Meaningful Immersions: A Week of Culture in Guatemala

JND in Traditional Guatemalan Dress
Antigua, Guatemala cityscape and view of surrounding mountains
Antigua Cityscape

After having participated in an immersion trip with my college’s SIENA Serves Immersion Program last year to Jamaica, I jumped at the chance to go again. Yet, this time instead of being just a trip member I was entrusted to be a trip co-leader.

Partnering with Augsburg Universities, Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE) our trip was headed by two fabulous leaders Gloria and Ali, who ensured that our time was not just memorable but meaningful.

Traveling all around Guatemala City Area, we were able to visit Antigua, Chichicastenango, San Antonio Palopo, Panajachel, Guatemala City, and Antigua . . . again! While I could not possibly be able to share all of the adventures and excursions of the week in just one piece, here are some of the highlights of the trip!

Exploring the Historic

JND in from of the Clocktower of Antigua Guatemala
Famous Clock Tower of Antigua Guatemala

After touching down at the Guatemala City Airport, we quickly loaded up the bus and headed off to the historic city of Antigua. Once arriving in Antigua and settling into our first of many lovely accommodations, the group set off to explore the town.

After our explorations, we settled into what would become a routine of sorts for the week. Meet for dinner, consume amazingly prepared food, and then return to our place of lodging, grab our journals, and meet for our daily reflections.

Immersing in Tradition

The Markets of Chichi

The Markets of Chichicastenango is one of the largest in all of Central America. During our stay in Chichi, we had the opportunity to explore this vast market, discovering all of the homemade artisan goods, and even befriending some locals! My favorite part of the market scene, however, was not shopping (although I bought many a beautiful goodie) but instead when the markets closed for the night. I was amazed to see that, instead of packing up and heading home, many of the stalls actually transformed into an impromptu dinner table, in which all of the vendors would sit down and share a meal after a long day’s work. It was a beautiful testament to the community spirit that is a staple to the success of this market place.

A Mayan Ceremony

After exploring the markets, our group had been invited to participate in a Mayan ceremony. Having traveled to many Central American locales, I have seen the vast temples and grand ancient city grounds that the ancient Mayan civilization had built; I am sad to say, however, that I seldom thought beyond those visits. Not often enough reflecting on how the spirit of those communities has very much lived on, though in new ways.

Participating in this ceremony was an incredibly enlightening experience that allowed for a much grander understanding of who the Mayans once were and who they are today.

The Widows Cooperative


Visiting the Ruth and Naomi Project, a widows’ cooperative, in the indigenous community of Chontalá to learn about the internal conflict from the president and pastor of the co-op is an experience that I will truly never forget. During our talk with these influential leaders, we learned of the civil war that ravaged the Guatemalan country for several decades, hearing first hand the tolls that it took on the communities and the individuals of Guatemala. I will always be inspired by the strength and the spirit that it took for the women of the cooperative to move forward, despite the hardest of odds.

Living Like Locals

A Guatemalan Homestay

In San Antonio Palopó, our group had the opportunity to participate in homestays. Having never had participated in a homestay experience before, I did not know quite what to expect. I certainly do not think that I expected to: make pesto from scratch with my host mom, stay up late with my host sister talking about Guatemalan teen life and school systems, or befriend the 4 (yes, four!) dogs that were looked after by the household.

One of the group’s most memorable moments on the trip, and one of my favorites, was when we went on a visit to a local shop. The initial inspiration for the excursion was simply that the shop was owned and operated by one of the host families for the group. Though we had expected to take a look around, and potentially even purchase some of the merchandise, never did we expect an offer to try it all on! Yet, when in Guatemala . . .

Learning in the Community

CCDA and IMAP

During our trip, we were able to take our learning even deeper into the local communities. Our first meeting was with the Committee of Farmers from the Highlands

(CCDA: Comité Campesino del Altiplano) in which we visited their headquarters and learned all about the struggles of access to land, indigenous rights, food security, coffee cultivation, and processing in the highlands of Guatemala. We followed this visit with a stop at the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (IMAP, Instituto Mesoamerican de Permacultura) in which we learned about permaculture, agriculture, and food sovereignty.

By visiting these sites and listening to our speakers of the day, I gained a deeper understanding of how everything is truly interconnected and solid infrastructure is the key to everything. From politics to farming, to social communities; everything you build works better lasts longer, and is ultimately more sustainable when you build a solid base and plan out a developed infrastructure.

Iximche’ Mayan Ruins

Located in the Central Highlands of Guatemala, the Iximche Mayan Ruins, was an amazing excursion. Having seen many of the larger, more populated ruin-cities throughout Central America, this was my first time visiting a smaller settlement. Though nature had reclaimed a bit of the site here and there, overall the ruins were very much intact. As a traveler and as a student, it was incredibly neat to be able to compare how similar the structures and their architecture were to the other places I had been, despite the distance and years between their creations.

Guatemalan Education System

Several times over the course of the trip our group had the opportunity to visit local schools. From an elementary school in our homestay town (where the principal was actually one of our host parents) to a junior high school a few towns over, to a Jesuit high school, elementary school, and preschool in Guatemala City, we were able to see the difference that private vs public schools have, and that location and resources make a significant difference in the Guatemalan School System.

Reflecting Like a Saint

Catedral de San José

One of my personal favorite aspects of these immersion trips is the aforementioned “daily reflections” portion of each day. Reflecting, both personally in my journal and collectively as a group, I have found allows for a deeper understanding of the day’s events and an overall stronger connection to the purpose of the trip.

It was during one of these reflections that a trip member shared “I would not describe myself as Catholic, but I would define myself as Franciscan.” I was struck by that. For the longest time, I have pondered how to describe my faith, struggling to settle on just one thing when there is so much good to be influenced by. What I identified within that statement, I realized was actually an underlying theme of the whole trip. It is okay to be “part this and part that” and define yourself as a mix of many things. Combinations and blends of ideas and notions, as it happens, make for better infrastructures.

~For more photographs of Guatemala, check out Travel Along’s Photo Gallery.

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