By Ellen Sanders
I had always dreamed of going to Guatemala. I don’t know why, but it was just a country calling my name to come visit. However, whenever I heard about Guatemala in the news, it was far from positive and it made me kind of nervous about ever visiting. At some point, Guatemala was ranked at the same level of (in-)security as Iraq, and I wasn’t really planning on going there either, was I..? But I kept hearing amazing and inspiring stories about that little country in Central America, so last year I decided that visiting ‘Guate’ was very high on my ‘it’s better to regret something you did than something you didn’t do-list’. I ‘took the risk’ 😉
I wanted to spend some more time in Guatemala than just a vacation. I had finished my studies and wanted to get some cool experience before starting ‘real life’. A friend of mine had done a LanguageCorps TEFL course in Peru and said that it was the best thing she ever did. She knew that LanguageCorps had a program in Guatemala too, so I applied for the course in Antigua, got accepted, and started planning my trip.
Still a little (okay, a lot) nervous at the airport, I found my taxi driver who was waiting for me with a smiley face flag, and still a little nervous about getting pickpocketed, sexually assaulted, murdered, while in an earthquake with a volcano erupting all at the same time (I’m joking but I’m actually not) I got into the van. He spoke a little English and clearly enjoyed interacting with foreigners. He talked to me about his country and asked me questions about mine, while I was looking outside of the window a bit ‘wowed’ by all that we saw on our way to Antigua. Yes, the first day of traffic in Guatemala-City is a bit overwhelming, but once we got out of the city, it got more and more beautiful as we got closer to Antigua and I slowly started feeling more calm and incredibly happy about my decision.
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The WOW-factor went to 100 when we drove into Antigua. Colonial, colorful, all houses were only two stories high, so the churches were basically the biggest building constructions in town. The city was surrounded by mountains covered in green and Volcano de Agua was majestically looking over the town, powerful, but it didn’t scare me.
We made a pit-stop at the institute where my TEFL certification would take place and after check-in, a building tour, and my first cup of Guatemalan coffee, I was taken to my host family. Despite being tired, I wanted to explore the town immediately. I was STILL a little nervous, and all the bad news stories had not fully left my system, but luckily there was another girl staying at my host family who was also doing the TEFL course, and she was happy to go with me and show me around.
What I really like about Antigua is that it’s very small, you can walk everywhere, there are no busses in the center, just taxis, but I only take them at night. During the day, I walk everywhere, I feel totally fine walking by myself, I often hike up to the Cerro de la Cruz. From the beginning, I was so impressed with the wonderful vibe in town and how nice people are. I kept thinking ‘WHAT a pity I had such a negative image of the country, it’s a BEAUTIFUL place’. Yes, things happen and it’s not all puppies and sunshine, but I’ve been in American cities where I felt way more uncomfortable than here. Antigua is lovely and tranquil, and so are the towns and villages surrounding it. Lake Atitlan is my favorite getaway for the weekend. If you stay smart, you’ll be fine, just be smart. This means that you should always be careful with your belongings wherever you go and keep an eye on your drinks at all times when you’re at a bar. If you go home late at night, take a taxi. And dress appropriately, you’re not at the beach. But if you think about it, doesn’t this apply to anywhere in the world?
My host dad runs a small tourist agency and he told me after the volcano Fuego erupted in June 2018, tourism dropped down and a lot of people canceled their trips to Guatemala. People seemed to think that the whole country was covered in lava! The funny thing is, Antigua is just 16 kilometers from the Fuego volcano, but other than some ash in the street, the city was hardly effected. People came out to clean the streets and after one rain shower, it was all gone. Everything was back to normal, apart from the travel industry. Tourism dropped off, right when the country needed everyone’s support. This really makes me sad and I think we should be more considerate and think about how and why we travel.
I’ve been here for almost 7 months now. The TEFL course was incredibly fun and I learned A LOT. I had some experience teaching children back home and my TEFL trainer set me up with a school here in Antigua where I’ve been teaching ever since. I try to tell as many people as I can about Guatemala and everyone who visits me agrees — this is a BEAUTIFUL and very special place, Guatemala deserves to be visited. Those who let themselves be led by their fears really miss out. Guatemala will forever be in my heart and I will never regret the day I decided to come here!