Article by Donia Lilly first published in:
Transitions Abroad Magazine May/June 2005 issue ~
The first recommendation for a place to study Spanish is often Antigua, Guatemala. The old colonial town is beautiful, which makes it a popular tourist destination as well as a burgeoning mecca for Spanish schools. These are precisely the reasons why I do not recommend it for a Spanish immersion program.
So many people described the enchantments of Antigua, I felt I had to try it out. But something told me to look elsewhere as well. I finally decided to split my projected month of study in Guatemala between a language school in Quetzaltenango (called “Xela,” pronounced SHAY-la by the locals) and a Cooperative in Antigua. I figured if I didn’t like one town or school, I would still have two weeks at another.
The school I chose in Xela was fantastic. Escuela Minerva & Cultural Center is run by Julio Rodolfo Lima, who is also an economics professor at the Univ. of Quetzaltenango and an avid student of all things Mayan. Julio gave optional lectures on everything from modern Central American economics to the Mayan’s use of chromatherapy. The lectures were in Spanish, but Julio is such an amazing teacher that he is able to make even the most remedial Spanish speaker understand. He also would give impromptu lectures on virtually any topic requested.
The school organizes a variety of activities from which students can choose, and the teachers, all local residents, go with you. Volunteer projects include helping to reforest the local area. Many other ways to help the local community and get to know its residents are available too. Weekends are spent hiking volcanoes, visiting Mayan holy sites, or going to la playa (the beach). One of my favorite excursions was to a mist-enshrouded volcanic hot spring in the mountains, known as “Las Fuentes Georginas.” After our prolonged dip, we then had classes in the café.
My host family did not speak English; with no Spanish experience myself, my first few days were challenging. Minerva screens its families and makes sure there is only one student per house to allow maximum experience in communicating in Spanish.
The wonderful programming and teachers at Minerva aside, one of the reasons my short time in Xela was so fruitful was because it is most definitely not a tourist destination. The commercial center of southwestern Guatemala offers are a variety of Spanish schools to choose from, but the city is “untainted” by its non-Spanish speaking visitors.
Xela is approximately four hours west of the capital. You have two choices on how to get there: a “Pullman bus” (the equivalent of a greyhound, it requires a reservation and is worth the $30 if you are going direct) or a “camioneta,” or “chicken bus” (these old American schoolbuses are much cheaper, but you may have to stand for the 4-hour ride, and there is no passenger limit). Although chicken buses are unavoidable for short trips and certain routes—they are definitely a unique cultural experience—Guatemalans take the Pullman buses as well, so you won’t feel like a picky tourist.
In Xela you will see Mayan families who have come down from the mountain villages to sell their produce or textiles; children who are so small and yet have old, world-worn faces. (A word of caution: do not take photographs of any children, no matter how profoundly adorable. Guatemalan children have been stolen and sold on the black market, so people are very wary of foreigners taking photographs of their children. Buy postcards instead.)
Many locals don’t speak English, so you are forced to plod through a transaction at the bank or local panaderia, in Spanish. This was invaluable in learning to communicate in a new language.
Xela is a conservative town and many places close in the evening. But there are some hot spots, depending on the night of the week. Wednesday night is one of the best times to go salsa dancing. Saturday night is surprisingly dead (some discothequas run by foreigners are open), but when you consider the percentage of the population that attends church on Sunday morning, it is easy to understand why.
Xela Versus Antigua
Where Xela is loud and raw, Antigua is manicured and quaint. Where Xela is an authentic immersion into the culture and life of Guatemalans, Antigua seems a few steps from a Disneyfied version of it.
The family I was placed with in Antigua through the cooperative school I attended had a separate house for students. I lived three houses down from my “family” and had a schedule printed on my door with mealtimes for students. Lunch and dinner were with the family, who were extremely kind and talkative, but breakfast was often an awkward affair in which the mother or grandmother sat and watched me and the other American girl with whom I lived finish our breakfast.
Practicing Spanish on a regular basis outside of meal and class time was extremely difficult for several reasons: the other students with whom I lived spoke great English and almost no Spanish. In the town, most of the shops and restaurants cater to tourists and have English-speaking attendants and menu translations. I often had to insist on practicing my Spanish since it was assumed I would want to be addressed in English.
Antigua is a “scene”—not just for tourists but also for wealthy Guatemalans coming up from the capital to play. The contrast between the lifestyle I saw represented on the streets in Antigua and Xela was heart-breaking. The gulf between the classes can only be appreciated firsthand.
I left Antigua after a week, cutting my studies short. Had I not been to Xela on the first leg of my trip, perhaps I might have fallen for the charms of a city that has been recognized by UNESCO as a Cultural Heritage of Mankind site. But once your eyes are opened to authentic Guatemalan culture, it is very difficult to close them again.
Escuela Minerva has an extensive web site with helpful information on the local area, volunteer possibilities, and their programs at www.xelapages.com/minerva.
Las Fuentes Georginas is best visited during the week, rather than the weekend, to experience the full relaxation of the waters. Private vans can be booked for the winding mountain journey.
Another worthwhile excursion is to El Chicabal, a dormant volcano with a sacred Mayan lake at the top still used for Mayan ceremonies and blessings. The hike up the volcano itself is not too difficult, but hire a van to take you to the base of the volcano. The chicken bus drops you off several steep, foot-blistering miles away. Be sure to wear thick socks and go to the bathroom ahead of time; there are no facilities in the town.
Adrenalina Tours is an excellent, local-friendly sustainable tourism company. Learn more about them and their services at www.adrenalinatours.com.
El Alchemista is a vegetarian restaurant and educational project started by an American woman and her Guatemalan husband. They teach the locals about sustainable farming and basic hygiene, and they need volunteers. The food is fantastic, the music is live, and the view is of the entire city of Xela. They also have recently built a Mayan sauna. To get there you need to ask directions.
Clubs have a tendency to open and close without notice, but be sure to ask about La Fratta if you want to find some great salsa. On weekends the DJ played typical club music and it isn’t as packed with locals.