You may have read my post describing a day in the life of a Spanish-language student in Guatemala. Or, perhaps you’ve been trying out some of my tips for free Spanish self-study at home and, now that you’ve begun, you’re already dreaming of taking your Spanish to the next level by attending a Central American Spanish-language school. If so, the following article explains what you will need to know to line up your family’s Spanish-language school experience in Guatemala–everything from what it costs to what it’s like to do a home stay in a Maya town on Lake Atitlan.

Why Guatemala?

The list of countries offering reputable Spanish-language-learner programs abroad is long, but our choice of Guatemala was, by no means, accidental. Many of our friends who had traveled through Central America mentioned Guatemala as a highlight, and I understood why after drooling over pictures of the Maya citadel of Tikal in the north, cobblestone streets and crumbling Spanish colonial architecture in Antigua, and volcanoes flanking Lake Atitlan. I also knew my family would spend the majority of our year abroad in Costa Rica–a country with a very small indigenous population–so, the prospect of living and learning in Guatemala, where Maya people constitute about 40% of the population, felt like a valuable opportunity.

Guatemala offers one other major advantage. Because we are living on a significantly reduced budget this year, we had to think carefully about money, and Guatemala offers some of the most affordable Spanish instruction around (generally about $200/wk/person for four hours per day of one-on-one lessons, including room and board with a home-stay family).

Choosing a Language School

I spent more time than I’d like to admit considering different regions and language schools in Guatemala. Many people loved Antigua for its architecture and great restaurants, but others complained that with all of the other tourists around, Antigua hardly offered an immersive experience. Still others claimed Guatemala’s second largest city, Xela (also known as Quetzaltenango), was where the “serious” Spanish learners went, but at an elevation of more than 7,000 feet, Xela sounded cold and possibly not as safe as I’d like for walking around after dark.

In the end, we settled on what seemed to be Guatemala’s third largest language-learning hub: San Pedro La Laguna. Why? The location is stunning. San Pedro is one of several Maya towns and villages, which–in addition to volcanoes–dot the shores of Lake Atitlan. The town is populated by a major Maya ethnic group, the Tz’utujil, and is well known for its colorful painting and weaving artistry, so cultural learning opportunities are abundant. And, perhaps most importantly, I had found a language school that came highly recommended for good instruction, a beautiful garden classroom setting, and home stays where our family would be the exclusive guests (not the case with some home stays in Antigua, apparently, which operated more like boarding houses). The Cooperativa Language School in San Pedro turned out to be a great match for our family.

Our Home Stay

Our home stay hosts were a Tz’utujil Maya family of six. Anita, our “sugar mama” as she called herself, kept us generously fed: typically something simple for breakfast like tamales or bread from the corner bakery; a main midday meal, which ranged from stir-fried noodles and guacamole to fried chicken; and almost always corn tortillas, black beans and eggs for dinner. Anita’s husband, Luis, provided us with equally abundant conversation. Over the course of our month, we covered everything from how to raise teenagers to the effects of Guatemala’s civil war on lakeside communities. Our hosts truly incorporated us into their family, inviting our children to lounge on their bed after meals to watch Spanish cartoons and letting us occasionally help wash dishes after meals.

By  U.S. standards, living conditions were basic: laundry was washed by hand in the lake by Anita, and municipal water was piped to the house only three times a week and was not potable. Nevertheless, our hosts and the school generously went out of their way to accommodate foreign guests. They offered wifi in the house, hot water (exclusively for our showers), and commercially-purified jugs of drinking water.

Spanish Lessons

Every weekday morning, after breakfast with our host family, we spent four hours at school. The model of instruction at La Cooperativa School, like many other Guatemalan Spanish schools, was one-on-one. Tim and I each enjoyed our own instructors, though we opted to have the kids share a teacher, suspecting that 6-year-old Reid might prefer to spend the first week simply listening and taking cues from his brother, while 9-year-old Liam would be happy to chat from the get-go, regardless of how much Spanish he actually knew.

Tim and I loved every minute of our lessons–our instructors were not only talented language teachers, but they turned out to be good friends and conversation partners. My teacher, Ana Maria, and I talked about everything from midwifery to politics, throughout which she managed to slip in a logical progression of grammar lessons.

Though we sometimes worried the kids’ lessons were too didactic for their age, particularly Reid, we admired the many fun activities their teacher organized, including water balloon fights, puppet and kite making, and singing.

Beyond Class-Time Hours

Though our Spanish lessons were limited to four hours every morning (plenty, in my estimation, though we could have opted for more hours), we didn’t stop learning and exploring during the rest of the day. Much of our time was spent with our host family, but we also enjoyed many school-planned activities, including zip lining over the jungle, exploring other Atitlan villages by water taxi, hiking, kayaking, salsa dancing, and attending lectures about the region’s art and recent history. The month flew by.

My Recommendations

Attending Spanish school, even for as little as a week, is a great way to expose your family to another language and culture. Here are a few recommendations to make your visit as productive and enjoyable as possible:

  • Upon flying into Guatemala, schedule a taxi to take you directly to Antigua, rather than staying in Guatemala City, which can be dangerous. Antigua offers gorgeous colonial architecture and many great restaurants–we spent several days wandering around the cobblestone streets, people watching in the central square, and exploring the vibrant market. (I plan to dedicate a future post to some of the highlights of Antigua.) We stayed at Yellow House, an affordable and pleasant guest house with a wonderful  breakfast included, and an attached travel agency where we were able to arrange our on-ward bus tickets to San Pedro.
  • In terms of language schools, I cannot recommend enough the Cooperative Language School, San Pedro. Directed by a team of five teachers who left their former teaching jobs to start their own school, Cooperativa offers a well-thought-out curriculum, a gorgeous garden campus (featured in this post’s picture, above), and well-trained teachers. As I mentioned earlier, their fees are also exceedingly reasonable.
  • While none of us fell sick in Antigua, three of the four of us did deal with stomach problems in San Pedro. Visit a travel clinic before your go so you know what medicine to take should you fall sick. Remember that municipal water is not potable throughout Guatemala, so only drink the commercially-purified water provided in jugs by your host family, the school, or reputable restaurants. When traveling in countries without clean drinking water, our family likes to carry chlorine drops or a UV water treatment system–that way we are confident our water is clean and we don’t leave behind a bunch of plastic bottles after buying bottled water. Finally, be conservative about eating uncooked vegetables or exposing yourself to untreated water when you eat out.
  • If attending language school with young kids, ask lots of questions about pedagogy before your arrive (i.e., will kids be taking notes, or playing in Spanish?). Alternatively, consider waiting until your kids are about eight years or older before attending language school.

My biggest recommendations are that you make the time to attend a Spanish language school and you choose a home stay. So far, our language school plus home stay experience has been a (possibly the) major highlight of our year abroad!

For more details, the L.A. Times Travel section printed a feature article I wrote about our family’s experience of studying Spanish in Guatemala.