Spanish Immersion in San Pedro La Laguna
A couple different people have asked about our immersion experience recently, and particularly the language learning part of it. So, I thought I'd put together a few thoughts.
When we were initially looking at places to go, our key requirements were cost, quality, and a good location. We spoke with several people who had done immersion classes (which, by the way, just means taking lessons in a place where Spanish is the common language), and multiple recommended San Pedro on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala specifically - it is beautiful, very affordable, and safe, and the people are friendly and interesting. In addition, there are a lot of classes here - it's a little bit of a tourist draw but education is one of the main industries - so you have a choice of types of schools: relaxed, intense, social justice oriented, party-vibe, professional, grass roots, etc. The standard is 1:1 instruction in 1 week increments, so it is easy to find individual attention from an instructor who tailors to your level, but also have the flexibility to change schools if yours doesn't work for whatever reason. Cost is currently around $200/week US for 4 hours a day of classes, if you include a home stay that provides accommodation and 3 meals a day. More like $120/week minus home stay.
The school we chose is Guatemaya Spanish School (http://guatemayaspanishschool.org), and we liked it for the local vibe. There is a definite gringo neighborhood in San Pedro, which is where pretty much every school is except Guatemaya. Nothing against gringos, but it is nice that most of our life happens with local Mayans - school, home stay, shopping, etc. (with the exception of our daily coffee ritual). And it feels very small and local - a couple of friends taking on students and introducing you to their neighbors. The quality of education is high level - teachers have university educations and probably a higher level of technical expertise to what I got in University in the U.S., and learning is much faster because it's 1:1, conversation is constant during class, and we use Spanish everyday outside of school to navigate life. It's hard to track progress because it happens incrementally, but our comprehension has increased dramatically (when people speak slowly...), and our ability to speak is at least at a bumbling level covering essentials after two weeks. I'm pretty confident that we can navigate in Spanish speaking countries already, if not easily engage in complex conversations.
We talk to our host family as much as we can - trading little bits of English with the kids for little bits of Spanish. We eat comida tipica every day, we've been to dinner with our teachers several times, and to several religious processions with the host family. Tomorrow we're helping out with a birthday party in our host family, and generally get to experience a bit of what life is like here for San Pedrinos. (My impression: simple, pleasant, wholesome, and a lot of work!)
We know that hikers are good people, so we also liked that the school is affiliated with an organization called Trek for Kids, which organizes hikes that both pay a fair wage to the guides and raise funds for education for local kids. Again, it's very grass-roots. Scheduled trips are relatively infrequent, but when you want a guide, they can sort it out, and I think there are about 10 kids who are having school paid for in villages around Atitlan. (Interestingly side note for PNWer, my teacher Javier is a great networker, so they have a developing partnership with a Canadian nonprofit called ICO, based in Victoria.) we've been on two trips with them - one to a popular spot called Indian Nose, and one overnight to a place we never would have found on our own - on a local peak with panoramic views of the lake and volcano-scape. (A side note in hiking here: it's a bit more complicated than we're used to, so the guides are pretty much essential: no trail maps seem to be available, and there are a fair number of places where robbery is common on trail, so it's helpful to have a local for peace of mind, at least. If you're savvy there are use trails all over the place and you could piece together some cool treks, but we're not at all savvy. Again, the guide is usually worth the very reasonable price you pay them.)
All together we're happy with our setup here. We're heading out this Sunday, and I'm a bit sad about that - people are great here and if we stuck around for a few months we'd learn a ton, I'm sure. But such is the peripatetic life.
If you have questions or know people who are thinking about this kind of experience let us know! We would definitely recommend our school - or more accurately would recommend coming down to hang out and learn with the people we've met and friends we've made!