Voluntary Vacation: Hostel Hopping in Guatemala

In front of me, two volcanoes are rising through the skyline like Mother Nature showing off great mounds of green-earth cleavage.  I’m trying to write, but I lose focus, take the occasional glance to see that they are still there.  Last night, I watched one of them, the aptly named Fuego, erupt in spits and sprays before downward currents of glowing lava lit up the mountaintop.  Ironically, the most beautiful thing of all is that it costs me nothing to stay here, and in fact, via work exchange, I make enough tips to cover most of my bar tab (and I’m a cocktail enthusiast).

If you haven’t been to Guatemala, I recommend it.  There are loads of volcanoes, great lakes sprawling through jungle and mountain, Mayan ruins, colonial cities, grand markets filled with vividly colorful strips of fabric, pants, skirts, and blouses.  There are twenty-three indigenous languages, a great variety of fresh tropical fruits and produce, eco-farms a-plenty, massive coffee plantations to tour, and beautiful springs that pour cool aqua blue from caves, creating amazingly crystalline tiers of natural swimming pools.  Not to mention beaches.  And, you can stay here for virtually nada.

In Guatemala, in all the major tourist stops, it is possible to volunteer for hostels, exchanging a few hours of reception service for food and a room, sometimes even a little cash, more or less doing the same hanging out you’d be doing anyway.  What’s more is that most hostels involve themselves in their host communities, provide locals with sorely needed jobs, and provide many ways for guests and staff to join in with NGOs and support projects.  Here are some insider tips for hostel-hopping your way through Guatemala, paying for little more than the occasional shuttle bus or souvenirs, and doing a little good along the way.

La Antigua

Antigua has cobblestone streets, horses and carts, a beautiful parque central in which people congregate for leisurely chats in the shade.  The former capital rests in pastel stucco glory at the foot of Volcan Agua and also has vistas of Volcan Fuego and Acatenango.  It’s a place people come to visit then stay for months, sometimes years, because it offers the comforts of a relatively first world existence, and at the same time, all the treasures of traditionally dressed Maya women wondering the streets with baskets on their heads.

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Antigua has a massive ex-pat population and is probably the number one tourist destination in Central America; consequently, it offers a great number of opportunities for the wily traveler to loiter for cheap and is the base for loads of NGOs looking for volunteers.  Bars and restaurants—try Café No Se or Mono Loco—often hire transients as bartenders, tour companies—see Old Town Outfitters or OX—need English-speaking guides and receptionists, and there are hostels galore, many of which trade food, a bed, and tips for welcoming guests, fielding food orders, and pouring drinks.  Here are a few hostels to hit up when you get there:

  1. Black Cat Hostel/Black Cat Inn is the Antigua classic.  Located a block off the town center, Black Cat Hostel is of the party scene persuasion, with a young, ever-flowing crowd of backpackers.  Just around the corner, the Black Cat Inn is a bit more low-key.  Either way, both of these places are popular spots to stay in Antigua.  There is also a Black Cat satellite in Xela if you’re into a less tourist-y setting.
  2. The Terrace Hostel is a newer place in Antigua, but it has a nice rooftop bar and café, a seven-and-a-half hour happy hour, and a pretty wicked view of Volcan Agua.  It’s a bit swankier than Black Cat, nicer in the room and higher in the price.  If you are into your beer, The Terrace offers a micro-brewed upgrade from Guatemala’s Gallo cerveza conglomerate.  Hostel volunteers, of course, get discounted drinks.
  3. Earth Lodge is actually seven kilometers outside of Antigua and has probably the best view I’ve ever witnessed (the one with the busty volcanoes I previously mentioned).  It’s more of a guesthouse/farm than hostel, with cabins dotted above a slope of 400 avocado trees, which also belong to “the Lodge.”  This place comes by the chilled, hippie feel a bit more honestly than the others.  It’s a good escape and great place to get involved with the local community.  Check out Las Manos @ El Hato.

Lago Atitlan

Lake Atitlan is located about three-hours north of La Antigua, but like the old city, “the lake” is thick with volcanoes and pause-inducing views of them.  Moreover, there is a great variety of villages, each with a unique vibe, ranging from super spiritual yoga in San Marcos to drugs and debauchery in San Pedro to the market mania of Panajachel.  Santa Cruz, which combines party and yogic intentions, is probably my favorite.  Whatever your fancy, Lake Atitlan is a sweet deal because it serves up hardcore chillin’ with a healthy mix of mountain lake activities to keep you entertained, and great chances to work with locals in the surrounding villages.

  1. La Iguana Perdida is Santa Cruz’s hotspot, with a happening bar that intertwines with a laidback hammock area, providing a view so smashing that it distracts from either the partying or the relaxing.  The hostel has a great restaurant, a scuba diving company (which also looks for working divers), and daily yoga classes for those not suffering too badly from hangovers.  “The Iguana” has been around for twenty-plus years and is instrumental in working to keep the lake clean, as well as helping lakeside communities.
  2. Zoola is in a tucked away spot of San Pedro and rocks a swimming pool, as well as some pretty damned authentic Middle Eastern food.  Zoola is one of the more expensive and easy-going places in San Pedro.  It has an awesome communal area with low-set tables and pillows upon which to lounge.  The music can sometimes betray the relaxed vibe, but for me and many in San Pedro, this is the place to be.
  3. Yo Mama’s Casa is also in San Pedro and has a family-style dinner at night and very cheap accommodation, a few rooms but mostly dorms, as well as the even cheaper option of camping or sleeping in a hammock.  The kitchen is communal, so that probably equates to less duties for the volunteer.  This one is probably more suited for a partier, a bit more bare bones in its amenities.

Lanquin

The nearest home to Semuc Champey, a cascade of bluer than blue pools still located virtually in the middle of nowhere, Lanquin takes you way out, away from the bustle of cities.  That said, it’s now a town built on tourism, and its hostels are prone to boom the music at night, cranking up the party after long days of relaxing waterside, taking the occasional dip in the river to cool off.  These hostels cater a little more to backpackers who are willing to get out of the major comforts of luxury tourist zones, i.e. they’re beautifully rustic.

  1. El Retiro is situated beside a river with a nice swath of grassy bank to spread blankets on, toss Frisbees, or hide behind a book.  Its cabins are connected by stony paths and large patches of garden.  Sitting beside the river is an outdoor restaurant/bar with a big covered area for shelter from the sun or rain.  At night, after a buffet dinner, the music goes up, and the party turns quite ritualistic (same jokes and drinking games).
  2. Zephyr River Lodge is more of a hilltop place, showing off some pretty spectacular views.  It was started by two expats who used to work at El Retiro, creating a little cross-town feud.  Zephyr is less contrived than its predecessor and benefits from a wood-burning pizza oven.  There is fun stuff to do on days off: tubing, hikes, hammocks, and swimming.  In spring 2012, Zephyr Lodge suffered a fire, but the place is still operating.

Rio Dulce/Livingston

In the southeastern corner of Guatemala, Lake Izabal drains into the Caribbean Sea via Rio Dulce.  This area is known as an ecological wonderland and is compared to the Amazon in its diversity (maybe an overstatement).  Unlike the rest of Guatemala, temperatures spike upwards here, to proper tropical hot, and the vibe goes much more Rastafarian (actually Garifuna) cool as you approach the coast.  Livingston is so remote that it can only be reached by boat, so if you are into that The Mosquito Coast-type thing, you’ll be into it. Also, there are great opportunities to get involved with good causes in the jungle.

  1. Hotel Backpackers is on Rio Dulce and offers private accommodation and dorm accommodation for backpackers (obviously) and volunteers.  The hotel provides substantial financial support for the nearby Casa Guatemala Orphanage, which has been operation since 1977.  A great restaurant, a great environment, and magnificent surroundings—Hotel Backpackers offers the chance to linger and do some good.
  2. Finca Tatin is further down Rio Dulce and was first described to me as “a good place to bring your mom”, meaning of a more relaxed variety.  Again, this place does a family-style dinner each evening and has a selection of slightly more expensive riverside cabins or less costly jungle cabins.  Either way, it is high on embracing nature and has a lot around it to enjoy.  As of 2012, it’s also relatively new to the work-exchange thing.
  3. La Casa de la Iguana is in Livingston and likes to be known as a balls-to-the-wall party place, unafraid to turn away guests who obviously aren’t geared for the nightly fiesta grande that ensues.  Shifts here are a bit longer than in other hostels; however, the positions are paid and supplemented with tips.  Night shifts are not for the party amateur, though AM workers are said to have a bit more chilled existence.  .

Finca Ixobel

Located just outside of Poptun, a city between Rio Dulce and Flores (Tikal), Finca Ixobel has been around since the 70s and is an entity in its own right.  It is a massive farm (400 acres) that has a natural pool, hiking trails, horse-riding, cave-trekking, vegetable gardening, a chicken coop, and an assortment of sleeping options, from hammock huts to private en suite cabins with bbq pits.  Some rooms are still lit by candle at night.  The place smacks of a family campground in the States, with an easy-going, wholesome vibe.  If your interests lie in learning more about eco-green type stuff and interacting with locals (Ixobel has a huge Guatemalan staff), this might be a cool place to hang out a while.

This is a great start to taking Guatemala by storm: a dozen hostels willing to take travelers on as short-term (or, if the spirits move you, long-term) staff and a great collection of NGOs and community service projects to get involved in.  You could do a couple of months in a colonial town, skip over to the lake, tube around Lanquin, rock away the nights in Livingston, and clean up your act at Finca Ixobel.  These places open the possibility of prolonging your travels by cutting your costs, improving your Spanish for free (with guests and staff), and helping the people who have invited us all into their communities.

For those interested in one day pursuing a life abroad, this is a great non-committal way of testing the waters, finding the right niche, and creating a great network of travel friends and opportunities.  While hostel-hopping is not career-track, it gets you connected with restaurant-hotel owners, NGO directors/volunteers, travel writers, yogis, eco-farmers-builders-innovators, tour agencies, international teachers, seasonal workers, and others well-versed in the options abroad, as well as off-the-beaten prospects back home.  It’s a doorway into the wide-open world of working on the move.

Catch a fight into Guatemala City and read 6 Ways to Have an Indie Travel Experience in Guatemala

Author Profile:  Jonathon Engels, a patron saint of misadventure, has been stumbling his way across cultural borders since 2005 and is currently volunteering in the mountains outside of Antigua, Guatemala.  For more of his work, visit his website and blog.

Photo credits: JurriaanH, Adalberto.H.Vega, all others courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

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