Central America’s language tourism
A traditional fishing boat in Isla Juan Venado, a protected reserve with mangroves and crocodiles less than an hour from Leon. (Amy Mulcair)
Every summer large groups of French, Spanish and Italians pour out of their English classes around London´s Oxford Street. They come to learn the language in its native home and as a bonus, get to experience life in Britain´s capital. Visit Big Ben, catch a glimpse of the Queen and if age permits, even sip some traditional English ale in the summer heat in one of the many old pubs, among the city workers. It is a good combination of culture, fun and learning.
Now imagine a similarly immersive experience for Spanish, but with a tantalizing selection of locations to choose from, including old colonial towns with cobbled streets and surrounding volcanoes, surfing beaches and hammocks or ancient Mayan lakes. In Central America, Spanish language schools are equally popular and prominent along the tourist routes through Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Lots of towns have a surprisingly wide selection of schools and it can be a key source of income for the locals. Some people come for a week to grasp the basics of Spanish while others stay up to a month or six weeks.
The schools offer one-to-one classes with most students opting for three to four hours a day, morning or afternoon. The prices are very competitive given the personal attention, $5 to $9 an hour on average. And if you opt for a home stay - your own room in the home of a local family - it is an even deeper dive into the culture. Eating your meals with a family, watching local TV, playing with kids or learning how to make tortillas is a great way to improve your language.
The schools also offer extra-curricular activities such as salsa classes, movies and visits to local communities. If you still have spare time there are yoga classes, surfing schools, hikes and sailing, magical sunsets, local organic coffee and hammocks to lie in. After a week of classes you will have some basic phrases and there is nothing better than trying them out on the locals, at say, el tenedor (the food court) in the local market. Watch what the locals are eating and go with that if you want food that is fresh and authentic.
A longstanding location for Spanish language students, Antigua is Guatemala´s famous colonial city, a Unesco World Heritage site and just 45 minutes from Guatemala City airport. Three large volcanoes create a backdrop to the city which is well preserved with cobbled streets and an easy to navigate grid system. It is well set up for tourists on all budgets, with beautiful hotels set around leafy courtyards in former colonial buildings as well as hostels with roof top decks, hammocks and free coffee.
There are many schools to choose from and it is easy to book classes on the spot. The city has a great choice of restaurants, cafes and bars with numerous old churches to visit. Most evenings you will find the locals in the Parque Central along with entertainers and food vendors.
Antigua is an ideal base for a range of other activities as well. There are hikes up the Pacaya volcano in the morning or afternoon, depending on whether you want to catch sunrise or sunset. A two hour drive away, volcano-ringed Lake Atitlan has several active Mayan villages on its shore. And each Wednesday and Sunday, buses leave for Chichicastenango, the famous market town with opportunities to see Mayan men and women in local dress and to try pepian, a delicious national dish of chicken in a sauce of cinnamon, chillis, tomatoes, cloves and sesame seeds.
Other locations to consider, all with Spanish schools and good accommodation options, include:
Leon and Granada, Nicaragua
The famous colonial cities of Leon and Granada offer the benefits of a city and are well geared up for tourists. Granada, on the shores of Lake Nicaragua -- a lake almost 99 miles in length, the second biggest in Latin America as well as home to fresh water sharks -- has boat trips to the mystical Isla de Ometepe. Leon maintains its fascinating connection to the country´s history and politics and is the location of Central America´s largest cathedral. The town is about 40 minutes from the Pacific beaches of Ponoloya and Las Peñitas.