Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad    

A Day in the Life of a Mayan Village

Indigenous Community-Based Tourism in Guatemala

Canoes in Guatemala
Canoes are an important means of transportation for many Mayans.

Guatemala is among Central America’s most popular travel destinations. About a million tourists flock to the small country each year to visit Mayan ruins, colonial towns, and of course the colorful Mayan markets, which are among the highlights of any visit to Guatemala. Although many visitors admire and purchase Mayan handicrafts and textiles, listen to marimba bands, and photograph colorful market scenes, very few travelers venture a step further to actually visit Mayan villages and learn about the culture and way of life of the Mayan people. To offer an alternative to the main tourist trail that leads from Antigua, to Lake Atitlán and the famous Chichicastenango market, several NGOs are promoting stays in Mayan villages all across Guatemala. These visits give travelers the unique opportunity to go beneath the surface and experience the culture and way of life of the Mayan people. In some areas the local NGOs also collaborate with aid organizations, giving visitors the opportunity to do volunteer work while they stay at a village or with a Mayan family.

What to Expect

Most of the NGOs offering cultural immersion programs operate in little visited areas in Guatemala and work with small communities. Experiencing the way of life of the local people is one of the main attractions of these programs, in addition to exploring Guatemala’s fascinating ecosystems, such as cloud forests, remote mountain valleys, dense rainforests, and mangrove-lined lagoons. Staying with a local family or at a village guesthouse is a great experience, but visitors should be aware of local conditions before going into remote areas.

Road conditions to remote villages are usually poor, and you will travel at least part of the way on dirt roads. Expect to spend several hours in a small and crowded minivan, together with other villagers, their children, chickens, and produce. Not all villages have electricity and connections to the outside world are often difficult. There may only be one telephone in the village, and in smaller communities there is only one daily bus or van back to town.

Visitors stay at a village guesthouse or in the hut of a local family, enjoy their meals with their hosts, and are offered a variety of activities, such as cultural events and excursions to the nearby natural attractions. You may also be able to accompany your hosts on their daily work routines, such as visiting agricultural plots or going fishing. Village guests are encouraged to sample traditional foods, but since the villages are poor, you will most likely be served simple meals. In addition to huge piles of corn tortillas, the main staple food of the Mayans, my host family in a small jungle village in the Verapaces region served eggs, chicken, pasta, and beans, which was a simple but varied enough menu plan to keep me well fed for a few days. In case bottled water is not available, it is a good idea to bring a water filter or purification tablets. Also, bring all the extra food and drink you would like to consume during your stay. Some basic items and soft drinks may be available at village stores, but you should not count on it. If you are bringing snacks or sweets, keep the village children in mind and buy a little extra to share. 

Rainforest hut in Guatemala
My host family's hut in the northern Guatemalan rain forest.

Village guesthouses are more comfortable and better equipped, and they offer more privacy than staying in a hut with a host family. If privacy and creature comforts are important issues for you, you might want to consider a village stay, where you can have your own private room at a community guesthouse. Bedding may not always be up to Western standards, and it might be a good idea to bring a camping mattress and/or sleeping bag if you can. Do not expect private bathrooms or showers when staying in a hut with a local family. Most villagers bathe in the nearest creek, which is always a great place for socializing in the late afternoon, when people take their bath after a day’s work in the fields. There are usually outhouses shared by several families. In villages without electricity, candles provide the only lighting after dark, and families go to bed very early. Bring a flashlight and a lantern if you plan to stay up late.

Natural attractions new guest houses
Many villages that host guest have nearby natural attractions.

Keep in mind that you are a guest of the village and of your host family, and not just a tourist. A low-cost stay in a Mayan village should not be regarded as a cheap alternative to hotel accommodation. Spending a few days in a remote indigenous community is very different from staying at a guesthouse or hotel. Staying in a Mayan village is a great opportunity to accompany the villagers or your host family on their daily activities and learn about their livelihoods, food, and family life. You will be part of the family life, and you will stay in the common areas with your host family and have little privacy.  My travel companion and I shared a large thatched hut with the rest of the family during the night. Expect your host’s children to accompany you wherever you go. Your visit is a welcome change in routine for them, and they will be especially attentive if you speak some Spanish and are willing to play soccer with them.  

Soccer with Mayan children
Soccer is the favorite game of many Mayan children.

The Benefits of your Visit

Many of the village stay programs are located in areas of new settlements, mostly by Mayan people of different ethnic background who were displaced by fighting during the civil war. These families fled their home communities and moved to remote mountain and jungle areas to start a new life. Many of these villages are less than 20 years old and receive very little government aid for infrastructure and development. The forests, rivers and lakes are the main source of income and livelihood, and growing deforestation, over-hunting, and over-fishing are having an irreversible impact on the fragile local ecosystems. In some regions the local village communities are paid by the national parks administration to maintain and protect small forest reserves that act as a buffer zone to adjacent national parks. This stewardship program is one of the few sources of income for many communities, in addition to small lots of crash crops such as cardamom, corn, and beans. Although the small number of foreign visitors does not have a significant impact on the local economy, they still make a positive contribution to the preservation of the natural environment through their visit. Hikes and excursions to natural wonders are among the main attractions of many community tourism projects, and your visit encourages the continued protection and sustainable use of the local ecosystem. Staying at the village is therefore not only a great cultural experience, but it also gives the locals further incentive to protect their ecological treasures that attract visitors and bring income to the community.

Where to Go

To experience the Mayan culture and way of life, travelers need to be prepared to leave the Gringo trail and venture into remote and little visited regions of Guatemala. Although access is often time-consuming and difficult, visitors will be rewarded with a rich experience of the diverse ethnic groups that make up Guatemala’s Mayan population. Below I have listed several regions in Guatemala where NGOs help native villages with community tourism projects.

The Cuchumatán Mountains

I have found the Cuchumatán Mountains to be one of the most fascinating regions in Guatemala to experience local Mayan life. The imposing mountain range stretches across northern central Guatemala and is home to many small towns and communities, where visitors can get a first-hand experience of daily life of the local population and their culture. This area was strongly affected by the Guatemalan civil war, when many villagers were displaced by the fighting between the Guatemalan army and guerilla groups. Life is slowly returning to normal, but the remote mountain communities are economically underdeveloped and lack many services. The town of Nebaj is a great base from where to organize a stay in a local village.

The Verapaces Region

The Verapaces region is situated in northern Guatemala, in a transitional zone between the Guatemalan highlands and the low-lying plain of the Yucatán Peninsula. It is equally divided between mountains covered in cloud forest and low-lying rainforest to the north, offering visitors a fascinating and diverse ecosystem that is both home to rare fauna and flora, such as the rare and endangered Quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird, as well as numerous indigenous Mayan communities. Cobán is the region’s capital, a pleasant town surrounded by coffee plantations. It is here where visitors can make arrangements for a cultural immersion experience in local Mayan communities.

The Rain Forest of Petén

Petén, Guatemala’s northernmost department, is a low plain at the southern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula. It is covered with dense rain forest and is a sparsely populated region. Besides tourism to the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal, there is little tourism development and infrastructure. Several NGOs and community projects offer stays in Mayan villages to experience the local culture, visit remote Mayan ruins, and explore the region’s rich fauna and flora.

The Rio Dulce/Golfete Region

The Rio Dulce drains Eastern Guatemala and reaches the Caribbean sea near the town of Livingston. As many other parts of Guatemala, the banks of the Rio Dulce, which are part of a national park, have been settled by Mayans who fled the violence of the civil war in their home communities. Most of these settlements are illegal, and government services are therefore mostly absent. To help these newly established communities, several NGOs and community projects have begun to develop a basic infrastructure to attract socially and environmentally responsible travelers. Several villages offer homestays and stays at community guesthouses, as well as guided tours to explore the region’s rich ecosystem.

Related Topics
Responsible Travel and Ecotourism
Responsible Travel and Ecotourism in Latin America

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