A full run-down of my experience doing a work exchange in Guatemala. I lived in Panajachel on Lake Atitlan for one month for free, and here’s how I did it!
I’m a huge fan of doing work exchanges while traveling. They allow you to save money, meet locals, develop skills, and have interesting cultural experiences.
One of my favorite work exchanges was in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala!
This stunning volcanic crater lake is a hotspot for tourists in Guatemala. Travelers flock here to explore the traditional Mayan towns, kayak or paddleboard on the lake, and soak in the magical, tranquil energy.
I was also intrigued by Lake Atitlan for these reasons. So I looked into work exchanges on Workaway and found GuateSUP!
Fast forward a few weeks and I’m living in Panajachel for free in exchange for working at a local paddleboarding company.
It was a super cool experience and I really fell in love with the landscape, culture, and locals in Guatemala.
For those wondering what it’s like to do a work exchange in Guatemala, here is a detailed article about my personal experience!
Finding A Work Exchange In Guatemala
I’ve used both before and had positive experiences every time!
So when I decided I wanted to do a work exchange in Guatemala, I browsed both websites. I always apply for lots of positions just in case some don’t respond.
But I was thrilled when I got a relatively quick response from JC, a guy from California who owns GuateSUP paddleboarding company in Panajachel.
We set up a phone call on Whatsapp and discussed the work exchange. He required a minimum stay of one month, so we discussed dates and locked it in. It was that easy!
Read my Ultimate Guide To Work Exchange for more details about how this process works.
Booking Flights To Guatemala City
Once my host and I had agreed on dates for me to come and volunteer, I booked my flights to Guatemala.
Guatemala City is the main international airport in central Guatemala. I used Skyscanner and found super cheap flights from Boston for about $120 USD each way with Spirit Airlines.
Once I had booked my flights, all I had to do was get travel insurance, pack, and plan my trip.
JC and I continued to chat on Whatsapp which was super helpful. He advised me on the best way to travel by taxi from the airport and how much I should pay.
I love work exchanges because it puts you in touch with locals that often go above and beyond to make sure your travel experience is safe and seamless!
Spending A Few Days In Antigua
After arriving in Guatemala, I spent a few days in Antigua before heading to the work exchange.
Antigua is a well-known tourist town that is right on the way from Guatemala City to Lake Atitlan, so it was a convenient stopover.
Complete with cobblestone alleyways, rainbow-colored buildings, impressive landmarks, amazing food, and volcanoes towering in the distance, Antigua is a gorgeous city.
I had a blast wandering the photogenic streets by myself and staying in a cozy hostel.
But I soon met up with a German girl named Lea who would also be volunteering at GuateSUP. JC connected us on Whatsapp so we could travel to Panajachel together.
We spent a day exploring the local markets and sightseeing together, then we booked our shuttle buses at the hostel front desk and headed off to begin our work exchange!
Arriving In Panajachel For My Work Exchange In Guatemala
After a few hours, Lea and I arrived at Casa Colonial, a homey hotel and the headquarters for GuateSUP.
We met JC and the rest of the team, checked out the place and settled in to our home for the next 4 weeks.
I always feel a little nervous at the start of a work exchange, simply because it’s hard to know what to expect.
You’re diving into the unknown, living in a new place, surrounded by new people and a foreign culture, and you have to adjust to a new lifestyle and work ethic.
Every work exchange is so different, but it’s always exciting!
The important thing is to just let go! Don’t expect too much, communicate with your host, be open-minded, and get ready for a new experience that will undoubtedly teach you so much about yourself and the world.
Read next: 7 Best Things To Do In Antigua, Guatemala
Living In Panajachel, Lake Atitlan
It didn’t take long to settle in to the relaxed pace of life in Guatemala. Casa Colonial is located on a quiet alleyway just off the main street of Panajachel.
Panajachel is the busiest and most developed town on the edge of Lake Atitlan. So all the amenities we needed were just a short walk away.
I’ll break down the different aspects of life in Panajachel on this work exchange, including accommodation, food, and the other volunteers.
Casa Colonial is set up like a casual hotel, but there were no guests there when we arrived. October is generally rainy season for Central America so tourism is pretty low.
Lea and I stayed in a cozy little room with two single beds and our own bathroom.
There was a nice balcony down the hall that looked out over the street. I loved reading, writing, doing yoga, and having breakfast up here!
The main floor of Casa Colonial was a big, chaotic chill space. There were makeshift couches, tables, and tapestries in the humble seating area, as well as lots of paddleboards, a board repair space, piles of yoga mats, a cluttered desk area, and a small kitchen.
There wasn’t really much rhyme or reason to the hotel, but the focus was on adventuring, yoga, fitness, and socializing rather than aesthetics.
Plus, when you get to live somewhere for free, you should really be grateful for whatever you’re given!
I wrote another article about the best things to do in Panajachel if you need more ideas for the area!
Every work exchange has different meal inclusions.
In this case, particular meals were not included. But Casa Colonial provided staple ingredients like oats, eggs, spices, grains, milk, and sometimes fruits or veggies.
Grocery shopping in Guatemala is pretty cheap anyway, so most people just bought their own groceries and we all shared.
It was a pretty chill environment where everyone had free range of the kitchen and most people just cooked their own meals.
Occasionally we would do group meals if someone wanted to volunteer to cook! Or we’d all get take away pizzas, tamales, or empanadas.
Panajachel’s Central Market was a short walk away. This is was the best place to buy delicious, cheap produce!
Even though meals technically weren’t included, I think I spent about $50 USD on food the entire time I stayed in Pana!
The group of people I lived and worked with at GuateSUP was pretty small.
When Lea and I first arrived, there were two other volunteers named Mariana and Nico. Nico did some incredible photography for GuateSUP, whereas Mariana, Lea, and I were sort of general volunteers.
JC was obviously the owner and main coordinator of GuateSUP. He is a multi-talented guy who is super passionate about water sports, yoga, fitness, and philanthropy.
When he’s not running GuateSUP tours or hosting guests at Casa Colonial, he works with local charities for disabled kids and takes them on paddling excursions.
The only full-time staff member at Casa Colonial was Doña Tomasa, a sweet local woman who took care of housekeeping.
JC sometimes had friends come and visit, but it was mainly just this small group of us 6 at Casa Colonial.
Because Lea and I stayed for the same amount of time and we were roomies, we became best friends! We did pretty much everything together and after Nico and Mariana left, we were the only volunteers there for a couple weeks.
So it wasn’t a super social experience like a big hostel, and I probably would have been lonely if Lea wasn’t there. But we had a blast together and even went on an adventure to Semuc Champey after our month at GuateSUP finished!
Honestly, my favorite part of living at Casa Colonial was the dogs!
JC has three dogs: Bailey, Luna, and Sam. He’s had Bailey the longest and despite being a bit old, she is calm, cool, collected, and super skilled on a paddleboard.
Luna and Sam were strays that JC adopted. There are lots of stray dogs in Guatemala, and JC always gives them food and love. But Luna and Sam are the only ones he’s permanently taken in (so far).
Sam is an adorable dopey guy, but Luna became my doggy bff. I called her my little looney tune and she was so goofy, sweet, scruffy, and crazy.
Every morning she would come sit with me on the porch and she would snuggle up to me on my yoga mat when I stretched.
I seriously loved Luna so much and leaving her was probably the hardest part of leaving this work exchange in Guatemala!
Details Of My Work Exchange In Guatemala
Now let’s discuss the details of the work exchange. What did I actually do in order to get free accommodation?
This work exchange was much more flexible, and I did different jobs every day.
We basically just did whatever JC told us to do. But because it was low season, and JC is a super chill guy, we didn’t really do much work! Most tasks or activities we did felt like fun rather than work.
Here is an overview of the main activities that consumed our days at this work exchange in Guatemala.
Find more info about traveling cheaply in my post: How To Afford Traveling The World In Your 20s
GuateSUP is a tour company that runs paddleboarding excursions on Lake Atitlan. So paddling was our main focus.
Again, there weren’t many guests or travellers, so we mostly just went for paddles as a team. Towards the end of my stay we did have a few travellers join us for a more formal tour, but that only happened once or twice.
But we had lots of epic adventures paddling with just the GuateSUP squad!
We went for long paddles across the lake, practiced fun maneuvers and rescue tactics, and paddled to epic cliff jumping spots.
We paddled through rain, wind, thunderstorms, and we even paddled at night with LED lights. The dogs often joined us and had fun jumping between people’s boards.
Paddleboarding is an excellent way to explore Lake Atitlan’s natural beauty, and we always had a blast out on the water.
We also learned how to transport and store the boards, clean them, fix them, and put the fins on and off.
JC is super passionate about yoga as well. He’s a registered yoga and acroyoga teacher, so he often ran little classes for us.
Again, the classes were usually just for our small group of volunteers with the occasional friend or acquaintance from around Panajachel.
Our go-to spots for yoga classes were the Atitlan Nature Reserve, on the scenic rooftop at Ente Restaurant, and at the beach on our boards.
JC taught us some cool acroyoga poses, and we often challenged ourselves with yoga out on the water.
My yoga skills actually improved a lot during this work exchange!
Because the tours were quiet, we spent a lot of time just advertising the brand on social media.
We always took photos and videos while were paddling or doing yoga, with Nico acting as the professional photographer.
After a day of activities, we settled down on the couch and edited the day’s content.
We added GuateSUP logos to the photos and posted content on the website and social media platforms.
Sometimes we made posts about various events or causes that JC wanted to promote.
If he wanted to raise money for bags of dog food for the strays, or he wanted to raise awareness about his work with the disabled, we posted about that as well.
There were a few times that we helped out with hospitality tasks at Casa Colonial.
Doña Tomasa did most of the housekeeping, but when we had guests we all helped with cleaning, making beds, and preparing the hotel.
I helped check in some guests one time, and once when an older guest couldn’t make it up our stairs, I ran around neighboring hotels to find a good place for her.
This was a great way to practice my Spanish!
Lea and I also painted some fun images on the walls of the common room, including the GuateSUP logo and a volcano scene.
Downtime Activities During My Work Exchange In Guatemala
So that’s pretty much all we did for work!
In our downtime, we had so much fun exploring Panajachel and the other Lake Atitlan towns.
Lea and I went on day trips to San Marcos, San Pedro, San Juan, and Santa Cruz where we went hiked to viewpoints, cliff jumped, sampled local food and coffee, and browsed the shops, museums, and galleries.
JC also took us to some less touristy parts of Lake Atitlan in his truck.
We admired the colourful street art in Santa Catarina, ate the world’s best empanadas in San Antonio Palopo, hiked through cornfields in the mountains, and discovered secret waterfalls.
Lake Atitlan is a truly beautiful place. Living in Panajachel for free was incredible, and I’m super grateful to JC for hosting me!
It was such a privilege to become a part of the local community, learn about the culture, try new things, and make amazing friends (human and canine)!
Thanks for reading about my work exchange in Guatemala!
This is definitely one of the coolest work exchanges I’ve done. How many people can say they’ve worked at a paddleboarding company in Guatemala?
To read about more of my travel experiences around this stunning country, check out these articles:
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