After the first year of medical school, you will have your last official summer vacation ever. Noooo… So you will want to make the best of it. Some people will do research, others will volunteer, and others will just chill on the beach.
I chose to travel and volunteer at the same time. I knew I wanted to travel. I love exploring new things, learning new culture, and most importantly, making new friends. But I also wanted this experience to be productive, something I can put on my resume when I apply to residencies. So why not combine pleasure with business?
I did a bit of research on what the class before me did for their summer. Lots of them participated in medical programs offered by Maximo Nivel. Lots of the upperclassmen had positive things to say about Maximo Nivel. So I decided to sign up with it as well. All we had to do was figure out where we wanted to go. The options were Costa Rica, Peru, and Guatemala.
Costa Rica was the most expensive of the three, so it was quickly ruled out. An upperclassman told me about her experience in Peru. She said it was a bit cold, so I quickly ruled that out. I wanted summer to feel like summer — hot. So I chose Guatemala. Little did I know that during our summer, Guatemala would be a bit cold and rainy. Still, it was an awesome experience and I am glad I chose it.
My One Month Experience in Guatemala
After the decision to go to Guatemala has been made, I grabbed four of my friends and we flew to Guatemala. Half of us would spend two weeks there. Another half of us would spend a month there. I spent a month there, for pretty much all of June 2011.
When I stepped out of the airport, I was quite surprised at how small the roads and parking lots were. We were no longer in the US. In the US, the airports have wide roads and large parking lots.
Our Maximo Nivel contact was waiting for us. He carried a sign (maybe a piece of paper) with my name on it, Alex. I approached him.
“Alex?” he asked.
“Si (yes).” I replied.
“Como estas (how are you)?”
“Bien, y tu (good, and you)?”
My basic knowledge of Spanish was coming back to me.
Our contact was also our transport and drove us from the airport in Guatemala City to our destination in Antigua. Antigua is a very beautiful city that caters to tourists. Once we got into Antigua, the van began to shake. I looked out the window and I noticed that the streets were not paved, but made of cobblestones.
Notice the cobblestone streets and colorful houses. Antigua is certainly different from the US.
We were dropped off at our first destination, Maximo Nivel’s building. We got to meet the staff members and received an introduction on where we were going to stay for the month. After the introduction, we were dropped off at the place we will call home for the month of June: a big house on top of the hills, which was quite a few blocks away from Maximo Nivel. In a way, being further away from Maximo Nivel was a blessing in disguise. Since there was no access to a gym, the longer walk would take the place of my usual exercises.
Whenever we would walk to or from Maximo Nivel, we would pass La Merced, a beautiful church in Antigua.
After we dropped off our luggage, we walked to Maximo Nivel. We went to orientation. It helped us get acquainted with our surroundings, such as finding the nearest banks for money exchange, noting places to eat, etc. It also helped us understand what was expected from us when we volunteered.
Even though orientation was one day long, Maximo Nivel employees would help us whenever we needed it. They helped us ride the chicken bus, which is basically a painted school bus. It is kind of similar to the bus system in the US, except that they squeeze as many people as they can into the bus. In one row, they can fit 6 people. There is no personal space on the chicken bus.
This school bus (better known as chicken bus) is pretty pimp. It is amazing how many people you can fit into a bus if you really tried.
The Maximo Nivel employees introduced us to the nurses and doctors that we would volunteer with. The employees played a big part in make sure our experiences there went smoothly. In the end, I became good friends with some of them. We would go to restaurants together, go to clubs together, and more.
Antigua is a beautiful city. Here are just some of the pictures that my friend took.
I don’t know what this place is called. It was a photo exhibit. You can tell this was in Guatemala because of the Guatemalan flag.
Cerro de la Cruz. In the background you can see a dormant volcano. We had to climb up a rather large hill to get to the top.
El Arco de Santa Catalina. At night, Antigua is quite a sight. Notice the puddles on the ground. It rained pretty much every single night.
Maximo Nivel’s garden. I had my Spanish classes in one of the surrounding classrooms. Want to know what’s better than Spanish class? Spanish class and fruit! My teacher and I ate fruit (pomegranate) from the garden and we conversed in Spanish.
A mime is dueling another man on the streets of Antigua to win the heart of the little girl.
Travels Outside of Antigua
My friends and I worked hard and played hard. (Actually, I pretty much just played hard. My time in the clinic and in Spanish class did not feel like work at all.) We went to many different parts of Guatemala. We even went to another country over the weekend.
Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm. This could still be in Antigua, but we did have to ride the chicken bus for a while before getting here. All the trees in the farm grew Macadamia nuts. The path is made of Macadamia nut shells.
La Casa del Mundo. This is the coolest hotel I have ever been to. It was a two hour drive from Antigua but it was worth it. We got to the hotel by boat. I also promised my Guatemalan friend who took me there that if I ever went back to Guatemala, I would treat her to a weekend in La Casa del Mundo.
As we visited the village surrounding La Casa del Mundo (above), my friend took a photo of a poor little girl dipping her feet in sewage water. Poverty is pretty much everywhere in Guatemala.
My friends and I also spent the weekend in El Zonte, El Salvador. El Zonte is a tiny surfing village. While Guatemala was cool and rainy, El Salvador was sunny and hot. I really enjoyed my time there and would recommend you go there if you get a chance, especially if you like surfing. This is the only place I know that serve curry chicken pizza. It wasn’t too bad. But if there is one food you must try, it would have to be pupusas.
This video was not made by me, but it captures a lot of what I experienced. I was on the same pickup truck, lived in the same hotel, walked on the same beach, and was with equally cool friends.
What was so amazing about El Zonte was that the beaches were not white, but black. I stuffed the black sand into a glass Coca-Cola bottle to take back home but it was confiscated in the airport. I should have put it in my luggage instead of in my carry-on. If you ever go to El Zonte, I would appreciate it if you can bring me some black sand.
Medical Experience in Guatemala
Every weekday, I volunteered four hours in a clinic on the outskirts of Guatemala City. It is a charity-care clinic, which means that the medical care and medications are free. Most of the patients were Mayan mothers and children.
I stayed in the same clinic for a whole month, so I got to see many different things, such as a guy coming in which an almost-severed thumb. I helped out in the suturing. For diabetes day, I took a metal lancet and pricked the fingers. I then squeezed the finger so I can get a drop of blood onto the blood-glucose measuring device.
After the fifth patient, I stopped because I felt like I was hurting the patients. I cannot tell for sure until I do it on myself one of these days.
I also gave shots. I learned about what parts of the butt to avoid when giving shots. I became a pro at measuring blood pressures. And there are so much more that I have seen and done. Overall, it was a very, very positive learning experience.
Here are some photos of the clinic:
A mother and her baby is entering into the pharmacy. All the medications are free.
This is the patients’ waiting area.
Group photo of me and my friends, which include fellow medical school students, nurses, doctors, ancillary staff, and a translator.
But what I loved more than the medicine were the people: the patients, nurses, and that one translator. (Since everything is in Spanish, if your Spanish is not good enough, you can get a translator to help you.) I became very good friends with the nurses and the translator. We dined together and hung out together.
There are lots of really nice places and countries to explore in the world. But what made Guatemala such a memorable experience were the people and the friends I made there. Be bold, be friendly, and learn your Spanish so you can communicate.
If you decide to go to Antigua, Guatemala, let me give you a few tips to help you adjust.
Overall, Antigua is a safe place. It better be because it is a tourist attraction. In the club, even with cute girls in the group, there was no creepiness or intrusion of private space. Guys did not come over to grind on them.
With that being said, do have some common sense. Try not to walk alone in the night, especially if you are a girl. This one time, police stopped by the side of the road when we were walking and offered to give one my friends a ride. We never met them before. She rightly said, “No.” Don’t get into a car with strangers. I could not tell if they were just trying to be nice, but if it was me, I would have declined the ride as well.
Since Antigua is a tourist attraction, the prices of food in the restaurants are comparable to that in the US. You can expect to spend about $10 – $15 in a nice restaurant.
Meat is relatively scarce, at least compared to the US. I remember buying a whole rotisserie chicken for 50 quetzales, which is about $7 – $8. In the US, I can buy a rotisserie chicken for $5.
If you are not a carnivore, unlike me, you can spend much less on food.
My favorite restaurant is Ni-fu Ni-fa, a steakhouse. Maybe because I was quite meat deprived, but I thought the beef was so good. I guess it is from Argentina. But even if it was not from Argentina, it is still the best tasting beef I ever had. Ni-fu Ni-fa also has a buffet salad bar so you are guaranteed to leave the restaurant stuffed. The meals are on the pricey side though, maybe around at $20-something per person.
There is absolutely one food you have to try if you are ever in Antigua. It was a gem that I did not find until 2 weeks into my stay. You must try the torito, which is the best burger you can find in the city. It has eggs, cheese, onions, burgers, and grilled buns. You can find it in a tiny grease pit in the entrance of La Bodagona, the biggest supermarket in the city.
Each torito is 12 quetzales, which is about $1.50 or so. It is well worth the price. I have almost a bottomless stomach. But after 3 toritos, I was stuffed. This is one the best and cheapest source of meat I can find. When I introduced my Guatemalan friends to it, they were hooked!
If you scroll to the top, you can see that I already mentioned the main Guatemalan transportation, the chicken bus. The price is not so bad, maybe about 7 quetzales or about $1 each way. It was how we got to and from the clinics every weekday.
You will also notice another curious transport as you walk around Antigua, the tuc tuc. The tuc tuc probably exists in other parts of the world, such as Thailand, but this was the first time I have ever seen one.
The tuc tuc. This little thing can surprisingly fit quite a few people. It can fit 3 Americans or 4 Guatemalans.
I did ride in a tuc tuc, not because I wanted to, but because I had to. My friend and I wanted to eat in a restaurant on the other side of the city. We tried walking to the restaurant that night but we only got half way. It was pouring. If we made any missteps, our shoes would be soaked. The rain was so heavy that we could not cross the street if we wanted to keep out shoes dry. The water was about 3 inches high on the streets. So we had to ride the tuc tuc to get to our destination. I thought that the water would get into that tiny vehicle but we were ok.
You can also get a taxi but that is more expensive.
Review of Maximo Nivel
My main goal for the summer was to:
- volunteer in a medical setting
- learn more Spanish
- have fun
And through Maximo Nivel, I did accomplish all of that and more! As I mentioned earlier, the people who worked there were extremely helpful and friendly. I even became good friends with some of them.
The overall price of the program was not too bad. The medical program for one month was $1,000. Since I ate out frequently and traveled a lot, I did pay extra for that, but that is not related to Maximo Nivel. I also paid $400 for my plane ticket, but that was not a direct Maximo Nivel cost either.
With a $1,000 price tag, Maximo Nivel hooked me up with a nice volunteering experience (four hours each weekday), Spanish class (two hours each weekday), baracha and cha cha dance lessons (two hours each Monday), room with a host family, and three meals a day. My friends and I were disappointed in the meals though, but that is due to the stinginess of the host family.
I already explained my volunteering experience. I also already covered my adventures sightseeing and traveling. So let me speak a bit more about the Spanish classes. When I first arrived in Guatemala, I did not recall much Spanish even though I did live in Spain previously. If you do not use it, you lose it.
By the end of my time in Guatemala, I could talk about complex subjects in Spanish, such as how insulin worked on the body. I was having conversations with natives in Spanish. The Spanish teacher I had was really nice and really enthusiastic. If you make an effort to learn, you can get a lot out of the Spanish classes.
If I could go back in time, I would not mind skipping college and just spend four years in Guatemala instead. I would be totally fluent in Spanish. And it would be cheaper than paying for college.
Maximo Nivel is not just for medical students. Although I wrote about my experience as a medical student, I met people in various stages of their lives, from high school students to people who are taking a break from working. I met Canadians, Swedes, Japanese, and more. Maximo Nivel is for those who are not afraid of a different culture and environment. It is for those who want to learn Spanish by immersion. It is for those who want exposure to clinical medicine. It is for those who want to meet one of the friendliest people in the world.
If you are a high school student who is interested in medicine, this is for you. If you are a college student who is interested in medicine, this is for you. If you are working and want to change to a medical fiend, this is for you.
Do I recommend Maximo Nivel? Absolutely.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. And if you are going to sign up with Maximo Nivel, feel free to let me know how your experience turned out. That would mean a lot to me.
When in Rome… ehrr… Guatemala, do as the Guatemalans do.
This article is part of the How to Survive Medical School series. Click on the link if you want more tips and hints about surviving academic hell.