We spent a little over a week in Antigua, Guatemala where our primary goal was to learn some Spanish. Antigua is known for its Spanish schools and it lived up to its reputation. Antigua is an old Spanish colonial town that’s done a ton of work to preserve its old buildings despite volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, marauding armies, and uprisings. The streets are all still cobblestone and the appearance of front facades of the buildings downtown are strictly regulated.
Walking down the streets, it feels like you’ve stepped back in time a few hundred years except for having to dodge Chaco-clad travelers glued to Google Maps on their phones. It seemed like the city had more foreign travelers than locals. The restaurants and bars support this trend and I heard there was only one authentic Guatemalan restaurant in town which we were never able to find. You could find fancy coffee shops with US microbrews, Texas BBQ, NY pizza, and even Taco Bell. We walked through the nicest McDonalds I think I’ll ever see with touchpad ordering, a giant courtyard with a fountain, and flowers hanging over walkways and patio tables. You could even pose with Ronald McDonald at a mosaic-adorned table with a volcano teasing the clouds in the background! Antigua has a very picturesque setting and façade but the wealth and notoriety brought from tourism has eroded the authenticity more than I’d expected. You could live here for months but never exit your comfort zone.
The city’s emphasis on Spanish schools and learning Spanish helps to counteract this feeling since many of the foreigners in town seem to be studying Spanish and want to immerse themselves to learn the language. Our Spanish school was a bit of a shock at first since over the 5 hours of class each day, very few words were spoken in English. As someone almost brand new to the language, this was as steep learning curve not free from frustration and exasperation. Then at home, our homestay supported this immersive environment by only speaking Spanish unless we were clearly lost. Tough at first, as our Spanish comprehension and speaking skills grew, we became more comfortable and our interactions were less disjointed.
Our host family was a ton of fun. The cost came out to about $26 per night for both Sara and I to stay for 8 nights with 3 meals per day except for the weekend. The house was big with probably 8 bedrooms, 3 or 4 bathrooms, a dining room, and a living room. The family lived in the house and ran a small hostel style business where folks could rent a room through Airbnb for a few days or rent out a room through local businesses for anywhere from a week to several months. In our time there, there were a few college students there for a couple months for internships, some travelers stopping in Antigua while on the road, and some Costa Ricans in town for a wedding. We spent a lot of time with our housemates venturing around the city and the companionship was a lot of fun!
Regarding our language school, Antigua Plaza, we had class for 5 hours a day 1-on-1 with a tutor. 5 hours of concentration to someone years out of school is tough. Next time, we’d do 4 hours per day. I experienced a dramatic improvement over the course of the week but had plenty of anxiety dreams. Sara even started sleep talking in Spanish. Overall, it was a fine choice for a school but next time we should bump it down to 4 hours and wear more mosquito repellant! I feel more confident and capable making our way through Central and South America so I chalk it up as a success! The quality of education really rests on the quality of the teacher you’re assigned. Reviews from other travelers are important and I’d recommend staying away from budget options.
Antigua is a premier tourist destination with long arms reaching out to other destinations. As a tourist hub, you can get shuttles or buses to locations all over Central America. Also, with plenty of travel agencies in the town, it’s easy to organize day trips to volcanoes or weekend trips to premier destinations like Lake Atitlan and Semuc Champey. We booked a day hike to Pacaya Volcano through one of the many hostels in town by just walking in and asking at the front desk. We took a shuttle van to the park where we met our local guide who walked us up to the base of the active volcano and provided the marshmallows for roasting over the thermal vents. If we had more time in the city, many groups in town offer 2 day trips up Acatenango Volcano where you can watch the neighboring volcano erupt overnight and camp above the clouds. Our friends highly recommended Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit adventure company that provides all the gear you need for camping and cooks great meals on the trip.
Overall, we had a solid week in Antigua soaking up as much Spanish as we could and spending time with our host family and housemates. It was a pricey town but beautiful with all the volcanoes around. It rained every day except for the day we hiked the volcano which was still more than expected during the rainy season. We saw a couple volcanic eruptions and I experienced my first earthquake too! A 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit off the Pacific coast of Guatemala on our 2nd or 3rd day there. Since it was farther away, in Antigua, it felt like a huge truck rumbling down the cobblestones. In our house, it knocked a picture off the wall and I heard that a roof collapsed in the northern part of town but that was the extent of the damage in the city.
My wife and I quit our jobs, sold our belongings and are hitting the road for nearly 2 years. We're blogging about our adventures, lessons learned, ideas, and recommendations. Take a gander at the content, leave a comment, or reach out to us to meet up on the road!