Your Local Volunteer Placement Agency


A collection of stories from Buena Onda volunteers & staff

The Beauty of Being Outside Your Comfort Zone

I have always found that there’s something particularly special about pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. Whether that means going to a new country, working in a different field, or hiking through the jungle for five days, doing something scary can also be thrilling. Guatemala is a truly perfect country for having these experiences; it is a country that impresses you with its genuine nature, diverse people, and beautiful landscape. With multiple towns surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, natural pools and lakes that make for a stunning view, and an indigenous culture unlike anywhere else, in Guatemala you can truly have a little bit of everything.

By choosing Guatemala, you are choosing adventure, beauty, and the opportunity to step outside your comfort zone. For me, going outside my comfort zone meant hiking through the Petén jungle for five days to reach the ancient Mayan city of El Mirador. This city, which was officially discovered in 1968, is home to the largest pyramid of the Mayan world and before Tikal, was the largest and most powerful city. El Mirador was home to over 200,000 people and advanced architecture with high pyramids and temples placed to represent the compass rose and location of a sunrise and sunset. To this day, the only way to reach the largest pyramid of La Danta is either by helicopter or a 40 km hike through the jungle. The hike begins in the small town of Carmelita and can only be led by 16 guides who are members of the Carmelita COOP and INGUAT. Split into two days, the trek to El Mirador is defined by its swampy, animal and insect filled, and intense jungle environment. When you arrive at the El Mirador campsite, however, it nearly seems worth it as you view the ruins, ancient drawings, and views from the pyramids. There is nothing quite like it; being surrounded by nothing but jungle for miles and miles is a tranquilo experience, even if the journey there was not.

Going outside your comfort zone does not have to mean trekking through the jungle for five days or climbing volcanoes. Yet, it can mean coming to a country where you may not be fluent in the language; or maybe it’s surrounding yourself in a different culture. Central America and specifically Guatemala, is an area that can challenge travelers and students alike, while simultaneously helping them grow; sometimes without even realizing it.


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Volunteer Testimonial: Photography and Storytelling Workshops in Chimaltenango

Greg arrived three weeks ago with his camera and a plan to work with students at a school in Chimaltenango. When he arrived, he knew this would be both a challenging and meaningful experience. After his three weeks, Greg shared these works with us: "Tonight is my last night here, I'm packed, the shuttle is picking me up at 7:30, and it's all a little sad to be going. I've made friends with the tienda-keeper down the street and I've enjoyed hanging outthere with him and his friends. I'll see them again tonight before I go. The tailored-to-fit teaching situation arranged through Buena Onda turned out to be as challenging and rewarding as I had hoped. Buena Onda's coordination, organization, and general suggestions were thoughtful and smoothed over those sometimes bumpy transitions of travel and adjustment. I became a member of the community here in Antigua, not just another tourist, and the students I worked with were enthusiastic, energetic, and overall a joy."

Thank you Greg for spending your time in Guatemala with Buena Onda! Your energy and committment have certainly left a lastly impact on those you interacted with here in Guatemala. 

Experiencing Guatemala: a solo female in Antigua

Having traveled in the past, I knew I was excited to live and explore a new country; I was prepared for entering somewhere new and learning to grow and discover a culture. What I didn’t realize, however, is how different traveling is when you do it by yourself. In the past, I have either went somewhere not knowing anyone, but had a group with me in which to explore with or traveled with family and friends. This time around however, I arrived in Guatemala knowing where I was staying for the first month and with one person in my contact list. Because of this, I have experienced Antigua differently than any other city or country. On my first night in Antigua I went out to one of the many restaurants, which happened to be just down the street. Surrounded by open air ambience and gardens, I enjoyed some delicious pizza and listened to live music. I was already overwhelmed by the fun and welcoming atmosphere and little did I know that I would have similar experiences everywhere I went. The city as whole, only about 9 by 9 blocks, is beautiful, entertaining, and filled with culture.

During my first week or so, I really didn’t leave Antigua Proper, instead I chose to walk around and discover what was hidden throughout the cobblestones. Although I loved the area and all it had to offer, I was also looking forward to getting outside and seeing more of the surrounding communities and the country as a whole. I had a chance to visit the surrounding communities during the following week, when I went on a morning tour with a local organization. Starting in Antigua, we walked through the town until we hopped on a “chicken bus,” old retired American school buses that have been painted and repurposed as public buses. These buses are a Guatemalan experience in itself; generally packed with people, they are brightly colored and the cheapest way to get around. Going up to a small town, San Lorenzo, we visited a school and a family house with two entrepreneurs. After meeting the family and hearing about their small businesses, I was once again reminded by the diversity that exists throughout the country. Less developed and generally more authentic, seeing a different area reminded me that a country cannot be defined by only its best or “touristy” features. As I continue to live and work in the area, I have taken a new approach to discovering the depths of the country. Working with different non-profit organizations all around the area allows me to see another side and meet people of all backgrounds. These experience ground me to the place and remind me that although I’m a “gringa” living in Antigua, there exists more beyond the cobblestones.


Volunteer Testimonial

The Buena Onda staff are always happy to receive feedback from our amazing volunteers. We thought we'd share the first-hand experience of one of our hard-working volunteers in Lake Atítlan. Stephen came to Guatemala and volunteered for six months. His project was focused on nutrition development in a clinic dedicated to the Atitlan indigenous community. You can find the original post here on the blog Volcanoes and Beans.

"For the past nine weeks, I’ve been having a purely ecstatic experience in San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala and I can give credit in large part to Scott Garrison’s stupendous NGO Buena Onda. Granted there have been some serious challenges, most notably some stomach sickness and the near daily occurence of stepping in dog doo. However, by volunteering with the NGO ODIM which provides health services to the indigenouz Tz’utujil of Lake Atitlán, I have a reason to plug into the community and get a rare authentic inside view of daily life. The friendliness, openness and gratitude that I have been shown by the San Juan community quite frankly has blown my mind. The contributions I have made to the clinic in the areas of diabetes and maternal/child health have been valuable enough for the clinic to take me on as a paid employee they had not previously budgeted for. Paid or unpaid, I can honestly say that the experience enriched my life beyond measure. I sincerely thank Buena Onda for giving me the inside knowledge about the towns and the organizations to find the perfect match for me, without which I might not be having the incredible experience I am having now. Buenda Onda costs almost nothing compared to other volunteer placement organizations, and the service is very personalized. Scott will help you work out all the logistics of transportation, accomodation and customs and answer any questions you might have about safety, culture shock, lettuce and which smart phone apps are absolutely essential. Guatemala, according to many linguistic scholars, means colorful land. Don’t miss out on the colorful experience of a lifetime — Contact Buena Onda!" 

Thank you for the feedback Stephen!  

Volunteering Not Voluntourism

      I am a student of International Development and Globalization at the University of Ottawa. We are the dreamers, the social justice warriors, the optimists and the idealists. The program specializes in studying the history and current progress of development efforts in the global ecosystem. Although most of us came into the program with bright eyes and big dreams, it can be easy to fall into a trap of pessimism and cynicism about development work past and present after a few semesters. I think this is one of the great faults of the program. Classes should be factual, but also inspiring and motivating. Although the saying holds true, "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” it is equally important to highlight all the ways that development has also succeeded. 

    One of the lessons we are taught in development work is that, when possible, always try to work with or through the host countries government when embarking on development projects or when delivering aid assistance. Theoretically, and practically, working with the government helps to provide stability to the country because it reinforces the government’s legitimacy. In an ideal world, every government would be responsive to aid and work with donors to provide the necessary services to it’s citizens. Unfortunately, there are cases were the government cannot or will not provide development assistance to it’s citizens. So, what happens in cases were there is a gap between the services that the people need and the services a government is able or willing to provide? 

    Guatemala is the perfect case study to examine how community projects and non-profit organizations are stepping up to fill this gap. We call this grass-roots development. Grass-roots development is important because three decades of development work has proven that the top-down approach isn’t working. True development takes local participation and ownership in order to propel projects towards success based on goals which are highlighted by members of the community, demonstrating real need and real success. Local-led community development projects are the future of Guatemala. Their local specialization work towards alleviating poverty and creating lasting socio-economic change. However, one of the barriers to the success of these grass-roots programs is that they often not centrally located and receive less attention than some of the larger NGOs in the country. This is where Buena Onda comes in! Buena Onda works like a travel agency, but for volunteers. We funnel interested, dedicated and passionate volunteers to provide assistance to our project partners around Guatemala. We work to ensure that each volunteer is matched with a project that requires their time and talents to complete a project, or assist with the competition of their daily tasks. 


    When I first started working for Buena Onda, I was sceptical about the validity of volunteering in Guatemala. I was worried I would be propelling the misguided voluntourism sector. I was wrong. Just like development dialogue, volunteering has got a bad rep, but it can also be a meaningful experience for both the volunteer and the project. Grass-roots organizations are the quintessential start of local engagement and the future of lasting, sustainable development. By engaging local actors, these organizations ensure that the values and needs of the community are represented and respected. Therefore, when a volunteer enters this environment, they are partaking in a community-led project and it truly becomes a bipartisan relationship.

    This bipartisan relationship is important because it eliminates my primary concern with voluntourism, which is that volunteers do not contribute to the project, in fact hindering the progress, due to the lack of knowledge and training. However, our project partners exhibit an exceptional amount of courtesy for volunteers to ensure that the volunteer experience is a symbiotic relationship and positive experience for both the volunteer and the project. The energy exhibited by each project staff member was both inspiring and invigorating. There is nothing more electric than meeting with individuals who share the same optimistic view of development, as well as your commitment to social justice.

    It is important to understanding that skilled volunteers are always in demand; but, skills are not limited to post secondary education. Skills in art, construction and languages are just as useful, and, there is no greater skill than flexibility and initiative on behalf of a volunteer. For this reason, I believe volunteers can make a meaningful impact if they are matched with a project that is looking for their specific skills. As long as you are passionate and willing to adjust to the needs of the project, volunteering will have a meaningful impact on the project. For example, one of our projects is looking for a guitar teacher because they received a donation of 10 guitars. The school was extremely enthusiastic about the opportunity, but the after school program requires a volunteer in order to be able to take advantage of this generous donation. A volunteer who could fill this need would in fact be making a meaningful contribution. Through numerous encounters with project staff, highlighting needs such as these, I have grown to believe that volunteering really matters. 

    Disregarding the fact that projects could seriously use the extra man power, there one more reason that I believe volunteering is important for the global development ecosystem. Above all, volunteering helps to foster global citizenship in both donor and recipient countries. This is an important point because the pressure from global citizens on governments and multinational corporations for social responsibility, development and social injustice will decrease the chances that social injustices both at home and abroad will simply slip under the radar. For this reason, global citizenship, through participation, should be fostered to help ensure a continuous commitment to international aid and development.