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Learning Spanish in Xela, Guatemala

Want to learn Spanish? Xela in Guatemala is the place to go!

Learning Spanish in Guatemala is popular and some places are well-known for it. But if you want to remain fairly off-the-trail, Xela is the place to go.

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 the coolest place to learn.

To start with, the Guatemaltekas speak slowly and clearly. Anyone who has been to Cuba will appreciate the importance of this – you aren’t going to learn Spanish when muttered through 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…?’ You normally pay for a week’s course, quite a few hours a day one-to-one with a teacher, although that can modified to your needs.

Most students wanting to learn Spanish tend to head to either Lake Atitlan or Antigua.

Lake Atitlan is a very scenic mountanous landscape with volcanoes and postcard indigenous people. A string of villages along the shore 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 Guatemalan Cuzco, 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 am sorry but I don’t buy it. People go to Antigua because everyone else goes there. Central America has volcanoes all over the place. They go because the Lonely Planet tells them to.

Quetzaltenango, aka Xela, is the second largest city of Guatemala, I think. As soon as I got off the locals began looking at me with curiosity, like what the hell is he doing here? Good sign. I like Xela a lot. It’s a big city but it had this warm sunny vibe on the streets by day, really mellow and totally authentic. The people just went about their business, but courteous and nice. A little too dark by night though.

It turned out 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 were lower than in Antigua – 100 bucks for a week (6-7 hours a day, one-to-one) with a very good school and about half of that with private teachers or less established schools.

I had been recommended a school, and I was already a day late for that week, so I was just going to go with that one, although I got a bit freaked out by the fact it had a school bell for lunch etc. My assigned teacher was an easy-going and giggly young lady.

The beauty of having such a private one-to-one is that you can call the shots if you know what your language needs. She tried to drag me through the thorns of the grammar but, with so little time, I wanted it more conversational. She would keep trying to get me talking on the-book-is-on-the-table kind of topics like family, my country, my hobbies. I kept diverting it to sex, drugs and tips on catching Guatemalan women – since I was in school in the middle of a backpacking trip, I did have to at least keep myself entertained. Piously perplexed at first, she eventually surrendered and even showed a cute curiosity for those topics. Other students were less lucky and ended up with fierce evangelists who used the opportunity to disperse some respect for the Christian gospel.

I stayed in a nearby hostel Argentina, where most travelers tend to stay. There was a bizarre neighborhood watch arrangement: at 9 o’clock a group of 10-14 youths would come out in balaclavas and ski masks, with baseball bats and all other kinds of close-quarter combat melee weaponry, and…well…keep the neighborhood safe.

Word of warning – if you think those guys look cool, don’t take photos! Many Guatemaltecans believe that photos steal your spirit, and you really don’t want to be informed of this by a bunch of youths in ski-masks and with baseball bats.

There are a few nice mellow bars to go to for a drink at night and salsa nights for foreigners. While you are learning to speak you may as well learn to walk, again not very expensive and salsa teachers are abundant. You can’t take your guns to the bars though, unfortunately, as the signs in the venues tell you, so people have to resort to breaking bottles over each other’s heads.

Walking around the tombstone shops of Xela one afternoon (there are lots of them, business must be good…) I met Sary on the central Plaza. She is a sweetest little thing and I wish I had met her before signing-up. She has her own school, at lower price, complete with accommodation, breakfast and an art gallery. Us and her friend went for some salsa and had a fantastic night. Her site was down at the time of writing, but if you do go to Xela to learn Spanish do try to sign up with her, she’s such a sweetie. I hope the webmaster won’t mind: All in all I was happy with this turn of events. Go to Atitlan if you want peace of mind, “peace” in the pipe, tranquility, lake, mountains and an international village. Go to Antigua if you want an international hangout with all amenities. But if you want to get into real Guatemalan culture then Xela is the way to go.

Alex runs his own site about Valencia – make his day and visit his site.

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Alex Valencia