Travelers find many reasons to visit the beautiful little country of Guatemala, but a major enticement is the ability to learn Spanish at bargain prices. 

Although Antigua, a charming colonial town, boasts numerous Spanish schools,  it is considered too touristy by many. For my month-long stay in Guatemala to study Spanish, I chose Quetzaltenango, where (with the exception of fellow students) I was totally immersed in a Spanish-speaking environment and had constant exposure to the Guatemalan life. 

Quetzaltenango offers a variety of Spanish schools which cater to all levels, from the beginner who doesn’t speak a word of Spanish to the advanced Spanish speaker who wants to brush up on his knowledge. The schools all provide one-on-one tutors, most of whom are university graduates. Students are able to receive undergraduate or graduate credits through some of the schools. (This must be arranged in advance; the number of credits depends on length of stay and number of classroom hours.) 

For as little as $100 a week, the student receives tutoring five hours a day Monday through Friday;  numerous field trips, excursions, and cultural activities that provide an opportunity to gain insight into the geography, society, politics, culture, and economic climate of Guatemala; and a private room plus three meals a day with a local family—where the guest will experience the wonderful Guatemalan hospitality as he or she is welcomed as a member of the family. 

The tuition includes textbooks and almost everything you need to study. You’ll need to take your own spiral notebooks and pens, and I recommend these three books:

            (1) a small Spanish/English—English/Spanish dictionary. The Langenscheidt Pocket Spanish Dictionary is good.

            (2) Barron’s Spanish Grammar, by Christopher Kendris, Ph.D.  I’m amazed that so much useful information can be packed into a tiny 4 x 6-inch book of 196 pages.

            (3) 501 Spanish Verbs, Barron’s Educational Series, also by Christopher Kendris. Fully conjugated in all the tenses, plus helpful words, expressions, and idioms for travelers. 

Located in the highlands, Quetzaltenango’s altitude of almost 8,000 feet ensures warm days and cool nights. With a population of about 150,000, it is the country’s second largest city but it does not have the urban problems of the capital, Guatemala City. It is friendly and safe, and with its three universities and several technical schools, Quetzaltenango is often referred to as Guatemala’s most progressive and intellectual city. It is a convenient location from which one can travel easily to many interesting places within the country. 

Don’t be confused when you hear Quetzaltenango referred to as “SHAY-lah.” The city was named Quetzaltenango by the Spanish conquistadors (meaning “the place of the quetzal  bird”), but it was known as Xelajú  by its Quiche Mayan citizens. Today the name Xela survives in common usage. (Xela is pronounced SHAY-lah because the “x” in Mayan has an “sh” sound.)

If this will be your first time, arrange with a school in advance. Many of the schools have U.S. representatives who can take your application for enrollment. Some charge a small fee for the application; and you’ll sometimes pay a slightly higher rate when you deal through a U.S. representative. However, signing up in advance gives peace of mind if this is your first experience of foreign travel and/or study. (Be aware that a representative of a school differs from a broker, who will charge twice as much - or more - than the going rate for the school.) 

One excellent school in Quetzaltenango is Kie-Balam. From the U.S., the phone number to the school is 011 502 761 1636; their fax is 011 502 761 0391.

 Kie-Balam’s U.S. representative is Martha Mora. Her phone in Illinois is 847-888-2514. Martha is from Quetzaltenango and her parents and a sister, Marla, still live there. Martha is knowledgeable and helpful. She says that Kie-Balam costs $100 a week whether you register through her or directly with the school. Kie-Balam is among the schools through which the student can earn university credits. Like most of the Spanish schools in Quetzaltenango, Kie-Balam contributes to local social programs and gives students an opportunity to get involved in volunteer programs if they wish.

 You’ll fly into Guatemala City, and then take a four-hour bus ride to Quetzaltenango. For the traveler who knows little or no Spanish, being met at the airport is a godsend.  Martha Mora recommended Anna Esperanza, who lives in Guatemala City and speaks English. Prior to my trip, I called Anna to make arrangements.

 My flight arrived Guatemala City at 6:00 a.m. Anna met me at the airport and took me to the Galgos (Greyhound) station where, with her help, I bought my ticket. I waited for the 2:30 p.m. bus, the only one traveling to Quetzaltenango each day that has a bathroom C I was hesitant to embark on a four-hour ride without one. The ticket for the bus with the bathroom was 30 quetzals (about $5.25);  tickets for the buses without bathrooms are 18 quetzals (about $3.00).

 Since it would be several hours before my bus departed, Anna drove me through a huge, colorful outdoor market covering multiple blocks where she bought several kinds of fruit, including papayas more than a foot long.  Then she took me to her house where we had a breakfast of juicy, sweet pineapple chunks, papaya, coffee, and bread spread with cold pureed black beans a staple in Guatemala.  I also met Anna’s family, who are warm and friendly people.

 When departure time for my bus was near, Anna drove me back to the Galgos station. For all her help and service, she charged me $20. Definitely a bargain.

 Anna Esperanza says she will provide similar service for others.  From the U.S., call 011 502 369 0171 to make arrangements. A time when you will be most sure to reach her is 9:30 p.m. Central Time.

 For safety reasons, and because you’ll want to enjoy the spectacular scenery as the bus winds its way through the mountains, travel during daylight hours. Schedule your bus departure for no later than 2:30 p.m. If your plane arrives too late, plan to spend the night in Guatemala City and travel to Quetzaltenango the following day. If you need to stay at a hotel, Anna can help you with that as well.

Students can begin their studies on any Monday, but if possible, plan to arrive in Quetzaltenango on a Friday or Saturday.  It’s nice to have a couple of days to get settled in with your “family,” meet some of the other students, and walk around the city and familiarize yourself with the layout.

You can arrange for someone with the school to meet you at the bus station, or you can just give the address to a taxi driver. Almost all of the schools are within a five or 10-minute ride from the bus station and the fare will be under two dollars.  Even if you arrive on a Saturday or Sunday, you will usually find some students and/or teachers hanging around the school.

Once you’ve begun your schooling, you’ll have the help of students who have been in Guatemala for a few weeks or months. You’ll quickly feel comfortable and confident about traveling around the country on the wonderfully entertaining, brightly painted and decorated second-class buses. You’ll join others on weekend excursions to beautiful Lake Atitlan, surrounded by three volcanoes and more than 1,000 feet deep; Chichicastenango and its famous Indian market;  colonial Antigua, among the oldest and most beautiful cities in the Americas; and Tikal, the magnificent city that was the center of the Mayan civilization and a great ceremonial site.

If an extended stay in a foreign country would be a new experience for you, you may be hesitant. But if the idea intrigues you, I hope I can calm your fears and encourage you to seize this wonderful opportunity.

When I first went to Guatemala, I was 50-plus, a female traveling alone to a foreign country for the first time, and I knew very little Spanish. As I planned my trip, I was apprehensive and scared. But I was determined to go, and following through - just doing it -was a great confidence builder. I loved Guatemala and its people, and the experience enriched my life beyond measure. Besides a great improvement in my knowledge of Spanish, I was privileged to learn much more of the life in the world of the Maya than if I were simply a tourist.

Update:  Subsequent to my first trip, I returned to Quetzaltenango in May of 1998 and spent another month studying Spanish. I discovered that at that time there was no longer a bus from Guatemala City to Quetzaltenango that had a bathroom.

The main change in Quetzaltenango is that now there are numerous places that offer access to e-mail and the internet. The going rate is about 50 centavos per minute for online time. In U.S. currency, this is approximately eight cents per minute. One shop, Alternativas, charges seven quetzales (slightly more than $1.00) an hour for computer time, which allows you to compose and read your e-mail offline at a much cheaper rate.

Copyright 1998 * Dottie Atwater

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