by George Nunes

I can’t remember when the realization hit me: after ten years of exploring the Yucatán Peninsula’s Maya ruins I understood quite a lot about the ancient Maya but knew next to nothing about their descendants – the people I saw in the villages I visited and along the roads I traveled. Somehow that seemed wrong.

Having worked for non-profit organizations in the United States, finding a volunteer opportunity in Yucatán seemed to be the best way to get to know the contemporary Maya. A search of yielded a promising experience: teaching English to the employees of Hacienda Chichén Resort and Yaxkin Spa organized by the hotel’s Fundación Maya In Láakeech.

In exchange for teaching English, French, or German about five hours daily, Monday through Saturday, the hotel offers its volunteer teachers free lodging in cozy bungalows and one meal a day. What a sweet deal, I thought! And, the hotel stands just steps away from the magnificent Maya site of Chichén Itzá.

Soon after I applied, José Tamay, the social work coordinator, replied that I was welcome to visit the following June, when having fewer guests at the hotel during low season means that employees can focus on improving their foreign language skills.

The classes I taught during my one-month teaching vacation varied daily and were scheduled when employees could take a break. The first session each morning was with the housekeepers at 8 am, an hour chosen because most hotel guests were still fast asleep in their rooms. At 9 am, I taught the front desk staff; there were still a few hours until the busy check-out time. The restaurant’s waiters came in at 10 am, after the breakfast rush and before lunch. Next, I wandered over to the business office to teach the administrative team. Three times a week, two shy and sweet women were my students: the skilled therapists at Yaxkin Spa, a tranquil, spiritual space.

Among my favorite memories: listening intently to the spa ladies – Manuela and Marcela – quietly and carefully mimicking my pronunciation; watching México play South Africa in the World Cup and using the TV’s remote control to teach such words as channel, up, down, volume, and mute during the commercials; and laughing along with the male housekeepers as they learned how to sweet-talk their wives and girlfriends with phrases like, “I love you, Baby!” and “Honey, don’t be mad!”

You don’t have to be an English teacher to volunteer, although I do have a TESOL certificate. During my stay, other volunteers – none of them teaching professionals – included a young French-Canadian woman, a Russian living in New York City, and two German boys who organized afternoon volleyball games with the staff and taught us a crazy card game called Mau.

Señora Belisa Barbachano, who owns Hacienda Chichén Resort and Yaxkin Spa, began the Fundación Maya In Láakeech to improve the lives of the hotel’s employees, some of whom have worked there for over 20 years. All profits from the on-site Toh Maya Boutique and Gift Shop benefit foundation programs, including health care and education in the employees’ home villages. Señora Belisa was at the hotel during my stay and I’ve seldom met a business owner so passionately committed to corporate philanthropy with a human face.

I remain endlessly fascinated with the creativity and ingenuity of the ancient Maya who built the pyramids and palaces I adore. My fascination with the 21st century Maya has only just begun: I can’t wait to return to my new friends at Hacienda Chichén Resort!

To volunteer or for more information, contact:

• Fundación Maya In Láakeech
Social Work Coordinator: Jose Santos Tamay
Email: [email protected]

• Hacienda Chichén Resort and Yaxkin Spa

By: George Nunes
Email: [email protected]

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