Church near the Parque Central
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Church near the Parque Central
From the author's collection
Antigua\'s central plaza
PHOTO
Antigua's central plaza
From the author's collection
Dock at San Pedro La Laguna
PHOTO
Dock at San Pedro La Laguna
Church in Antigua
PHOTO
Church in Antigua
From the author's collection
Lake Atitlan from Panajachel
PHOTO
Lake Atitlan from Panajachel
El Templo a Minerva in Quetzaltenengo
PHOTO
El Templo a Minerva in Quetzaltenengo
For those interested in working in a truly “developing” or third-world country (unlike Mexico, which is considerably more developed), Guatemala offers a number of attractions. For one thing, it is a very popular place for North Americans and Europeans to go to learn Spanish, since it is one of the cheapest places in the world to do this.
 
In addition, you get a very interesting cultural experience, as a large portion (more than 50%) of Guatemala’s population is indigenous Maya. While not a choice destination for nice tropical beaches (the beaches are considerably better in neighboring Mexico, Belize and El Salvador), Guatemala has plenty of other tourist attractions, including fantastic Mayan ruins, erupting volcanoes that you can climb, and one of the most beautiful mountain lakes in the world.
 
Finally, Guatemala is not a terribly long distance from the U.S.; in fact, my wife and I drove there from California, and had a fantastic road-trip through some interesting regions of Mexico along the way.

If you do decide on Guatemala, there are generally three major cities where you can find work teaching English:

Guatemala City – the capital, this very large city is probably the least attractive option for many people, thanks to the high crime (mostly due to violent street gangs) and a general lack of cultural charm. Expect to see lots of American-owned franchises, from Marriott to Hooter’s, in the well-to-do areas. On the other hand, plenty of neighborhoods are dangerous, and some are decrepit. On the bright side, there is a myriad of universities and colegios which might potentially be looking for an English teacher. Here you can probably find the best schools and the highest pay.

Antigua – this small colonial mountain city (more like a large town) is exceedingly charming, with lots of crumbling 16th century churches, nice restaurants, and indigenous markets, all ringed by 3 towering volcanoes. It is one of the prime tourist attractions in Central America, which can be either good or bad, depending on how you look at it. It’s certainly easy to find English-speakers and meet travelers there. Lots of people travelers study Spanish in Antigua.

Quetzaltenango – better known by its pre-colonial name Xela (pronounced SHAY-la), this is Guatemala’s 2nd largest city, and it’s a popular destination for travelers and social workers looking to volunteer, as well as for people who want to study Spanish the full-immersion way (often including a home-stay with a Guatemalan family). It’s a little grittier and definitely cheaper than Antigua, and it attracts a generally younger traveler scene. This is where I spent the past 14 months teaching English, and it’s what I’ll describe in more detail in the rest of this article.

 
The Basics: Money and Expenses  As you might have already guessed, you’re not going to get rich teaching in Guatemala. Just as it’s very cheap to study Spanish here, the money you make in Guatemala won’t go far in the US. The range is anywhere from about $1.75 an hour to about $14 an hour. Fortunately, the cost of living is also very cheap, and you should have no problem finding a room to rent for $100 a month or less.

As for accessing your bank account, this will be no problem if you have a debit card. There are ATMs everywhere, and most cities have multiple options. Visa is much more common than MasterCard; however, if you have a MasterCard debit, look for the yellow 5B ATMs, which are the most common in Guatemala and can be found in almost every major town.

 
Teaching Opportunities in Xela  The following is a summary of the opportunities that I know of for prospective English teachers in Xela. This may or may not be a comprehensive list.
 
Universidad Mesoamericana - This university is where I spent my final 6 months, and I highly recommend it for several reasons. One is that it is probably the highest paying opportunity in town. If you can provide proof that you have a bachelor’s degree or higher from any accredited university, they’ll pay you a little more than $14 an hour, and you can teach up to something like 20 hours a week.
 
Another good reason is that they employ a number of English teachers who are native-speakers. The main drawbacks are that they don’t provide benefits and they don’t offer any real training, so if it’s your first English teaching job, the task of going in cold may be a little daunting. Classes are generally in the evenings (5:30pm-9:30pm) and on Saturdays; if you’d rather not teach on Saturdays, this is an option here. The university is located just north of Zone 1, a couple blocks from the commercial hub around the Democracia marketplace.
 
If you’re interested in teaching there, the timing is important; the semesters start at the end of January and the beginning of July, so you need to be there to interview in early January or late June. The person to talk to as of this writing (August 2006) is an ex-pat American named Dean Morrison, who is the coordinator for the English program.
 
You can also find the university online but the website mostly describes the main campus in the capital and has very little info about the Xela extension. Of course it’s also listed in the local phone directory.
 
Instituto Guatemalteco-Americano (IGA) – IGA is a very well-respected non-profit institute that specializes in teaching English. They hire a number of native-speakers to teach English, and the pay is not bad – if I remember correctly, they pay about $400 a month for teaching about 20 hours a week, and they offer the best benefits you’ll find anywhere in the country.
 
IGA also have a very specific teaching method, and you’ll go through a few weeks of training (this is free, but you’re not paid for it) before you start teaching classes here. IGA has locations in both the capital and Xela, but I am only familiar with the Xela location, which is very conveniently located in the central Zone 1, only about 4 blocks from the central plaza, at 3rd Calle and 14A Avenida (across the street from the Royal Paris restaurant). IGA hires whenever they need a new teacher, so to find if there are any opportunities opening up, contact Claudia de León online.
 
Colegiois – Pronounced “coh-LAY-hee-ohs”, these are privately-owned primary (K-6) and secondary (7-12) schools, of which there are dozens in Xela. Many of them offer English classes, and some prefer to have native-speakers. The one where I worked for awhile is called Colegio Mixto Señor Sepultado, a small K-6 school for mostly poor indigenous Mayan kids, located on 8th Calle about 50m from Parque Calvario.
 
This kind of work can be challenging, because they probably won’t have many resources for you. For example, I needed to create my own curriculum and use a textbook I had bought in one of the local bookstores. Another potential hindrance is that you really need to have at least an intermediate level of Spanish to work at most of these places. Nevertheless, the work can be rewarding, especially if you’re interested in teaching kids. To contact the colegios, you can find listings in the Xela yellow pages. The key is to contact them in December or early January, since the school year starts in mid-January and ends in mid-October.

Spanish School ICA (Instituto Centroamericano) – This outfit is primarily a Spanish school, but they also offer some English classes. Teachers work 10-20 hours a week, including weekends, for about $3.50 an hour. If they’re in need of a teacher, you can even set up a job before you arrive in the country. Contact Enrique Diaz online.

Inter-American School (IAS) – The Inter-American School is a good option if you like the idea of working in a devoutly Christian school. The school is operated by an evangelical missionary association, and teachers are expected to participate in Christian activities and include Jesus Christ as a focus of daily lessons. The location is on the outskirts of the city, so it is not the best location. I’m not sure about the pay, but you can find more info online.

Best English School – The ultimate “starter job” or “plan B”, this school is almost always hiring English teachers. However, due to the low pay (about $1.75 an hour), teachers tend to come and go here. The director, Joel Maldonado, is an exceedingly nice guy, and he has a good set of materials that will allow even a first-time teacher to get comfortable quickly. Classes tend to be one-on-one, which makes things easier on first-time teachers. You can work up to 30-40 hours a week here, including Saturdays, if you want to put in the effort. Unfortunately, this school has no Internet presence, but fortunately, it’s very centrally located at 12th Avenida 10-21 in Zone 1, and Joel speaks some English if you want to call him at 011-502-7761-2167.

 
Private Lessons – Another option pursued by some teachers (including yours truly for a few months) is to put up fliers around town offering English classes. This “takes out the middleman”, so to speak, and can be economically beneficial for both the teacher and student. When I did this, I charged $3.50 to $4 an hour (per person), depending on whether they agreed to take the class 5 hours or more a week. (It’s better all around if you can get a student to take the class for at least an hour each day.)
 
As for classroom location, you can always use your living quarters if you are comfortable with that. Often the student will ask you to give the class in his or her house, which I never had any problem with. If neither of these options will work, there are a number of coffee shops around town where it is common to see teachers working one-on-one with students (both Spanish-to-English and vice-versa).

Reality Check – Climate   One of the biggest mistakes that people make when coming to Guatemala is not bringing enough warm clothes. Just because it’s in the tropics doesn’t mean that the weather will be tropical. All of the big cities are in the mountains, and Xela in particular is at more than 7,500 feet elevation! High temperatures in Xela hardly ever go above 70°F in the summer, and it typically goes down into the 40s at night. You will need a jacket all year long here!

Another thing to consider is that in Central America, the rainy season usually goes from May through October. During this time of year, it rains almost every day – not all day, but at some point during the day. In Xela, the mornings are usually nice, and the rain comes in the afternoon. In fact, the Guatemalans refer to this time of year as “winter”, even though it is still in the northern hemisphere where most places are celebrating summer. On the contrary, the Guatemalan “summer” occurs in March and April, which are the warmest months. As for November through February, these months are generally dry but cold.

Reality Check – Crime  If you read the news about Central America, you might get the idea that it is very dangerous to travel there. In fact, for the most part, it is no more dangerous than traveling anywhere else. In Guatemala, buses are occasionally robbed by bandits, but this is mostly in the capital, where crime is rampant anyways. Also it is common to hear of pickpockets operating in crowded markets, so common sense and preventive measures are a good idea.

In Xela, I only heard of 2 instances of serious crimes committed against foreigners in over 14 months of living there, with thousands of foreigners having had no problems during that time. Both incidents were rapes, committed by groups of Guatemalan men, occurring after 2am when the bars close. The reality is, in any developing country, women need to use extra caution after dark. Walking alone is a bad idea, and if possible, a male escort is recommended. In some places, even taxi drivers are not to be trusted at night, though I never heard of this being a problem in Xela.

Where to Stay  Since Xela is visited by so many foreigners seeking to learn Spanish, there are a number of living options. The Spanish schools themselves often put students up with local families to give them a perspective of how Guatemalans live.

One of the most common choices for people who are going to stay awhile is to live with other foreigners in a shared-living space or communal house. There are several options like this, including one that is also a public yoga studio (“Yoga House”) and another (Entre Mundos) that acts as a liaison between local NGOs and the volunteers who want to work for them. In these kinds of places, you’ll probably have your own private room, but you’ll share the kitchen and bathrooms with 8 to 10 others, generally a mix of young Americans, Europeans and Australians.

If that sort of thing doesn’t appeal to you, there are private apartments for rent all over town. Some are roommate situations with other foreigners, and some are truly one-room apartments. You’ll have to walk around to some of the cafes and bars to look at the ads and flyers posted there to see what’s currently available.  Finally, there are 2 hostels and plenty of hotels, especially in the central Zone 1. The hostels can easily become long-term living quarters, but remember that you’ll be sharing the kitchen with dozens of other people. The cost for a hostel room is about $3.50 a night.

 
More Information  For more information about anything in Xela, there is a great website run by an ex-pat American named Tom, and this site has an excellent discussion forum where you can post any specific questions, which will be answered by other English-speaking foreigners who are already living in Xela.