Learn Spanish While Traveling in Central America

Guatemalan children

Are you getting the most out of your visit to Central America? Known for lovely beaches, quaint coastal towns and rainforests Central America is a popular destination for travelers from all over the world. The region offers tourists a variety of opportunities.

Some people are interested in helping the communities and people they are visiting, some people want to learn about and enjoy the unique environments Central America has to offer and others are simply looking to learn about and enjoy a place away from home. In the majority of Central America, Spanish is the official language and outside of the main cities is often the only language. If you are planning on visiting Central America it is wise to have a simple grasp of Spanish or to gain one while on your travels.

Although, it is possible to learn Spanish at home, before setting foot in a foreign land many do not have the time or ambition to pull out dry textbooks or listen to audio tapes and very few people are likely to take classes at their local community college. So, many travelers land at a foreign airport and do not know if they are accepting a taxi ride or buying a horse. Make it through the airport, get to your destination and start a Spanish school.

How to find a Spanish school

Outdoor school

Most countries in Central America have a variety of Spanish school options. Some schools are located in the heart of major cities such as Panama City, or San Jose, while others are located in quaint beachside villages such as San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua. It is important to know what you want out of your vacation before deciding on the school, as much of the activities and learning are based on the local environment and culture.  

Spanish schools offer students an affordable way to learn the language, often much more economically than taking an equivalent class at a local community college and definitely more fun. When you decide where you are planning to visit you can do some research through your guidebook, such as the Moon Series or you can Google “Spanish Schools in Granada” or wherever you are heading. The more specific you are the better your results will be. ‘Spanish schools in San Jose’ will return better results than ‘Spanish schools in Costa Rica.’ Depending on the location this will give you an extensive list of possible schools.  

Look at each website, specifically the pictures and student comments. A picture says a million words. Some schools are held indoors, while others are held in open-air buildings overlooking the local beauty. This makes for an enjoyable learning environment that will not take away from your vacation time.

You can also determine through the pictures what type of people are students at each school. Some schools are geared toward a younger crowd while others cross generations. You will also get a closer look at the teachers, they should look professional and the website should indicate that they are specifically trained.  

The professionalism of the websites may vary, but most of them will cover the basics: class options, accommodations, and included activities. Generally you can find a quality school that offers students 20 hours of study, a home-stay and extracurricular activities for roughly US$200 a week, but in more expensive destinations such as Costa Rica, expect to pay more.  

From some websites you may be able to make a decision you are comfortable with long before leaving home. In this case send an email and see if they have availability, can accommodate any special needs you may have and make sure the school is still in business (this is a growing trend, but there are still some schools that are no longer in existence although their website is still posted). If they can accommodate you or your group, complete the online registration and the school will be ready to greet you upon arrival. Most schools do not require you to pay in full before you arrive, but do not be surprised if they ask for a non-refundable deposit to secure your place.

If you cannot narrow your decision before leaving home, make a list and spend your first day in town visiting each school that interests you. Do not expect to find many schools that you did not see online, as most schools have embraced the internet. There are several disadvantages of waiting until you arrive to enroll. One is transportation; many schools will offer transportation to and from the airport for a discounted rate. There is also no guarantee the school will have room for you that particular week and it may be more difficult to take advantage of the home-stay option.  

Deciding on a Class

Student and teacher

Frequently Spanish schools are an integral part of their communities. One example is Eco Escuela in Guatamala, which is owned and managed by 56 local people. Schools often employ locals both as teachers and host families while portions of their proceeds go to local interests, such as their environment, disabled students or the building of community projects. It is important when picking which school you are planning on attending to consider this impact and realize that majority of the destinations that offer Spanish schools need the local support and economical impact. Schools that do not keep the money local should be reconsidered.  

It is important to consider who you are traveling with. If you are traveling alone, most schools, such as the San Juan Del Sur Spanish School in Nicaragua offer a one-to-one option. This is a wonderful opportunity for students to work at an individual pace. This popular option can mean several things. It may mean that you are literally working one-to-one, with your native teacher, or it may mean that you are part of a class, with your own teacher. The latter option offers students several advantages, such as allowing you to meet other travelers who you have a common interest with and people that you will most likely find yourself spending time with after class, whether it is activities, drinks, or dinner. Knowing people you are studying with also offers you the opportunity to continue your education outside of the classroom. Often students from around the world will find Spanish to be the common language and knowing other students allows you to learn from everyone.  

If you are traveling with a large group it may take a little more work to find a school and a program that can accommodate your needs, but they are out there. Look for schools that specifically mention group classes, even if they advertise smaller groups. These teachers may be more prepared to handle the challenges of teaching multiple students.

Where to Stay

Perez family

One of the reasons that Central America has become so popular with travelers is the affordability it has to offer. Although the region is full of hostels and low budget accommodations the true gems of Central America are the people. They are the building blocks of their communities, the protectors of their environments and the storytellers of their history. To gain the most out of your trip and out of your Spanish lessons look for a school that offers students the option for a home-stay.  

A home-stay is when local families open their homes to students, often offering a private room and in some cases a private bath. This is a unique opportunity for students, allowing them to learn about the community they are staying in and to continue their learning after leaving the classroom. Home-stays make the learning experience more complete with students being part of the total immersion process. Families are carefully selected by the schools and are often excited to have students staying with them. You will meet the entire family, which are frequently quite large in Latin societies, and you will be able to enjoy conversations with the family, or the children, depending on your language abilities.  

The other advantage of the home-stay option is that it generally includes three meals a day. Students will eat what their host families eat on a day-to-day basis, learning what the environment and culture they are visiting has to offer. Special dietary considerations can often be met with advanced notification to either the school during registration or with your family upon arrival. Meals may be an added cost during registration but it will save students money in the long run as eating at restaurants can add up.

Although many schools advertise that their families’ homes are within walking distance of the schools it is wise to check out your accommodations and make sure you are comfortable with the location. Remember that you will be walking there after going out and it may be dark.  

Special Activities

River rafting

Depending on your location Spanish schools will frequently offer extracurricular activities that allow students to experience the environment around them. At Habla Ya Spanish school in Boquete, Panama, students have the opportunity to go river rafting, while coastal locations may offer trips to various beaches and central city locations may offer historical sight-seeing and adventures to various markets. Most schools also offer salsa dancing and cooking classes as well. Some activities are included in your registration while others require extra fees, especially if there is transportation or local guides required. Pick a school whose activities appeal to you as they are a wonderful way to learn about the area as well as practice Spanish with other students and locals alike.

Many schools also offer students the opportunity to volunteer within the community or give back to the environment. If your plans already involve volunteering or you plan to work in the community look for a school that offers field specific language training. Each school has their own specialties, but frequently there are classes that teach students vocabulary unique to various fields such as medical, law or teaching.  

Spanish school is a unique and rewarding experience, one that students will remember for the rest of their lives. Friends will be made from around the world, new places will be explored and your Spanish will be better than you ever dreamed allowing you to get the very most out of your travels to Central America.

Photo credits: Kids in Guatemala by dandeluca on Flickr,Student and teacher & outdoor school by jk94110 on Flickr, River rafting by Ken Mayer on Flick, Homestay by Kyle and Shannon Johnson on Flickr