While traveling through Guatemala I spent 3 weeks taking Spanish classes and staying with a local family on Lake Atitlan. Here’s a rundown of my experience.
Guatemala is one of the best countries in the world to visit if you’d like to learn Spanish. It’s not too far from the United States, classes are inexpensive, and locals naturally speak slowly without using too much slang.
Plus, if you’d like to learn Spanish fast, there’s no better way then to be totally immersed in the culture & language for an extended period of time.
I decided to study in the town of San Pedro La Laguna on Lake Atitlan, located in the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountains.
This massive lake is surrounded by volcanoes, colorful wildflowers, and traditional Mayan villages. A perfect setting to learn Spanish.
I went to Cooperative School San Pedro on Lake Atitlan (Lago de Atitlan). It’s a true cooperative started by a group of experienced Spanish teachers who believe they have a responsibility to their community.
In general it’s recommended to take at least 3 weeks of Spanish classes to get a basic grasp on the language. You can choose between 3-6 hours of instruction per day, either morning or afternoon classes.
Homestays are available or you can find your own accommodation.
I paid $205 USD per week for 4 hours of class per day, 5 days per week, which also included my homestay plus 3 meals a day. It was a great deal!
Lake Atitlan has a laid-back hippy vibe, and the landscape around the lake is breathtaking with many outdoor activities nearby. However Antigua & Quetzaltenango (Xela) are also popular towns for learning Spanish.
Xela is a larger city, while Antigua is a bit more touristy.
Friends of mine have recommended ICA Spanish School in Xela and Antigua Plaza School in Antigua.
There are a few different options for class schedules, however I choose 4 hours of one-on-one Spanish instruction per day, five days a week. My teacher was Flori, a local woman who’s been teaching for years.
She always seemed upbeat and excited to teach as we sat in the shade overlooking Lake Atitlan.
After a general evaluation of my Spanish skills (almost non-existent in my case), Flori gave me a refresher course on rules of Spanish and helped improve my vocabulary using fun games and written exercises.
There were homework assignments every night too…
My Spanish quickly improved with regular daily instruction, and I was finally able to communicate with my Guatemalan host family and other locals.
While taking Spanish school in Guatemala I stayed with the Bixcul-Pichilla family in their small two-story cinderblock home nestled at the bottom of Volcano San Pedro.
It was super difficult to communicate at first, as they don’t speak any English. Only Tzujill (a local Mayan language) & some Spanish.
The family of 5 plus me and another student shared 4 small bedrooms, a kitchen, and an open-air courtyard. Living this way was an eye-opening experience for me, very different from the “comfortable” American lifestyle I’m used to.
We had a single bathroom located in the courtyard, and a sink area used for washing clothes, cleaning dishes, brushing teeth, shaving — pretty much everything.
Water was delivered via pipes once or twice a week, where it’s stored in drums for later use. Occasionally it would run out if we used too much.
Like I mentioned earlier, the Lake Atitlan area is full of cool things to do. So when I got sick of trying to memorize new Spanish words, I’d take a break and get outside for a Guatemalan adventure!
Lake Atitlan is surrounded by volcanoes. Hiking these is a great way to get some exercise and get some epic photos of the landscape. Two of the most popular hikes are Volcano San Pedro and La Nariz de Indio.
Rent a kayak and explore Lake Atitlan up-close and personal. Or if you’re feeling REALLY adventurous, find a local Mayan fisherman willing to rent out his wooden canoe. They aren’t easy to navigate!
Yes, you can scuba diving under the lake here, and apparently there’s cool stuff to see. Like freshwater crabs, underwater volcanic hot-vents, and flooded buildings. ATI Divers is located in the town of Santa Cruz.
Coffee is a big deal in Guatemala, and the nutrient-rich volcanic slopes around Lake Atitlan are covered in coffee farms. A coffee tour allows you to experience the fascinating coffee production process from start to finish.
There are 12 Mayan villages spread out around the shores of Lake Atitlan, with many only accessible by boat or on foot. My favorites were Santiago, San Juan, and San Marcos. Walk the cobblestone streets, visit old churches, watch a local basketball game, and experience some Mayan culture.
Many of the Spanish schools in San Pedro give back to the community with social aid projects, and you can volunteer to help out by bringing food or building supplies to poor local families in need.
Panajachel is the main transportation hub for the Lake Atitlan area. A bus from Guatemala City to Panajachel takes 3-4 hours. Once at the lake, best way to travel from village to village is by lancha (boat taxi). Prices vary, but are generally around 15-25q ($2-3).
The temperature around Lago Atitlan fluctuates between 50 – 80 degrees (F), so it can get chilly at night. Larger towns like Panajachel & San Pedro have ATMs, but not all of them do.
When picking a Spanish school in Guatemala, keep a lookout for schools that funnel money into social aid projects for the local community. I’d also recommend staying in a homestay for the same reason, that money goes a long way towards improving the lives of your host family.
For additional recommendations, talk to people who’ve actually attended the school you are interested in. Search travel blogs or online forums like Lonely Planet to read reviews of other schools. ★
Location: San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala [Map]
Spanish School: Cooperative School San Pedro
Total Cost: $90 USD – $225 per week depending on hours/homestay
Useful Notes: Staying with a host family is the most cost-effective way to learn Spanish in Guatemala, and the best way to practice what you’re learning in school.
Recommended Reading: Lonely Planet Guatemala
READ NEXT: Camping On An Active Volcano
Any other questions about learning Spanish in Guatemala?