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A place to learn Spanish? Si!

Antigua: A language lab like no other

volcano
Three volcanos surround Antigua, including Volcano Agua, which is visible from anywhere in the city  

In this story:

Scouting a school

Different costs

Eating, learning

Biking, hiking

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ANTIGUA, Guatemala (CNN) -- Antigua, Guatemala, is like one big classroom, ringed by school walls like no other.

Nestled in the valley of Panchoy, the city, which a friend and I recently visited to learn Spanish, is 1,530 meters (5,019 feet, or nearly a mile) above sea level. It is surrounded by volcanoes: Agua, at 3,750 meters (12,300 feet); Acatengo, at 3,960 meters (12,992 feet); and Fuego, a 3,800-meter (12,467 feet) peak.

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The cobblestone streets and crumbling churches serve as a reminder of a time when Antigua was the Spanish colonial capital of Guatemala from 1543 until 1773, when an earthquake forced residents to abandon the city.

Antigua's natural surrounding beauty, colonial charm, and moderate climate make tourism the main industry here, but the Spanish-language schools that abound in Antigua bring thousands from around the world every year.

The schools are inexpensive yet intensive, and that's what my traveling companion and I sought.

Scouting a school

After an hour's drive from Guatemala City airport, the shuttle, whose service we'd retained after searching on the Internet, dropped us off at our hotel in Antigua for our first night.

Antigua
Calle del Arco is lined with little shops and resturants near the center of Antigua  

We did not immediately sign up for a language school, taking the advice of a friend who said the schools are competitive, and smart students should shop around. In Antigua, the first Spanish language school opened 30 years ago. Today, there are 23 registered schools scattered throughout this mountainous town.

Students from all over the world come for various reasons to study here, including training for volunteer work or business.

Before we'd hardly had a chance to take our bearings or begin looking for schools, a tall man invited us to take a look at his school. We complied.

After leaving the busy fume-choked streets through a simple doorway, we saw that the school opened to a peaceful, florid courtyard. It was attractive -- tempting, too.

Not wanting to sign up with the first school we saw, my friend and I wandered streets lined with brightly colored storefronts, comparing several schools, only to return to that first school -- the one with the peaceful courtyard -- where we would study for three weeks.

Different costs

According to the director of our school, the average student stays for four weeks. The classes are made up of college students on break, extended travelers and volunteer workers. Homework varies depending on the student and the teacher, meaning some students get no homework at all, while others get two or more hours per day.

market in Antigua
Thursdays and Saturdays are the busiest and most colorful days at the municipal market in Antigua  

The Spanish-language schools in Antigua range in price, but the current going rate is $70 for 20 hours of one-on-one instruction per week. Classes begin at 8 a.m. Monday through Friday and run until noon with a half-hour break at 10 a.m.

Schools offer students the option to take a few hours away from the classroom once or twice per week so they may experience, first-hand, how to put their language skills to use.

Teachers' experience ranges considerably. Saul Carrillo, my 26-year-old instructor, has been teaching for three years and is one of the less-experienced teachers at the school where I enrolled. Nevertheless, he was patient, knowledgeable and an excellent tutor.

For a total immersion experience, many students live with Guatemalan families, staying in homes only a short walk from their schools.

Every school has multiple families ready to invite students into their houses, and give them private rooms, hot showers and three meals per day, Monday through Saturday.

My friend and I decided to stay with a host family, and we were pleased with our choice. Our accommodations far exceeded our expectations.

"We've had students here from North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia," Irma and Salvador Guerra, our host parents, said almost in unison. "It's been 27 years!" Irma boasted in Spanish.

Salvador broke out the calculator to estimate how many students they've hosted. "Dos Mil! (2,000)" he exclaimed.

Eating, learning

With a clear view of the volcano Agua over Irma's meticulously maintained courtyard garden, it was easy to feel at home. As a rule, we spoke only Spanish during meals with our hosts, so it was difficult at first to convey how happy we were to discover that Irma was a great cook.

will and teacher
William Manns, of England, practices his Spanish with teacher Gladys Caxaj  

The family's lifestyle, we learned, was comparable to that of a typical American family, with conversation at dinner often followed by an HBO movie or a professional baseball game on TV.

Not all home stays were as ideal as ours. One college student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, said he changed families because his accommodations were "more like a hotel," where as many as 10 students living in one household.

The best solution, we learned, is to ask to see the accommodations before signing up with the school, and to ask how many people the family will host.

After school, students often spend time taking a siesta, wandering the cobblestone streets, visiting shops, sitting in the courtyard cafes sipping Antigua's renowned coffee (25 cents per cup) or sending and receiving e-mail at one of the many Internet cafes in the city.

After only a few days of classes it is easy to get away from the tourist shops and prices and visit one of the many tiendas, small shops that sell good ham and guacamole sandwiches (average price: 40 cents).

On Thursdays and Saturdays, the big market days, bargaining well in Spanish will reduce the prices to less than half the asking price, we were happy to learn.

Biking, hiking

Antigua features more than markets and cafes. For more adventurous souls, the mountains surrounding the city boast thrilling mountain biking, and almost all bike shops offer guided trips. For the true thrill seeker, guides will hike groups up to peer to the top of Pacaya, an active volcano.

volcano ruins
Many ruins of colonial Antigua remain open to tourists for exploring  

In addition to having some of Guatemala's finest restaurants, Antigua's nightlife is active seven days a week, and on weekends the bars and nightclubs are packed with vacationing urbanites from Guatemala City. Americans are often found at Ricky's, a bar where you're more likely to yell for "a beer" instead of "una cerveza."

Although my traveling companion and I felt safe walking home from the bars late at night, the city still struggles with the daily robberies of tourists.

"The streets are much safer now than they were five years ago," said Andrea Benitez of the tourist police office, an organization Antigua Mayor Hugo de Pozo started four years ago to improve the safety of Antigua's streets. It is funded solely by the city and the tourist businesses and is separate from the national police. The tourist police will accompany anyone anywhere within the city limits and is always operating.

Locals recognize that most tourists are in Antigua to learn Spanish, and are usually good-humored with their visitors' fumbling efforts. Bus drivers and shopkeepers will correct your Spanish, though it is all too tempting to resort to English.

Try to resist the temptation, though. Before arriving in Antigua, my traveling companion and I knew next to no Spanish, but after only one week of study we felt comfortable traveling on our own around Guatemala.



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