Learning Spanish is popular in Guatemala and places like Antigua and Lago Atitlan are well-known for it.
But if you want to remain fairly off-the-trail, Xela is definitely the place to go.
It’s not like it’s the only Spanish speaking country on the continent but a number of factors make it Guatemala and in particular Xela the coolest place to learn.
To start with, the Guatemalans speak slowly and clearly. The Guatemalan culture is heavily indigenous, (55% of the population) so it’s also an interesting place to stop and get to know.
Guatemala and Xela in particular is also more economical than most of Central America, making it a very appealing proposition.
As a result, you get a interesting crowd of students, not top-end travellers, but definitely a lot of teachers and professionals eager to brush up on Spanish.
Many people wanting to learn Spanish tend to head to either Lake Atitlan or Antigua and having been to both of these places I will try and give you a picture of what that might look like.
Lago Atitlan is a very scenic, mountainous landscape with volcanoes and postcard indigenous people. Many villages along the shore of the lake cater for differing needs of spirituality and partying.
This place is pure bliss and the Guatemalan equivalent of a beach village.
We also heard that as it’s such a small place the quality of teachers is not as high as in Xela. I definitely preferred Lake Atitlan as a place to relax after my Spanish classes.
Antigua, on the other hand, is somewhat of Guatemalan version of what San Miguel de Allende is to Mexico.
Although a beautiful looking colonial town, it has an abundance of trendy looking bars, cosmopolitan restaurants and is somehow shielded from the rest of real Guatemala supposedly for the safety of ‘tourists’.
It seems that many go to popular Antigua or Lake Atitlan for Spanish study. Don’t get me wrong Antigua is a lovely colonial town but it’s a bit like going to Guatemala when you aren’t going to Guatemala. For us there was a great western influence in food, (also more costly) restaurants and facilities.
We had a preference for the real Guatemalan life in Xela. As soon as we arrived in Xela there was a warm sunny vibe, everyone smiled, it was very mellow and very welcoming.
As we say – it’s very ‘real’. The people just went about their business, courteous and nice.
It turns out Xela is the usually the last choice for Spanish classes in Guatemala which is such a shame. I wouldn’t go anywhere else after spending 5 weeks there and I highly recommend it for students and people of all ages.
Staying here is a real cultural immersion, schools are numerous and the ratio of travellers to locals is just about perfect – not too many to clog the streets and enough to make some new friends.
I loved Xela, I loved my teacher, and I loved my classes at Celas Maya and here’s more reasons why we chose Xela.
It’s pretty easy to default if people speak to you in English but in Xela no one will voluntarily speak English to you. It’s all Spanish – so that’s helpful in the learning process.
They speak clearly and slow, and because the spanish learning is a large part of their economy the friendly Guatemalans will take the time to help the struggling kiwi trying to speak.
We also found a very highly regarded school located in Xela called Celas Maya.
They treat you beautifully and their attitude translates to “You are my friend”. You’re not treated like some random tourist with money to spend.
It was a privilege to be there living alongside them and when they happily pose for photos, well that’s even more special for me.
Xela Cost of Living
The cost of living, rent and Spanish lessons were way lower than in Antigua and what’s more the fresh fruit and vegetables available was the best we have had anywhere in the world. Ten dollars would buy a load of fruit and veges to last us a week. The markets in Xela are far superior to those of Antigua.
We were here in July and the climate was very pleasant. Cool in the early morning, warmed up by lunchtime and sunny and warm in the afternoons. There were only a few days of very short rain. It’s easy to sleep at night with no humidity whatsoever.
Lastly the surrounding hiking, villages and valleys to explore are nothing short of breathtaking.
We stayed in an apartment about 2 minutes walk from our chosen school Celas Maya. It was a fabulous neighborhood complete with a bakery, supermarket 5 mins walk, a couple of nice cafe’s close by, it was perfect in every way.
So in summary…
Go to Lago Atitlan if you want peace, tranquility, lake and mountains, bearing it mind that you might feel too at peace to study.
Go to Antigua if you want an international hangout party with all western amenities.
But if you want to see the real Guatemala and learn Spanish at the same time then Xela should be your first stop.