Many of us come back from our vacations with a memory card full of photos and the peeling vestiges of a sun tan we knew would never last. I came back from Guatemala speaking Spanish. If you want to come back from your travels with something more useful than a photo collage and a t-shirt, language lessons are a great place to start.
Guatemala is the heart of the Maya world, a rich tourist destination where one can climb volcanoes and pyramids, tour colonial churches, and explore a natural environment that is often stunning in its drama. It is also an ideal location to spend a few weeks studying Spanish. Guatemala’s struggling economy can use your money, especially when its going into small local businesses such as language schools, and in exchange you have a very affordable education experience. Consider that one week with a personal tutor for five hours a day, along with a homestay family and three meals a day, costs less than $200 and you can see my point.
A friend who finally fed up with my constant oath that some day I would learn Spanish, gave me a brochure of a university program. Shut up and just go do it. It worked with my vacation schedule, but the price in Mexico and for credits was a lot more than I had hoped. But this was the push I needed and I did my internet searches to find some great places in Guatemala. In the end, the plan was four weeks in Guatemala – a week in each of four distinct regions. Great plan, no? My mistake was to choose Quetzaltenango as my starting city. Why? Because I never left. I fell in love with the place – and the school — immediately.
A four-hour bus ride from Guatemala City on a curving highway took me into the mountainous highlands of my temporary home. The streets are narrow and dusty, lined with simple but colorful concrete houses and storefronts. Old school buses—brightly painted Blue Bird leftovers from the US—rumble past on regular public routes, spouting clouds of diesel. Over the rooftops, the mountains close in like fingers around a palm, and at night the house lights on their slopes are nearly indistinguishable from the stars themselves. During the day the sun is strong and at night the mountain chill sets in. At an altitude of almost 8000 feet, the sky is deep blue and the lush green mountains and stony volcanoes pierce clouds so white that one must squint to look at them. And the Maya are no less impressive; they dress in their own vivid colors, rainbows of wool draped over their bodies and infants wrapped in intricate woven blankets across the backs of their mothers. It is a city of about 250,000, the second largest in Guatemala, but with a feel of the country. It is considered the heart of the Maya culture’s survival and resistance to the assaults on it during the country’s long civil war. Everyone refers to Quetzaltenango by its Mayan name: Xela. (SHAY-lah)
I walked to Celas Maya Spanish School every morning at 8 and had a personal instructor at my disposal until 1 pm, Monday through Friday. We sat in a sun-filled courtyard with a trickling fountain, a variety of colorful flowers, and clear morning skies. The grammar, exercises, and yes, homework, quickly got the wheels turning. When I went home to my family for lunch—chicken and fresh corn tortillas or Guatemalan tamales (called paches), maybe some fresh-squeezed OJ—I had a fine group of supportive adults and children eager to practice with me. Fellow students immediately took to referring to their hosts as family. “I can’t meet you at 7 unless I tell my mom I won’t be home for dinner.”
The great thing about one-on-one study is the flexibility. With the personal instructor, no one waits around for another’s learning curve. Alejandra, my teacher for three weeks (five stars!), would make sure I had something down—“Entiendes? Seguro?”—and then move on. We covered all of the major grammar inside of those three weeks. Personal interests can be met easily as well. One student spent most of her time learning medical terminology, while another found a business student to talk finance with him for the week. We were never restricted to a table and chairs; often a museum or the local market became the classroom. “How do you buy a watermelon?”
Each week schools offer activities outside the instruction period. Sometimes a trip to the hot springs of Fuentes Georginas up in the mountains or out to the nearby town of Salcajá to watch local weavers ply their trade or to buy some illicit fruit wine, caldos de frutas. Or a visit to a coffee finca or a climb up Santa Maria, the neighborhood’s imposing volcano. Each week also features a movie in Spanish and a talk hosted by a local expert on a specific subject, historical, cultural, or political. One afternoon Ciomara, a salsa/merengue instructor, spent a couple hours teaching us a few basic spins to try out at the discoteca that night. (What followed was a sudden salsa-mad crowd of students that ended up going out dancing every Wednesday night to continue learning.)
Unlike Antigua—the UNESCO-honored former colonial capital and also a popular study destination—Xela is not as touristy, and therefore better suited for language immersion. But as most fellow students already speak English, the temptation is always there. In Xela, it is easier to disappear back into Spanish-only land, duck into a quiet café or hop a chicken bus to a neighboring village for some serious cultural immersion. It is some serious Maya country, after all. Want something beyond a Spanish language entry into Guatemala? Try studying K’iche, one of the many Maya dialects (also offered at Celas Maya).
On Friday nights, everyone gathers at the school for graduation, a meal for those whose time is up that week. We toasted, we made farewell addresses. Some wrote poems or made gifts for their instructors. And everyone departed with a diploma among their souvenirs. For students with university ambitions, there is also a credit transfer program in place. Celas Maya is also one of two schools in Guatemala that is accredited by the Institute of Cervantes to offer the DELE Diploma of Spanish as a Foreign Language.
For college students, the benefits of these programs are obvious: university credits and perhaps satisfying a language requirement or even a good plan for summer break. The prices are economical in Guatemala, plus many airlines offer student flights that allow you to take trips longer than 30 days without getting pinched on the price.
On the other hand, the experience is not strictly for long-term backpackers or college students on break. Retirees, mid-life crisis sufferers, and families with children have all been known to attend Celas Maya Spanish School, for example. At last count there were over thirty schools in Xela alone. Whatever your needs, you are sure to find a school that can accommodate them.
More than Language
Many people come to Guatemala not just for studying, but also to make a difference. There are loads of options for volunteering in Central America and Xela is a great hub for many such organizations.
QuetzalTrekkers takes volunteer hiking guides for three-month terms (although you are expected to speak a minimum of intermediate Spanish – all the more reason to come study it first!) and also supports a variety of social programs that work with street kids, orphanages, and more.
I wasn’t kidding about falling love with the place: After spending a month in Xela at Celas Maya, I returned to the US to finish out a job contract before selling off most of my “crap” and moving to Xela to live for a year. The staff at Celas Maya became my friends and family and I had one of the most extraordinary years of my life.
Celas Maya Spanish School – Study Spanish abroad in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. One-on-one instruction, free internet, daily activities, volunteer opportunities.
Have you had any great language school experiences? Please feel free to post a recommendation in the comments!