by Janet Bein

One woman’s quest to learn Spanish leads her to Antigua, a city in the central highlands of Guatemala. After three weeks of school, she returns home with more than new language skills. She returns home with a new sense of self.

I arrived at the Don Pedro Spanish School in Antigua, Guatemala at the appointed hour, willing and ready to start cooking for the party the school was hosting that night. Earlier that day, I accompanied Cathy, the school director, and Claudia, my Spanish teacher, to buy ingredients for chicken pepian, a typical Guatemalan dish consisting of tomatoes, onions, peppers, and chocolate, among other things. But when we returned to the school, fresh ingredients in hand, I discovered that several other teachers had already started cooking and that the stove was fully occupied.

The party was being held in the courtyard, where classes were conducted. Because classes consisted of one teacher and one student, there were no classrooms, but instead small tables scattered throughout an enclosed courtyard filled with green plants and vibrant flowers. The weather in Antigua is comfortably warm all year long, allowing classes to be held outdoors.

As dinner was being prepared, I was handed a cuba libre, a popular rum and coke cocktail. I polished one off in no time, and as I sipped my second, I observed the cooking process in hopes that I might be able to someday recreate the dishes myself.

Various types of chilies and a full sprig of cilantro still attached to its roots simmered together in a cast-iron pan. Half an onion, a cinnamon stick, and tomatoes were added, creating a tantalizing aroma. I knew it would be more than half an hour before we sat down to eat.

Away from the bustle of the cooking, fiery beats of Salsa music filled the air. I joined Herman, our dance instructor, on the stone patio. I found myself swaying back and forth as a novice salsa dancer might. Just as my steps began to feel natural, the less familiar sound of Merengue music started. Maybe it was the two cuba libres, or perhaps it was some inner confidence I didn’t know I had, but something forced me to grip Herman’s muscular body and let him swing me along with the rhythms of the music. I lost myself as Herman turned me again and again, accelerating, until I felt as though I would collapse. “Yo casi abuela!” (I stammered, I am almost a grandmother).

“Well, I am already a grandfather!” he said with a smile. With his thick dark hair, unlined face, and buff physique, he didn’t look a day over forty. Maybe he wasn’t.

That night was a perfect introduction to Guatemalan life.

Claudia was only 24 years old, but already married and the mother of a five-year-old daughter. Her hair was always pulled back into a tight bun, and each day she wore tailored slacks and a blazer. Since she didn’t speak any English, all of my lessons were conducted in Spanish. Prior to my experience at Don Pedro Spanish School, I doubted the effectiveness and appeal of individual instruction. After my experience, however, I am certain that it is the best way to learn a language.

To practice grammatical points, Claudia and I talked about our children, our husbands and our in-laws. Over the course of the three weeks, we learned about each other’s families and cultures. The more that I learned, the easier it was us for to talk about our feelings. We laughed together. When the course ended, we were real friends.

My ability to learn Spanish with speed was aided by my decision to do a home-stay rather than staying in a hotel. Living with a local family gave me so much more than just a place to stay; I got to practice my Spanish at our daily meals with our hostess, Señora Deli, and I got a real taste of Guatemalan family life.

Deli was my age, married, with four grown children. Her children and grandchildren lived nearby and often visited. To help care for their elderly parents, Deli and her siblings each took turns spending a night at their parents’ house. Despite the inconsistent water pressure and occasional disappearance of water or electricity altogether, Deli had a family life that many of us would envy.

There are many options for adults who want to study Spanish abroad. I considered going to Costa Rica or Mexico, but I ultimately selected Guatemala because it was the best economic choice. It cost $110 for a week of private classes, Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., plus $100 per week for a home-stay with private bath and three meals a day, six days a week (there are no meals included on Sundays).

Even though sightseeing wasn’t my main goal, I was also attracted to Guatemala’s combination of cultural and natural sites. Antigua’s pastel colored houses, cobblestone streets, churches, and convents are evidence of its glorious past as a Spanish colonial capital. Its ruins act as reminders of the repeated earthquakes that have plagued the city. On weekends and during afternoons, I explored sites in and around Antigua, either on my own or with the school. The city was so small that I could walk from one end to the other in less than half an hour, but I somehow found Antigua to be bursting with historic sites, restaurants, cafes, and over 65 Spanish language schools.

For more information on the Don Pedro de Alvarado Spanish School, visit their Web site.

Night Life:

La Pena5th Calle Poniente
Live Andean music. Nice atmosphere with mostly outdoor seating. Try their veggie-burger and lemonade. Delicious brownie or flan for dessert.

El Sitio5th calle Poniente no. 15
Cultural center with an art gallery and different types of events—concerts, plays.

Frida’s5a Avenida Norte #29
Nice café and bar.

Estudio 35
5a Avenida Norte #35
Another good place to drink. Live music with Buena Vista de Corazon.

Rainbow Café
7a Avenida Sur #8
Popular meeting place. Has occasional lectures, live music.
Visit the Rainbow Café Web site for more information.

Sites to See

In Antigua

Hotel Casa Santo Domingo
Incorporates the ruins of a centuries old church, convent, multiple museums and galleries within extensive grounds of the hotel. Visit the grounds for free. Small entrance fee for the museums. \

For more information, visit the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo Web site.

Capuchin Convent
See the rooms where the novices lived and punishment cells for the disobedient.

Antigua marketplace
Check out the area with the crafts, across the street from the larger part of the market.

Near Antigua

Volcano Pacaya
Steep climb up to the lava fields. If you aren’t used to a lot of hiking, take a a horse “taxi.” I do hike, but I still found it tough climbing.

La Azotea Cultural Center
Includes a coffee museum, coffee plantation and a museum of Mayan musical instruments all in the same place. Both museums had guided tours in slow, clear Spanish.

San Antonio de Agua Calientes
Attend or participate in a mock Mayan wedding. Some of the best textiles in all of Guatemala.

Visit the Web site for more information.

Overnight trips

Lake Atitlan

Surrounded by colorful, traditional Mayan pueblos and by volcanoes. It’s 2 ½ to 3 hours away from Antigua, so you need to sleep over for at least one night. Panajachel is the most accessible and largest pueblo. Take a boat to visit other pueblos around the lake, including Santiago, home of Maximón, a cigar-smoking, liquor-drinking effigy of a Saint combining Mayan and Catholic traditions.

Visit the Lake Atitlan Web site for more information.


I’d recommend a two-day, one night excursion by plane to the Mayan ruins in the tropical rainforest of Tikal. Some people take a bus to go from Antigua to Tikal, but the bus ride can take from 8 to 10 hours, maybe longer. Whether you go by plane or bus, be sure to take the guided pre-dawn hike into the park. This is the only time of day that isn’t oppressively hot and humid. I sat on the top level of Temple IV, above the treetops of the tropical rainforest, while bright green parrots flew by, chattering to each other. A toucan perched on a nearby branch, its long curved yellow beak as large as its body. And then a bright yellow orb emerged from the gray mist. Breathtaking.

Visit the Tikal Park Web site for more information.

For general tourist information, visit the Antigua, Guatemala Web site.

Still looking for another study-abroad option? Check out A Taste of Peru’s culinary trip through Peru .