Vacation and Study Adventure in Guatemala
Richard Strager, Italian, Spanish, and ESL Instructor
In December 2010, during the break between fall and winter semesters, I spent three enjoyable and rewarding weeks in sunny Guatemala. In addition to getting a much-needed respite from the New England winter chilI, my main objective was to work on my Spanish. Fresh from teaching my first Spanish class at Salem State University in the fall of 2010, I really wanted to immerse myself in the language by taking an intensive advanced Spanish course. In Guatemala, I knew I would be able to practice Spanish on a daily basis. I also relished the opportunity to get to know someplace new. Although I have travelled all over the world, I had never been to Central America before.
Based on a friend’s recommendation and a little internet research, I decided that Antigua would be the ideal place to stay and to study. It is a lovely, well-ordered colonial-style city an hour west of Guatemala City. Antigua is situated in a plain surrounded by hills on three sides and an imposing dormant volcano on the fourth. This historical, colorful city is laid out in a grid pattern of crisscrossing idyllic cobblestone streets, oriented around a main square, Parque Central, Antigua’s verdant heart and social center.
Antigua is very accommodating to foreign visitors There are at least a dozen Spanish language schools there offering 4-6 hours a day of one-on-one instruction for $120-180 per week. Most schools also organize daily afternoon field trips and activities for students to learn more about Antigua, Guatemalan culture and to socialize and practice their Spanish. The school I chose, Antigüeña Spanish Academy, was a perfect fit. It was centrally located, well-established, and very reasonably priced. I had read that they gave a discount to teachers and full-time students. When I inquired about this possibility, Señor Julio, the jovial owner, smiled broadly and said, “Todo es posible en Guatemala!” (Everything is possible in Guatemala).
In the end, for $100 per week, they offered me 4 hours a day, 5 days a week of private instruction, plus cultural outings every afternoon with the other students in the school. They also found me a wonderful home stay family nearby which allowed me to practice my Spanish even more. The home stay was an additional $80 per week which included my own room, a hot shower and three delicious home-cooked meals a day. The house was clean, spacious and well-appointed. The family was charming and remarkably warm and hospitable. Before arriving there, I was a little nervous about living in the home of a Guatemalan family. But they treated me as both a special guest and a part of their family and made me feel welcome and comfortable. I also felt privileged to learn about Guatemalan life from the inside out. We had our meals together and spoke Spanish all the time. As much as I enjoyed the school and the city and my travels around the country, the home stay turned out to be my favorite part of the whole trip.
From 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon every day at Antigüeña Spanish Academy, I worked with my personal instructor, Esperanza. We conversed, reviewed grammar, studied vocabulary, and read and discussed various texts. Since both of us were language teachers, we talked a lot about the best approach to teaching and learning languages. She also asked me about my own life and told me about hers. One of Esperanza’s most touching stories was about how she had survived a strong earthquake that had struck Antigua in the 1980’s. She hardly spoke a word of English, which was perfect for my purposes, because all of our communication in Spanish was not only pedagogically useful but also authentic. Although some of the other teachers did use a little English with their beginning students, the school’s preferred method of instruction was definitely language immersion. Most of the other students were at the beginner and advanced beginner level and they all seemed happy with their one-on-one lessons.
School trips with my fellow students took us to an organic macadamia farm, a textile museum, and a bustling local crafts market. One day, we went swimming in a natural hot spring and another day we competed in a Spanish scrabble tournament. We also took salsa lessons together a few times. All these activities allowed us to practice Spanish and were included in the price of the classes.
It was a lot of fun to be a student again. I loved being on ‘the other side of the desk’ for a while. The teacher tailored each lesson to my own needs and my own interests. Even though I was officially on vacation, I studied hard, did my homework seriously, practiced a lot outside of class, and in two short weeks, I completed my course and obtained a certificate in advanced Spanish.
In my final week there, I took the opportunity to get to know other parts of Guatemala such as Lago de Atitlán, a large, beautiful lake surrounded by volcanos. I climbed one of the volcanos as part of a guided tour. Volcán Pacaya had erupted only 7 month earlier and the eerie landscape was completely barren, entirely covered in hardened, ash-colored lava. It was three hours up and two and a half back down. Since most of the tour group knew little or no Spanish and our guide didn’t know much English, he asked me to translate for our group along the way. I had fun being an impromptu assistant tour guide for the day.
My last two days were spent in Tikal, in northern Guatemala, were deep in a dense rain forest, dozens of ancient Mayan temples can be found, half covered over by the jungle, some so tall, they rise majestically above and tower over the rain forest canopy. The view from the top is both dizzying and awe-inspiring. Standing atop these incredible structures built over 1,000 years ago, your mind strains to imagine how they were constructed so long ago, what the Mayans used them for, and how they have survived in tact all these years.
For anyone looking for fun, adventure and a great chance to learn Spanish or to improve your Spanish language skills, I highly recommend a visit to Guatemala. Feel free to contact me for further information about traveling and/or studying there. I can also tell you about how I ended up playing Santa Claus on Christmas Eve in a neighboring Guatemalan town, or how I saved $2,000 by getting my tooth fixed by an Antiguan dentist. But those are other stories for another time.
More information about the school where Prof. Strager studied can be found at www.spanishacademyantiguena.com.