I honestly had no idea what to expect when I signed myself up to do a week of medical volunteering in Guatemala. I have read good and bad things about volunteering, but decided to keep my mind open about the whole thing. I’m glad I did!
After a full day of flying and layovers in various airports, myself and my co-worker Ian, landed in Guatemala City around midnight on February 4th. We picked up our bags and headed for airport security. Prior to leaving, I had raised money and gathered a few medical supplies to give to the medical project, so I had a giant suitcase full of prenatal vitamins, children’s multivitamins, Tylenol, Advil, tape, gauze, lice treatment, soap, shampoo, bandaids, gloves, and more. I was very nervous about getting through security on that end. No one in Canada had questioned it. I had to open my bag for a security officer and he pried around a bit but realized everything was sealed and he honestly didn’t seem to care that much, so he let us go without any trouble.
Once through security we were supposed to look for a man with a yellow smily face and our names on a paper. Well, he had a smily face flag, but no names on paper. He also didn’t know how to say our names, since he spoke very little English. We eventually got things straightened out an piled into his truck and headed out for Antigua. It was smooth travels, since it was so late at night. Thank goodness!
We arrived at our homestay just after 1 am. Her name was Julia and I think she was less than impressed that we were arriving so late, but she greeted us and showed us our rooms. She said breakfast was at 7:30 and unfortunately it takes me a while to get settled down, so I went to sleep just after 2 am.
We got up for breakfast and had scrambled eggs and black beans. I thought it was quite tasty. Afterwards, we decided to go on a walk of the city. Ian’s roommate, Gur, agreed to come with us and gave us a bit of a tour through the city. We did the walk that was outlined in my Lonely Planet guidebook. There are several churches and ruins of convents that you have to pay to get into, but they were pretty neat to see anyway. Right away I could tell that Antigua is an absolutely beautiful city. The cobblestones were so pretty (but honestly, not very comfortable to walk on). Gur helped me to get a SIM card for my phone, so I’d have data while in the country. It cost about 10$ Canadian, and was well worth it.
We visited the iconic arch, Arco de Santa Catalina. Somehow we caught it at a time when there wasn’t an incredible amount of tourists around, because we walked past the arch many times after that, and it was always packed with locals and tourists.
We hiked up to the Cerro de la Cruz, which honestly just about killed my lungs. I’ve never been at this altitude in my entire life, so doing even moderate exercise was a challenge. The cross overlooks the city and you can see all three volcanoes from there as well.
We had lunch with Gur at a little place called La Cocina de Paula. The chicken was very yummy. After that, we had to get our things and head over to Maximo Nivel for orientation and another tour of the city by the staff there. This particular tour included the McDonalds, which was well worth checking out. The company isn’t allowed to advertise like they do in North America, so it’s in a large Colonial style building with a beautiful garden with a fountain in the centre. It’s the nicest McDonalds I’ve ever seen. We received our placement information and a bit of a booklet on the Spanish words/phrases that would be helpful at the clinic.
Afterwards, Ian and I walked around the city and got an ice cream for dinner.
The next morning we met Jorje at Maximo Nivel, who is the medical coordinator there. He showed us how to use the bus system, which is bananas by the way, and how to get to our volunteer placement. To catch the bus, you go to a big parking lot area, where a whole bunch of busses stop and somoene will get out and yell where it’s going, like “Guate Guate Guate!” if they’re going to Guatemela City, or “Alo Alo Alo!” for Alotenango. You have to run and get on as quickly as you can because they will leave before you get on, and definitly before you get seated. Once you get out of the city, a man will come around and collect the fare, which was 4Qs. The ride is wild and you will definitly wonder if you’re about to die a few times per trip. We got off at the end of the line, and walked about 10 minutes down a big hill to the clinic.
There’s something important you need to know about the clinic though. No one speaks english. And we couldn’t speak Spanish. So it was very interesting to say the least.
The clinic is small but they do so much work every day. They see upwards of 40-50 patients per day, plus have a prenatal clinic, a small lab, a immunization/child health room, and doctor visits. They also have a dental room but no one was there when we were. We met the staff and got acquainted with the building. We were asked to cut some gauze because the staff was busy with an emergency when we got there, so we happily obliged. Their gauze comes in a gigantic roll and you have to cut off 4X4 pieces for them to sterilize. It makes you very thankful for the pre packaged, already sterile gauze.
After the emergency was dealt with, we began by meeting with the triage nurse, and starting on some traging. We did weights, heights, blood pressure, pulse, and temperature. The nurse would speak to the patient about the reason they were there, and then they would go back out into the waiting room.
After getting used to the triage room, we spent some time in the immunization/child health clinic. We did plenty of immunizations for children, and even a few adults. We helped the nurse with weight and height so she didn’t have to do everything herself.
After that, we spent a little bit of time with the doctor in his office, seeing patients. We didn’t stay there long that day, as it was our first day. We rode the bus back to the city and then went out for some lunch. That day we ate at Cafe De Miel and I had a crazy big yummy salad and a smoothie. It was a great little cafe. After, we walked around the city a bit more, which is beautiful so it’s easy to just wander the streets.
We decided to book a chocolate workshop at the Choco Museo. It was super interesting. We got to see and learn all about where chocolate comes from and how it’s made. We even roasted, ground, and made our own Cacao paste and hot chocolate, as well as chocolates. They were so yummy. I made sea salt and coffee chocolates. Yum!
After that we opted to eat supper at Los Tres Tiempos. I had a traditional Guatemalan dish called Pepian. It was pretty good. I like trying out new dishes and I love seeing what local people eat.
The next day we caught on to the busses and got to the clinic just fine. We jumped into triaging people and must have done a good job because we got a thumbs up from the triage nurse, who just left us to our own devices after a while. That day my feet hurt so badly from walking so much the night before that it was a bit of a hard day for me. I will definitly take better shoes next time! My belly was really upset all night and day too, so that added to it.
After our shift we decided to find something more north American for lunch, so we found Cafe Sky (after a lot of walking and getting lost a couple times). I had the mushroom soup and grilled cheese. It was SO good! The view from there was freaking phenomenal though. After that, we decided to chill out at the Maximo Nivel headquarters since we were tired and I wasn’t feeling well. They had a great wifi and another great view, and a nice little garden to sit.
For supper we went to Cafe Condensa for a slice of cake and a late. It was SO good! I really enjoyed that cafe. I think we ended up eating there 3 times.
Later that evening we went out to Guacamole and Salsa at Maximo Nivel. I sat and studied my Spanish because I felt like it would be helpful at the clinic the next day. Ian attended salsa dancing which he enjoyed immensely.
After another great day at the clinic, we ended up eating at Cafe De Miel again, where I had the craziest waffle covered in Nutella. Just thinking about it right now makes me drool a bit. We attempted to go to Hobbitenango but we didn’t know that you can only really do the full tour on Sundays, so we devided to wait and get the full experience. We ended up going into pretty much every single shop in the city centre.
The next day, our ride home from the clinic was insane. The capacity on the bus says 75 people and there was definitely 110-120 people on board, no joke. Ian had a woman sitting on his lap breastfeeding her baby and I had a lady half on my lap with her potted plant. It was SO full it was nuts. I don’t know how they kept stuffing more and more people on there, but they did.
Later on we had a late lunch at Cafe Condensa. Try the omelettes. SO good! Then we chilled a bit and then went on a night walk in the city. It was beautiful!
The next morning our walk from the bus stop to the clinic was wonderful! I looked up and saw that Fuego was letting off a bit of steam. It was amazing to see!
This was our last day at the clinic and it felt a little sad. We were just getting used to working there, getting into a routine. It was sad to say good bye but it was nice that we were able to do something nice for them. Before I left home, I put out a message to my home town asking if anyone would like to donate for supplies for the clinic, and so many people did. We were able to present the clinic with an Ottoscope kit since theirs wasn’t functioning anymore.
After work we had a really not great lunch at Chimino’s restaurant. Ian wanted to try it out because the picture of the burgers they had in their door looked good. Well, that’s about the only good think about that place. The pictures. They made their food look nice but Ian’s burger was rancid and my nachos were just meh. That afternoon we finished the rest of our souvenir shopping and then went out to share a pizza and turned in early-ish.
Saturday we took a tour to a coffee plantation with Filidelfia Coffee Tours. It was pretty cool. I had no idea what it took to grow and process coffee. We got to have a fresh cup of coffee at the end of the tour but they didn’t tell us that we only had about 5 mins to drink it so we ran as quickly as we could to the souvenir shop to get ourselves a couple bags of coffee, and then it was back to the truck to go back into the city.
We met a couple of Canadian girls on the tour who we had lunch with afterwards. We went to Monolocco and I had an amazing burrito the size of my head and Ian and I shared dessert nachos. So good!
Later on we walked around the streets in the evening. There are a lot of tourists in the city on the weekends. The streets are very busy, and some streets are almost impassable. There was a bit of street preforming and things like that going on.
Sunday morning we slept in and then went out for breakfast at Cafe Condensa again. I loved their omelettes and the bottomless coffee was worth it.
After breakfast we headed up to the Hobbitenengo office where we waited for our ride and played beanbags. The drive up the mountain was crazy. So many twists and turns that I’m sooooo not used to. We got dropped off at the parking lot for Hobbitenengo. Here’s a tip. No one speaks English so they won’t be able to help you, but if you go there, wait for the trucks. Walking up that mountain was HORRIBLE. Especially when we found out that we could have had a drive.
Once we got to the top of the mountain and caught our breath, the place was amazing! Hobbitenengo is a little eco village built into the top of the mountain. It has hobbit homes you can rent out, a restaurant, a bar, entertainment, carnival games, and lookouts you can hike to. They have a pretty cool rope swing out over the edge of a small drop off. The whole place supports locals, promoting them to go finish high school, and then having a job ready for them when they finish.
At the bar, I had a Hobbitjillo, which was a very complicated, but tasty coffee drink. Ian finally tried out the Pollo Cervesa (chicken beer) which is the local popular beer. We chose not to eat there because we weren’t really hungry at the time, and it was closing soon. We enjoyed the view and explored around the village a bit more but then took a truck back down to the bottom of the mountain to wait for our ride back to Antigua.
After exploring a few more markets and stores, we had dinner later on at Monolocco again, and I had some of the best tacos I’ve ever eaten. We packed up to be ready for travel the next day, and turned in as Ian had to get up at 3 am to travel.
The next day I got up at about 7 and went to have some breakfast. I went to El Viejo Cafe and had a nice coffee and eggs on toast, then went back to our homestay to catch my ride to the airport.
Overall, it was a wonderful trip. Antigua is charming and welcoming. There are so many fantastic places to eat, and tons of things to do. We did choose not to do a lot of evening adventures because our schedule made it difficult to catch tours in the evenings. I would recommend this to anyone who can step out of their comfort zone and help out in a different way.
If you’re interested in volunteering through Maximo Nivel, this is their website! Check it out! It’s super affordable and they take great care of you!