Cultural immersion program to Guatemala

In the November ’05 issue of ITN (page 86), I read with great interest about a cultural-immersion program called Global Awareness Through Experience (GATE). Immediately, I requested information by contacting the GATE office (912 Market St., La Crosse, WI 54601-8800; phone 608/791-5283 or visit

Within a week, Maria Friedman, the North American GATE coordinator, sent me information about her educational tours in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Europe. I chose the Guatemala Holy Week program, which took place over two weeks in April ’06.

This trip would become one of the most interesting and unusual journeys that I have taken in over 40 years of very extensive international travel, particularly because it had a strong cultural and spiritual focus.

Getting started

I used frequent-flyer miles on United Airlines to jet me from Seattle to Guatemala City. Because I arrived one day before the GATE program began, I arranged via the Internet to overnight at the Posada Belén Museum Inn (13 Calle “A” 10-30, Zona 1; phone 502 2253 4530 or, in the U.S., 866/864-8283 or visit This simple but clean and charming hotel ($30 per night) is located in the historic center of Guatemala City, within walking distance of the main square and many restaurants.

The following day I met my six fellow travelers, including our two group leaders, Marie Des Jarlais and Jan Gregorcich, who were — to my surprise — non-habit-wearing nuns. Throughout our entire trip, their enthusiasm, street smarts, cultural knowledge and fluency in Spanish impressed me immensely.

We stayed for several nights at Casa San José, a modest private retreat where we enjoyed each other’s company over delicious Guatemalan meals. Although GATE is operated by a religious group, and we said a morning and an evening prayer together each day, the program itself is nonsectarian.

An honest look at Guatemala

I really enjoyed the camaraderie of our small group because we got along so well. Together we attended many presentations on the present reality of Guatemala, introducing us to its indigenous Mayan roots and existing historical and political perspectives and human rights and concerns.

For example, we conversed with and were inspired by Julia Esquivel, an accomplished poetess, storyteller and political activist who spent 16 years in exile. She spoke eloquently and passionately of her hope for a better future for her country.

We also listened to the tragic story of Emilia García, cofounder of Mutual Support Group, whose adult son was kidnapped and murdered along with 46,000 other Guatemalan men, women and children in the 1980s.

We visited an educational reinforcement program called Project Safe Passage in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Guatemala City. At this center we learned that more than 500 street children survived by scavenging a nearby garbage dump in search of anything they could eat or sell. Now they can go to to the center for one healthy meal per day and assistance with homework, thanks to many volunteers from the United States, Canada and Europe.

What a joy it was to see the smiling faces of these underprivileged children and to hear them sing several songs so loudly that the rafters of the center seemed to reverberate.

High up in the mountains in Quiché Province our group visited the Santa Apolonia Orphanage, a self-sustaining village for about 100 children who lost their parents during Guatemala’s civil war. We toured the woodworking, sewing and shoe workshops there and marveled at the new solar panels that engineering students from Marquette University in Wisconsin had recently constructed over their spring break.

Village visits

At Las Trampas, a Mayan village nestled among tall mountains and dormant volcanoes, the villagers and their community leaders welcomed our group with a formal presentation translated from Quiché to Spanish to English. With great pride they showed us their new water pump that serves 26 of the 150 families of the village. Those lucky families no longer have to fetch water from a nearby river for cooking, drinking and washing. I thought, with some guilt, how easy my life seemed compared to theirs.

We traveled by van to the town of Chichicastenango, where we stayed in a small hotel that served as our base for visiting nearby places.

For instance, in the village of Santa Cruz we visited Christian Action Guatemala, a creative arts workshop for children of the civil war. They proudly posed for our cameras with their beautiful paintings and wall hangings depicting various religious and Mayan scenes.

In a nearby town, we visited a church which had been a place of rape, torture and execution for many Maya people who were among the more than 200,000 civilians killed during the war.

Further options

Over the next several days, my fellow travelers and I also participated in many additional activities as part of the GATE program, including a pilgrimage to the simple rectory of Father Stanley Rother, an American priest from Oklahoma who was murdered; a visit to a boarding school for deprived young girls who would not otherwise have received an education; a lecture and discussion on “The Process of Poverty” given by Father Greg Schaffer, an American priest from Minnesota; a meeting with Rosa Escobar, who discussed women’s rights in Guatemala at the Women in Solidarity Clinic, a modest health facility, and an invitation to breakfast at the home of an expert designer and weaver of beautiful, brilliantly colored fabrics.

Ending in Antigua

Our GATE program ended with several days spent in colonial Antigua, whose architectural glories of Guatemala’s past provide the setting for its struggles of today.

We had ample time to participate in the traditional religious celebration held in the city during Holy Week, particularly on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. On those days, a half-million visitors flood into the city to see the colorful street processions that are second only to those in Seville, Spain.

The land cost for this fabulous 10-day trip was $1,300, which covered all program costs while in Guatemala except for one meal and taxi fare to the airport.

As noted from most of the activities described above, this was not a conventional tour. I highly recommend this and other GATE programs for open-minded folks who want a very personal cultural and spiritual travel experience.