Guatemala is the perfect destination for learning Spanish. It’s close to the US, it’s cheap, and there’s probably no one there you know to make fun of how badly you speak the language. The locals also apparently speak a very slow and easy dialect. I took classes with Maximo Nivel in Antigua because they offered university credit. I should write a book about how to graduate college while sipping beer in a jungle treehouse. Seriously, why do more people not do this.
I had taken a total of 5 years of Spanish in middle and high school and a semester in college. I was feeling pretty confident with Español abilities until I checked into my first hostel. They couldn’t understand a dang word I said. They had to bring out three different people until they finally found someone who spoke enough English. Moral of the story, you have no idea how little of language you know until you’re completely immersed in it.
Somehow I made it through the first couple days before my program started without being murdered, kidnapped, or made fun of too much (that i know of — like I said my Spanish was very basic).
Maximo Nivel offers a wide variety of programs in Guatemala, Peru, and Costa Rica. Everyone I met was there doing a volunteer placement. I was actually the only person who was just there learning Spanish. They also have internship placements, English teaching, and medical volunteer opportunities.
The staff was very helpful before, during, and after the program. By the middle of the first week almost everyone in the office called me by name. The school was located right in the center of Antigua — walking distance from restaurants, shops, tour agencies, and all of the homestays. The school had free coffee, tea, and Salsa dancing lessons for all participants.
The only issue I had with them was with getting my credits. If you are planning on doing a program with them, make sure you have everything squared away before you hop on a plane. It all worked out and I got my credits eventually but it was definitely a headache.
I took two full weeks of Spanish classes. I originally signed up for group classes for the sole reason of being a broke college student. Luckily, there were no other students at my level while I was there so I got one-on-one instruction which is the study abroad equivalent of finding two toys in your cereal box. Seriously, l recommend going with private instruction. Not only are there less people around to hear you talking like a 5 year old but you get much more personalized instruction. Also why do they not put toys in cereal boxes anymore?
I had an amazing teacher for my two weeks there. She made it her mission to make me learn as much as possible. That included laughing at me when I accidentally said something dirty or used the male adjective ending when talking about myself. We spent two hours a day together and I rarely got bored or felt uncomfortable.
I went from not being able to say “I have a reservation here” to having two-hour long conversations in Spanish.
I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful setting. Seriously, cobblestone streets surrounded by volcanoes on every side. Besides the constant fear of life ending in a fiery volcanic explosion, life in Antigua was good. The city is clean and safe. There are tons of backpackers and language learners for a socially awkward gal like myself to side-glance at in the street and never interact with.
There’s a ton to do around Antigua. There’s no need to ever take a cab because the city is so small you can walk everywhere. My watch looked like I attached it to a wild animal with how many steps I put on that thing. There was just so much to do. There’s a chocolate museum with very loosely regulated free samples (aka no need to buy breakfast lunch or dinner). You can blow all the money you save on meals at the local markets and boutique stores. After a full day of chocolate eating, I loved hiking up to Cerro de la Cruz, a giant cross on the top of the hill with views of the city. Do yourself a favor and visit the McDonalds — it’s the most beautiful one in the world.
Antigua is also the tourism hub of Guatemala. There are tour agencies on just about every block that offer daily excursions. You can roast marshmallows on Pacaya, visit the emerald pools of Semuc Champey, get your Indiana Jones on at Tikal, or even chill on a beach in El Salvador. I visited Lake Atitlan, Pacaya Volcano, and a coffee farm during my free days in Antigua. Before my program started I also explored the Caribbean coast of the country.
When I signed up for a homestay I had the idea that I would be living alone with a local family. We would share meals and laughs and they’d send me Christmas cards every year. I’d change my last name to theirs and they’d take me on family vacations. In reality, homestays are somewhat of a business in Antigua. Families host up to 15 foreigners at a time. The family I stayed with had a cook that made us meals. I would only interact with the family when Safira the pitbull ate all my snacks and my Chacos (rest in peace).
That being said, I loved my homestay. I lived with volunteers from all over the world. In my house there were people from Australia, Ireland, England, and all over the US. We planned trips together, ate meals together, and bonded over how much we hated Safira. We went clubbing, salsa dancing, and volcano climbing together.
Tips and Advice
- Get outside of your homestay as much as possible. Learning Spanish is a lot easier when you immerse yourself in the language. It’s comfortable to stick with English speakers but you’ll learn so much more when you branch out.
- Find yourself a language buddy. Maximo Nivel also teaches English to locals. They would love to do a language exchange and help you learn Spanish if you help them practice their English. Maximo has an official signup for this but I found a buddy just sitting in the courtyard at school.
- GO TO LADIES NIGHT. Seriously. Ladies night in Antigua is better than Bangkok (gasp). One bar offered two free drinks, a free neck massage, and a free manicure. Just for being a gal.
- Book your excursions with a tour company in town — not with Maximo Nivel. Prices will be almost 2x as high if you book directly with Maximo Nivel’s tour agency.
Location: Antigua, Guatemala
Spanish School: Maximo Nivel
Course Cost: $110/week for two hours a day of private instruction
Homestay Cost: $150/week for a shared room in a homestay which includes two meals a day
Total Cost: $520 for two weeks of classes and homestay
Maximo Nivel offers free airport pickup from Guatemala City.
If you like it put a pin in it
This post was not sponsored by Maximo Nivel. I participated in the program on my own dime. Maximo Nivel — if you want to sponsor this post my gas tank is very close to empty. As always, all opinions and fears of dying in a fiery lava death are my own.