Spanish Study in Guatemala and Cultural Travel
|View of Antigua from Cerro de la Cruz
In an initial trip to Guatemala in July, I spent one wonderful month in the colonial, earthquake-damaged city of Antigua (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). I lived with a local family, studied Spanish at COINED/Máximo Nivel (Native Spanish Program), and participated in cultural excursions through Guinness Travel. The trip, arranged through AmeriSpan, was a great combination of learning activities exposing me to many aspects of Guatemalan culture. While it was their winter and rainy season, there was still a decent amount of dry weather and sunshine to be enjoyed as well.
Over the years, I’ve traveled to many places, and recent travels have focused on Spanish immersion with the hope of one day becoming fluent. I’m not your typical student; I’m a middle-aged professional with a love of learning and a desire to see the world. This year I chose Guatemala for its rich cultural history, abundance of Spanish language schools, and its appealing affordability. My main concerns were the health and safety issues that come with being in any developing world country, but I took all the recommended precautions and was just fine.
Luck was on my side, as I was placed in a wonderful homestay (a variety of housing options are available); Ana María and her husband Mario were my host family and provided a loving and comfortable home with delicious daily meals and weekly laundry service (which is optional and requires extra payment). Ana María’s mother and two sons made regular visits to the house, so I had opportunities to practice Spanish with all of them. Occasionally there was a misunderstanding, such as when Ana María placed a soup bowl next to my plate and said, “Es chile.” Expecting a Mexican-style meat-and-bean dish, I began eating it like soup only to realize that it was very spicy. It turned out to be chile sauce, made from very hot peppers for the pork, and was meant to be shared by everyone at the table. Embarrassed, I later explained my error and apologized, and we all had a good laugh. Ana María told me there is no need to worry since we are family. Such are the vagaries involved in first-hand cultural immersion learning.
The family was very nurturing and treated me like their very own daughter. Mario even walked me to school on my first day—a 15-minute walk along uneven sidewalks and cobblestone streets—after I expressed concerns about getting lost. For the first week, I was the only student in the house, until two additional students joined me for the remaining three weeks. They were seminary students from the United States, and since Ana María and Mario are very religious, there were plenty of religious-themed conversations, which I was used to having experienced during several years of Catholic schooling as a child.
Classes were held every day at the Máximo Nivel language school. I paid for 4-hour group lessons Monday through Friday (for which I was easily able to substitute a 2-hour private lesson when I had to miss my regular class in order to participate in one of the school-approved excursions offered by Guinness Travel). A test on the first day placed me in an advanced Spanish class, “Alto Intermedio” (high intermediate), which met from 2-6 p.m. (some classes meet in the mornings). It was perfect, as I had studied Spanish for nine years. I needed the most help with conversation, both speaking and understanding. I loved my class with teacher Evelyn. The textbook focused on discussions of controversial topics that were interesting (for example, immigration, the death penalty, government and politics, suicide, etc.) and required using the dreaded subjunctive tense. The students (3-5 in my class, depending on the week) were an interesting mix of individuals living in the U.S. and abroad, and most were teachers. As a psychologist, I was the exception. It felt good to break free of the heavy grammar and vocabulary classes taken previously. Most time was spent reading aloud textbook selections on various themes, and having respectful discussions on a variety of complex topics. In addition, since it was school, there was written homework that often consisted of essays, which were enjoyable to write.
As a special treat, Evelyn tried to schedule a class trip or other cultural activity each week to supplement our in-class learning. During my first week, we took a “chicken bus” (basically a recycled U.S. school bus) to San Antonio, a nearby town of indigenous people who shared some of their culture—an explanation (in Spanish) of gender roles, traditional clothing, and a marriage ceremony; demonstrations of weaving, coffee grinding, and tortilla-making; and sampling the chicken, tortillas, and coffee they made for our group. The activities were deeply enriching. We supported them by paying for the session and purchasing some of their beautiful hand-made crafts. I left with a lovely colorful weaving (tejida) to hang on my wall. During my second week, we saw an understandably disturbing movie (“Voces Inocentes”) about Guatemala’s civil war. During my third week, I missed a class trip to a macadamia nut farm because I was on another excursion. During my last week, we took a “chicken bus” again, but this time to San Andrés Itzapa which is known for its spiritual devotion. We visited a sacred place for worshippers of “Maximón,” a liquor-drinking, cigar-smoking folk saint whom many indigenous people rely on for health, money, success, and overall prosperity. Such field trips brought to life some of the cultural aspects we had previously discussed in the classroom.
Optional excursions that I attended (along with other students and volunteers) via Guinness Travel included weekend trips to Tikal/Flores/Río Dulce/Lívingston; Lake Atitlán, and Chichicastenango (with its huge outdoor market); El Salvador; and half-day trips to Yalú coffee farm, and Pacaya Volcano. The Tikal trip was a favorite because the Mayan ruins were so impressive, the small jungle animals so adorable, the natural hot springs so refreshing, and the boat ride along Río Dulce so peaceful. Climbing up the active Pacaya Volcano was interesting, but after doing so much walking/hiking in previous days, I was tired and so chose to pay for a horse (“Champion” and his guide, Hugo) to carry me up and bring me back down. While I hadn’t expected to be doing so much walking/climbing/hiking/jungle treks in Guatemala, I’m glad to have seen so many breathtaking sights.
Within Antigua there’s plenty to see and do, such as visiting the Mercado de Artesanías (lots of crafts), the Parque Central, the Cerro de la Cruz (to ensure safety, the tourist police escort groups there twice per day), the Arco de Santa Catalina, the many churches and ruins, the ChocoMuseo, and others sites. Yet, it’s still people who remain at the very heart of the experience of a culture. I had the good fortune of meeting some really nice and hospitable locals. I also was blessed to experience one of their holiday celebrations on July 25th in honor of Santiago. I attended the 2-hour parade that included many schoolchildren playing musical instruments or demonstrating some other aspect of Antigua’s culture, such as its cuisine, and fútbol (soccer)—where I saw and heard plenty of fireworks. It was a spectacular demonstration of cultural pride.
In terms of the overall travel experience—including the homestay, the people, the culture, the classes, the excursions, the spectacular natural scenery, and the low cost—Guatemala proved to be my favorite study abroad destination in Latin America. Previously, I have had the pleasure to study in Mexico and Puerto Rico as well as in Europe (see my article on Language Immersion in Spain).
For all the reasons described above, I recommend that you visit Guatemala to learn Spanish.
Sybil L. Holloway is a psychologist at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania and a freelance writer.