Cheap-ass Spanish Lessons – Sign Us Up!
All photos by Josh Meister Photo.
Even though I took four years of Spanish in high school – and then a year of Italian in college with a trip to Spain halfway through, completely screwing up my capacity for the distinction between either language at that point – my grasp on the language over the past few years has been tenuous at best. Josh, on the other hand, took French in high school, and could use it to expertly say hi and bye to both people, cats, AND dogs while we were in Bordeaux. (Sigh.) Throughout our travels, we're always embarrassed to meet people from other countries who speak at minimum two languages, often three or four, and mention it casually as if it's not some amazing, wondrous, awe-inspiring feat.
So when we started researching travel in Latin America and saw that Spanish classes are a common activity, we decided to dedicate a little bit of time to learning some basics and signed up for school in Guatemala. Throughout Latin America, there's tons of places to take classes, but Guatemala is one of the least expensive, and the dialect there is considered to be fairly neutral. Basically, Guatemala is the Midwest newscaster of the Spanish language.
It would have been amazing to spend a month in classes, as a ton of people do, but we're on the move, so we settled on one week of school. Overall, in Guatemala, the main areas where the schools are centered are beautiful Spanish Colonial Antigua and the serene and lovely Lake Atitlán, a few hours drive from each other. We planned to spend time in both places, but read that Antigua is much more of a traveler destination, so almost everyone speaks English there all the time, and as a student, you're not as fully enveloped in the language. Also there seemed to be a lot more activities (volcanos!) in Antigua, so it seemed to make more sense to study in Lake Atitlán where we'd be more in the language and wouldn't feel like we were missing out on other things by spending half our time there in the classroom.
After some recon, we settled on San Pedro Spanish School in, duh, San Pedro, one of the villages surrounding the lake. The school has a good reputation, and in addition, with each student's weekly tuition, a local child gets a week of education at the school there, sort of like a Toms Shoes one-for-one model. This is incredibly important in Guatemala since school is not mandatory for children, and a lot of kids wind up working from a young age instead of going to school.
I don't think we really visualized or verbalized what we thought Spanish school would actually look like, but when we arrived for our first class, we both had the same sort of releasing-breathes-we-hadn't-realized-we-were-holding reaction and said, “Oh, cool.” The campus is basically a plot of land on the lake landscaped around little huts or palapas that each hold a table with a few chairs and a whiteboard. The classes are one-on-one or one-on-two if desired. Since Josh and I are at different levels, we decided it wouldn't make sense to buddy up and opted for the one-on-one set up. For five days of classes, four hours a day, the cost is $144, or $7.20/hour – not bad!
We also opted to do a homestay through the school which has arrangements with local families to host students, a setup that's pretty ingenious because students get the culture of family life and keep practicing the language during non-class hours, while local families have the opportunity to earn decent money by providing room and board for visitors. This also cost $144 each and included all meals (aside from those on Sundays), so that came out to $20.57/day for each of us (or $41.14 for both) – lodging and meals. It's a pretty amazing deal.
For seven days, we lived with a sweet family of four, dad Mephy, mom Conchita, 12-year-old Chusita, and eight-year-old Blanca, plus an adorable puppy, Duffy. There were three other students staying there as well, a couple from the UK and a girl from Taiwan. The family cooked delicious food for us and helped us with our language skills as well as giving us tips on the area and what to see (coffee processing, local weavers) and guiding us on a hike one day. During that time, we had five days of individualized classes from 9am to 1pm and then optional activities in the evenings ranging from conversation class to salsa dancing lessons to a basketball game against the homestay moms, who were incredibly skilled and put the students to shame.
It was a blast! And we definitely improved our Spanish. We're not amazing (at all), but it gave us the confidence to keep working on it, and we hope to take some more classes during our time in Latin America.