Xela vs. Antigua article
Studying Spanish in Guatemala: Quetzaltenango Vs. Antigua
by MATT BIGELOW on AUGUST 25, 2009
Reasons to venture beyond Guatemala's most well-known city.
Most foreign travelers looking to learn Spanish in Guatemala make Antigua their first and longest stop, charmed by its cobblestone streets and its lively bar and club scene. More serious travelers, however, take the 4-hour bus ride to Quetzaltenango (or Xela) for a different kind of experience.
While Antigua offers a lot, there are compelling reasons for giving Guatemala's second city another look.
Antigua is well known for its influx of would-be Spanish speakers, and that's the very reason I recommend avoiding it. With an estimated population of 35,000, many of them European and North American expats, the odds alone suggest you are more likely to end up in conversation with another English-speaker in Antigua.
In Quetzaltenango (almost eight times the size of Antigua) you're more likely to meet serious Spanish students and groups from universities who stay for stretches at a time rather than the casual travelers learning how to order a cerveza.
And homestays, which are as common as black beans and rice in Guatemala, suffer the same pitfalls as the language schools in Antigua. The abundance of gringoes has converted many a host family's dwelling into more of a hotel.
Aside from the included meals, your experience ends up offering a hostel environment rather than a glimpse into Guatemalan life.
In Xela, you'll spend more time engaging with your host family in Spanish there and less time planning your social life with the rest of the U.S. travelers.
Better Study and Volunteer Opportunities
With an estimated population of 250,000, Quetzaltenango has a distinctly more urban feel than Antigua or any of the more remote villages of Guatemala often pictured in photographs. As such, its schools offer a wide array of cultural, volunteer and social opportunities not to be found in smaller locales.
The Instituto Central America (ICA), a 30-year-old Spanish language school in Xela, has a sister organization called ICAmigos which pairs students with volunteer projects ranging from reforestation to literacy.
Meanwhile,the Celas Maya Spanish School emphasizes the importance of education for indigenous people, and offers students language classes in K'iche, the Mayan language of the region.
Hooking up with schools is easy. Book online or inquire after you arrive. Classes at most schools last 4-5 hours per day, in either the afternoon or evening, while volunteer opportunities can take up the rest of the day.
One tip: don't be afraid to switch schools, teachers or homestays, even mid-week, if things aren't working out. Teachers have different styles, schools have different philosophies and all homestays are, obviously, unique. You're there to learn. No one will be offended if you ask the director of the school for another arrangement.
On the weekends, you can explore the Mercado la Democracia, a sprawling commercial district of vendors hawking everything from traditional Mayan wares to Pampers and plantains.
Or you can sip coffee on the terrace of Café la Luna and gaze out over the central park of Xela while you practice your verb conjugations. Guatemala is one of the largest coffee producers in the world, and here you can sample some of its finest.