A Little Volunteering… Building Stoves in Rural Guatemala

Last updated on November 14, 2021

A finished and in-use stove!
A finished and in-use stove!

One full hour after starting our project we finally had the first layer of concrete blocks nestled next to each other, absolutely perfectly level and arranged in a large rectangular shape. Mitul and Grace, also volunteers from the Pop Wuj language school in Guatemala, carefully scrapped at the wet red clay while I was nearby hefting up each and every concrete block into tubs of pond water, allowing each block to soak for 10 minutes before taking it to Mitul and Grace. These concrete blocks were the first step toward creating an estufa, or stove, for a small and growing family in rural Guatemala.

This is one of the most instantly rewarding volunteer projects that I’ve worked on because I was right there with the family and creating something within just one week that they desperately need. The indigenous Mayans in rural areas of Guatemala often use small cook fires right inside their homes—these open fires stay lit and smoke up the house nearly all day and into the night. They are used for food, a source of light, and even heat. They’re also dangerous for the children and can cause severe respiratory problems for the women and children who are so often inside of the home for long periods of time.

Adding mortar to the stove!
Learning how to use a level.

That’s where Pop Wuj steps in and lends a hand; with the help of locals within the community a selection process has been designed and Pop Wuj uses language school volunteers (and you don’t even have to be with the school to volunteer) to chicken bus it out to these remote areas twice a week to build cement stoves.  (If you’re only in Xela for a short time this is the perfect way to give back for a day; they go out Saturday and Thursday every week.)

Wielding a machete for the first time.
A delicious lunch with a fresh tamali.

The base of the stove is used for height and to diffuse the heat—and it’s imperative that the base layer of bricks are level or else you spend the next four hours attempting to level other layers using cement compound under and around the bricks … the other group skipped the leveling process and had to strip down hours of work and start over!

The stoves were built in two stages—I was only able to help with Stage One stoves, the base, but the volunteer coordinator hiked with me over to a nearby village to see the finished stoves in action—the families were very proud to show off their stoves.

The entire project is incredibly rewarding and the families receiving our new estufa watched the building process with cautious excitement, the lunch photo was a simple but delicious lunch with an unlimited supply of tamales!

17 thoughts on “A Little Volunteering… Building Stoves in Rural Guatemala”

  1. What a great project to undertake :-) I wouldn't have thought of chopping a brick with machete, it looks awesome though

    • It was pretty awesome – I felt too cool doing it, and then like a total wimp when my arms hurt so bad later that day! ;-)

  2. You did SO much in Guatemala — I've learned so much just reading your blog. Keep it coming! You've done so much good there. That country is going to remain so dear to your heart!

    • I still have some more Guatemala stories for you, so no worries! And you're
      right, this country ranks up there as one of the nearest to my heart, so
      much so that I am pondering buying property there one day ;-)

  3. I didn't even realize there were volunteer opportunities to build stoves. I am with Kate– this is badass. And that first picture is adorable. Definitely looking into some volunteer work in Guatemala already and will check this out.

    Also- been following your blog for awhile but never said hi. Hi.

    • Thanks Annie! If you need any help once you start looking just let me know!
      I loved volunteering in this region of Guatemala :-)

  4. My cousin's girlfriend headed down to Guatemala and was volunteering at a language school. She said it was an amazing experience. I'm tickled with jealousy … I might have to add this to my list of things I must do. :)

    • I would say it absolutely deserves a spot on your “must do” list – after my
      first volunteer experience in Nepal last year I have made sure to continue
      finding something on all of my travels – it's like chocolate for your
      soul…it just feels so good :-)

  5. Dan and I were just talking with his niece about Xela and all the volunteer opportunities there. She's thinking of spending a month there next summer (2011) and she'll be 17 at the time. She's a bit nervous as she's never traveled on her own before, but we tried to assure her that between the school, host family and volunteer opportunities she should be well taken care of. I'll pass on the link to Pop Wuj to her since this type of volunteer work looks right up her alley! Thanks for sharing – it seems like such a fulfilling experience!

    • I know that you and Dan have both been to Xela as well, but if there is ever
      a point where your niece has some questions or something I could offer
      advice on please don't hesitate to give her my contact information! I loved
      Pop Wuj and definitely think that they would foster a welcoming and safe
      first time traveling experience for her :-)

  6. Don't you like how everything can be solved with a machete? It's like a swiss army knife, but useful :)

    It's good to see that the stove building project is around and doing well. I'm glad that people like you are able to go to Pop Wuj and have a meaningful experience, as it meant a lot to me and my wife.

    • I LOVE the machete! It's empowering and you're right – actually useful, they
      use it for just about every task imaginable. As for the stove building
      project – it is still a very key role at the school and was also such a
      fulfilling part of my trip :-)

  7. Wielding a machete in Guatemala…pretty badass! :-)

    I remember seeing lots of stove-building projects in Guatemala with different organizations (the ones that charge you ridiculous amounts). It's nice to know there are projects where you can just arrive and help out.

    • Exactly! I love that they don't charge – it just galls me the amount that
      some of these places charge when people only want to donate their time – it
      makes so many people just skip the volunteer experience! :-)


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