A Little Language…Learning Spanish in Xela, Guatemala

Try saying those names 10 times fast!

Try saying those 10 times fast!

One of the stories that is most often “wow-ed” at from my round the world trip is my time volunteering teaching English at a monastery in Nepal. It’s really quite fortunate that people are so interested in stories of my young monks, because I love talking about them!

Volunteering in both Cambodia and Nepal are two of the most memorable and rewarding parts of my past travels and I was really eager to find similar volunteer opportunities in Guatemala.

So with the percolating and warm memories of all of the kids I’ve bonded with all over the world  (and knowing that I couldn’t stay in fantasyland of Antigua’s pretty little streets indefinitely), I sought out a two week volunteer program. After asking around a good bit, essentially everyone recommended Xela as a perfect place to not only volunteer but to also take intensive language courses. I pointed my compass north toward Guatemala’s second largest city and prepped for a bit of a grittier experience. Just exactly as much as Antigua has developed for tourists, Xela is a town inhabited by locals and built for the locals, something actually weird to find after so long in Antigua.

The Parque Central in Xela (actually nickname for the Quetzaltenango – thank the heavens for the nickname right?!) was my first clue that this is a unique town with a completely different  identity from the other Guatemalan cities. Xela’s central park nixes the young children walking around selling scarfs and the ice cream vendors lazily rolling out a murmured “helado, he-laaaa-do” as they pass and trades in these park regulars for your average fare of loafing high-schoolers sneaking cigarettes and Guatemalan couples necking on the benches.

And as I hunted down a nearby comedor for lunch there was not a single lick of English spoken to me, a marked change to not only Antigua, but Flores and the other touristy Guatemalan towns as well. So I settled into my veggie plato tipco and hunkered down with my Lonely Planet in search of a good Spanish language school.Xela's Parque Central

The description of Pop Wuj struck me right off because the school really focus on immersing students into the local culture through several (free) volunteer opportunities so that students can without any reservations or specific or long-term time commitment.

After visiting the school I was sold, they had two fantastic volunteer projects for me – one at a guarderia, an after-school care center, and another far outside of Xela building stoves in rural villages. (Their third volunteer project is a free clinic run by the foreign medical students taking the specialized track of medical Spanish classes). The company’s strong focus on giving back to the community sold me on Pop Wuj so in addition to the volunteering programs I signed up for a week of one-on-one instruction for five hours each day – which sounds insanely long for Spanish lessons but is actually incredibly efficient for learning the language, and the teachers do break up the time with games for beginners.

This time in Xela marks a change in my traditional backpacker routine of visiting a place, seeing the sites and then moving on – and I think I like it.  Setting up shop for a few weeks will allow me to really dig in, teach some kids and fine-tune my Spanish. The only real drawback to these three weeks is the fact that Xela just feels a bit grittier and not quite as safe…the city just has a different vibe that kept me on guard as I was walking around, especially walking home at night alone.

So Why Xela and Not Antigua or the Lake or Other Touristy Spots?

I loved my classes at Pop Wuj and my teacher was stellar. One of the best reasons to learn Spanish in Xela instead of other cities in Guatemala is the attitude here. No one in Xela will voluntarily speak English to you. It’s all Spanish.

And at Pop Wuj, although every teacher understands English and can speak it, I only head English spoken once by the teachers the entire time I was there, and that was to me, by request, as I sobbed out my story of my stolen money and canceled debit card, and how I couldn’t pay them for classes yet and won’t they please let me stay anyway.

They did let me stay, by the way.  :-)

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12 Responses to A Little Language…Learning Spanish in Xela, Guatemala

  1. Sarah July 22, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    Thanks for this Shannon, I'm currently doing my Central America Research and this sounds like an ideal place to improve my very basic Spanish. Did you think you would need a good base of Spanish before taking an intense course like this? (I've been taking lessons, but the Nobio hasn't…)

    • ShannonOD July 23, 2010 at 1:45 am #

      I think Xela will be a great choice for the both of you! There will
      definitely be a very basic beginner – it will still be taught in Spanish
      mostly, but at the beginner level. Enjoy! Both of you will leave with some
      awesome improvements in your speaking :-)

  2. Earl June 4, 2010 at 4:29 am #

    So how's the Spanish?? Did it improve somewhat during that one week?

    I only have good memories of Xela. Just sitting in the Parque Central for hours, especially in the evening, and enjoying the vibe. And that's good to know you recommend Pop Wuj, as I can recommend it to people who ask me about learning Spanish in that part of the world.

    • ShannonOD June 5, 2010 at 8:34 pm #

      My Spanish is pretty rockin' actually! I had a really good base so I was able to get really comfortable debating and chatting with my teacher :-) I would def give a high rec to Pop Wuj – well run and ethical so what more could you ask for :-)

  3. Laura June 2, 2010 at 12:42 am #

    Shannon, I've been thinking of learning Spanish in central America for a while now. Thanks for sharing another place to do it beside Antigua. Sounds like a great experience!

    • ShannonOD June 3, 2010 at 7:09 am #

      Xela really is the ideal place to learn – I highly, highly recommend and let me know when you get there and we can chat! :-)

  4. camorose June 1, 2010 at 10:20 am #

    How cool! Although I'm learning French in France right now, my next goal is learning Spanish–and I'm thinking South America would be a cool place to immerse myself. Will definitely keep Pop Wuj in mind, as I really like the concept of giving back/getting involved in a community.

    • ShannonOD June 1, 2010 at 8:15 pm #

      I think are plans are reversed – after Asia (which is my next plan) I have really been thinking about heading to France for a while to learn. I think that if you are looking at doing Central and South Amer that Guatemala would be a fantastic place to start – it's really easy to learn there, but don't hesitate to contact later when that time comes and we can chat! :-)

      • camorose June 1, 2010 at 8:32 pm #

        Definitely! I'll be in France until November, but will definitely get in touch for some recommendations when I'm figuring out my next adventure. I highly recommend Alliance Francaise for language learning in France–locations in most major cities :)

  5. Kyle Crum May 31, 2010 at 11:39 pm #

    Yes, Pop Wuj is amazing! We were there for 3 weeks learning Spanish and volunteering and we loved it! If they still have it, try to volunteer at the stove building project. Have fun!

    • ShannonOD June 1, 2010 at 5:15 am #

      I love that you guys were at Pop Wuj as well! I actually did get a chance to participate on the stove project and will be writing about it this week – it was so rewarding :-)

    • ShannonOD June 4, 2010 at 11:40 pm #

      I love that you guys were at Pop Wuj as well! I actually did get a chance to
      participate on the stove project and will be writing about it this week – it
      was so rewarding :-)

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