Live and Learn Spanish in Guatemala
Antigua Offers More Than Language Instruction
|(Left to right) The garden classrooms of Proyecto Linguistico Francisco Marroquin make for a pleasant place to study Spanish; A Mayan woman weaves traditional textiles in the garden at Proyecto Linguistico Francisco
If you too want to immerse yourself in the Spanish language and in Latin American culture, it’s hard to beat the variety of options in Guatemala. And there’s no prettier place in the country to study and live
than Antigua. As the former capital of Guatemala, the city is renowned for its Spanish colonial architecture, which has earned it a spot as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s also a nature
lover’s dream, as it is situated at the foot of the three massive volcanoes: Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango. Best of all, Antigua is chock full of opportunities to
immerse yourself in Spanish.
Under the Learning Tree
As this trip was to be for both studying and vacationing, I chose a half-day language course at the Proyecto Lingüistico Francisco Marroquín (PLFM), a nonprofit school that funds Mayan education
projects. All instruction is one-on-one, with classes tailored to each student’s abilities. Students can request a change of instructor if they are not satisfied with theirs. My course was from 8 a.m. to noon, but there are also full-day
classes available. Fees for the half-day course are $100 per week, and $150 for full-time tuition.
Classes take place in a Dr. Seuss-like garden, with towering avocado trees overhead. My teacher Fernando was an affable and capable instructor who mixed plenty of lively conversation with serious attempts to get me
out of my stubborn present-tense-verb-only frame of mind. We had homework each night, and a test on Friday, both of which forced me to work harder and learn much more than I would have otherwise. The teachers at PLFM will not speak the student’s
native language at all.
Fernando and I discussed our families, our jobs, the cultures of each other’s country, and politics. We also laughed a lot, as he was something of a jokester. I know that if I had been in a group class, it would
have been far easier for my mind to wander and let other students take up the slack, and I wouldn’t have gained as much insight into how at least one Guatemalteco views the world.
At most of the language schools, students have a break every morning from about 10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. when they can mingle with each other, savor drinking the strong sweet coffee, eat locally grown macadamia nuts,
and find out when the Antigua soccer team’s next match is. Thanks to the lovely weather and setting, the whole atmosphere is relaxed and pleasant.
Being a student at a language school provides many benefits other than linguistic ones. It gives some structure to your days that might otherwise be spent sleeping late, lingering in cafes, or hanging out with English-speakers.
Also, most schools will arrange transport from the airport to your homestay or hostel, which turned out to be especially valuable for me. A delayed flight had caused me to miss my connection and had dumped me alone at 11 p.m. in the Guatemala
City airport. But the school’s driver, Gustabo, was waiting for me, and he delivered me straight to my home. He even let me use his cell phone so that I could call my husband back in the States and let him know I’d arrived all right.
A Room with a View
Because I had arrived at my home so late at night, it wasn’t until the next morning, when I opened the curtains in my room, that I saw the huge cone of the Volcan Agua rising above the courtyard outside my window.
At $75 for the week, including three meals a day, I truly had a room with a view. And this turned out to be true in more ways than one.
The woman of the house, Grace, lived there with her mother, her sister’s family, and a brother. There were three of us students, each with our own private bedroom and a shared bath between us. Everything was
Sally Cartwright from London, one of the other students in the home, had been in Antigua for a while and was a great resource for crucial information. One night Sally led us to a lecture at the Rainbow Reading Room
about how Guatemala is treated in the foreign press; another night we went to La Cafecita to hear some members of the Buena Vista Social Club perform. Sally also took us to one of the best rooftop bars in Antigua, the Café Sky, with
its perfect view of the town’s three lofty volcanoes.
Although we were given keys to the front door and were free to come and go as we pleased, mealtimes were set in stone. We ate three meals a day with Grace at 7 a.m., 1 p.m., and 7 p.m., except on Sundays, when we
had the chance to sample some of Antigua’s many restaurants. Purified drinking water was provided in the home, and Grace’s meals were always fresh and delicious.
Mealtimes were a prime opportunity to practice the Spanish we had studied during the day. We discussed Guatemalan culture and travel, world politics, our families, and our plans for the future.
At first I hadn’t been so sure about living with a family during my trip. I was used to being a very independent traveler, and I feared that a homestay would curtail my freedom. In the end, the incredible price
and the desire to open myself to new experiences won me over to this idea, and the decision was one of the best I’ve made. It turns out that my room with its great view of the town’s landmark volcano also gave me an insider’s
view into the lives of at least one Guatemalan family.
Antigua is perfectly situated as a base from which to explore the surrounding countryside. Most schools sponsor day or overnight trips for students to surrounding pueblos, farms, and market towns. Examples include
excursions to macadamia nut farms, coffee plantations, butterfly sanctuaries, and climbing expeditions to the nearby volcanoes. Longer trips to places such as Monterrico Beach and the archeological ruins of Tikal are also available.
I chose a 1-day trip to Chichicastenango and Lago Atitlán. The school provides a comfortable van and, most importantly, an experienced and safe driver, and your teacher accompanies you. We left at 7 a.m., stopped
along the way for a typical Guatemalan breakfast, and proceeded on to the frenzied markets and fascinating Catholic/Maya church of Chichicastenango. After a couple of hours of shopping and sightseeing, we hit the road for Panajachel, on the
shores of the volcanic crater Lago Atitlán. We arrived back in Antigua at about 5 p.m. The whole day cost $20, plus lunch for our teachers and us. Although this outing was very brief, it was a good glimpse of the Guatemalan countryside.
I went to Guatemala hoping to improve my Spanish skills, and I did, more so than I ever imagined possible. But thanks to my teacher and my homestay family, I also learned far more about the people of my host country
than I have on much longer travels in other places.
For More Information About Language Study in Antigua, Guatemala
Language Learning One-on-One
Pros: This is the most effective way to learn another language; You have a chance to converse with a person from your host country; You may be able to earn college credit; The cost of tuition is reasonable.
Cons: The one-on-one routine is intense and can be very tiring; The person who is seeking more of a vacation than a language-learning experience may not enjoy being on a set schedule or having homework every night.
Pros: The cost cannot be beat; Three meals a day are often provided, except on Sundays; The homes are usually clean, quiet, and safe; You have many opportunities to practice your language skills; Best
of all, you get to know and see how a family of your host country lives.
Cons: The schedule for meals is fixed, but if you don’t want to stick to it, you can eat out on your own; If you are a very independent traveler, you may feel constricted by living with a family and sharing facilities with
Contact: Proyecto Lingüistico Francisco Marroquín (PLFM); 7 Calle Poniente #31, Antigua, Guatemala, Central America; 011-502-78322-886;
www.langlink.com/plfm/index.htm. Or, contact Language Link in the U.S. at 800-552-2051; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where to go in Antigua
- Climb the Cerro de La Cruz (with the tourist police only) to get a fabulous view of Antigua and the Volcan Aqua.
- Explore the Parque Central’s museums, shops, cathedral, and many colonial buildings.
- Escape to the lush gardens of the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, which was built into the ruins of a colonial convent.
- Doña Luisa’s (on 4 Calle Oreinte)
- Rainbow Reading Room (on 7 Ave. Sur)
- La Fonda de Calle Real (on 3 Calle Poniente)
- Café Sky for rooftop views of Antigua (on 1 Ave. Sur)
- La Cafecita for Latin American music (on 5 Calle Poniente)
- Mesón Panza Verde for sophisticated jazz (on 5 Ave. Sur)
- La Ventana for internet access and international phone calls (on 5 Ave. Sur)