Hospitalito Atitlan, Atitlan, Guatemala


Hospitalito Atitlan

Hospitalito Atitlan is small volunteer based hospital in Santiago de Atitlan.

Hospitalito Atitlan runs a small 24 hour emergency department, with two acute beds. The inpatient facility consists of 4 general beds and two obstetric beds, with capacity for further inpatients if neccessary. There is an operating theatre which is used for Caesarian Sections, appendicectomies and minor procedures. There is a pharmacy, a small laboratory for basic tests only, an ultrasound machine and one enthusiastic man who can perform chest x-rays.

The Hospitalito has a tragic recent history - the town and the hospital suffered a devastating mudslide in October 2005, precipitated by Hurrican Stan. The original purpose-built hospital was buried under mud, hundreds of locals died, and over five thousand people were left homeless. The hospital has since relocated to a temporary site - an old two storey home - and continues to serve the local indigenous community.


Santiago de Atitlan is a town of over 40,000 people, located on the stunning shores of Lago de Atitlan. The town's population is indigenous Maya. Following the devastating mudslides, thousands of locals live in cramped Oxfam refuge shelters (ie tents). Poverty, illiteracy and poor public health services contribute to bleak health statistics.


Guatemala is situated in Central America. It shares borders with Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Salvador, and coast lines along both the Pacific Ocean and Caribean Sea.


Medical Officer

Hospitalito Atitlan welcomes volunteer doctors, nurse practitioners, obstetricians, surgeons, midwives and pharmacists.

Typical Experience:

Our medical experience in Guatemala comprised of predominantly obstetrics (normal vaginal deliveries, complicated labours and preemclampsia), paediatrics, infections and trauma.

Major duties:

  • Manage the emergency department - triage, assess and treat patients
  • Manage inpatients - mostly paediatrics and obstetrics
  • Consult in outpatients clinics.
  • Assist in theatre
  • Assist with / Perform spinal and regional anaesthetics
  • On call to assist in emergency cases

Working hours:

  • General clinic: Monday to Friday, 7:30 - midday
  • Additional specialist clinics: For example, antenatal clinics 2 afternoons a week
  • "Doctor of the day" 24 hour shift: Managing inpatients and working in the emergency department for 24 hours. Depending on the number of doctors available, doctors are typically required to work a 24 hour shift every 4th day.
  • On call - to assist in complicated emergency patients and assist in emergency theatre / anaesthetics. On call is generally reserved for real emergencies and therefore is not very busy. It is negotiable - not all doctors chose to be contactable for emergency cases

Hospital staff:

The hospital is driven entirely by a group of passionate, tireless and inspiring volunteers, both locals and "gringos". Medical staffing at the Hospitalito Atitlan is dependent on volunteers, and can vary significantly from time to time. Typically there are four doctors (two local and two volunteer doctors) to share the workload. Nursing staff are trained locally and sometimes have limited understanding of medicine or simple arithmetics.


It is an absolute requirement for volunteers to speak "workable" (not neccessarily flawless!) Spanish, as neither staff nor patients speak English.

The local people speak a regional Mayan language "T'zutijil". Typically, communication with patients is via a Spanish-T'zutujil interpreter.

Town facilities:

Since transport to Santiago is somewhat limited by a boat ride across the lake, the town has most but not all facilities. There is a daily local market where fresh produce and chicken is sold. One local store sometimes sells fresh milk and cheese, but otherwise dairy food and red meat can be difficult to come by. There are a handful of local eateries, and finally, a group of excellent tacos stalls in the town square.


Accommodation can be arranged through the hospital - options include small single room bungalows on the hospital site, or bungalows on a nearby property. Rent is either free or minimal. Otherwise, privately arranged accommodation can be found in the town.

Phone / Internet access:

The hospital has one computer with internet access.

Getting there:

Travel from Guatemala City involves a bus ride via Antigua to the Lago de Atitlan shore (approximately 4 - 5 hours), and then a 30 - 60 minutes boat rides across the lake.


Santiago de Atitlan is an incredibly beautiful spot - the town overlooks the expansive blue of the huge Lago de Atitlan and volcanoes loom over the horizon in every direction. There are endless travel opportunities: trekking through jungle, climbing a volcanoe, fishing on the lake with local fisherman, horse riding, kayaking, and visiting neighbouring towns and their various markets.

Santiago would also be a perfect base from which to explore the rest of Guatemala - ancient Mayan ruins, colonial Antigua and the Pacific coast.

I whole heartedly recommend Guatemala as a place to work and travel!

Hospital contact:

If you would like to make contact, please email and we will pass your message on.

My contact details:

Dr. Claire Toohey
Medical HMO
Royal Melbourne Hospital
If you would like to make contact, please email and we will pass your message on.
Date of visit: August, September 2006