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Learn Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala

Immersion Study in a Historical Setting

Over dinner one night a trusted globe-trotting friend mentioned the name Antigua. Visions of coconut-laden palm trees and lapping turquoise waters immediately flashed through my head.

“The Caribbean island, right?” I blurted. “No,” Joe replied. “Guatemalan Antigua. It has the most amazing colonial architecture and great language schools—inexpensive too. You, mi amigo, have got to go.”

I began researching language schools in guidebooks and on the Internet and chose Centro Linguístico Maya in Antigua, which puts students up in local homes at reasonable prices.

Eight weeks later, in March, I landed in Guatemala City, the lackluster capital city. But Joe had assured me that this introduction would soon be forgotten on the 40-mile bus ride to Antigua. He was right: the 1-hour trip on the “chicken bus” offered nearly as much authentic flavor as its destination. I would travel like a local to start my immersion in Spanish.

The $3 cab ride through the city’s diesel-choked haze dropped me at a collection of vintage Blue Bird buses much like the ones I had ridden to school for years. But instead of standard-issue yellow, they had been dipped into a Technicolor bath of streaming red, green, blue, and orange and adorned with frilly window dressings and small dashboard shrines.

I paid my 4 quetzals (about 60 cents) and climbed on. The racial diversity in the country was immediately apparent, as was the multilingual heritage. (Besides Spanish, more than 22 Mayan dialects are spoken in Guatemala.)

I broke out my pocket Spanish translator and calculator to begin my self-tutoring. I might as well have pulled out a 3-D hologram of Michael Jackson. A chorus of oohs and ahhs ensued immediately.

“¿Qué es eso?” (What is that?) the younger passengers asked.

“¿Cuánto cuesta?” (How much?)—fundamental questions I understood with my elementary school Spanish. The learning had begun.

As we climbed out of the capital and the concrete jungle gave way to verdant forest, the bus I thought at capacity continued to take on passengers. Women with enormous sacks of vegetables balanced on their heads emerged from invisible trails in the hillsides and handed their goods to the roof man. Others brought squawking chickens with their legs tied together, slabs of raw meat, or woven baskets full of grain. The bus became a miniature cosmos of Central America: urbanites, suburbanites, farmers, and me, Señor Turista.

When we turned onto the narrow streets of Antigua (elevation 5,000 feet) the air was clean and crisp. The stunning Cathedral of Santiago dominated the central plaza with its elegant curves and classical symmetry. Sun-baked men meandered on horseback. Sedate donkeys pulled carts. Women strolled in brilliant local dress wearing handmade huipiles, blouses woven with an overflowing array of bright colors. Street hawkers sold handcrafts I actually wanted to buy. Fountains, restaurants, shops, art galleries, hotels of impeccable taste were all tucked into this immaculate, 9-square-mile municipality of more than 40,000 residents.

Most of the Antigua rolling past me was built between the mid-1500s and the late 1700s. Set in a country often called the Land of Eternal Spring, the city so won the hearts of Spanish settlers in the early 16th century that for 200 years Spain based the headquarters of its New World colonies here. The wealth, culture, and elegance of that era have left their marks. Every cobblestone that is removed for a street repair is replaced.

Art pervades this place, from the man who turns chicken buses into funky works of art to the impoverished Mayan woman who weaves 132 colors into her skirt. In this thriving colony of creativity, 30 hours of private tutoring with room and board cost me less than $200 a week.

The first person I asked at the bus depot knew of Centro Linguístico Maya and walked me to the school’s front door. I was greeted by director Arturo Miranda, with whom I had corresponded.

I had asked to be placed in a nice colonial home if possible. Arturo drove me out to the periphery of the historical city center and a handsome 2-story mini-mansion. One of the family’s children escorted me through the 5-bedroom home with an interior fountain, and a lush garden.

I was shown my private room on the second floor, decorated in period furniture and overlooking a walled garden encased in blooming bougainvillea.

The school, a 10-minute walk away, was also filled with pleasant gardens and courtyards. The several dozen students met with tutors around the grounds.

One-on-One Tutoring

After initially placing me with an instructor whose by-the-book teaching methods did not work for me, Arturo switched me to Edna Cuyun, a perfect linguistic match.

When it was time to learn the names of foods and products, Edna took me into town to shop. When learning to order food and drink, we went for lunch. She’d have me ask for directions to places as she tutored me around town and then back to the classroom for more verb tenses and fundamentals, with jokes sprinkled in.

Between classes and on weekends, I spent hours blissfully wandering back streets and discovering enchanting shops and cafes. Otherwise, three meals a day were prepared for me at my homestay, each dish made from scratch. Among the standouts: chicken and mint soup, tortas (sandwiches), and lemon cheesecake. Everyone I met was thrilled with their accommodations. I dined with the family for breakfast and dinner, prime opportunities to practice my Spanish.

My classmates came from all over the world and ran the gamut from high school student to retiree. We met and mingled before and after class to socialize and to find the best spots to dine, catch a video, dance, or chat the night away. I had found the ultimate immersion classroom.

Eco-Adventures

Guatemala hasn’t marketed itself as an eco-adventure destination as Costa Rica and Chile have, but with coasts on the Pacific and the Caribbean, five mountain ranges, and 33 volcanoes, it should. Trip vendors offer adventures of every kind: climb erupting Volcán Pacaya, windsurf Lake Atitlán, take a short flight to the Mayan ruins of Tikal, spelunk underground rivers.

I chose the cheapest and shortest adventure first: a 6-hour a guided trek for about $10 to see Pacaya. After a 1-hour bus ride, a guide and an armed guard led us up a dirt trail (solo travelers had been attacked here, so I was happy for the protection). Sulfurous gases percolated from the earth, making the trail hot and steamy.

The moment the sun vanished, the wind whipped up, the temperature dove, and the light show began. We huddled behind the windbreak of a small retaining wall and watched as Pacaya tossed lava into the air. We could feel the ground rumble and shimmy beneath us. The land was alive and moving.

Study in Antigua, Guatemala

Where to stay: There are hundreds of funky, chic mini-hotels (20 rooms or less) and B&B's all over town. Homestays are usually arranged through the language schools. Many of the budget lodgings accept only cash. I

For the grandest, stay at the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, a converted convent that takes up a few city blocks and captures the style and feel of Antigua’s history and architecture. 3a Calle Oriente No. 28; Tel. 011-502-832-0140, fax 011-502-832-0102; www.casasantodomingo.com.gt.

Where to Eat is best discovered by wandering Antigua’s streets and by word of mouth. I never had a bad meal, and the crowded places tend to be that way for a reason. My favorite is right on the Parque Central: Café Condesa, 5 Ave. Norte No. 4, Parque Centra.

The Rainbow Reading Room and Café is a good place to meet fellow travelers, catch up on your journal, and enjoy delicious vegetarian food.

Language Schools are numerous. See the TransitionsAbroad's Guatamala language school directory for more language schools.

A good site for general information is www.larutamayaonline.com.

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