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Touring around Guatemala was hands down one of the most valuable components of the Helping Hands Grateful Hearts trip. Each destination we reached taught me something new about Guatemalan culture, history, and people, which helped shape an entirely new perspective of this country for not only me, but everyone who came to build homes. Going from city to city, activity to activity, helped us see Guatemala for not just the poverty we would witness during the build, but also for the beauty and abundance that this country holds within it. 

My tourism experience began as soon as I arrived. A good friend of the Helping Hands Grateful Hearts family took us to a traditional Guatemalan restaurant in Guatemala City followed by a casual walk around the city plaza, a brief stop in the central market, and finally a stop at a new craft brewery. I was immediately exposed to Guatemala history and tradition as well as how modern development has woven its way into it. The following day only expanded this view as we received a day-long tour of Guatemala City from a previous Techo volunteer. We started the day with a stop at a local craft coffee shop where we tried various types of Guatemalan coffees prepared in diverse ways. I was blown away by how different the coffee tasted compared to the coffee we drink at American coffee shops. Drinking Guatemalan coffee felt more like drinking wine. You don’t just chug it down, rather you take time to savor the flavor profiles. You taste the way it was roasted, the specific coffee bean it was made from, and indulge in flavors from savory to fruity to bitter to rich. As we watched a coffee craftsman expertly prepare various types of coffee from their menu, we got a history lesson in where the various forms of coffee and styles of preparation came from, their purpose, and how to best enjoy them. After having this one-of-a-kind coffee experience, I could see why one might become a coffee aficionado like HHGH’s Secretary, Kevin Johnson.

After coffee, we drove around Guatemala City while our guide, Marcos, pointed out historically significant statues, architecture, and streets. Being naturally inquisitive, I asked for more details at every opportunity. He was a wealth of knowledge and seemed to know every answer to any question I or the HHGH team had. One of the most surprising things I learned that day was that Germany had once occupied Guatemala and that there’s still a large German influence in much of the architecture and certain parts of Guatemalan culture. Our drive took us to our first stop at a small seafood restaurant where we had small tostadas that made me feel like I was eating a rainbow of flavors. From there, we walked to the most up-and-coming neighborhood to see the differences among the various barrios of Guatemala City. It was cool seeing all of the new local businesses that populated the streets there and the natural beauty that was woven into the neighborhood through plants, trees, and wooden playgrounds. We then hopped back on the bus to head to a Mexican lunch spot. Initially it felt counterintuitive to eat Mexican food while in Guatemala, but upon entering the restaurant we could immediately see why this place was a “must eat.” The place was a mom-and-pop shop that instead of being a “hole in the wall” was a hole in a renovated garage! The family who owned the restaurant lived in the apartment above and had converted the garage into a restaurant. The first and most prominent thing we saw as we entered was a large slab of seasoned pork cooking on a vertical broiler, and let me tell you, it smelled divine! It then turned into a Chipotle restaurant-style experience where we chose the type of dish we wanted and then selected from a buffet of ingredients to put into our chosen dish. Without knowing it, I ended up getting one of the largest dishes that ended up being the apple of everyone’s eyes. While everyone enjoyed their tacos, I indulged in a savory, smoky pulled pork dish topped with a toasted cheese that I lopped inside of fresh homemade tortillas (is your mouth watering yet?). I left feeling more satisfied with my meal than I’d felt in a very very very long time and couldn’t imagine walking another step with the amount of food I’d just eaten. But there was no stopping the tour and I was excited for our next destination… the central market! There we found the most gorgeous array of handmade woven crafts, clothes, and toys. I went to town, buying as many cool things as I could find. I ended the day with bags of unique finds that I was excited to share with my friends and family back in the States. 

One crowded bus!

The following day, we headed out to Antigua, an older city in Guatemala that has a rich history. We were taken on a walking tour to a variety of historical sites throughout the city. We started at the ruins of one of the first churches built in the city and our guide walked us through the history of the building and its architecture. We all enjoyed the gorgeous photo-ops it provided. We then headed over to the Jade Museum where we learned all about the jade market in Guatemala and the different types of jade found in both Guatemala and in other parts of the world. We walked through exhibits that showcased how the Mayans and other indigenous cultures have used and worn jade throughout Guatemalan history. One of the coolest parts of the tour was when we all learned our Mayan zodiac signs and nahuales, or spirit animals. My spirit animal was a deer! We then took a long walk to a farm-to-table restaurant for lunch. This was my absolute favorite spot that we visited that day because I’m a wannabe hippie-farmer and made me feel right at home. The restaurant was entirely outdoors and surrounded by lush plants, trees, and the farmland where they grew all the food that they served. There was even live music to put us all in a cozy trance as we enjoyed lovely, fresh meals. After lunch, we headed back to the heart of the city to do some shopping in the markets and grab some local snacks for the road. We had a few hours on the road before we hit our dinner destination and ended the night at an American-owned craft brewery that had a wide array of cuisines from various countries set up at different stations and unique beers that were totally scrumptious. 

The next day was very exciting as we were headed to a lake house just off the coast of Guatemala’s black sand beaches! It was an early start at 4:30am, but we were stopping at a waterfall for an afternoon swim on the way. We had to drive to a town nearby the waterfall and take a 4WD truck through the tough terrain to get to the waterfall itself. I had heard about the truck experience from HHGH crew who had gone on the previous year’s trip and was a little nervous about motion sickness, so I quickly took the offer to sit in the passenger seat for the journey as opposed to standing on the truck’s bed. I got a kick out of hearing “Duck! Branch! Hold on!” being called out from the back as the rest of the crew tried their best to balance during the rocky ride. Although the motion of the ride was rough, the views we saw along the way were incredible. We wound up, down, and around mountains surrounded by breath-taking countryside, horses, cows, wildflowers, and fluffy clouds rolling along the sunny sky. I enjoyed getting to chat with the driver since I could speak Spanish. I learned so much about the town he lived in, which was nestled in the mountains. As we passed through his town, the people were warm and joyful, waving at us and chatting up our driver as he passed. It was sweet seeing a community so connected that it felt as if we were passing through a big family reunion. We reached the waterfall about 30 minutes later and I was psyched to finally cross “swimming at a waterfall” off of my bucket list. We spent the next few hours swimming in the waters surrounding the falls. Almost everyone made the trek to walk behind the falls and jump in from there, but I wasn’t wearing the right shoes for doing so and watched as I tanned in the midday sun. After swimming, the family who ran the 4WD service made us a delicious homemade lunch of fresh tortillas, veggie soup, humongous juicy chicken legs, and beans. It was such a beautiful way to spend an afternoon and to break up a pretty long trip to a new town. 

A moment in time on the black sand beaches.

With tummies full, we made our way to Monterrico. We stopped only once to take a ferry across a river to get to Monterrico, and boy was that an experience! The boat itself was closer to the size of a very large canoe and somehow, through some crazy feat of physics, the bus we rode on got on the boat safely and we all sailed to Monterrico. It was dusk by then and there was something so eerie yet so cool about being out on a swampy river at that time. We were eaten alive by mosquitos, but all of us agreed that it was worth the experience. We then arrived at the dock of Monterrico and made our way to the lake house we’d be staying at for dinner, a lively game of Fish Bowl, and some much needed sleep. I got to see a lot of the house when we first got in, but it’s true beauty shone through the next morning when the sun was brightly highlighting the pool outback, the airy rooms, and the palm tree-filled backyard. While everyone woke up to go to the black sand beaches just down the road from the house, I chose to recover from waking up at 4:30am the previous day by sleeping in. I was glad I did so because once everyone left, the lady of the house, Laura, came by and I got to chat with her about life in Monterrico as she began preparing lunch. Despite the fact that Monterrico was a beachside town, little to none of the homes were extravagant. In fact, to US standards, some of them looked as if they were run down or needed repair. Coming from the US, one would think that the town was poor and life was tough there. It turns out the exact opposite was true. I learned that everyone in town had jobs and small businesses that supported them and their families very well, everyone knew each other,  there was a great sense of community, and no one really thought of leaving Monterrico if they didn’t have too. I think we here in the US believe that if things look run-down or people don’t have careers that our society deems as “successful” or “influential” there must be poverty and people must want to leave. I was thankful for the eye-opening culture shock and it made me crave the simplicity that this town had. No fighting for power or money, just good people making an honest living. The conversation I had with Laura was one of my absolute favorites I had on the trip and it was difficult to tear myself away to hit the beach before lunch. I ended up making my way down to the beaches as almost everyone was headed back, but I ended up enjoying some additional solitude as I watched the fierce waves crash against the blackened shore. 

“The boat itself was closer to the size of a very large canoe…”

After a long walk on the beach, I headed back to the house to stuff my face with another absolutely delicious Guatemalan lunch. Everyone stuffed themselves to the brim and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon lounging around in the hammocks and pool. Just before sunset, we all hopped into the bus again for the activity I was probably most psyched for during the entire trip… releasing baby sea turtles!!! We arrived at a sea turtle sanctuary where they had set out large bins filled with the tiniest cutest sea turtles that they had raised in captivity. Each of us got a bowl with one baby sea turtle which we were to use to carry them about 30 feet from the shore and release to crawl the rest of the way. We all cheered along our spry sea turtles as they scooted their way to the water. Between us and the other groups that were there, we ended up releasing over 1000 baby sea turtles throughout the duration of the sunset. It was truly one of the best ways I’d ever experienced a sunset and we were all sad to part once all the turtles were released. But hunger called and we headed to a local restaurant for dinner. As we waited for our food, we played Telephone and all were boisterous with laughter as Spanish and English sentences collided into what ended up sounding mostly like gibberish– it was a blast! 

The following day was a day with no plans or agendas so that we could all rest up for the next few days at the build site. We all lounged around the pool, made trips to the beach, and enjoyed some time together in the evening. We had a short meeting to prepare us all for the build to come and had a heartwarming chat about what the trip to Guatemala means to the members of Helping Hands Grateful Hearts and what they hope to accomplish through their service. We went to sleep inspired and invigorated for the work we would embark on for the next few days.  

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