Thinking about pushing pause on your Latin American adventure so you can kickstart your Spanish skills? Great idea. Learning the local language will not only make travel easier, but will also allow you to have a more authentic experience. And what better place to learn than San Pedro, Guatemala? Guatemala is an ideal country to learn Spanish because the accent is mild and locals speak relatively slow. San Pedro is a small town situated on the shore of Lake Atitlan. It’s a popular spot to take Spanish classes as there are plenty of schools to choose from and it’s known for being one of the cheapest places to do it. And on a warm, clear morning you can’t beat the view from your school’s palapa overlooking the entire lake. Convinced? Great. Now here’s everything you need to know.
Don’t Book Ahead
Unless you’re on a strict schedule and are booking a spot at one of the most popular schools during the peak of high season, skip making a reservation. Some schools pressure you into handing over a non-refundable deposit, insisting they could be booked out. The problem with paying a deposit is that travel plans rarely stay on a schedule and you don’t want to lose money because your plans change. There are so many schools in San Pedro that you’ll always be able to find somewhere to study.
Do Your Research
Since there are plenty of Spanish schools in San Pedro, it can be a bit overwhelming to just rock up without having an idea of where you’re headed. There are signs all over the winding streets that point to different schools in different directions. Do some research beforehand and read reviews of each school. Every school will offer basic 1 on 1 classes, but some will have more social events planned like movie nights or hikes. The more well known schools tend to be a bit more expensive, so do your research to see if they’re worth it.
Pay a Week at a Time
Once you’ve decided on your school of choice, pay per week. You never know what might happen to make you cancel your week. You may realize that the school isn’t for you, or you need to move to your next destination sooner than expected. Paying weeks ahead of time could mean forfeiting that money if your plans change. And don’t worry about the school ‘running out of room’, they’ll find a way to keep you on board.
Switch Teachers If You’re Not Comfortable
This is a big one. If you’re not satisfied or comfortable with your teacher for any reason, ask to change. If your teacher talks too much or too fast or even just has a funny accent that completely distracts you from learning, switch. You are paying the school from your tight backpacker budget and it’s up to you to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth. Don’t feel embarrassed; students ask to switch all the time. And don’t feel bad for your teacher, they’ll be able to find another student. Make your learning the priority.
Do a Homestay
My first time in San Pedro, I booked a homestay but chickened out at the last minute and ended up at a hostel. I was too scared to do it alone, but was resolute to try it out the second time around when I had Jules. I’ll admit our homestay wasn’t exactly the warm family welcome I was hoping for (we stayed at the school with the directors family which felt more like a boarding school than anything), but all of our other friends had amazing experiences. They were invited to experience aspects of local life that you wouldn’t have access to as a regular backpacker. They were taken to church, taught to sew, invited to cook with their families and really got a taste of traditional Mayan customs. Just like if you’re dissatisfied with your teacher, I recommend asking to change. There are many loving families who would welcome a traveler into their home.
Get Involved with the Local Community
San Pedro has an active backpacker community full of trivia Tuesdays and theme parties. But you can get all that at home. The best way to learn Spanish, and really get a sense for Guatemala, is to get involved with the locals. The easiest way to do this is by building a friendship with your homestay family. You can also find volunteer opportunities in town through most of the Spanish schools. I volunteered at a local kindergarten and enjoyed getting out of the backpacker side of town (also known as “Gringolandia”).
And when you get there, make sure to take advantage of the unbelievably cheap avocados to make one of our favorite traveling snacks!
For more information on schools, this article does a good job of comparing the different options. If you hop on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum you can also find many posts with first hand testimonies on different schools.
Have you studied Spanish in San Pedro? Leave us a comment detailing your experience so other travelers can check it out! Thanks for stopping by!