Do you have the desire to learn a new language and/or improve upon one you already speak? Have you ever thought it might be fun to take language classes in a country you’ve been wanting to visit?
Certainly, learning a language through a travel experience is so much more rewarding than just sitting in a classroom in your hometown. Plus, “immersion” in the local language and culture helps you learn more quickly. You also have the joy of making new friends (including some local people), seeing the area’s sights, and tasting the food, all while creating special memories.
I can personally testify this is all true, after spending two wonderful weeks in Guatemala in 2008, taking Spanish language classes. I spent my first week in the charming town of Antigua, staying in a B&B type hotel. For my second week, I headed over to beautiful Lake Atitlan to attend a good school there, enjoying a home stay with a local family.
In this blog post, I’ll share details of my school, lodging and travel experiences in both destinations – so I can give you a good flavor of what language school/immersion programs abroad might be like. [Note: I have also included updated information as some things have changed in the past 14 years (like pricing)!]
How My Guatemala Language School Idea Began
In 2007, I traveled with a photo tour group to Guatemala. We visited Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango, and the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal. It was my first trip to Guatemala – as well as to Central America – and I fell in love with the beautiful country, with its great sights and lovely, kind people.
Spanish-speaking Guatemala has a large indigenous Mayan population with a fascinating culture, known for its vibrant colors. Everywhere you see the beautiful clothing worn by the local people and the amazing array of colorful textiles and handicrafts for sale – many made on “back-strap looms.” It’s a shopper’s paradise!
While on the trip, I learned that Guatemala has excellent Spanish language schools. They attract students of all ages from around the world and at all levels – from beginner to advanced. So, I vowed then & there to return to Guatemala to attend school to improve my Spanish and spend more time in my two favorite places.
I was already a decent Spanish speaker, but my last formal classes were way back in college. So, I knew I could greatly benefit from the one-to-one instruction that Guatemala offered – and do some much needed cleanup of my Spanish.
During college, I did a special 5-week immersion program in Segovia, Spain, living with a local family who spoke no English. That was the “kick” that took my 6 years of junior high & high school Spanish from halting to the beginnings of conversationally fluent – and being able to think in Spanish for the first time.
My Language School Experience – Quick Summary
So less than two years later (Nov/Dec. 2008), I returned to Guatemala for a 2-week Spanish language school experience. The country’s international airport is located in its capital, Guatemala City, just a short 3-hour flight from Dallas. Plus, being on the CST time zone (without daylight savings changes), we American travelers aren’t really dealing with jet lag.
The three main centers for Guatemala language schools are Antigua, Lake Atitlan and Quetzaltenango (Xela). As mentioned, I had fallen in love with both Antigua and Lake Atitlan. Thus, I spent a week in Antigua and a week in the small village of San Pedro on the shores of Lake Atitlan.
In each, I attended language school for 5 days (Monday-Friday), 4 hours each morning where I enjoyed one-on-one Spanish instruction by a good teacher. It’s great to have your own instructor to personalize teaching to your particular needs and abilities. Plus, Guatemala language schools are incredibly affordable.
I went to Guatemala by myself, which was just fine. Many language school students (of all ages) come solo, so you’re able to make friends with fellow students, along with other travelers you meet in town, and some of the locals like your home stay family.
Located just 45 minutes from Guatemala City, Antigua is an enchanting Spanish colonial city of around 46,000 residents. Its cobblestone streets are lined with a beautiful tapestry of pastel colored, hacienda style buildings – many with peaceful fountained courtyards. In the center of town is the lovely main plaza, fronted by the Cathedral and other elegant buildings.
Antigua is surrounded by three tall volcanoes. Because it has suffered many earthquakes over the centuries, there are many magnificent church buildings in partial (but cool) ruins. The town is filled with great cafes and restaurants, shops, art galleries, and local markets. And, of course, lots of Spanish language schools.
My Antigua B&B / The Arch of Santa Catalina
For my first week in Antigua, I opted to stay in a hotel (vs a home stay), as I wanted the freedom to enjoy all the town’s great restaurants and many sightseeing opportunities.
My wonderful home was The Cloister, a 7-room boutique hotel/B&B located directly under Antigua’s most famous landmark, the Arch of Santa Catalina (above, left). The arch connected the two sides of a 16th century convent – and my hotel had been part of the convent. From the hotel, it was a short walk to both my school and the main plaza.
I made some nice friends with the B&B’s other guests, who were a fascinating group of travelers. Some of them, like Carol from San Francisco and Joe from Colorado, were often dinner companions.
Sadly, a Google search shows that The Cloister is no longer in operation. However, there is no lack of great places to stay in Antigua. Here’s a current link I found listing the Best Boutique Hotels in Antigua to give you a flavor.
My Antigua Language School – Spanish Academy Antigueña
I attended the Spanish Academy Antigueña, housed in a three-story building near the beautiful Merced church. At that time, it served around 15 students. Like most students, I opted for the Monday – Friday schedule with a 4-hour class in the morning (8a-12n), which included a 30-minute break. The afternoons were free to explore the town and/or go on school-sponsored field trips or outings.
Each student had their own instructor. Olga, my very nice teacher, had been teaching for 18 years. We sat at a table at the top of the stairs overlooking the patio. Our time together included lots of conversation, along with some good basics, grammar refresher, and expanding my vocabulary. The other students hailed from the U.S., Canada, Europe (U.K., Germany, Switzerland), Australia and New Zealand.
THE COST: My cost in 2008 was incredibly affordable (and still is). The price for one-week of classes (4 hours/day x 5 days = 20 hours of instruction) was just $90! Per their website, the current cost for the same 20 hours/week of class is $125. (Note: it costs $10 less if you add a home stay).
School Outings / Afternoon Field Trips
The school offered a variety of activities in the afternoons, which I took full advantage of. It’s a great way to continue your Spanish practice while having fun local experiences. One afternoon, one of the teachers led a lovely walking tour of Antigua. Another day, we took a salsa lesson at Santo Pecado, a local bar/restaurant – which was quite entertaining to watch us awkward newbies!
We also visited the Finca Bella Vista coffee plantation, located a few minutes out of the city. The tour was entirely in Spanish with a cup of freshly brewed coffee at the end. It was our reward for trying to understand what the local guide was saying (especially since many of the students were beginners!).
On Wednesday, our class time was replaced by a wonderful morning field trip to the nearby village of San Antonio Aguas Calientes (for a small extra fee of ~$13). We got there by taking a local “chicken bus.” There, we enjoyed a wonderful talk (in Spanish) & demonstration by village woman of typical Mayan clothing and their wedding customs.
We learned that girls start to weave at age 14, making items for their future wedding. Four willing student volunteers were dressed up in the clothing, including a bride and groom. Afterwards, we shopped the beautiful handicrafts made by women in the village before enjoying a delicious lunch they had prepared for us – fresh tortillas and chicken and rice in pepian sauce.
Other Interesting Things I Did in Antigua
I was a “bad girl” in Antigua and was too busy exploring and enjoying the town to study (luckily, I was much better in Lake Atitlan!). When I booked the trip many months before, I wasn’t thinking it would be Christmas season in Guatemala, but boy, was it!
The main plaza in Antigua was filled with sparkling Christmas lights and there were other smaller Christmas concerts on the streets. Santa Claus and his elf made an appearance one night plus there were lots of fireworks. It was just wonderful!
One evening, I enjoyed a most magical “Handel’s Messiah” Christmas concert at the stunningly beautiful Hotel Casa Santo Domingo amidst centuries old candle-lit church ruins. Besides the orchestra, there was a 45-member choir and 5 incredible soloists. It was truly angelic! (photo above right)
The 5-star hotel is set on beautiful 40-acre grounds amidst the ruins of a 4-centuries old church and monastery. Hotel Casa Santo Domingo is filled with lush gardens, courtyards, fountains, and authentic Guatemalan religious figures from past colonial times. At night, the Casa is filled with candles everywhere and monastical type music is piped in. Whether you stay there or not, it’s definitely worth a visit.
In addition to the school’s walking tour, I took another one – the Antigua Cultural Walking Tour by Elizabeth Bell. The 3-hour tour was great! Elizabeth (below right), originally from California, has lived in Antigua since age 14, and is dedicated to the historic preservation of this magnificent city. Her company – Antigua Tours – now operates a variety of cultural tours throughout Guatemala.
I also attended a movie – “Love in the Time of Cholera” (in English with Spanish subtitles) – at the El Sitio cultural center. There I met some members of Antigua’s expat community along with Betty, a delightful 69-year-old from San Francisco who was attending one of the other language schools along with a home stay. She and I had dinner together two of the evenings.
And, of course, there was the shopping! As usual, I avoided the nice stores and, instead, bought beautiful woven textiles and handicrafts from local Mayan women on the streets. I formed nice friendships with a couple of these local women (Ana & Rosa) and their adorable children – buying more than I needed! Plus, one day I treated Rosa’s 3 girls to an ice cream in the plaza. I took lots of very sweet photos of the two families. (Ana- above / Rosa -below)
LAKE ATITLAN / SAN PEDRO
After a delightful week in Antigua, it was time to head to Lake Atitlan for my second week of language school. Just like Antigua, Lake Atitlan is beloved by visitors for its enchanting beauty, not to mention its rich and colorful Mayan influence.
Located about 3 hours from Antigua, Lake (Lago) Atitlan is a beautiful highland lake, measuring 11 by 7 miles and almost 1000 feet deep. It is ringed by three volcanoes, steep lush mountains and a variety of Mayan villages, both quaint & bustling. Panajachel is the main & largest town on the Lake. Lake ferries and private boats shuttle people between the villages.
For Lake Atitlan, I chose a school in the village of San Pedro La Laguna, the most popular location for language schools. Located on the lake’s southwest shore, San Pedro is a great place to hang out! There I opted to do a Home Stay with a local family, which included 7 days of lodging and all your meals for a very reasonable price.
San Pedro is an authentic Guatemalan village (population ~12,000) with almost all women wearing traditional clothing. The population is over 90 percent indigenous Mayan, speaking their Tz’utujil dialect, in addition to Spanish.
In San Pedro, you’ll also find a Bohemian (aka hippy, backpacker) vibe from all the international travelers and an expat community comprised of Americans and Europeans. That brings the requisite cool little restaurants and bars, tourist shops, daily movies, and services like massage and a thermal tub. Plus, there are Thai style tuk tuks plying the streets carrying tourists and locals alike.
Lastly, you add in the natural beauty of Lake Atitlan and the town being situated at the base of the green, lush San Pedro Volcano (non-active) and you’ve got a winning (and addicting) combination! You can see why I was anxious to return to San Pedro and the Lake.
San Pedro Language School
The next week, I attended the San Pedro Spanish School, which was great. They are located by the lake on some beautiful grounds, with thatched open huts (for student pairs) located throughout. In 2008, it held around 25 students and was all open air.
As in Antigua, I opted for the usual Monday-Friday class schedule of 4 hours/day from 8am-12n. I loved my teacher, Francisco. We sat outside in nice areas with a table and blackboard – and his instruction was more formal. Francisco may have been only 22 years old, but he was an excellent teacher. (below, plus with his wife & baby)
My fellow students were from the U.S., Canada, Europe (including Holland), and Australia. The spacious campus setup seemed to allow more friendly interactions between the students & the delightful staff during our 10am break times and other activities. On Friday, I did an outing with my host family in the morning, so I was able to switch my class to the afternoon (2-6pm).
CLASS COST: In 2008, my classes (20 hours of instruction) cost $90/week. Today, per the website, the cost is $150/week and also includes afternoon activities. That’s still a wonderful value!
HOME STAYS: The website’s quoted price always includes 7 days accommodations, and 3 meals/day (except Sunday). My 2008 home stay cost $60/week. Today, the website quotes a homestay with a private room & shared bathroom between $114-$149/week.
My Wonderful San Pedro Home Stay
I ended up with a great host family in San Pedro, after one false start. I had a different family my first night. They were very nice, but their house was on the town’s main street and big trucks started rolling by my bedroom window at 4:30am. Plus, there were at least 5 of us sharing one bathroom.
So, I switched the next day to the home of “mother” Viky (albeit younger than me!), her husband Raffa, 14-year-old daughter Jacqueline and 2-year-old daughter Mary. The house was on a quiet residential street. It was a further walk from school – about 10-15 minutes – but that was fine. Sometimes I took a tuk tuk.
The family lived on the first floor. I was on the second floor with my own bathroom (yeah!), and another student lived in an apartment room on the third-floor roof, which had a nice Lake view. The San Pedro school only allows a maximum of two students per family on their Home Stays. And, they want us to only speak Spanish in the home with our host family.
Viky was a true delight and also a great cook! The big meal of the day is lunch (served at around 1:30pm) and dinner is lighter, served around 7:30pm. I quickly became part of the family and really enjoyed my time with them, especially my teenage “sister” Jackie. Since she was out of school on break, she was game for anything!
Soon I will write a blog post about my time in San Pedro with my family and some of the fun activities we did together to give you a better sense of local life in Lake Atitlan. The post will include my return visit to see them in 2010 (during my 3rd trip to Guatemala!).
San Pedro School Afternoon/Early Evening Activities
The school offered additional activities to enhance our language skills and cultural understanding. There were Conversation Cafes every afternoon from 5:15-6:00pm led by a teacher. There were two groups for beginners. In the one intermediate Café, it was usually me and Gregorio (age 45 from Atlanta), later joined by Anna (age 61 from the U.K.). We enjoyed some lively conversations (below right).
I also enjoyed another salsa dance class in the salon at 6pm one evening following the Conversation Cafe. The highlight was a local man showing us what salsa is really supposed to look like, with a very willing and talented Dutch woman student partner.
One evening in the school’s salon, they showed a movie entitled “The Daughter of Puma” on the Guatemalan civil war which ended with the 1996 Peace Accords, after 30 years of horror. Another evening, guest speaker Felipe from the village, shared his personal experiences with the war – it was both fascinating and sobering.
Volunteer Project – Proyecto Los Niños Del Lago
The San Pedro Spanish School supports a local project (Niños del Lago – Children of the Lake) to help some of the poorer children from the village and around the Lake with education, nutrition and healthcare support. They created the Project in 2003 and gave us adult language students the opportunity to volunteer which, of course, I jumped at!
In the afternoons (from 3-5pm), they had around 14 kids come to their small one-room schoolhouse on the property near the Lake. The director, Felipe, worked with them (English, Math, and Arts & Crafts) and loved to have supplemental volunteers.
So, I worked Tuesday through Thursday afternoons for 1-2 hours, helping teach the kids English. My fellow student, Gregorio (below right), joined me so it was fun to have a gringo compadre, since neither of us are teachers.
Each hour, I got 4-5 kids (between ages 11-14 years). They were learning English in school, so we practiced vocabulary, especially helping them to pronounce the words correctly. They were really sweet and definitely liked the popcorn treats and the postcards of San Diego that I shared with them.
I got bolder each day and ad libbed a little, teaching them “You Guys Rock” when they nailed their pronunciations and “See you later, Alligator!” These adorable children definitely touched my heart. And at their Friday celebration with pizza & Pepsis, they did a special thanks to me & Gregorio for volunteering that week. Ahh….
Of course, this was back in 2008. So, I’m delighted to see (from a current website) that San Pedro Spanish School is still active with this very worthwhile Project. In fact, my home stay “mom” Viky is a board member.
Goodbye to San Pedro / Return to Antigua
On Friday evening, I was speaking to a man named Mark, an expat from California, living in San Pedro. We spoke in English, and just then I realized that I hadn’t spoken any real English the whole week in San Pedro! A true immersion…
Then on Saturday morning, I spent some final time with my family before saying our sad goodbyes. My host family, the San Pedro school, and the town itself had truly become like home for me – in just one short week. Once again, I vowed to return!
Saturday afternoon, I caught the school-arranged shuttle back to Antigua (a 3-hour drive) for a final night before flying out of Guatemala City the next morning back to the States. I returned to my same B&B (The Cloister) and had dinner at one of my favorite Antigua restaurants – Chiminos.
One day soon, I hope to get back to Guatemala to visit for my 4th trip. A good friend just spent a week in Antigua & Lake Atitlan (February 2022). He went as a tourist, not attending language school, but he returned equally charmed by the country.
Of course, there are language schools in many languages. A good American friend of mine attended Italian language school in Tuscany a few years ago and had a blast. While there, she made a lifelong friend with an Austrian woman Daniela. Turns out, Daniela is the wonderful woman I visited last fall in Salzburg thanks to my friend’s introduction. Small world!
Resources / Language Schools In Guatemala
If you’re looking for Spanish schools, there are 21 Spanish-speaking countries around the world (like Guatemala, Mexico, Spain, and Ecuador), which have multiple great locations to start your Spanish-learning journey.
Below are a couple good articles I found on what to look for in a Guatemala Spanish Language school (along with helpful general hints). Of course, the quality of the instruction and reputation of language schools can change over time, so be sure to do your research to find out the latest status, and peruse student reviews to make sure you find a good fit.
Some Language Schools in Antigua / San Pedro with a Good Reputation
- Christian Spanish Academy (CSA) – Antigua
- San Jose El Viejo – Antigua
- Antiguena Spanish Academy – Antigua
- La Union Spanish School – Antigua
- San Pedro Spanish School – Lake Atitlan
COMMENTS: Have you ever attended a language school? If so, where and how was your experience? If not, would you consider it now?