Taking Spanish lessons in Central America?
April 12, 2012 6:45 AM   Subscribe

What should I know about going to a Spanish school in Guatemala?

I'm thinking of going here in a couple of months to learn some spanish before I go off exploring Central and South America for a while -- any reason I shouldn't go to that particular school? Any recommendations for other schools (not just in Guatemala, anywhere in Central America) -- any particular concerns about visiting Guatemala (aside from what I can read from the State Department)? Any personal experiences that people want to share about similar schools?
posted by empath to Travel & Transportation around Guatemala (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Though I was across the lake in Santiago I had a friend at Casa Rosario and went there a few times. It's great and lovely and my friend had a good experience. The whole area is lovely and the people are friendly. Just use common sense and don't hike the volcanoes without a guide. San Pedro is more tourist friendly than some of the other villages around the lake (other than Pana). So keep in mind that while it's not unexpected to sit around smoking pot and playing drums in San Pedro, somewhere like Santiago is way more conservative.

Also, every price is negotiable (unless it's a restaurant that specifically caters to tourists). But stores, people selling things on the street, tuk-tuk (little motorbike cab) rides, boat rides, everything--it's okay, and expected, to haggle. And it's a fun way to practice your Spanish :)
posted by greta simone at 6:57 AM on April 12, 2012

I had a wonderful time at Proyecto Linguistico in Xela. Wonderful staff. Great host families. Lovely city. Opportunity to stay on a coffee "farm" in a more rural setting. One on one lessons and educational opportunities. Many of the teachers survived the civil war and have fascinating stories to share about it, lessons. Xela also has a lovely coffee house/chocolate "Chocolat" type place where they shave chocolate shards into your hot cocoa and coffee. A vegetarian restaurant that grows its own veggies. And buses to Lago Atitlan and other places of interest in Guatemala were easy to get to/navigate.
posted by anya32 at 7:07 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I lived in Antigua Guatemala for a few years, and pretty much everyone I met had passed through a language school there at one point or another, and real problems were extremely rare. As so much of what you get out of it depends on the teacher, the schools tended to be very keen on switching you to a different teacher if you thought things might not be quite clicking.

More likely to be a problem is the quality of food at the host families; they get paid a fixed amount by the school and their profit obviously depends on keeping costs low, with the result that some students end up on a very rice-and-bean-heavy diet. The schools tend to monitor complaints about this and prioritise the more popular homes (after all, those don't actually cost them more), but mention any problems to the school and they should help you switch once your first week is up.

Obviously, check that this is the policy at Casa Rosario. Also don't commit to any more than the initial week -- if you do have a problem, or even want to switch schools for another reason (I much preferred San Marcos to San Pedro, for example), this makes everything much easier.

Finally, the typical week is 4 hours of classes, 5 days a week, and cheap. Don't make the mistake of thinking that you'll learn twice as fast if you do double the hours (i.e. both the morning and afternoon sessions.) 8 hours-a-day of one-on-one teaching is exhausting, don't do it.
posted by robtoo at 7:11 AM on April 12, 2012

It's been four years since I studied Spanish in and traveled around Guatemala and then the rest of central America. But with that disclaimer:

I think Guatemala is a fantastic place to study Spanish. Definitely get a home stay if possible while in school. Also see if you can arrange extra activities with Spanish speakers while you're there: weaving classes, neighbourhood pick up soccer games, etc. The more you socialise with native speakers the more you will pick up.

The school you linked to is in the tiny town (village?) of san Pedro. It is incredibly beautiful and I totally recommend visiting; however I'd hesitate to recommend studying there for more than a week or so. It's very much a tourist town and full of backpackers. Also very much a party town for said backpackers. There are two larger places known for Spanish schools: Antigua and xela. I loved xela for classes: second largest city so lots of regular people living there (I.e. not just people working in tourism who speak English). Also lots of interesting and very Guatemalan places to go - not all Irish pubs and hostels for tourists. Antigua is beautiful and bigger than san Pedro but again feels like it caters a lot more to foreigners.

But whatever you choose will be awesome and have its own plusses. Have a great time!
posted by mosessis at 7:12 AM on April 12, 2012

Response by poster: It's very much a tourist town and full of backpackers. Also very much a party town for said backpackers.

Well, I was hoping to hook up with some backpackers and travel around, so that's not really a negative for me, though I do still want to experience local culture, etc..
posted by empath at 7:17 AM on April 12, 2012

I studied Spanish school on Lake Atitlan, but it was in Panajachel and only for a week. I loved it. I adore that area of Guatemala, it's impossibly beautiful. In San Pedro there'll definitely be plenty of backpackers, but fewer tour bus types than Pana, which is nice. I second the food thing -- our host family was very sweet, but the food was buttered toast and Nescafe for breakfast, etc. I remember one time my best friend and I glimpsed them cooking chile rellenos, and we were like YAY REAL FOOD. Then they served us spaghetti with butter. But there's plenty of cheap, great food in San Pedro and in the other villages, so it's easy to supplement what they give you (with everything from streetcart cuisine to scrambled tofu).

Safety-wise, get out of Guatemala City fast, and don't hike solo between villages on the lake, no matter how idyllic it seems. Feel free to memail me anytime, I've written about Central America travel for years.
posted by changeling at 9:14 AM on April 12, 2012

Oh and here's my Spanish school in Panajachel, but if I did it again I'd probably stay in San Pedro too.
posted by changeling at 9:15 AM on April 12, 2012

So the thing is, if you really want to learn a useful amount of Spanish, you have to force yourself to use it outside class. San Pedro is probably not ideal for that. It's a very cool place to visit — sort of a US/Israeli hippie fantasy playground, cheap beer and great vegetarian food and free yoga classes and on and on — but there's a very clear line between the tourist and local parts of town. Anyone who's down in the tourist part of town will speak to you in English, and while you can go up to where the locals live, there won't be a whole lot for you to do there, or a lot of excuses to start a conversation.

Xela is a different story. Zona 1, the old city, is chock full of backpackers, but it doesn't cater to them exclusively: it's also where people from the countryside come to do their banking, or hire a lawyer, or go to a nice restaurant. And outside of Zona 1 the town is a proper full-on Guatemalan town. There are universities and malls and markets and nightclubs and bars and so on, all catering to young, upwardly mobile middle-class Guatemalans.

What that means for you is, you'll have lots of excuses to use your Spanish. Go up to Zona 3. Go to an art supply store near the university and buy some pens and a notebook. Go to a cell phone store and recharge your prepaid minutes. Buy yourself some lunch. Stop in at a bar (the Don Rodrigo is lovely) and have a glass of beer. Ask the guy next to you which soccer teams are playing in the match on TV. Go back out and sit in the park and eavesdrop people-watch for a while, and then ask someone for directions back to Zona 1. Congratulations, you've just had at least six real genuine conversations in Spanish — maybe more if someone got curious and butted in to ask where you're from. That shit's great practice, and it's a great confidence builder for the rest of your trip, because now you know that you can do important basics like ask directions in Spanish if you ever get genuinely lost.

Also, if you spend a few months in Xela and make a point of hanging out with locals when you can — start with your Spanish school teachers, or members of your host family if there are any in their 20s/30s — you'll get plenty of practice using Spanish in social settings, which will also be a big boost when you're backpacking around elsewhere. Just like in English, you speak one way at school or work, and another way at the bar afterwards, and people will warm up to you much faster if you can learn to use the right set of language in the right situation.

And okay, one more thing — this surprises some people — the modern parts of Xela are fun. It's not just a cheap-and-dirty knockoff of an American big city. It's really this fascinating cultural amalgam, some of it homegrown and some of it borrowed from Mexico or El Salvador and some of it imported from the US and some of it imported from even further off, China or Korea or Lebanon. It's bright and bustling and full of energy (though, yeah, also sometimes dirty and slapped-together) in a way that reminds me of people's descriptions of New York in the 1920s. Just a really cool experience. You should go.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:27 AM on April 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I guess I could start in San Pedro and take a bus down to Xela if that seems like a better place, right?
posted by empath at 9:30 AM on April 12, 2012

you absolutely could. you could start out with some yoga and rest around lago atitlan, to adjust to being there, study in san pedro and then head to xela.

there are a few yoga places there. a friend just went to this one.
posted by anya32 at 9:41 AM on April 12, 2012

Yeah, definitely. And San Pedro is totally worth seeing. The whole Lake Atitlan area is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Before I went, I always thought that people who go someplace just to see nice scenery were big ol' weirdos — but holy shit, that is some nice scenery.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:02 AM on April 12, 2012

I would second what nebulawindphone said about Xela, including the fine print.

There are so many characters in the public square in Xela, you're bound to just have accidental conversations that lead to accidental adventures and such. It's a really nice place.

Anya32 mentioned Proyecto Linguistico and I would also second that. The school is great, it's got a long history which means that it's rooted in the local community, it's incredibly professional, most host families are great, and they just really know what they're doing. And it's a good deal.

And their mountain school is an even better time for some people, depending on disposition.

San Pedro, and the lake in general, are pretty, but the most interesting backpackers eventually leave there and end up in Xela or Honduras or something.
posted by kensington314 at 12:51 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

San Pedro could be a great place to start out. It's very relaxing. Also incredibly surreal. You can relax, do some yoga, get some massage work done, smoke weed with all the Israelis in the many cafes that sell such things and watch British and American films and eat paninis and wedges in the English pub. But the place is freaking beautiful and definitely worth experiencing. I spent a week there and really loved it.

Xela also has tons of backpackers, but to me they were the more interesting kind. Not as much about partying all night, finding drugs and taking minibuses from hostel to hostel. The people I met in Xela (mostly people there for language school - so I met them in class but also in the cafes, bars, etc) were studying because they were going to spend two years working in a Honduran orphanage, one guy was going to spend a year in remote mountain villages doing accompaniment work, some of us were planning on spending a few months traveling around central america, others were in town because there's a kick-ass weaving cooperative where you can learn traditional weaving techniques from local women and some just wanted a really different experience in their two week holiday from work.

So definitely head to both. They are well worth experiencing in totally different ways. I would wager you'd get more out of spanish tuition in Xela. But hey, why not experience a few different things while you're there? It sounds like you have plenty of time.
posted by mosessis at 4:39 PM on April 12, 2012

I dream of going to a language school in the cloud forest at Monteverde, Costa Rica, but I'm biased because I have a secondary interest in the Quaker community there. With no experience, I don't have a specific school to recommend there, but just thought I'd throw this into the mix.
posted by QuakerMel at 7:21 PM on April 12, 2012

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