If you don’t mind a bit of homework on your holiday then consider taking a language class so you can converse with the locals. EMILY COLSTON brushed up on her spanish in Guatemala.

¿No habla Español?” No, I didn’t speak Spanish and it was beginning to get me down. Quite frankly, I dreaded the thought of taking one-on-one language classes. But having spent the previous six weeks travelling around Mexico and Cuba with more fluent travel companions to hide behind, I wasn’t going to get any further unless I worked on it. So with San Pedro la Laguna the next stop on our itinerary, it was time to take the toro by the horns.

Guatemala is one of the cheapest places in the world to learn Spanish, and San Pedro, perched on the edge of the unimaginably picturesque Lago de Atitlán, is quite possibly the best value, and undeniably the most appealing, town to do it in. If you’re looking for a place with distractions galore to keep you sane in between classes, San Pedro has them in spades. Climbing volcanoes, kayaking, swimming in the cool waters, horseriding or simply chilling out and watching a movie in a gringo bar are all pleasant pastimes on offer here, though we found that general meandering around the pueblo’s myriad alleyways and the odd game of football with the local niños on a dusty pitch were more than enough to fill in the hours.

But the Spanish is what we were there for, and as is immediately apparent from the wall-to-wall advertisments that line the streets around the docks, there are plenty of schools to choose from. Some are larger, like the monumental and popular San Pedro Spanish School, but options range right down to private operations which may take only one or two students at a time. We chose one that’s somewhere in between.

Right round the far side of town, and coming in at US$50 for a week of lessons (four hours a day for five days), classes at Corazon Maya (as with most schools in town) are taught one-on-one. Like many schools here, classes take place in the inspiring garden setting of palapa huts right on the lake, and run Monday to Friday. While it is possible to take group lessons (usually with one other person of the same or similar ability as you), at these prices you don’t need to (group classes aren’t much cheaper anyway), and you’ll definitely get more out of the private ones.

Most of those travelling through and just looking to brush up on their basic skills will take a course for five days, but there are a surprising number of people here who stay much longer. Doña Rosa, our hostess, spoke of the last couple she had in her casa – they spent three months studying in San Pedro, then stayed on for a further month with her after their lessons were completed, demonstrating far more dedication than we could muster.

Aside from its proliferation of quality, low-cost Spanish schools, San Pedro is renowned for its laidback, hippified vibe, easily accessible pot as well as an openess to gringo (in the more commonly used sense of ‘foreigner’, rather than the original ‘American’ meaning of the word) travellers. Indeed, there are parts of the town where you’ll be hard-pressed to find a local. But while the gringos may have taken over the area around the Panajachel dock – referred to disparagingly by some locals as ‘Gringolandia’ – the rest of the town is still reassuringly steeped in a more traditional way of life. With the local Tz’utujil women and girls still getting about in their traditional Mayan huipiles, and everyone always ready with a buenas dias”, “tardes” or “noches” depending on the hour, it’s a friendly atmosphere, and never threatening.

If you choose to stay with a local family as we did, the experience is far more authentic, the food is great and, if you make the effort to converse with your hosts, it can make a difference to how far your Spanish skills come along. It should also work out cheaper than going it alone – about US$50 for your week’s lodging and food, which includes three meals a day, except on Sundays when the evangelically Christian (not the in-your-face kind, but the assualting-your-eardrums-with-their-late-night-karaoke-style-services type) locals will be otherwise occupied.

I won’t lie – I was glad when it was all over, and I don’t know whether I’d have it in me to do it again. It is a hard slog for a holiday – getting up at 8am isn’t usually my idea of a good time (though afternoon classes are also available for those who prefer a sleep-in), and spending half the day at school and the other half doing homework is quite taxing if you’ve been out of the study mindset for a while. Let’s just say that before we’d even made it halfway through the week we already had that first post-school beer planned right down to the last detail.

You need to have your heart and head in it if you’re going to get the most out of your language lessons. But I’m certainly glad I invested in this week. My Spanish improved markedly, and armed with my workbook, it continued to do so over the next six weeks in central America. •
• See www.corazonmaya.com, www.cooperativeschoolsanpedro.com and www.sanpedrospanishschool.org.

Where else to learn Spanish
Guatemala Antigua and Xela (Quetzaltenango) are also very popular, though much bigger towns to study Spanish in. Antigua is far more touristy (with Americans galore), though very pretty, and with lots of other things to keep you entertained (particularly the nightlife). The larger Xela offers a more serious learning atmosphere, and is better for people interested in linking up with volunteering opportunities. If you’re interested, many schools also offer lessons in Mayan languages.

Nicaragua Granada is the most appealing Nicaraguan city to learn in, though watch out for some schools that are, reportedly, a bit dodgy. Esteli also has a good reputation and a large selection of schools. For a more relaxing beach-side location, you can’t go past San Juan del Sur, though you might find it hard to drag yourself to class in this stunning location.

Honduras Honduras offers a couple of attactive options, paticularly La Ceiba and Tela on the Caribbean side if you’re in the area to do some diving. A few schools seem to have spilled over the border into the charming Copan Ruinas as well, though they forgot to bring the super-low prices with them.

Costa Rica It can be hard to avoid the tourists here and it’s much more expensive. San Jose has a stack of great options and, for a Central American capital, it’s actually not a bad city. If you’d prefer to be somewhere more remote, try Manual Antonio or Jaco by the beach, or the towns of the Central Valley.

Panama There are few options in Panama, however the course at the beachside town of Bocas del Toro gets consistently good reviews. You generally don’t need to book ahead and this will likely mean paying over the odds, and lock you into a course that may not be suitable. With so many courses about (in Guatemala especially), make sure you shop around, and if you’re not satisfied, go somewhere else.”