Learning Spanish in Xela, Guatemala – Central America

A large chunk of Guatemala’s tourism revenue comes from teaching Spanish to travellers. It’s not like it’s the only Spanish-speaking country on the continent, but a number of factors make it a number one choice.

Guatemala – number one choice to learn Spanish
To start with, the Gutemaltekas speak slowly and clearly. Anyone who has been to Cuba will appreciate the importance of this – you aren’t going to learn Spanish if you don’t understand a single word muttered through lazy lips at machine-gun speed, half of the letters chewed into a uniform blob on their way out. Secondly, Guatemala is on the way: for anyone (and especially North Americans) going down the continent, this is a good time to learn a few phrases – at the beginning of the trail. Third, the Guatemalan culture is heavily indigenous, so it makes it an interesting place to stop for a week and get to know it. And last, but not least, Guatemala is much cheaper than most of Latin America, making it a competitive proposition.

As a result, you get quite a motley crowd of students. Maybe not so much top-end travellers, but definitely a lot of backpackers eager to stock up on "Donde esta…?" and "Cuanto cuesta…?" for the long journey ahead, as well as a lot of the more adventurous North American High who might not be up for roaming around the continent, but at least they will get out of the US/Canada into a native culture to spend a month somewhere different while learning the language. You normally pay for a week’s course, quite a few hours a day one-on-one with a teacher, although that can be modified to your needs.

Once in Guatemala, you will usually be directed to one of two places. Lake Atitlan is a scenic mountanous landscape with volcanoes and postcard indigenous people. A string of villages along the bank of the lake lets you adjust the level of spirituality according to your habitual marijuana dosage. This place is the Guatemalan equivalent of a stereotypical backpacker beach village. Antigua, on the other hand, is somewhat of a Guatemalan Cuzco (but, in my opinion, not as nice), an area with Irish bars and cosmopolitan restaurants cordoned off from the rest of Guatemala for the safety of the tourists and, in places, paved to accommodate travellers’ high heels.

Everyone says they visit Antigua because it has the volcanoes around it. I don’t buy it. People go to Antigua because everyone else goes there. Central America has volcanoes all over the place. By the way – very important – there is a village in Guatemala where turtles lay eggs. I read it in Lonely Planet.

Most people are happy with those two in terms of Spanish classes. And then there are grumpy buggers like me who start kicking when they are herded to developed locations. But I didn’t know of any other options, and I didn’t want to end up in some total tomb somewhere. Lukily, I was given a tip, which I am now spreading with this article.

I decided to avoid Antigua at the very beginning, lest I bump into the Lord of the Underworld. Lake Atitlan was highly recommended. It was pretty and all, but after a couple of days up in smoke with Bob Marley (again…) me and Luke, the guy I met there, we began planning our escape from the Lonely Planet trail. The furthest we could think of at the time was El Salvador. Since it was a bit of a mystery, Luke decided to brush up on his Spanish. His Atitlan allowance was now spent, though, so it would have to be Antigua.

After a few day trips through the mountains, I caught the chicken bus to Guatemala City, which was going through Antigua. Chicken buses – don’t be fooled – the driver is not the one in control of the vehicle. It is the other guy – the primate who jumps around the roof at full speed, who shouts "Guatemala, Guatemala ciudad, Guatemala, GuateGuateGuateee!" – like there’s an imminent danger of GuateGuate. He hangs out of the door, tells the driver what to do (a bit like an F1 team).

Everyone else on the road is at full speed – all roads are one lane, each way. General road ethic is to speed and overtake on the oncoming lane, regardless of tight mountain turns. When something is coming your way, the bus pushes other cars to the side to come back into the right lane. Whether it works out or not is largely a matter of chance. The man is the original backseat driver; he actually does backseat drive, only he doesn’t have a seat. Instead, he hangs out of the bus at a 45-degree angle. That's why all vehicles have "Jesus is my guide" on their windscreens (phew, I thought he had forsaken us). I saw one truck that simply had "I am different" across the front. "Packed" is not the word. It’s a sea of bodies. Yet someone always insists on getting from one end of the bus to another. A necessary criteria to exercise that right is an oversized basket, or at least, a big stinking sack of potatoes.

Once in Antigua, I heard the terrible news: Luke failed to get signed up and was only starting. I did want to go to El Salvador with him, though. I was beginning to think that my Spanish could do with some classes too. With a heavy heart, I decided to stay and look for classes in the morning.

Later at night I was drowning my sorrows in Guinness, at the local command control unit of the Irish Empire. This is when God heard my pain. He sent me a group of jolly Americans who told me about Xela. The next morning, I walked to the bus station and caught a "GuateGuate" to Xela.

Xela – number one choice to learn Spanish off the trail
Quetzaltenango, aka Xela, is the second largest city of Guatemala, I think. As soon as I got off the bus, the locals began looking at me with curiosity, like what is he doing here. Good sign. I liked Xela a lot. Even though it's big, it has a warm sunny vibe on the streets by day; mellow and authentic. The people went about their business; courteous and nice. It's a bit too dark by night, though.

It turned out that Xela is the underdog for Spanish classes in Guatemala. Staying here is a real cultural submersion; schools are numerous and the number of foreigners is just about perfect – not too many to invade and enough to have a drink with, if you fancy. The prices are lower than in Antigua – $100.00 for a week (6 to 7 hours a day, one on one), with a good school; half of that with private teachers or less established schools.

A school had been recommended. Even though I was a day late for that week, I decided to attend. The school bell for lunch, etc., freaked me out a bit. My assigned teacher was an easy going, giggly young lady. The beauty of having a private teacher is that you can call the shots, if you know your language needs. She tried to drag me through the thorns of grammar; I wanted more conversation. She preferred staying on the book topics; I wanted to go off them since I was in the middle of a backpacking trip. I succeeded, which was more merciful than Luke's fate – his teacher was a feisty evangelist; she would not let the conversation stray away from the Lord.

I stayed in Hostel Argentina, where most travelers tend to stay. There was a bizarre neighborhood watch arrangement: at 9 o’clock, a group of youths would come out in balaclavas and ski masks, with baseball bats and other kinds of close-quarter combat melee weaponry. They – well – kept the neighborhood safe. One of the guys at the Argentina wasn’t aware of that. He had to take a lengthy detour on his way home one night when he saw them outside the hostel. Who would think they're security!

Walking around the tombstone shops of Xela one afternoon (there are lots of them), I met Sary on the central Plaza. I wish I had signed up with her. She has her own school, at a lower price, complete with accommodation, breakfast and an art gallery. Here's her website.

All in all I was happy with Xela. Atitlan is great for those who want peace of mind, tranquility, a lake, mountains, an international hangout with amenities. If you’d rather not stop cultural immersion and/or don’t want to get sucked into an over-developed location because you can’t say "Cuanto cuesta…?", Xela is for you.

Alex is the webmaster of Valencia Travel Guide – an independent resource on travelling in Valencia, Spain.