May 22, 2012
By Brenna Goth
I have lived in Guatemala for the past three months and it’s not enough. The country’s diversity of landscapes, abundance of Spanish schools and low cost of living make it ideal for any student wanting to learn a language and to explore. So I decided to extend my semester abroad in Guatemala an additional six weeks and write about my experiences here as a student, as a journalist, and as a foreigner learning the “Dos” and “Don’ts” of a country as complex and lively as Guatemala.
For students looking to stay here a while and learn Spanish, the mantra is: location, location, location. I spent three months in La Antigua through a program with the University of Arizona taking Spanish lessons, and then later studied in Quetzaltenango (known as “Xela”) and Huehuetenango. I learned quickly that there are Spanish schools around Lake Atitlan in the town of Panajachel, at beaches such as Monterrico and Sipacate and in some indigenous towns where one of the 22 different indigenous languages are spoken. From coast to jungle to mountain to central Guatemala, you will not be lacking for a place to study Spanish. It’s a good excuse to get to know a country by sampling its schools.
Each city has its own feel and flavor – Spanish-colonial Antigua is beautiful, safer and in close proximity to other parts of the country and Guatemala City both on public buses and prívate shuttles. This is where you’ll get your foodie on in restaurants that serve up French, Italian, Thai, Japanese, Indian and all manner of restaurants which complement the nightlife and influx of tourists that come for this UNESCO heritage site’s cobblestone streets, ruins, colonial churches and some of the best Spanish schools in the country. It’ll keep you busy for months. The minuses: Antigua is more expensive than the rest of the country and caters to English speakers – so it’ll be hard to practice your new Spanish.
Xela, which is a few hours north-west of Antigua has less tourists, but I still found myself surrounded by English-speakers most nights. The charm of Xela is in the surrounding pueblos, hot springs, and volcanoes that are relatively easy to climb– all within short bus rides. The price of Spanish schools here is significantly cheaper than Antigua, and the city is full of non-profit organizations looking for volunteers.
Xela is the gateway to the highlands, to the mountains of Guatemala where a large portion of the population is indigenous and where the temperature is colder and wetter than Central Guatemala. Xela is where I was getting closer to what I wanted, but I still wasn’t quite there. I wanted a truly Guatemalan experience.
Studying in Huehuetenango, about two hours north of Xela, has been by far the closest I’ve felt to living a Guatemalan life in Guatemala. There´s only one, fairly small Spanish school, and I’ve yet to run into another tourist on the street. The city itself has little in terms of entertainment, but the department of Huehuetenango is home to plenty of archaeologocial sites, natural beauty and cultural attractions.
Students can live with homestay families through most Spanish schools, which I credit with improving my Spanish almost as much as classes. I’ve had to sacrifice a bit of privacy and the convenience of living on my own schedule, but it’s with host families that I helped make rugs for Holy Week, traveled to a beach void of other international tourists and rode in the back of a truck through the mountains for a family barbeque.
Regardless of which city is home base, traveling around the country and region is my favorite part of being here. Even going from one end of the country to the other can be done in a three day trip and suddenly you’re somewhere completely different both climate-wise and in local color and flavor. Even the color of the tortillas change.
Guatemala has an extensive bus system consisting of a patchwork of both public city buses, cheaper mass transit camionetas that get you to almost every part of Guatemala, private charter buses and micro-buses and everything in between. In Antigua, I could easily walk to the station with my backpack, tell a bus attendant where I wanted to go and wait to be shuffled onto the right bus.
These camionetas, or “chicken buses” converted from old decommissioned U.S. school buses, never fail to blast Latin hits, cram three people to a seat and drive ridiculously fast. While camionetas in and through Guatemala City can be quite dangerous, outside of the city, crime on the buses is rare, but it’s not uncommon to see a broken-down camioneta with the passengers waiting patiently by the side of the road. Where the buses failed me, the pick-up trucks always got me where I needed to go. In Guatemala it’s not uncommon to ask for a jalón or to hitch-hike to the next town. You just jump in the bed and the unspoken rule is bang on the side of the truck when you want to jump off. No words are necessary and you always offer to pay when you jump off.
While I’ve only been in Guatemala for the start of rainy season, which runs from May to October, I’m already starting to see what people have warned me against: mudslides, increased potholes, bad driving, and slippery roads. The country becomes more difficult to traverse, but an adventure of a different kind.
There are the MUST DO trips which include the ruins of Tikal, the gorgeous Lake Atitlan and the shopping extravaganza at Chichicastenango's Thursday and Sundary markets. But with a little more time, exploring mountain pueblos like Todos Santos or Nebaj or making it to Guatemala City for a cultural event or day at the zoo is worth the trip. Weekends in El Salvador or Mexico are also easily attainable, with direct buses from Guatemala City and other locations.
My general rule here is to research everything I’m doing and everywhere I’m going to have a sense of the safety and risk. But I don’t do this until I scare myself out of doing things. With the exception of a few unlucky friends, most of the students I know here have spent months in Guatemala without problems. I can also now say, from experience, that even getting a parasite isn’t that bad.