Help w/first Guatemala trip/Spanish School

Dec 21st, 2007, 10:34 AM
  #1  
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Help w/first Guatemala trip/Spanish School

I'm thinking about planning my first trip to Guatemala for next spring or fall and would love advice.

I'd like to hit Antigua and Atitlan for sure, but am open to suggestions. I would like to center the trip around a week of Spanish school with sidetrips on either weekend. (We'd likely have 11-12 days total.)

I'd like advice on selecting a location to study, and then selecting a school. I've only had two previous Spanish school trips (CPI in San Joaquin, Costa Rica, and Ixbalanque in Copan, Honduras). I loved the non-touristy nature of San Joaquin, and the academic rigor, but afternoon excursions were pricey and required a lot of van/bus time. I loved the size of Copan, the ability to arrange local tours that were quite close to the town, and the fact that most people spoke Spanish (or felt that or bad Spanish was preferable to their English).

We'll be two women traveling, so we have the usual considerations for safety.

Hopefulist, nonstop, others, how do you go about picking a town and a school? And are there any in Guatemala that you would recommend, given my experiences?

Hopefulist, your San Pedro school is on my list, and I'd love to hear any other thoughts you have.

Thanks in advance!
Melissa
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Dec 21st, 2007, 12:01 PM
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Antigua is lovely and there are lots of ruins and neighboring villages and volcanoes to explore. It's easy to get there from the airport and there are lots of travel agents to help you arrange the rest of your trip. Many great schools, too, with established teachers and good reputations. In my opinion it's NOT a good immersion environment for 2 reasons: 1st, because you'll see more tourists than locals and 2nd because lots of the workers in stores, restaurants, etc., speak English because of the tourism trade. Homestays typically host 4 or more students at once. Though lovely, Antigua doesn't seem very "real" to me, almost like a little piece of Europe plopped down in Guatemala. If you decide to attend school in Antigua, my son Isaac was pleased with his experience at the Academía Antigüeña - activities, teachers, and host families were good.

http://spanishacademyantiguena.com/invitation.htm
http://www.guatemala365.com/index.ph...func=show&id=8 (review site)

Xela (Quetzaltenango) is another popular place to study. It's the 2nd biggest city in Guatemala and not a very attractive one in my opinion. It's also a much longer trip than Antigua or around the lake. I think it's a better immersion environment than Antigua and there are some good schools there as well. The surrounding area is beautiful and there would be plenty to do.

My vote (no surprise to you!) would be the Cooperativa school in San Pedro La Laguna.

http://cooperativeschoolsanpedro.com/

I thought everything about that school was fabulous - garden, activities, teachers, homestays, village, view, access to other villages in the lake. As a cooperative they pay their teachers and hosts more than most schools in the area and are heavily vested in wonderful social projects in the community. Let me know if there's more you'd like to know about it.

You could start in Antigua for a few days, head to Chichicastenango Saturday for an overnight before the big Sunday market, and then head to the lake; it's easy to catch boats to other villages and the shopping is especially great in Panajachel. Many people do day trips to Chichi but we really loved exploring the night before and Sunday morning, then leaving before the throngs of day trippers arrived.

After that you could shuttle back to Antigua and do a round trip to Tikal before heading home. If you time it right, you can fly back from Flores in time for your flight home as we did.

My 2 cents' worth! Let me know if I can answer specific questions. Happy trails!
hopefulist is offline  
Dec 21st, 2007, 12:35 PM
  #3  
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This is great info, thanks! I was thinking it made sense to make the progression you suggest, and thought the Chi Chi market overnight seemed like a great idea, too. I love the idea of a school that's compensating teachers well and is vested in the community.

Do you think it's an awful thing to go to Guatemala and not visit Tikal on the first trip? It seems like a lot of logistics and movement, and we tend to like to focus on 1-2 places when the trip is a short one. And yet most people I've talked to who have been to Tikal rave about it...I'd love your two cents!
mmb23 is offline  
Dec 21st, 2007, 01:00 PM
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If you think there's a chance you might not get there another time, definitely go. It may well be one of the highlights of your life, which is the case with every person in my family - truly. I visited for a 2nd time this summer because the friend I was traveling with doesn't think she'll make it back down that way and didn't want to miss it.

If you're sure you'll fit it in another trip, skip it this time. Expense can also be an issue since most of the people I know don't like the idea of a 10 or 12 hour bus ride up and back; our entire 3 week trip counting EVERYTHING came to less than $1100 and we paid about $250 for the Tikal part (a night in the park, entrance fee, a night in Flores, and flight back to GUA), so a big chunk of the budget.

It's really easy to arrange, though, if you think you might not make it back. Lots of agencies in Antigua could set it up for you. They'd shuttle you from your hotel to the airport for the flight up, shuttle you from there to Tikal, provide meals, lodging, tours, etc., and shuttle/fly/shuttle you home. It can be done as a day trip but I wouldn't recommend that.

Please keep me posted!! Happy trails and happy holidays!

hopefulist is offline  
Dec 21st, 2007, 01:44 PM
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I just got from Guatemala last week and posted a trip report. First trip, and my husband and I loved it! We did go to Tikal,and I enjoyed it a lot, but I now realize (after seeing a number of Mayan ruins over the last 15 - 20 years or so) that I really enjoy the colonial towns like Antigua. But it is fun to see - walking through the jungle at 6 AM hearing the howler monkeys was quite the experience.

We did a 2 day / 1 night package from Antigua. It's pricey because of the flight, but we didn't feel that we had enough time to go by bus (we were in Guatemala only 11 days).

I kind of understand what Hopefulist said about Antigua not seeming 'real', but I really liked it. I guess it's true that there are a lot of tourists and a lot of people speak English, but I also found plenty of opportunities to practice my (limited) Spanish. I could definitely see myself spending more time there.

We also visited Chichi and Lake Atitlan. The lake was fabulous and there are interesting little villages to visit. I'd say that Antigua and Atitlan were the highpoints for both my husband and me - both amazing places to visit.

BTW, we did meet up with a couple of fellow Canadians (retired) who were studying Spanish in San Pedro. I think they were at the school that Stacey recommends, and they were really enjoying their learning experience there.

My husband just organized our pictures a couple of days ago and I've been going through them. This trip to Guatemala was one of our best ever - I wish I was planning another trip there right now!
SusanInToronto is offline  
Dec 21st, 2007, 02:58 PM
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Susan, thank for your input! I *think* I read your report, but I will go back and make sure! I am relatively new to CA travel (just Costa Rica, Honduras, and Oaxaca which is really NAm, I think) and I appreciate all the opinions.

I'm trying to find a balance between the things that are touristy (often because they're worth seeing, and because a place with tourist infrastructure can be easier to navigate) and places that are off the beaten path a little so I can see real life and am forced to practice my Spanish.

What did you think of Chichi market? Was it worth the trip for the people watching, and did you actually shop while you were there? Were there any other markets you visited while there? OK, wait, I'll go back to your trip report and THEN ask questions!

Thanks for your response!
Melissa
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Dec 21st, 2007, 04:08 PM
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Melissa - I realize you weren't really asking me but here I am with opinions again. You're always welcome to just ignore me if you want.

We were passing through Chichi on our way to Nebaj so it wasn't out of our way but it's not actually very far from the lake anyway. We loved watching the market set-up process in the evening and the next morning plus the folks spreading incense and selling flowers on the church steps, sharing cups of warm something for breakfast and talking and laughing. A real highlight for us was the produce market in the commercial building, a gym-sized room with the floor absolutely covered with beautiful, colorful produce and colorful shoppers as well. There's a balcony around 3 sides and I took hundreds of photos. I did end up buying a piece of fabric from a very friendly, tiny, old woman and her husband. There's a photo in my Chichi collection; I'm only 5'3" so you can see what I mean by tiny if you care to look! There were very few gringos around when we left around 9 am Sunday but I've been to Chichi before as a day trip and - even in the 1980's - it was an embarrassing zoo of tourists.

The people watching was splendid but we weren't very interested in shopping. In general we found the selection and the prices much better in Panajachel which was also later in our trip and suited us well.

We also enjoyed market days in Nebaj, San Pedro La Laguna, and Sololá which were interesting and not quite so prepared for tourists. The produce market in Chichi is the deal sealer IMO.

Happy trails!
hopefulist is offline  
Dec 21st, 2007, 05:09 PM
  #8  
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Hopefulist, you are always welcome to weigh in! I loved Copan and chose it largely because of you, and I appreciate your insights. So please keep sharing.

Your description of the Chichi market is poetic; the closest thing I can think that I've seen is a huge, gorgeous produce market that I stumbled across in Kiev a few summers ago. I can't believe the little lady you bought from--when I saw that picture of the two of you originally, I thought you were 6 feet tall!

Regarding Tikal, it's both finances and time that make me wary, but I have plenty of time to figure it out. I do all the research far ahead of time, sell my cousin on my top choices, she does 10 minutes of research, we book our flights, and then bide our time for several months while I lurk on the boards getting excited.

All this to say: keep the info coming if have more to say!
Melissa
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Dec 21st, 2007, 05:28 PM
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Melissa, we enjoyed the market, but I don't think it's really necessary to go the night before. You could easily do a day trip from Pana. However, we stayed overnight, and I agree with Hopefulist that it was interesting to see the activity outside the church, the setup, etc. Unfortunately I didn't feel very good by the time we got to Chichi - the trip from Antigua took longer than expected (because of road construction) and I was having some problems with nausea. That probably affected my experience there.

The produce market is terrific and we also took pictures from overhead. We didn't do any shopping there - at this point, I'm really selective about what I buy and I had a clear idea of what I wanted and I just didn't see what I was looking for. (Pana does have pretty good shopping, and I bought there as well as in Antigua.)

Hopefulist is right - the people are short! I'm 5'1" and it's not often in my life that I've felt so tall!

One place I would have liked to visit in Chichi was the cemetary. From the distance, it looks great - really colourful. We took some pictures, but I had read that it was dangerous to walk through it on our own, so we didn't go through it.
SusanInToronto is offline  
Dec 24th, 2007, 06:36 AM
  #10  
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Thanks, Susan! I happen to love cemeteries and was thrilled when my homestay in Copan was across the street from one, and it was still beautifully decorated for dia de los muertos. That's a great tip.

I have to make an unsolicited recommendation for travel nausea that I've used with success for many years now. I call them "wristies"--I don't know what the real name is, but I've seen them at airport shops and the like. They are gray knit wrist bands, maybe half an inch in diameter, each with a small round plastic bump on the inside. The theory is you position the bump so that it hits your inner wrist in a certain place and it lightly presses an accupressure point that combats motion sickness. It sounds crazy to some people, I know, but I really suffer with motion sickness (even at home when I'm a passenger in a car or a bus) and wristies make a big difference. Sometimes when I know it's a long, winding trip I'll pop a less drowsy dramamine, but the wristies are a drug-free way to keep motion sickness at bay.

Happy travels and happy holidays!
Melissa
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Dec 24th, 2007, 06:55 AM
  #11  
 
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Yeah - those wrist things saved me in Guatemala. They were the closest thing to jewelry either of us took on the trip. I hadn't used them before but my friend swears by them so I gave them a go. Those darn things really work! I ordered mine online but you can get them in some stores where dramamine and bromine are located, like Bi-mart in our area.

I'm not especially fond of cemeteries in the US but Honduras and Guatemala have such colorful, festive ones they fascinate me. The ones in Nebaj, which suffered so desperately during the holocaust of the 80's, has special ones.

Merry Christmas and happy trails!
hopefulist is offline  
Dec 30th, 2007, 08:21 AM
  #12  
 
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Melissa: Just saw your post but I will go ahead and put in my 2 quetzales worth.

1. Yes, Antigua is touristy and getting so more by the day which is one of the reasons it is sometimes referred to as "Gringotenango". However, having said that, I like Antigua. I like the feel, the opportunities for travel from there, the restaurants, the colors, the schools (more than 80),etc. If my wife were to go with me, I would probably take her there and I think she would really like it.

I attended PLFM and loved it. Excellent teaching. I requested the most difficult teacher in the school and I felt I got my money's worth. I have also heard good comments about CSA.

Family stays can be a little iffy in Ant. but I had a great family and would stay with them again.

If you want a B&B, The Cloister, is a good place to stay. A fellow student stayed there and she let me see the premises. They have student rates (still, I think)

If I go solo again I will probably move on to a different place in Guatemala. Probably the one that Hopfulist recommended just because I like to keep moving plus my Spanish is improving to the point that I need to keep pushing myself.

Re: Tikal. My recommendation is to go while you can. I flew from Guatemala City to Tikal on Sat. a.m. and returned Sun p.m. and stayed at the Jungle Lodge. In my opinion, it is not to be missed. You never know if you will have another oppty to go. It was one of the highlights of my life that I wouldn't trade for anything.

Having been to Copan, I think that experience will be hard to beat. Out of the 7 immersion programs I have been to, it was probably my favorite place. I too, went totally on the recommendation of Hopefulist. Having said that, I probably wouldn't trade for any of them at this point.

As I look back I realized each trip was a building block for the next one. I am always looking for my next school and I am currently thinking Colombia holds my interest.
nonstop is offline  
Dec 31st, 2007, 01:03 PM
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Thanks so much for weighing in! I agree with the "building block" idea: each trip seems to be preparing me for the next trip, though I don't always realize it at the time! On this note, I have a question for you (and hopefulist and anyone who's been to Guat & Copan).

My cousin (with whom I travel on these Spanish school adventures) has a little less travel under her belt, so I'm trying to consider her comfort levels as I plan our next trip. I think that Antigua, though touristy, would likely be comfortable place to start out. (Ideally we could do two weeks,one each in Antigua/San Pedro).

I talked to her today and she said that she's interested in Guatemala, but said she didn't feel up to anything that was "harder" than Copan. I think the hard parts were some of the general poverty, the bus travel (especially with the bus ride with people throwing up, detailed in my trip report!), the guys with guns/machetes in town, our transfer to the San Pedro Airport via the main bus station a day or two after a big shooting there.

In your experience, was Guatemala "harder" than Copan? In terms of transit, feeling safe, etc.? I was surprised (given my initial concern) at how generally safe and relaxed I felt in Copan, and that's why I'm considering Guatemala.

(I'm also very interested in Cuzco, Peru, and have posted on that forum asking for spanish school advice, FYI, in case you've been there, too!)

I'd love your thoughts on this if you'd like to share.
Thanks!
melissa
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Dec 31st, 2007, 03:26 PM
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I would say that Antigua would be "easier" than Copán and San Pedro La Laguna just a bit "harder", but worth the extra effort because the lake is so very beautiful and the school so very special. Some how the rewards of travel in Guatemala always seem even stronger than in Honduras in spite of no diving or flyfishing, 2 of our favorite passtimes. Splitting your time between a school in Antigua and San Pedro La Laguna is probably a good idea. Happy trails!
hopefulist is offline  
Dec 31st, 2007, 03:40 PM
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I think Guatemala will be easier. The transit is easier and there are a lot more things to do in Antigua. I will defer to HL about comparing the other school since I know nothing about it.

I liked the adventure of riding the bus to Copan, transisting from the airport to the bus station, etc. I just really liked Copan but I think I got a better education in Antigua.

The "guys with machine guns" are all over Mexico and Central America so that won't change as well as the poverty.

I have not been to Cuzco so can't comment on that.

I like Costa Rica. I believe I received my best overall education in Heredia. I will return there again.
nonstop is offline  
Jan 1st, 2008, 09:34 AM
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Thanks again to both of you for weighing in. I'll check out the antigua schools you mentioned, nonstop--I love the idea of requesting the hardest teacher (that never occurred to me, but I really like to be put through the paces)!

This is great info for me to move forward and keep researching; I appreciate your willingness to answer my questions and keep sharing your experiences.

Melissa
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Jan 2nd, 2008, 07:16 AM
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hopefulist, can you tell me more about the possibilities for afternoon activities the San Pedro school?

If I remember your travelogue correctly, you were volunteering, but I'm wondering if it would be fairly easy to, say, kayak in the lake, or visit a nearby town, in the space between class/lunch and supper. Or are those things best saved for the weekend?

Thanks!
Melissa

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Jan 2nd, 2008, 07:45 AM
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Most days we spent time exploring the town or hanging out with our families when we weren't volunteering, but it's easy to find other things to do. I've heard you can rent kayaks or boats to go out on the lake, there's a new swimming pool in town (we got free passes but didn't have time to use them) and the boats run fairly consistently to other villages. We took a boat to Santiago de Atitlan one afternoon and had plenty of time to visit Maximon, shop, take in a school festival in the square, eat lunch, and explore before heading back for dinner and evening school activities. I think you could find people to demonstrate traditional cooking, weaving, etc. if you were interested; the shool might have more information about that. We didn't learn till the end of the week that buses run, too, another option for exploring, though boats are more fun imo.

I hope you'll keep me posted! I'm tentatively planning to travel there with a group in a year and a half and it would be good if you can generate more ideas for me while you're there.
hopefulist is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2008, 07:58 AM
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Ooh, traditional cooking, my favorite! Over the weekend I tried to re-create the empanada/pupusa dish we made with the teachers at Ixbalanque, with pretty good success. (My husband, who wasn't in Copan with me, ate about 4 of them, so I thought that was a good sign!)

All the things you describe sound great.

About the volunteering, did you have to have a minimum stay in order to volunteer? How did that work for you guys? (Also, do you have to be a teacher or can you just be interested in kids?)

Definitely I will keep you posted on what we decided...and I'm sure I'll have plenty more questions as the weeks move along!

Thanks!
Melissa
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Jan 2nd, 2008, 09:21 AM
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No teaching experience is required to volunteer where we were and there's no minimum time commitment; you could just walk in and they'd put you to work. The teacher is very nice but overworked and the program is underfunded. Our only concern was they left us in charge at lunch one time, but I don't think they would have done that if they hadn't known we were Special Educators in the US. Most of the time the teacher would give us a worksheet or a game and we'd work/play 1-on-1 with a student. We really enjoyed it very much and I encourage you to give it a try if you're interested. Happy trails!
hopefulist is offline  
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