Voluntarily putting yourself through school when you’ve finished University well over 5 years ago and never planned on going back is crazy, or at least for me it was. But little did I know, rather than focusing on repetition and rules, my teacher and I had a long conversation about prostitution, transvestites, drug trafficking, religious creed, and political compromise. All in Spanish.
Luckily for me, I’ve had the basic conversational skills down for a few years, reinforced with traveling; yet a grammatical refresher course was necessary. I knew the perfect place to study was in Xela: it’s an affordable city, Guatemalan Spanish is easy to understand, and students who come here tend to be a bit more studious and less focused on partying. I’d been partying pretty hard in San Pedro for the last few weeks, and it was time to focus up, buckle down, and get some real studying done.
Xela, pronounced “Shaey-la” also known as Quetzeltenango, is located high in the mountains in the northwest of Guatemala and has everything you could want: a bustling nightlife, cozy home stays, plenty of volcanoes to climb, delicious local and international food, and an abundance of affordable Spanish schools to choose from. But when you’re inundated with the same-same-but-different, how do you decide what’s the best school for you?
After visiting several schools and asking for lots of student opinions, I found Celas Maya, and I can personally say this school will give you an enjoyable and enriching experience. Set around a lush garden with a fountain, they have provided the perfect relaxing and beautiful environment to study in. Classes hardly feel like studying when you’re sitting at a table with a local having a conversation
It always depends on who your teacher is, which can be luck of the draw, but the entire staff are friendly and helpful (my teacher, very much so). I told her what was important to me: learning past tense and working on my comfort and fluidity of conversation. I want to travel in Spanish speaking countries, not conquer complete fluency. And so we talked.
I’ve been to Spanish schools abroad several times and experienced many teachers inundating me with rules that were both logical and arbitrary. In those types of classes, I’d do the same things I did in university: never get enough sleep, space out, and nod my head in agreement even though I didn’t have a clue what we were talking about. But studying Spanish in Guatemala has proven to be different. Perhaps because the class is one-on-one and the teacher genuinely takes into consideration what you want. I spent the vast majority of my week speaking Spanish rather than learning it. And that was fine by me.
There were few repetitious worksheets and notes to be copied so for the most part she kept verbally correcting my mishaps which is real world situational, and exactly what I needed. Over time I began to correct myself, first out loud and then in my head. We shopped at the market, visited a glass making studio, and even made hummus together. But the entire time, we talked. I’m not sure how it started, but our conversation graduated from general small talk to gay rights issues to drug trafficking seamlessly. For hours we discussed the cultural and generational impact on various hot button issues and a massive bridge was gapped between a 45 year old divorced Catholic Guatemalan and a 27 year old vagabonding hippie American. We not only discovered differences, but commonalities. Such as men. We both agreed that men are lying, cheating bastards. It turns out that fact knows no borders or generations.
At first I felt awkward sharing my sex life and drug usage with a complete stranger, especially someone who couldn’t possibly relate to it. But I did feel oddly comfortable sharing what was obviously fascinating information with someone who hadn’t experienced a lot but wanted to know. She was never judgmental or condescending, but instead she asked a multitude of questions intrigued by my openness and honesty. And the more I talked about how to cultivate marijuana or how old I was when I first starting giving blow jobs, the more I realized I was using practical Spanish and genuinely honing my speaking skills. I can honestly say I took much more than language skills away from my classes as we bridged the cultural gap by learning each other’s perceived idea of “normal” experiences.
There’s a lot that Celas Maya has on offer that distinguishes itself from other schools: Cervantes Institute accreditation (a widely sought after title equated with a high level of structure and accountability), salsa lessons, and large group accommodation. But for me what set them apart was their overall helpfulness and ambient atmosphere. The international coordinator is kind, helpful, and has a wealth of information available whenever you visit her. The school provides unlimited free coffee and tea and snacks during the break. It’s also attached to a café that is open with extended hours and has both free computers and wifi which allows for quiet studying as well as hanging out in the lounge area, talking to other students.
One great way to initiate interaction between students is by providing activities available everyday of the week. It’s always different, but usually includes an evening film in Spanish, a visit to a local pueblo, hot spring, craft workshop, or cooking classes. On weekends they plan hikes up volcanoes and visits to markets, including Chichicastenango, the largest in all of Guatemala. With the exception of transportation and entrance fees, these activities are free to students, which is how they generate such a lively social atmosphere.
Even if you’re not naturally sociable, Celas Maya can help timid travelers every step of the way; from getting to the school, finding a family to live with, arranging volunteer work (whether you know an organization or not), and even taking classes before you arrive via Skype (or continuing your Spanish education after you leave). Unlike Rosetta Stone, Skype classes have the benefit of working with a live person who can adapt to your learning ability and practice the fluidity of conversation, generally the most important part of learning another language.
While many other schools offer similar opportunities as Celas Maya, none can offer the complete quality package they do. They proudly boast that they may not be the cheapest option, but they are the best and their level of quality is hard miss. (And to be honest, it really isn’t expensive at all. At under $200 USD a week including a homestay with 3 meals a day, it’s still cheaper than living at home.) So if you’re ready to travel to Central America, don’t miss out on all the beauty and excitement Guatemala has to offer. And don’t pass over the opportunity to study at such a high quality school for a fair price. El momento esta ahorita! Vamos!