Habitat for Humanity Review Zacapa Global Village Trip April 2013

June 24, 2013 | By | 4 Replies More

Habitat house Zacapa

In the past I’ve traveled for escape and pleasure. This time I was looking for a more meaningful experience and a cultural immersion. I found both through a volunteer vacation.

As I travel, I’ll document and share my volunteer experiences to help you choose a program that’s right for you.

My first volunteer vacation was with Habitat for Humanity in Zacapa, Guatemala for nine days, April 20- 28, 2013. Family and friends generously donated most of the program fee.

Habitat for Humanity is a faith-based nonprofit that believes everyone should have a decent, safe and affordable place to live. The organization partners with families who: live in substandard housing, unsafe or poor conditions; are able to pay an interest-free loan; will help construct the home. Habitat has helped more than 3 million people around the world.

Global Village Trip Zacapa

Why I chose to volunteer with Habitat

I was drawn to Habitat because they were aligned with my personal mission to work on projects that help alleviate poverty, and my friend who volunteered with me recommended them. We chose to volunteer for Habitat’s Global Village Program, which offers an opportunity to get immersed in a culture and work alongside local Masons and the families who will be living in the homes you build.

I selected a Global Village Trip in Guatemala because it was easier for me to travel to from the U.S. as well as adjust to the time zone. Plus, it was one of the more affordable trips for my budget.

Habitat was celebrating a milestone of serving their 50,000th family in Guatemala during our trip, and that made this build all the more special. Due to the celebration, there were several things that weren’t typical of a Global Village Trip: Getting schwag, music at the worksite, and a dinner dance featuring the best band in Zacapa.

An experienced volunteer who had been on several Global Village trips told me that we didn’t do as much work as other builds because of the large number of teams on the trip. Plus, several ceremonies related to the celebration cut into the work time.

Construction site

Easygoing interview

I signed up through Habitat’s website and emailed the team leader listed on the site, and we set up a time to talk on the phone. She interviewed me to learn about my experiences and see if I would be a good fit for the team.

I’ve never built a home before, but that didn’t matter. I knew how to lift things, use a shovel, hammer a nail, communicate and collaborate with others. I don’t speak Spanish fluently, but that wasn’t necessary either. It helped that I had previously traveled abroad and have an understanding of cultural differences.

After passing the phone interview, I was invited to join the team.

The Zacapa Global Village trip was $1460 USD. In order to secure my spot, I made a $350 deposit with my credit card. Then, I fundraised the remaining balance. I paid for my own airfare and travel-related expenses. Keep on reading for a breakdown of the costs.

Construction site

Team of diverse ages and professions

My friend and I participated in an open trip, which means the program was listed on Habitat’s website and anyone can apply. This is opposed to Habitat’s closed trips, in which team leaders represent a particular organization and select members within that group.

We didn’t meet anyone else on our team prior to arriving in Guatemala. Our team leader facilitated virtual introductions by asking all of us to submit bios of ourselves, which she emailed to the whole team. It was a great way to get an idea of whom we would be working with.

The team spanned a variety of ages and professional backgrounds from mid-twenties, middle age, to the young at heart. Age didn’t matter because there was something for everyone to do regardless of physical ability.

Our group leader did a great job in the selection process because I think we all got along well. Getting people together with a range of personalities can be tricky, but our team was open, understanding, and accepting of each other regardless of individual quirks. By the end of the trip, we got to know one another well.

When we worked on the construction site, the Guatemala affiliate of Habitat provided a translator to facilitate interactions between our team, the family, and the Masons.

A typical day volunteering

We worked for five days Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. depending on personal energy levels and the heat outside. Zacapa is scorching hot! Temperatures ranged between 115 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The work was as backbreaking as you wanted it to be.

A 7 year old helped us shovel sand and an active 74 year old was carrying bricks. One person walked around misting workers with water. Others helped serve snacks and lunch. There was always something for everyone to do whether it working on the build or providing support to construction crew.

After a hard day on the construction site, we enjoyed free time to relax and go swimming. In the evenings, dinner started off with cultural activities and a series of long speeches related to the milestone celebration.

Here’s what my schedule looked like:

5:30 a.m. – 6:00 a.m. Wake up and get ready
6:00 a.m. Eat breakfast
6:45 a.m. Get on the bus to the work site
7:15 a.m. Start working
9:30 a.m. Take a snack break
12:00 p.m. Eat lunch
1:00 p.m. Work until I was tired, but there were buses to the hotel every hour until 3:00 p.m.
6:00 p.m. Dinner, speeches, cultural activity
10:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m. Went to sleep

Type of work on site:

  • Assist masons by moving and laying bricks
  • Mixing and pouring cement
  • Build scaffolding
  • Cut and bend wire
  • Shovel and mix sand
  • Sift rocks

Hotel Atlantico Zacapa Pool

After a hard day at work, several volunteers chilled out at the pool to unwind and cool off.

Global Village Trip site

Working conditions

You have to be especially mindful in a construction site in a developing country. Wires protrude from the ground and parts of the houses. Tools are lying around the ground in random, sometimes precarious places. Stray dogs roam freely throughout the site. Children are present and sometimes helping with the build. And the extremely hot weather was another health and safety factor!

Cultural activities

For the cultural immersion aspect of the Global Village program, we saw a dance performance, played soccer with locals, visited an elementary school, and listened to one of the best bands in Zacapa.

Habitat for Humanity culture activity

School visit

Soccer match

Global Village Trip Zacapa Band

Fancy hotel accommodations – a pleasant surprise

Hotels on this volunteer vacation were surprisingly good. The first night we arrived, we stayed at a fancy hotel where it was actually safe to drink the water right out of the faucet. I was told that this five-star stay was given to Habitat at a discount, and arrangements were made here for security reasons. The other hotels we stayed in Zacapa and nearby Antigua looked like three-star rooms. See the photos for yourself.

Vista Real in Guatemala City

Vista Real Guatemala City Room Review

Vista Real bathroom

Hotel Atlantico in Zacapa

Hotel Atlantico Zacapa Room Review

Hotel Atlantico Bathroom

Posada La Merced in Antigua

Posada la Merced Antigua Review Room.

Posada la Merced Antigua Review Room.

No gourmet, but good food

I thought the food was good. Is it gourmet? No. But, it’s edible. Food was served in a buffet-style line. Portions were good sizes. A few times I went back for seconds. Most of the food was pretty consistent in order to make it easy for your body to adjust. Both meat and vegetarian options were available.

Global Village Trip Review breakfast

The breakfast buffet had an assortment of French toast, beans, scrambled eggs, plantains, fruit, cheese, coffee, orange juice, and cereal.

Habitat Global Village Trip lunch

Lunch varied from day to day. One day we had a chicken sandwich, fries, and fruit.

Global Village Trip Review lunch

Habitat Global Village Trip dinner

While the typical Guatemalan dinner consists of tortillas, rice, beans and plantains, we ate fancier cuisine, with the addition of salads and meats in the same meal.

Safe water was provided

Purified water station

Purified drinking water and Gatorade was provided at the hotels and work site. Many brushed their teeth with purified water to be safe. There was only one day I can remember that purified water ran out at the worksite, but that was toward the end day when most of the volunteers left.

Internal transportation provided

Shuttle service between the airport and hotel was included in the program fee. Here are photos of the types of vehicles we rode on.

Habitat airport shuttle

Since volunteers flew in from various cities and arrived at different times, the local Habitat affiliate was at the airport to make sure everyone was picked up. My friend and I were already in the country a few days before the program trip began, so we met up with the group at the hotel on the first night.

Inside shuttle bus

Comfy bus for city transfers

A comfortable bus with AC and a toilet was provided for transport between cities. There wasn’t toilet paper on the bus which is pretty common in Latin America. One volunteer wasn’t prepared and freaked out about this since he had a stomach ache. Note: Remember to bring your own toilet paper or flushable wipes.

Bus transportation

Old school bus to and from site

Habitat provides shuttle transportation in an old school bus from the hotel to the work site, which was a 25-minute ride.

Habitat for Humanity schawag

Schwag provided:

  • 1 Bag
  • 4 T-shirts
  • 1 Water bottle
  • 1 Pair of work gloves

Again, as I mentioned earlier, this schwag was given because of the milestone celebration. I heard this isn’t typical.

Police escort

Safe, despite risks

Guatemala didn’t feel like a safe country to travel to, but felt I safe at all times with the group. There was a police escort following the bus to and from the worksite. Not that police presence there guarantees safety, but I felt it helped.

If any of the volunteers needed to run to the store, the Habitat affiliate had their team members escort the volunteers as a precaution.

One thing I found odd was that the Habitat affiliate asked us to hand over our passports during our time volunteering, and they put them in a safe. But other volunteers had told me this was common practice on their trips.

Culture shock

There are a lot of things you’ll see that you might not be accustomed to, like the type of poverty or kids running around a construction site. The volunteer I mentioned who found himself without toilet paper in the bus bathroom was a bit culture shocked from that experience. It’s minor, but this can upset someone if they’re not prepared to deal with such differences.

Breakdown of program costs

It’s always a good idea to know how the money you spend or fundraised for an organization is being used. I admit, I didn’t do my homework beforehand, but I followed up with our team leader and Guatemala Habitat affiliate after the trip. The team leader shared her budget spreadsheet with me.

Here’s a breakdown of how the money spent:

Host Program/Affiliate Donation $420
Habitat for Humanity International $200
Misc Travel Costs
Travel Insurance (MEDEX) $27
Medex Secure $35
Hotel Vista Real in Guatemala City $34
Hotel Atlantico in Zacapa $100
La Posada Merced in Antigua $28
In transit (Arrival dinner and Sunday morning breafast and lunch in transit) $29
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinners at site $85
Welcome and Goodbye Ceremonies $21
Food in Antigua – Lunch and Dinner (breakfast included in hotel price) $21
Airport pick-up $75
At host program/affiliate $43.33
Cultural Activities
Participation in 50,000 housing solution celebration $21
Additional Costs
Team Leader’s Adminstrative (phone, printing, postage, conversion costs) $4.33
First Aid Kit $3.33
Contingency $58.33
Host Program Coordinator Costs (Food, lodging and salary of host coordinator with the group) $30.83
Gratuities $42
Team Leader’s Travel Expenses & Habitat Program Fee
A part of Habitat’s program fee goes towards covering the cost of the team leader’s trip. This is one of the perks of being a team leader.
Total $1460

My total trip costs

Cost of the Zacapa, Guatemala Global Village Program $1460
Round trip flight from Las Vegas to Guatemala City (includes bags) $623
Travel shots and medicine $180

Update 06/25/13: The amount fundraised has been corrected after this post was published.

Deposit and donation paid by me $350
Additional donation paid by me $37
Money fundraised from friends and family $1391 $1466
Total fundraised for Habitat
$1778 $1853

Additional money raised after the program fee has been met goes to the hosting affiliate for more and better building materials.

Total cost if I paid for everything $2263
Actual costs I paid since I fundraised $1190

I’ll write off what I can from this trip come tax time.

The impact: 20 homes of hope

The teams that participated in this Global Village trip worked on 20 homes. Many of the houses were not completed by the time we all left, but they were left in a good place for the next group of volunteers to finish. I felt that we helped build hope for future generations of Guatemalans who aspire to have a better home and better quality of life. It was part of their version of “The American Dream.”

What I liked most

The Habitat affiliate in Guatemala was a great team to work with. Those whom I interacted with made us feel at home and went out of their way to make the experience wonderful. One of our team members got really sick, and they did a good job of getting them medical attention. There were a lot of things going on with Habitat’s big celebration and the affiliate adapted to the changes well. I felt that logistics went smoothly.

The culture immersion experience was wonderful from getting to know the family, learning from the Masons, visiting a local school, and learning about the Guatemalan culture. And it was wonderful to witness the hope that future generations of Guatemalans can improve their quality of life.

What I didn’t like so much

The heat could be stifling!

Also, during our last evening in Zacapa at dinner, one of Habitat’s long-time employees (we’ll leave out the name) gave a speech and preached about how the volunteers need to do more fundraising. He told all of us when we go back home to ask others for more money and spread the word about Habitat. This guy also challenged the Habitat affiliate of Mexico, which was also present as part of the celebration, to solicit more money in their country. While he may have been passionate about their mission, a few volunteers in our group felt that the speech was condescending, rude, and out of place, since we spent all week busting our butts on the construction site.

Mixing cement


I admit I was a bit thrown off by the five-star hotel stay. I wondered: Is this a fancy volunteer vacation to attract affluent Americans to make it feel like they are doing something good? I would’ve been content sleeping at a two-star hotel. But I’ll weigh this against what I was told about safety being the reason we stayed at a five-star.

I questioned how much of the program fee went into our team’s accommodations, logistics and cultural activities, versus how much went to the actual mission of helping the people in need. But after seeing the budget, I better understood what goes into organizing the trip.

When I initially arrived in the neighborhood of the build, I was surprised that the homes and infrastructure appeared middle class for Zacapa. I said to myself, “I thought we were helping the dirt poor!” Yet visiting the school in the community was an eye-opener for me because some kids didn’t have shoes and their hygiene was poor. It gave me a better idea of the poverty level in the area.

An 8 on a scale of 0 to 10

On a scale of 0 – 10, with 10 being the highest, how likely am I to recommend a Global Village trip? I’d say 8.

I was overall pleased with how my first volunteer vacation went, but I’d like to do another volunteer vacation with Habitat to see how it really is when there isn’t a milestone celebration. I think the celebration took away from a true volunteer vacation experience.

One of the best things of going on a trip like this is meeting amazing people. That was my experience. I’ve kept in touch with many of the fellow volunteers, and I hung out with a few of Habitat’s affiliate staff while staying in Guatemala beyond the trip. Working toward the same goal with other volunteers with similar values—made the trip meaningful and memorable.

Have you volunteered with Habitat? If so, what was your experience?

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Comments (4)

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  1. Mig says:

    After writing this post and reflecting a bit from this volunteer experience, more questions popped up… How long does the family live in the house? Who buys these houses if and when the family leaves? Are these families buying houses only to rent them out? Is Habitat creating landlords? What happens to these families after Habitat leaves?

  2. Mig says:

    Just wanted to give a big thank you to friends and family who supported and contributed to this trip. We exceeded our goal! You’ve made a difference in a Guatemalan family’s life. https://share.habitat.org/mig-pascual-zacapa-guatemala-compton-team-gv13555/

  3. Stevie says:

    Thanks so much for the update and for sharing details of the trip and your thoughtful reflection of the experience. I appreciate knowing more about what it is like to be a volunteer for an international project because of you. You are an inspiration.
    Stevie recently posted…How to Have a Great CareerMy Profile

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