Learning Spanish in the Guatemalan Highlands

After spending a week studying Spanish in Xela, I made a last minute decision to switch to PLQ’s sister school up in the mountains. It hadn’t been part of my original plans, but on speaking to some of the students who’d studied there it really sounded like an experience not to be missed, and so was very glad to find last minute places available.

La Escuela de las Montañas (the Mountain School) is situated about 10km north of Xela, in the surrounding highlands, one of the finest coffee-growing regions in the world, although it takes an hour to get there because of the winding roads that lead up into the mountains. It very much shares the same philosophy as its sister school, but the key difference is it’s actually situated right next door the communities it helps, meaning you really get a better understanding of Guatemalan village life that most travellers probably don’t get to see.

Cows on the streets of Fatima

Cows on the streets of Fatima

The neighbouring communities of Fatima and Nuevo San Jose are both made up of families who formerly lived and worked on nearby coffee fincas. After the collapse of world coffee prices in the 90s, the owners of the fincas simply stopped paying the workers for two years. The situation got so desperate that eventually children died of malnutrition, and the children missed out on school for the whole time as well. In both cases the workers took the owners to court, and won. In one case, they eventually got some of the money they were owed after this; in the other the owners still failed to pay up, and in frustration the community eventually took the owner hostage until he paid up. With the money they gained, they were able to buy some land and build houses. However the situation is still pretty desperate, with very few of the people in both communities having regular jobs – instead most of the men get up at 4am every morning to get a bus into town to look for casual work, which is by no means guaranteed. What work there is is often well below the minimum wage (which is very hard to enforce in Guatemala).

So the mountain school was set up to teach Spanish and use the profits to help out both communities financially, both by paying families to provide meals for students, and by providing funding for the communities’ special projects fund. At the moment, they are also trying to find the funds to help build a library and computer centre for the children of both communities, to help their education, something which is expensive for families with very little money.

It’s a rather over-used word, but eating three meals a day with my host family was quite a humbling experience – after staying with a middle class family in Xela with a big house, it was quite a contrast to be eating in a tiny dirt-floored shack made of corrugated metal, just one pretty small room divided by a curtain, serving as a home for a whole family, with the bed in one half and the cooking area in the other. There’s no electricity, running water or toilet in the house – those are all shared with other neighbours, and cooking is simply on a makeshift wood-burning stove. Despite these difficulties, I actually ate more and better than I had with my family in Xela, and every breakfast I was entertained by Jessica, the family’s two year old daughter who chatted away to me in incomprehensible Spanish while I ate. Everyone in the village is incredibly friendly too – with up to fourteen foreign students turning up every week, and only around forty families in both communities, they are quite used to our strange ways, and the kids are always running up to you demanding you take a photo of them (which they always love seeing), or even just to stop and play games or dance in the street with them.

Friendly local kids

Friendly local kids

The school itself is a little oasis of calm – the main building (where we all sleep) is surrounded by a huge garden, containing banana and coffee trees, a traditional medicinal herb garden and a carp pond. All lessons also take place in little palm-thatched cabañas in the garden, which is a lovely way to study (if there is such a thing as a lovely way to study). There’s also a little mirador (look-out), where you can sit and read, or study, or just chill out, overlooking the valley and the adjacent mountains. The terrace of the school also has hammocks for relaxing too, and there’s a kitchen as well just in case you are still hungry (or you can do what we did and get a friend to visit from Xela with pizza). Being in such small place, there’s little to do of an evening but chill out, chat, and play cards outside over a beer or two, listening to the rain and watching the skies light up with the tremendous electrical storms that happen every evening at this time of year. The house also has two lovely cats and three adorable dogs guarding the place (they bark at every passing vehicle, but unfortunately living in a humid and rainy climate they are bit too smelly – despite regular baths – to really play with).

My classroom

My classroom

As well as all the classes, you also get more of a feel for the community by the various other talks the school organises – one night the village midwife came to give us a talk about how she works, and the difficulties she faces, one lunchtime we had a talk from a local who is involved in running the local community radio station that has a crucial role in providing information about health and education, and most fun of all was the night one the local mothers came down to teach us how to make platanos rellenos (stuffed bananas), which involved boiling up bananas until soft, mashing them up to make a dough, rolling them out to make banana tortillas, and then stuffing them with pureed sweetened black beans, and then deep-frying the whole thing and serving with sugar – great fun and absolutely delicious.

Making platanos rellenos

Making platanos rellenos

The whole thing has been a magical time, so relaxing and enjoyable I barely feel like I’ve been studying, and getting the chance to experience at close hand the realities of how the majority of Guatemalans live is something I’ll never forget. It’s a shame I have to get on because I’d love to stay here for several weeks, slowly improving my Spanish (many students do just that).

Cheesy graduation picture

Cheesy graduation picture

If you’re thinking of studying Spanish in Latin America, I really can’t recommend this place highly enough (you can find out more about it here), I genuinely can’t think of a better place to do it, plus you get the chance to help an extremely poor community.


16 responses to “Learning Spanish in the Guatemalan Highlands

  1. Alexis Stember

    It’s a pleasure to follow your journeys around the world as I sit in an uncomfortably and unnaturally air-conditioned office in Manhattan. I am headed for a first-time trip to Mexico City in July as a result of your general affinity for the country. Thanks for the tip.

    • Thanks Alexis – it’s great to hear that I’ve helped sell Mexico to someone – the country can really do with some extra tourists right now! You’ll have an amzing time

  2. Great post. Guatemala seems to be a popular place for learning Spanish, and I’m considering it for a future tour of Latin America. I’m too distracted by the pretty ladies here in Medellin. I need to put myself in a village and host family where learning is my #1 priority!!

  3. Being in a village definitely lessens the distractions…although I still managed to spend every night playing cards rather than studying!

  4. Xela is an amazing place – if you get a chance head over to Almolonga on market day and check out the size of those vegetables. I’m enjoying your blog – keep up the quality posts!

  5. What an awesome experience – much better than mine. My fault – I didn’t research it enough and I think I had high hopes for a week of one on one lessons.

  6. aww. thats an amazing post – have been telling everyone this story anyway – it comes up a lot when making coffee for people….

    • I really want as many people to hear about it as possible, unfortunately due to the economy they’ve not been getting enough students this year, which means less money to help the community

  7. Geoff – have been following your travels and am thoroughly enjoying your blog and pix….certainly perks up the day when Lambeth North is not as sparkling as it normally is!!!

  8. “midwife” – “local community radio” – sounds like you are back in sparkling Lambeth North planning campaigns!!!

    Still enjoying your blogs – would be good to see a map of where you have been so far – I got a bit lost with all the too-ing and fro-ing across Mexico!! All sounds top draw thou’ and I’m infinitely jealous!!

  9. fantastic post geoff. sounds wonderful. we are now considering popping over to guatemala for a mini-break! here in guadalajara everything is as usual – thoroughly enjoying the rainy season with beautiful electrical storms every night. hope to speak soon

  10. I love the idea of learning Spanish in a place like this where you are way off the tourist trail & also helping the local community. It’s a really neat idea. I love the colour in Guatamala.

  11. it’s very humbling reading about the conditions of the people who live there, and what has happened to them. it certainly does put things in perspective. You look terrible thin mate. but you look alive which is great. how’s the spanish accent?i understand there is no “thethethethe”ing there?

  12. My spanish accent is a hell of a lot better than my french one – people actually understand me for a start! Don’t worry about me looking thin – all the fried food in Colombia has fattened me up again!

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