twice a week to do one on one tutoring with primary school kids. These kids came from poor backgrounds and their parents were often illiterate and innumerate. I had a decent level of Spanish, so I could communicate with them and, let me tell you, one of my proudest accomplishments was teaching long division to a nine year old completely in Spanish.

There's also a really cool weaving cooperative called Trama Textiles where you can sign up for weaving lessons. It's a worker cooperative, you get to learn how to do traditional backstrap weaving, and you get some Spanish practice in on the sly (chit chat with the women plus a wealth of weaving vocabulary!). I also stayed with a family (organised through my school) where I got to eat meals with them and practice Spanish a lot more, which was great.

My month in Xela was really fun and incredibly beneficial for my Spanish, so that ticks one of your boxes. You're also really interested in volunteer opportunities and ways to make a difference. I agree and feel the same way. Here's my take on the best way to do this. The best way to support the people in and around Xela is with your money and the custom you give to local business. There's a lot of really cheap labour in Xela, but not a lot of capital, and this is something that you can really help with. By enrolling at a Spanish school, your $140 / week is going to support your teachers and their families, the school administrators, and possibly even to support local kids in school - the kids I tutored privately were all from poor families with no resources for schooling, but my Spanish school financially supported 70 children at school. By spending some money to learn how to weave, you are not only learning a really neat skill, but also helping to support a worker cooperative and providing jobs for women who would otherwise have very few opportunities - plus, you get to chat to them while you're weaving and tell them how much you support them and how cool what they're doing is. By staying with a local family, you are providing a much needed source of extra income which is probably what allows them to eat more nutritious food and send their children to school. It's not really much money to us (I think I spent $200 / week total while I was there), but it makes a big difference to the local community.

I knew some people who did "environmental volunteering" - planting trees, etc - but I would always think of the conversation I had with my Spanish teacher: I could spend 10 hours one day labouring, learning how to plant trees, or I could give $20 and support two men, the sole earners for their families, to spend 10 hours planting trees and do a much better job of it. If planting trees (or whatever kind of volunteering you're looking to do) is something you're really really into purely for the sake of that activity, I still think it's worth it. But I would always be aware of what a few dollars from me would mean to a local family. I still really enjoyed the volunteering I did - tutoring local school kids in English and other subjects was amazing - and I found it really easy to find such opportunities while I was there.

I also spent some time in other places around Guatemala. I really didn't take a shine to Antigua (it seemed much more commercial and less socially aware). The other big place to study is around Lake Atitlan. San Pedro is a good party town, Panajachel has a lot of US retirees. I'm really happy that I studied in Xela, but I quite enjoyed the short trips I took around the country. It's a really beautiful place.

Enjoy your trip! Feel free to ask any more questions either in thread or by mefimail.
posted by mosessis at 11:56 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, forgot about safety issues!

My boyfriend felt really safe there. He would walk alone at night, but he's a big tall guy. I felt a little unsafe, but I was never physically threatened. I never walked by myself at night, but all the people in my school were really attuned to this issue, so guys would often come to the girl's houses to walk with them after dark. One of my housemates, an 18 year old Guatemalan university student, got robbed at knifepoint at 8 am. But, he was visibly listening to tunes on his brand new expensive smart phone - not super smart. I never wore flashy jewellery or carried expensive things or carried much cash.

We did a lot of inter city traveling and I always felt really safe, but then again I was always with my big tall boyfriend. We always took local transport: the "chicken buses", and had a really great time doing it. The school had trips planned every weekend, so that's a really good way to go if you're by yourself. There's also mini buses (10 seater vans) that run between all the major tourist towns. They're run by the hostels and only used by backpackers, so that's another really good way to get around if you're by yourself.

I wouldn't let fear of being unsafe affect your decision to go, but I would be cognizant of safety issues while you were there. It's more unsafe than most places I know in the US and I had to do a little more planning and take a few more precautions to feel comfortable.
posted by mosessis at 12:07 AM on February 10, 2010

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