Guatemala volunteer travel is a subject near and dear to the heart of Connie Turvey, who contributed this guest post. Connie is the founder of Grace of Guatemala, a nonprofit organization that works in partnership with Mayan Families and Airline Ambassadors International.
I love that Connie is an authentic traveler and that she welcomes like-minded travelers to join her for weeklong experiences of true Guatemalan grace. I think you’ll enjoy reading her story. There nothing quite like the joy of giving back while traveling.
I am a traveler, not a tourist. For me, traveling to different places and experiencing – I mean really experiencing – unique people, food, culture and ways of life is one of the most rewarding things you can do.
For 16 years, I enjoyed working as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines, where I was lucky enough to make connections with thousands of new people almost every day and soar the skies to every corner of the US. I loved every minute of it. And while I still live for the thrill of constant travel, a few years ago, Guatemala captured my interest and has since succeeded in stealing my heart.
My first trek to Guatemala was purely by happenstance. In 2008, a friend and I were practically en route to Peru, yet at the last minute, since that trip was not working out the prospect of Guatemala caught our eye.
We decided to visit the picturesque landscapes of Lake Atitlan, about a three-hour drive from Guatemala City, where we hopped on a lancha (boat) to check out the many charming lakeside village of Santiago Atitlan. Little did I know at the time, but a casual conversation with a fellow boat passenger would end up changing my life.
An unplanned intro to Guatemala volunteer travel
A young woman began telling me about a local nonprofit organization that worked with the indigenous Mayan populations in the region suffering from extreme poverty. Her mother had co-founded the nonprofit, called Mayan Families, with two other expats in 2007.
Focused primarily on enabling children from some of the poorest families in the region to go to school, I learned that Mayan Families also provides medical, food and shelter assistance to those facing abject poverty. When I went to see the good work in action for myself, I was hooked. Soon I was the official sponsor of seven Guatemalan students!
After my first trip there, I knew it was only the beginning.
A traveler, not a tourist
Earlier I mentioned that I travel, I don’t tour; what do I mean by this exactly? To me, tourists tend to fly to a foreign place, dabble in the attractions, sleep comfortably in a westernized hotel and return home to go on with their daily lives with a few photos to show for it.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but I’ve always believed that trying to truly understand a new place, beyond the souvenir shops, beneath the surface, is a priceless experience. Such travels can forever be etched in one’s heart and soul and can even change the lives of those encountered along the way. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy good hotels.
That’s how Grace of Guatemala started.
Welcoming others to experience Guatemala volunteer travel
I knew I couldn’t be alone in my passion to travel and more importantly, to help. For the past few years, I have invited groups of passionate, like-minded travelers to experience a weeklong taste of true Guatemalan grace. Together we venture to the Western Highlands, a place rich in ancient traditions and natural beauty but teaming with juxtaposing poverty.
By far one of the main highlights of the trip is the time spent in El Barranco, a rural village just outside of Panajachel. It is there that I have spent years facilitating school sponsorships for preschoolers, and where I hope to continue to make a difference in years to come.
I can’t describe how pleased and grateful I am when first time visitors experience the love and adoration of the kids and leave as sponsors. They commit to investing in a child’s life through education, an invaluable gift that can help poor communities and families forever.
A few years after I started Grace of Guatemala, the altruistic group of Airline Ambassadors, whose common aim is to bring “compassion into action,” approached me upon learning about my service trips. So now, we are collaborating in organizing a couple of trips a year and this number is sure to increase in the future.
I’ve only just retired as a flight attendant, but continue to move forward by giving back. At the end of the day, I truly believe I’m just doing what I’m supposed to be doing. And I invite you to join!
Here are the key highlights of a Grace of Guatemala trip, made possible thanks to partnerships with Airline Ambassadors and Mayan Families:
- Duration: 6 nights (5 in Panajachel, 1 in Antigua)
- Meals: Daily breakfast is included, as well as 2 lunches, 3 dinners. Other option during the week are…. one of my favorite places for authentic Guatemalan foods is Pinguino’s in Panajachel, where the owner tells diners the story of Mayan culture against a backdrop of marimba music. In Antigua, we love La Fonda where the caldo real/chicken & rice soup is fantastic!)
- Size of group: Roughly 10-12
- Activities: Visit to Mayan Families, including a tour and overview of programs; visit to El Barranco Preschool Nutrition Center; installation of 2 donated fuel-efficient Onil stoves in families’ homes; home visits of sponsored students; boat trip to San Juan for demonstrations and shopping of naturally dyed, handmade Guatemalan textiles from a 33-women coop called Corazon del Lago; a relaxing day in Antigua where you can visit the the cathedral, the park, the many jade shops, Choco Museo and many of the beautiful ruins in this UNESCO Heritage site, and much more!
- Transportation: All transportation to and from destinations and activities are included
- Accommodations: Groups will stay at the Cacique Inn in Panajachel and at Hotel Bucaros in Antigua
To follow our trips, feel free to sign up for my blog.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Connie Turvey (with thanks to Katy Morris of Mayan Families who co-wrote this article).