Spanish Lessons in Antigua Guatemala

I was planning to move to Barcelona, Spain for business school in August and realized I would have two weeks to spare. Multiple people suggested that I take outside Spanish classes before school started. Learning Spanish is one of my reasons for choosing IESE so I figured it would help to get a head start. Additionally, knowing even a little Spanish would help me get around- I have already noticed that all the government websites are exclusively in Spanish.

I ended up settling on Antigua in Guatemala for a few reasons:

  1. Guatemala has easy direct flights to Los Angeles. It would be easy for me to return home should any visa issues arise with the Spanish Consulate.
  2. I had never been to Guatemala. This would be a new country and an adventure.
  3. Guatemalans speak Spanish slower and with less slang than virtually any other country. I would be able to pick up the language more easily here.
  4. Antigua is known around the world as a popular place to learn Spanish and looked like a beautiful place to be for two weeks.

My original plan was to figure everything out once I arrived in Antigua on Saturday July 6, 2019. I had booked a hostel in the center of town for two nights. As fate would have it, I had a conversation with my friend Tracy a few days before leaving. She suggested the Antiguena Spanish School and said that some of her friends took classes there and loved it. A quick Google search revealed an incredible 4.9 rating with many reviews.

I sent an email to the school and was given the price of $190/week for 20 hours of private instruction plus a homestay and all meals except on Sundays. This seemed like an amazing deal!!! I told the school that I would settle the bill when I arrived on Saturday morning. 4 hours is the typical length of the Spanish classes, but you can take up to 6 hours per day.

Once in Antigua (accessible by a 45 minute taxi or shuttle ride from the Guatemala City airport), I formally enrolled in the school for two weeks.

Classes didn’t start until Monday so I had the weekend to explore. On Saturday, I hiked to Pacaya volcano. On Sunday, I took a tour of the magical Lake Atitlan.

 

Monday, July 8, 2019

I walked into the school office and was greeted by about 30 young-middle aged Guatemalan ladies hanging out. They were the teachers. I was paired with a lady named Claudia.

The two of us walked for about 20 minutes. On the walk, I purchased a notebook (cuaderno) and pen (lapizero). We talked in Spanish and it was clear that my months of Duolingo helped but I had a long long way to go.

Eventually we reached a large beautiful garden. Claudia explained that this is where our instruction would take place.

For the first two hours, I was drilled on the various uses of the present tense form of “is” or “to be”. There are about 10 ways to say is in Spanish depending on the subject and what you are trying to say. It was tough but Claudia was great. Being able to actually talk to someone was so important. She would correct me when I made a mistake. Even though I did not know very much, Claudia talked to me like it was a conversation. For example. She would ask me in Spanish “what nationality are your parents?” I would then respond and then she would follow up with more questions. Claudia was so nice and I appreciated that she spoke slowly with me.

After two intense hours, we got a break. Some local cooks set up shop where students and teachers can purchase delicious Guatemalan food. Prices are the real local Guatemalan prices and not the inflated tourist prices. An doblada – similar to an empanada- costs 3 quetzals (about 40 cents- 1 dollar equals 7.8 quetzals) which includes a side of guacamole. 5 quetzals (65 cents) gets you a sandwich.

I also managed to make a friend. The first person I ran into during the break was Elizabeth, a teacher from Dallas. We bonded over not knowing anyone. She was in Antigua because many of her students are Hispanic with parents that don’t speak English. Knowing Spanish would help her communicate with the parents and therefore be a better teacher.

After 30 minutes it was back to class. Claudia paired me up with a couple other students to play a game together. Claudia’s older sister Veronica is also a teacher at Antiguena. Veronica’s student is named Tavie from Indiana. She is a ceramics teacher. Tavie is here with her cousin Grace who looks to be maybe in ninth grade. The three of us played Uno to practice numbers – something we did not cover during the first half of the lessons. During first game we used normal numbers on the cards. But the next round we did the 10’s (a 3 card would be 30 or trienta). Then we did a round using 100s and finally 1000’s. It was good to apply my skills.

Our lesson ended exactly at noon and Claudia gave me a homework assignment. Then I walked back to the office where I was met by my host family. Guillermo picked me up in his car and drove me to the eastern edge of town. There I met his mom Amanda. The house was located behind a car mechanic’s workshop. It was an odd location for a house, but the house itself was very nice. I was a 10 minute walk from the school office and 25 from the garden.

I got my room and then ate lunch with the other guests. There was a guy from Germany, a girl from the Netherlands, an American girl from San Diego, and two French Canadian ladies. WiFi was $5/week. I decided not to use it as a detox and so I would focus on my studies. Also I could walk 10 minutes to get free WiFi at the school.

At 2pm each school day, the school arranges an activity. Today’s activity was a tour of a chocolate museum and a jade museum. Unfortunately, it was raining really hard at 2, so they cancelled the tour. A group of us including Vincent from Canada, Kat from Houston and Elizabeth decided to do the tour on our own. The chocolate museum kind of sucked but the jade museum was good.

The Spanish school also partnered with a local salsa dancing school for free lessons at 5pm on Mondays and Tuesdays. Tavie, Grace, and Grace’s mom Deborah were also in the class! It was for beginners but was still really fun!

I got dinner in the house with everyone before spending the rest of the night doing homework and reading. It was very chill.

 

Tuesday July 9

The next morning got breakfast with the other members of the house. Then it was off to school. I learned about verbs today. Claudia gave me a list of like 40 verbs I need to know. They all have the same ending so it’s not too tough- just a lot of memorization. While I struggled to learn all the verbs, I know where I needed to be.

In the second part of the lesson, Travie, Grace and I played Go Fish using adjective cards. You would try to fish for the opposite of the adjective on our card. I hadn’t learned any adjectives up until this point so that was really helpful.

The activity this afternoon was Scrabble. Since I didn’t know any words in Spanish, this would be a lost cause. Instead, I walked around town a bit. I visited the main church (called La Merced) and a monastery that was also a jail until 2007. While getting a hot chocolate at Fernando’s Café, I ran into Tavie, Grace, and Deborah. At 5, the four of us took the other free salsa class. I feel like they’re stalking me but they’re nice and fun so it’s okay!

After dinner I caved and decided to pay for the WiFi. At this point I had already taken four walks to the Spanish school.

Someone formed a WhatApp group chat with all the people from the school. It was called “Antigua, Bitches”. Awesome!

 

Wednesday July 10

Today I learned about Er verbs and Ir Verbs. Apparently not all verbs have the same ending. Depending on the second to last letter (either a, e or I) the conjugations change. The conjugations are all fairly easy at this point. But with even more verbs I have no idea how I will learn them all.

Vincent from Canada won yesterday’s Scrabble tournament and was awarded two free hours of lessons. He gifted them to me because nobody else wanted them. I arranged to take the extra time on Friday afternoon.

This afternoon’s activity was a free tour of some sort- I had no idea what was going to happen. We all got on a chicken bus (term for the old US school buses that are the public transportation here). I sat next to a pastor from Utah who has many Hispanic congregants. He told me the key to being able to communicating is learning the verbs.

We ended up in pretty colonial town of San Juan Obispo. After checking out the church, we toured a chocolate factory and tasted many types of chocolate. It was way way better than the chocolate museum in Antigua. Then toured a local winery. All the wines were made from local fruits such as mango and loquat. It was definitely unusual but I liked it.

Back in Antigua, I visited the McDonald’s on the recommendation of Claudia my teacher. It is probably the nicest McDonald’s in the world. In addition to the normal counter service, they had touchscreens to order, a McCafe with five types of cheesecake, a historic courtyard with a fountain and perfect views of a nearby volcano. They also deliver all the food to you on real china. I am not a McDonald’s fan, but would come back here in a heartbeat.

After dinner at the house, I met up with a group of my new friends at La Escuina (the corner). It’s a food hall where you pay with a fake credit card then pay for real at the end. The place was swanky and even had a slide. I ordered two al pastor tacos, a raspberry mixed drink and strawberry-rhubarb donuts. This was as impressive as any food hall or restaurant I have seen in the US. Honestly, I was shocked to see this type of place in Guatemala- much less a town as historic as Antigua.

 

Thursday July 11

Today in class we learned about irregular verbs. We only learned 15 or so verbs but each one had weird rules. Things are getting tricky now.

After the break, Tavie and I answered and asked each other questions from a worksheet. Some were pretty funny: what do you think of the Backstreet Boys? Some were strangely personal: What is the prettiest part of the other person’s face? Our instructors supervised and corrected us. These conversations are really important to internalize the vocab.

After class, I walked to the Cerro de La Cruz, a popular viewpoint above town then a couple ruined churches of which Antigua has many. There is really so much to see in this small town!

Later in the afternoon, I signed up for Acatenango tour. I paid $20 more of the other tours, but I heard this one was better and I could afford the $20.

Some of the other people from my class climbed the Pacaya volcano. I didn’t go since I already did it. I was hoping to meet up with them after, but they ended up getting a quick dinner at McDonald’s.

Also, we got a new housemate: Yoav from Israel. He is on a 7 month post-Army trip. His ultimate goal is Ushuaia, Argentina, the southern end of the Pan American Highway, which I visited in November on my way to Antarctica. I am very jealous!

 

Friday July 11

We had a special lesson today: instead of going to the garden, Claudia, Tavie and Veronica walked to a nearby organic farm and had our lesson there. We chatted in Spanish along the way. It was beautiful! Apparently Fridays are all about comprehension so we didn’t learn anything new. We played had another round of answering questions. Examples were: name 3 professions that are dangerous. Or name 5 things in your bedroom.

After that, I got a quick lunch and then took the free two extra hours of class. Here we learned about verbs that change in the middle in addition to the conjugation. So you are essentially double conjugating. Maybe it was the 6 hours, maybe it was the difficulty but I really hit the wall and struggled hard here. Don’t get me wrong, every day has been a struggle to learn but today was especially tough.

On the bright side, I met another student who has been here since April and I knew way more Spanish than her. Claudia said I am doing really well. It’s not a competition but it feels good to know that I am progressing despite the struggles. I asked for extra homework and I committed to creating flash cards for the verbs. That should help a lot because I still cannot remember many of the verbs.

In the afternoon, I visited the Holy Week Museum which was one of my favorites. The museum- in a former convent- had descriptions in both English and Spanish. Not only could I read the exhibits but I could also see what words I knew in Spanish- which was more than I would have thought.

As I left I got caught in a rainstorm. It wasn’t crazy but strong enough to create rivers on the streets. I hid underneath a balcony that was so narrow I had to turn sideways to not get wet. Unfortunately, the drips from the roof got my shoes soaked. It was actually a fun experience. I passed the time by taking a bunch of selfies.

When I got back to my house, I got a message that a bunch of people were going to a nearby bar. I joined them.

Then I went shopping for snacks for the Acatenango climb and went to bed early. A few people were going out because it was Friday and because a few people were leaving Antigua. But I needed the energy for the climb.

 

Saturday-Sunday July 12-13

There are no classes during the weekends. Students are free to do whatever they want. Most people do one of two weekend trips: Lake Atitlan or climbing Volcan Acatenango. I climbed the volcano.

After returning from my epic climb on Sunday morning, I received an invitation from Tavie, Grace, and Deborah to join them for a cooking class. The class took place in a town near Antigua.

The class was run by the wife of a local coffee farmer in their house. Since the woman could only speak Spanish, we brought along an interpreter. We made pepain- a traditional Guatemalan chicken stew. Since this was Latin America, the chicken was live and we had to kill the chicken. While I did not actually kill the chicken, I did pluck its feathers. The other difficult part was making the handmade tortillas, which is not as easy as it sounds. Besides that it was a pretty standard cooking class and was very fun. The stew was delicious.

I ended up skipping dinner because I had to finish up my homework.

 

Monday July 14:

Today we started past tense. The past tense has a whole new set of conjugations. It was like learning all the verbs over again and was very difficult.

We added a new participant to our activities after the break. Instead of just Tavie and me, we added in Temara who sat nearby. Temara is Irish and worked as a bartender in the Tropicana hostel aka the hostel that ran my Acatenango volcano tour. It is definitely a party hostel. She said most of the staff only speaks Spanish so she needs it to communicate. She was really good at Spanish and absolutely crushed Tavie and me at today’s game- answering questions from a board. While it sucks to not be able to answer the questions as well as someone else, Temara gave me hope that one day I could be speaking at her level.

After class I had to sign my lease for the Barcelona apartment. Not the easiest thing to do in Guatemala. Had to go to an Internet cafe to print things out to sign and scan. The whole thing cost me about $8 USD.

Later on I visited the fancy Santo Domingo Hotel with Elizabeth. More than just a hotel, Santo Domingo has a humongous museum with 8 different sections: Mayan art, colonial art, silver, local culture, etc. They call it 8 museums, but it’s really just one museum since one entrance ticket gets you into them all. Additionally, they casually had some crypts with skeletons from the 1700’s.

 

Tuesday July 15:

We studied more past tense today. This is tough -especially because I don’t know all the verbs!!!

We played bananagrams after the break. I actually did pretty well. I suppose my competitive edge kicks in during these activities even though it doesn’t matter at all.

In the afternoon I wandered to 2 church ruins and one active church. Did I mention that the ruins here are spectacular. Today I learned that ruins are also prime spots for Guatemalan couples to make out. I suppose when there are 8 people living in your house, you need to go somewhere quieter for privacy. The Recollection ruins were the best and had big boulder sized chunks of bricks and mortar.

In the evening, I met up with some friends from college. They were on a 2 week trip that started in Belize. They have not exposure to the backpacker culture and were surprised to see the scene and meet long term travelers. We got Guatemalan food near the arc. After I headed home.

 

Wednesday July 16:

After two brutal days learning past tense, today went a lot better. We didn’t learn anything new so I was able to practice comprehension. It’s amazing how much I have learned in such a short time. Yes I’m making a ton of mistakes but I’m still getting it mostly right which is good.

I also had a good day at the activity- opposite cards. Temara, was hungover. Normally she would run all over Tavie and me but today the playing field was level.

Today was Yoav’s last day in the hostel. After we walked back from school, he headed to a hostel for 3 nights. I will miss our dinner chats. He reminds me a lot of myself. I am certain we will stay in touch.

In the afternoon I visited a macadamia nut farm with the school. To get there we took a 20 minute chicken bus ride. Once at the farm, we got a guided tour in English explaining how they process the nuts. Macadamia nuts are not native to Guatemala, but the founder introduced the nuts from his native California. Apparently he was a real hippie. A sign at the front said “every nut counts”.

In addition to the tour, we got to order the famed macadamia nut pancakes. They had a big menu but the main attraction was the macadamia pancakes. I got them with strawberries and lemon frosting. Amazing. I also got a free facial with macadamia oil. Everyone seemed pleased by the trip.

On the way back, we had to catch a super crowded chicken bus. It was so crowded that people were hanging out the back. I was hurting from my legs being crunched. Once back, we all got coffee together.

 

Thursday July 17:

These classes are all really tough but this was by far the toughest. We worked on irregular past tense verbs. The rules all make sense to me but – of course- all of the important verbs don’t follow the rules. I also don’t know all the verbs in the present tense so learning them in past too is extremely hard. Also some of the irregular present tense verbs function normally in the past tense. Uggh!!!

Claudia gave me very little homework and told me to study up on the verbs.

At lunch back at the house (lunches are the best meal- always) I noticed that Claudia from Quebec was crying. She was so sad to say goodbye to the kids at the school where she was volunteering.

The afternoon’s activity was a movie. I didn’t want to watch it so instead I met up with Elizabeth and some other people from the school at the market. They had to visit the market to buy clothing for their Acatenango hike this weekend. They all bought secondhand clothing from the US. It was funny to see some of the things that end up here like family reunion shirts or restaurants from the other banks of North Carolina. Elizabeth seems nervous for the climb. I know she will be pushed beyond her comfort zone- I look forward to seeing her transformation.

Afterwards Elizabeth, Cody and I wandered the maze-like market and found a stand selling mangosteens. I bought some and we all tried the fruit.

At 4, I met up with Kass, another fellow student from Colorado. This was her first international trip without her parents and was having a blast. Our original plan was to go to Hobbitenango, a eco resort that looks like Hobbiton from Lord of the Rings but we left too late. Instead we visited the much closer Tenedor de Santo Domingo. This was a convention center and tourist attraction owned by the fancy Santo Domingo hotel. They had a few “museums” including a room full of relics from Pope John Paul II’s visit to Guatemala City. They also had a fancy restaurant, trinket shops, and zip lining. Despite being on a beautiful hill above Antigua, they didn’t take advantage of the amazing city views. We were able to get a view but it took some searching.

That night I had a going away party. Everyone showed up- about 15 people. It was definitely bittersweet to leave. While I would have loved to stay another week, I know that I would probably be bored the next week since I’ve done basically everything in town.

 

Friday July 18:

This was my final day.

I decided to get Claudia a gift for everything she has done for me. In the market, not much was open at 7:30 am except a flower shop and they only sold bouquets of roses or funeral wreaths. I went with the dozen roses. Claudia really appreciated it and showed the flowers off to all the other teachers.

In class, we learned one final lesson: direct and indirect objects. Direct objects are created by adding me, te, nos,  lo, or la before a verb. Indirect objects have a slightly different set of pronouns.

The class ended rather unceremoniously at noon. I got lunch at my house and then caught a shuttle at 3pm. Unfortunately, I hit some wicked traffic and it took me almost two stressful hours to reach the airport. Everything ended up fine, but I wish I had left earlier.

In the airport, I was able to read all the advertisements. It was unbelievable and shows how far I had come!

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