We’ve been walking for the last three hours among the mountains of Guatemala as the sun rises over the small villages below, bringing up memories of the small children we saw digging in trash, and the houses made out of what looked like leftover wood and slabs of concrete. As we pass the seven crosses that the trail is named after and enter into the rain forest, a cloud of fog consumes the sky. Trees with ages too old to be known linger in our path giving way to scenery more beautiful than the Garden of Eden.
The anecdote above comes from a recent trip made to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala; a city that is ridden with Spanish schools. There is no acceptance process for any of these schools because all the lessons are one-on-one with native Spanish speakers who will focus on your linguistic needs. Each school provides students with a host family within days of receiving the request. They’ll even provide a ride from the airport if given a day’s notice.
The exchange rate from quetzals to American dollars ends up making living expenses, eating out, shopping, and traveling around Guatemala extremely cheap for the foreign traveler. In fact, it’s so cheap that at some points you find yourself buying multiple things you don’t need within minutes as you repeat to yourself “But shit it’s only 7Q (or around 99 cents)!”
“I love it!” says recent University of Texas graduate, Cally Hibbs. Hibbs is currently attending La Paz, a Spanish school in Quetzaltenango that focuses on the culture and history of Quetzaltenango.
Because almost all Spanish schools in Quetzaltenango offer the same one-on-one 5 hours of schooling per day, a student can easily get the exact experience they desire as long as they know what area they want to study. Each school focuses on a different topic of learning. Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco (PLQ), for example, focuses more on traditional culture and customs of the villages of Guatemala.
“[When founding PLQ] a strong emphasis was placed on education about the social and political realities of Guatemala and of Central America in general,” employee at Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco, Tiana Carrasquillo said. “Even today, a portion of tuition is donated to Guatemalan human rights organizations.”
In addition to their classes in Quetzaltenango, the school also provides a special program for students more interested in traditional village life called La Escuela de la Montaña.
“La Escuela de la Montaña is unique in offering students the opportunity to live in Guatemala’s mountainous coffee plantation region while sharing daily life with the people of the surrounding communities,” Carrasquillo explained.
The experience can be an eye-opening one as many of the living standards in Guatemalan cities are varied, allowing for a student to understand more of what the life in a developing country is like.
“Language is … more than a way of communication but also a different form of thought,” says Federico Velasquez Pacheco, the founder of Celas Maya, another Spanish school in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
Pacheco explains that when you learn a language from a native speaker, you’ll be able to understand the country better. Unlike the isolation that other study abroads give you within a university, every day in Quetzaltenango you’re confronted with the issues of a developing country, giving you a personal look into the lives of undocumented immigrants and the starving impoverished, as well as life alongside of strong political and police corruption.
“If you’ve got everything you need in life it is hard to have real empathy for other people in life,” Hibbs said. “It is important to have an idea that everything is connected; being down here with all this corruption reminded you that you can fix and change things for the better.”