Spanish schools are dotted all over Latin America, meaning you have no excuse not to take a few lessons and make your time in these countries infinitely more enjoyable and easier to get around.
We were told by many travellers that Guatemala is a great country to learn Spanish, as the locals speak more slowly, clearly and stick to the correct pronunciation, while the schools are also generally cheaper.
While researching Spanish schools, I came across Expert Vagabond’s post about his experience at The Cooperativa Spanish School on the shores of Lake Atitlán, and so we decided to enroll in a two-week program at this school.
There are 11 other Spanish schools in San Pedro La Laguna and we’re glad we ended up picking The Cooperativa Spanish School, as we learned that many of the cheaper schools don’t teach you the core principals and grammar of Spanish.
They tend to teach you single words and phrases, rather than starting with the core foundations of Spanish. This might be ok if you only want to get your head around some very basic words, however as soon as you begin to spread your wings, the cracks begin to appear as you will only be able to think and speak in singular words.
While we definitely aren’t fluent in Spanish after a two-week stint, we’re now able to string together sentences, tell you what time it is, and which country we’ll be traveling to next month.
The Cooperativa Spanish School
The ‘school’’ is like a beautiful retreat with its hut-like classrooms situated in a tropical garden along the shore of Lake Atitlán, surrounded by volcanoes and mountains.
We spent four hours per day learning Spanish with our wonderful maestra (teacher), Ana Maria, who has been teaching at the school for 12 years.
We covered a lot of ground on vocabulary, grammar, conjunctions, feminine and masculine words (the latter being extremely difficult for a first timer to this concept).
We would listen to Ana Maria speaking to us entirely in Spanish, using simple language that we learned earlier that day, making it a swifter process to understand how each new sentence is formed.
We would then practice forming sentences. The hardest thing for me (Carly) was getting the pronunciation right, and remembering those notorious masculine/feminine differences!
Our lesson was broken up with morning tea where we had a chance to mingle with other students, many of whom were long-term travellers. This happened to be Tim’s favourite part of the day as he enjoyed sampling the delicious snack on offer – tamales, empanadas, bean-filled tortillas or pineapple bread. He quickly learned the daily snack schedule!
The school offers plenty of afternoon and weekend activities from cooking classes, salsa lessons to hikes and excursions.
A highlight for us was learning how to cook tamales from scratch in a cooking lesson. We helped prepare the meal; from cutting the potatoes, making the tomato salsa to preparing the banana leaves and wrapping the mixture. We made sure the tamales we loaded with fresh picante (chilli) were clearly labeled with a different coloured string! They were super tasty and made the perfect comfort food on a rainy afternoon.
On the weekend we headed off at 6am to climb San Pedro Volcano. The early start was required in order to avoid the midday heat, afternoon rain, and also to ensure a clear view from the summit.
The ascent took roughly 3.5 hours, with a few strategic stops along the way for photos and water breaks – and not to forget the giant rope swing that Tim swung precariously from!
After trekking our way past fields of coffee, maize, and wild avocados, we finally reached the top of the volcano.
The 3,020-metre summit offered an incredible view of the lake, surrounding towns and mountains. It was a real leg burner but I highly recommend giving it a go if you stop by San Pedro.
A nice addition to the teaching schedule is a fortnightly visit to a local family in need. This is a community project, run by the school, that provides a few basic necessities, such as eggs, flour, beans, rice etc.
While taking lessons at the school, we opted for a homestay with a local Guatemalan family. It was a great way to immerse ourselves in the culture, and it gave us an opportunity to practice our Spanish.
We were lucky to have stayed with the wonderful Cortez family, one of the school’s directors. Mynor, and his wife Josefa, made us feel part of their family – sharing their home with us, cooking us delicious meals, taking us on walks and hikes, sharing many laughs and stories, and patiently listening to us as we stumbled our way through Spanish.
The homestay component really was the highlight for us as it enhanced our overall Spanish school experience. It’s was an unforgettable experience and I truly recommend you opt for a homestay.