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Patagonia Photo: Morning theft

This top 10 scours the Spanish-speaking world to find the best language schools that also meet the following criteria: (1) access to world-class wilderness and / or adventure sports, (2) an emphasis on sustainability and supporting local communities, and (3) a wide range of geographical regions.

10. Pop Wuj
Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

In addition to offering basic Spanish instruction, Pop Wuj specializes in technical Spanish for social workers, nurses, and doctors. Professionals can get hands-on fieldwork experience volunteering in the community. The school gets points from Matador for being a cooperative and with a strong commitment to community service. The school is a non-profit that directs its earnings to community development projects including a daycare, a greenhouse, medical clinics, and a scholarship program for marginalized students. Although Quetzaltenango is the second largest city in Guatemala, it’s a stone’s throw from numerous volcanoes. Climbers and hikers will be in paradise here.

a view of Mt. Santa Maria and Quetzaltenango Photo: Fernando Reyes Palencia


9. Costa Rican Language Academy
San Jose, Costa Rica


One of the few language schools in Costa Rica owned and operated by Costa Ricans, CRLA is conscious of the local community, though it’s a bit more vague about exactly how it supports local initiatives compared to some of the other schools on our list. Still, its San Jose location is ideal; the capital city has a variety of transportation options and serves as a jumping off point for the coastal or mountain regions, where a wide variety of intense recreation can be enjoyed. Click here for a great map and description of Costa Rican surf spots.

8. El Paraiso Spanish School
Boquete, Panama

El Paraiso, owned and staffed by locals, is located on the Caldera River in the town of Boquete, much smaller and less touristy than Bocas del Toro. Boquete is surrounded by mountains, including the Baru Volcano, offering wilderness hiking and camping for seasoned trailblazers. Paddling and rafting on the river is also possible.

7. Otavalo Spanish Institute
Otavalo, Ecuador

While more expensive than many of the other schools on our list and also less clear about its commitment to sustainability and community, this school deserves a spot on the list for its geography alone. Ninety minutes from Quito, Otavalo is a world-famous artisan town surrounded by mountains and home to some of the clearest lakes in Ecuador. Opportunities abound for alpine adventures, mountain biking, climbing, and hiking. OSI also makes the list because it offers Quechua (Kichwa) courses and has a combination package in which students can study for part of their stay in Otavalo and in Baños for the other part; in Baños, hiking, biking, climbing, and rafting await.

Cajas National Park, Ecuador Photo: notafish

6. Hijos del Maiz
El Lagartillo, Nicaragua

Perhaps the most off-the-beaten path school on our list, Hijos del Maiz is a “project by the community, for the community,” whose teachers are “well-educated peasant farmers from the community.” At least 20% of the weekly fee of $130 is reinvested into community projects, and students are invited to become as engaged in local life as they’d like by participating in community building projects. According to one student, just getting to the school was an adventure sport, but once you’re there, you’ll have plenty of time to explore the area on horseback. Test your bareback gallop in this rugged terrain!

5. Instituto de Idiomas, Universidad del Norte
Barranquilla, Colombia

The Institute of Languages at Barranquilla’s University of the North offers intensive language courses and the same kinds of homestay-volunteer combination packages offered by most schools on the list. Located in Barranquilla, a Caribbean coastal city, you’ll be perfectly positioned to spend your free time kiteboarding or diving. Of course, you could also find out for yourself whether Shakira was right when she said hips don’t lie. Whet your appetite for the trip by checking out this video from the 2004 International Kiteboarding Competition, which was held in Cartagena.


4. Spanish in the Mountains
Bariloche, Argentina

Spanish in the Mountains is steps from Cerro Catedral, Argentina’s biggest ski resort. If you want backcountry, head to the untouched bowls at Refugio Frey or the nearby chutes at La Laguna. This is a school run by and for mountain lovers. On most days during the Austral winter (July-September) you can find students from Alaska, the Rockies, the Alps and flatlanders with alpine dreams practicing conjugations on chairlifts. Mountaineers can combine lessons with a summit of the local giant, Mt. Tronador. Paddlers can study after running sections of the gnarly Rio Manso. The school’s classroom is a log cabin tucked inside a cozy forest with views of the local peaks. There are also visits to rural estancias, nearby farms and museums – plus regular nighttime barbecues where you can meet other mountain lovin’ locals and find a partner for ski touring on the weekend. This is also the best way to get the inside scoop on the best powder stashes and the lesser-known crags where only the locals hang out. Flat rate for classes is US$13/hour and schedules are ongoing – whenever you want to start, a teacher is ready for you. Housing options: rent your own bungalow, stay with a local family, or spend as much time as you can in your tent. Tip: Bring your gear – and consider selling some when you leave since there’s always a hot market for mountain toys here.

[Editor's note: this school was submitted / reported on by Christie Pashby.]

Montevideo’s southern shore Photo: Vince Alongi

3. IPSA Spanish Language School
Montevideo, Uruguay

IPSA is within walking distance to the beach, providing great opportunities for surfing…check out Playa Honda! Click hereFor surfing information and conditions in Montevideo. Prices at IPSA vary significantly depending on the intensity, duration, and level of your Spanish class.

2. Guacamaya Spanish School
Copan Ruinas, Honduras

While another local school called Ixbalanque may be better known, Guacamaya is one of the most welcoming and community-focused language school in Honduras. Guacmaya offers a week’s worth of classes and homestay (with meals, internet, and an excursion) for $200, providing a stipend to host families. They also organize volunteer opportunities for students, fostering cultural exchange with the locals and helping to improve the infrastructure of the community. Copan Ruinas is a World Heritage Site that offers lots of possibilities for adventure. While many schools and tour operators will likely try to rope you into an organized excursion, exploring the Rio Dulce and the local caves on your own is likely to be a rewarding experience.

Copan Ruinas Photo: Adal-Honduras

1. Cooperative Spanish School San Pedro
San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala


Despite its boring name, the Cooperative Spanish School San Pedro earns top ranking by meeting all of our inclusion criteria and then some! The school was started by a group of local teachers who are all equal partners in the enterprise and receive a living wage. In addition to providing extraordinarily affordable instruction (rates begin at $62 per week without a homestay; $117 for a homestay), the cooperative directs profits towards two community development projects: an outreach program to families with needs caused by physical disability or severe economic hardship, and an education program for local students. The school also offers nightly activities that range from lectures and discussions on Guatemalan history and indigenous rights, to local arts, and hiking and kayaking excursions. The school is within walking distance to Lake Atitlan, providing opportunities for independent hiking, swimming, and kayaking.

About The Author

Julie Schwietert

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a writer, editor, researcher, and translator currently in New York, formerly of Mexico City and San Juan.

  • http://www.rucksackwanderer.com Tim Patterson

    Awesome article – I might check out Spanish in the Mountains.

  • http://www.matadortravel.com/travel-community/collazo Julie

    Tim-
    If you do, let me know! I’d love to hear about your experiences,
    Julie

  • Spencer Klein

    I’ll see Tim at Spanish in the Mountains. Stoked on the variety of places.

  • http://www.matadortravel.com/travel-community/collazo Julie

    Spencer-
    Keep us posted!

  • Joules

    On number 8 you list el Paraíso Language School as if it was located in Boquete. I guess you may be referring to Habla Ya Language Center, because el Paraíso is actually located in Bocas del Toro, not in Boquete. The best Spanish school in Boquete is Habla Ya Language Center. It is also owned, managed and staffed by locals. Beside Spanish courses, they offer plenty of ecotourism & adventure… white water river rafting, camping trips to the Barú Volcano, excursions to the Caldera hotsrpings, tours to indigenous villages, tours to coffee plantations, hikes to the Quetzal’s trail, rock climbing and rappelling, horseback riding… you name it they got it…

  • Joules

    By the way… you can view Habla Ya’s website at http://www.hablayapanama.com

  • http://www.matadortravel.com/travel-community/collazo Julie

    Joules-
    Thanks for catching an error… a cut and paste problem, I think, between my list of notes and the final draft! :) The school I intended to recommend in Boquete was Spanish by the River, which you can find at http://www.spanishbytheriver.com/schoolboquete.html
    Thanks for recommending Habla Ya, which would also have been on the list had it not been for space!

    Peace,
    Julie

  • http://www.elparaisoschool.com Mirka J.

    El Paraiso Spanish School, Bocas Del Toro, Panama.

    I have spent time studying spanish in various schools in diferrent countries and El Paraiso is at the top of its class. I have an advanced level of Spanish. The schools dedicated and professional staff was able to meet my needs without missing a beat. I recommend this school to anyone wishing to study. El Paraiso can be found at: http://www.elparaisoschool.com

    Mirka J.

  • http://www.guacamaya.com Jolien Plantinga

    I spend 3 months in Copan Ruinas, Honduras and it is a amazing place, and the teacher at Guacamaya are great, I learn a lot with them.
    Visst their web site:
    http://www.guacamaya.com

  • http://www.guacamaya.com Therese Mckinny wood

    Im a teacher and I used to take my students to Guacamaya and I have had always wonderful expeinces,if you are interested in ñearn spanish you should go to Guacamaya spanish school.

  • http://www.hondurasbound.org Therese McKinny-Wood

    Like I said in my last post, I am a Spanish teacher in the Mississippi Delta. I teach in a high needs district and my students have very few opportunities for cultural exchange. Last year I took several students to Honduras, for most it was their first time on an airplane, and I could not have been happier with the reception they received at the Guacamaya School. The kids felt comfortable and well taken care of, plus they learned a ton. They still ask me about their teachers from the Guacamaya school. I was so pleased with the Guacamaya School and staff that I have decided to take an even larger group of students there this June. I hope to establish an annual program working with the Guacamaya School!

  • http://www.matadortravel.com/travel-community/collazo Julie

    Hi, Therese-
    Thanks for sharing your experience with Guacamaya.
    I used to work as an educational tour director in Puerto Rico and, like you, I frequently had the experience of accompanying kids on their first experiences abroad… it’s really special in any case, but especially when the host culture is so warm and welcoming.

    Best,
    Julie

  • http://www.hondurasbound.org Sanja Bosman

    For the past two summers, I have spent time at the Guacamaya School in Copan, Honduras- first as a traveler and student and then as a chaperone for a group of students from the Mississippi Delta. Kike, the school director, is amazing and so accomodating. The teachers, whom I now consider great friends, are just incredibly welcoming and thoughtful. They do a phenomenal job as instructors and also really work to ensure that their students discover (and enjoy) the surrounding town, as well. Guacamaya is awesome and I can’t wait to go back this summer! Loved the article!:)

  • Julie

    Thanks for your comments, Sanja– it’s through the kind of feedback readers are providing that others will be able to make decisions about where they’d like to study.

  • Kerry Girardin

    Thank you for this article. There are many programs in Honduras, and I was having a difficult time determining which program was most credible in its claims. They all believe that they are linguistically and culturally educational, eco-adventurous, while providing opportunities for service (seva). Amazing really! :)

    Any other tips for Honduras would be welcome. :)

    Thanks again!

  • Reed Adam

    I am interested in the Hijos de Maiz language school. Have any of you been there? Would you recommend it? Is there a potential for a longer (1-2 month) stay including volunteer work?

    Thanks much!

    -Reed

  • http://www.collazoprojects.com Julie

    Hi, Reed-

    Thanks for your message. In full disclosure, I have not attended Hijos de Maiz, though of all the schools on my list, it’s where I’d most like to go! This piece was strictly based on my research. I surveyed students–mostly Americans–who studied abroad on the schools that they’d liked the most. I imposed several criteria: that the school be off the beaten path, if possible, that the school be run by people in the community, and, when possible, that the school contributed to the local economy in multiple ways (such as providing service opportunities for students). The contacts I had with students were forged mostly through Lonely Planet’s bulletin boards; in some cases, these people referred me to other students. I then searched for other information about the school: criticisms and praise mentioned elsewhere, for instance and whether the schools had websites.

    Hijos del Maiz is flexible with respect to the length of your stay, and it does offer numerous volunteer opportunities. Their website is http://www.hijosdelmaiz.net.
    If you do go, please report back and let us know your impressions.

    Peace,
    Julie
    Based on my research about Hijos

  • http://www.collazoprojects.com Julie

    Kerry-

    Thanks for your message– sorry I didn’t see it sooner.
    You’re right– many schools are marketing themselves as eco-friendly, community-oriented, etc– and it can be difficult to assess the veracity of their claims from a distance.
    However, the people who recommended Guacamaya to me where highly impressed with the school. They provided photos and concrete information that were convincing. They were also Spanish teachers who entered the program with a solid command of Spanish, a fact which made me more confident about their claims.
    I’d definitely recommend checking any school that you’re considering by posting a message on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum and seeking the input of folks there. It wouldn’t hurt to google the school either.

    Best,
    Julie

  • http://www.studyspanishpanama.com Temple

    I had a wonderful experience both in Bocas and with the school.
    The instructors were fabulous- very much tailoring the class to our needs
    and also giving us lots of advice and suggestions about the area and how to
    best spend our free time. The class gave me exactly what I needed- a
    thorough review and brush-up on my Spanish and the confidence to start
    speaking more regularly with the Spanish speakers we encountered. I would
    love to spend more time with El Paraiso in the future. We recommend it to
    anyone who is looking for a quality school experience with warm and
    welcoming staff!”

  • Matt

    Ski And Learn Spanish, Mendoza, Argentina

    I spent 4 wekks there and highly recommend this school. It can be found at: http://www.skiandlearnspanish.com

    Matt S.

  • http://www.spanishbythesea.com Ingrid Lommers

    The woman that says that the “Paraiso School” in Bocas del Toro is the best, is the owner of that school, hahaha, that is very funny!
    Good luck with everything!

    Ingrid Lommers (owner of the other Spanish School in Bocas del Toro: http://www.spanishbythesea.com).

    You keep laughing in this business….

    Ingrid (Ins) Lommers

  • Pingback: 10 Steps to Recovering a Language You’ve Forgotten

  • dan laing

    I see what you mean by your criteria of having to have wilderness. Spanish Panama in Panama City was great for me but I am a city lover and this is a school for city lovers with all the city attractions within walking distance. -casinos, nightlife, restaurants, women, (or..err men). But what i foundabout this school was that it has the best quality of instructors-the one big other advantage of being in the city – You have a greater selection of teachers so the school benefits from this.
    The jungle is still close by about 20 minutes but for sure this is the school for the city person.

  • dan laing

    oh its on via argentina http://www.spanishpanama.com

  • http://thetraveler'snotebook sfish

    Do you know anything about the El Paraiso school in Costa Rica? We are considering it but don’t know anyone who has been there. Thanks!

  • http://www.montanitaspanishschool.com Warwick

    I would also suggest Montanita Spanish School http://www.montanitaspanishschool.com
    It is located ON the beach in Montanita, a town famous for its waves.
    It was voted one of the top Five Spanish Schools worldwide in 2009 (STAR awards). So it comes with great references! I have learn there, and it lives up to its reputation
    thanks!

  • Laura

    Intercultura – Samara Language School is a great school, located right on the beach, the gate opens right onto the sand! we have great waves for beginner and intermediate surfers, and some world class waves just 30 minutes north and south of us. Intercultura’s best aspect is that is is committed to giving back to the community. We are the only school in Costa Rica recognized by the United Nations Global Compact, which measures the social responsibility of a business. We run the non-profit CREAR association for local kids, providing 100% free after school programs, language courses, counselling, and more. http://www.samaralanguageschool.com

  • Lana Tabby Powers

    I have to add CPI in Monteverde Costa Rica. I attended two schools as wanted a new school every week. CPI was my second school and decided to stay as the location was amazing and the school was top notch.

  • Lana Tabby Powers

    What I liked most is that the professors are all college educated and have a very organized approach to teaching. There is an activities director and she makes it easy so that you can focus on your studies and homework and then she will arrange and organize all of your afternoon and weekend tours… often at a discount. There is a homemade typical little snack midway that was a nice treat. The school is simply gorgeous in the cloud forest with a Jacuzzi and massages as an option activity. A nice library with a tutor available every day. The staff are like angels just so nice that I couldn’t believe it. They work with great families and I had the best Dona Maria who made homemade bread with me, brought me to church and offered to take me to their farm. That experience helped me to learn the language quicker. I hated to leave. Shed a few tears. I had searched so many schools prior and just decided to decide as I moved along Costa Rica with a new school each week. Turns out this school has 3 campuses and I changed my plans and just stayed there. Monteverde has a ton of excursions for after class and then in a great location to take weekend trips. Write me with any questions. I am trying to figure out how I can make it back. I also by the way travelled to many other locations as a tourist however this was simply my favorite spot. 5 weeks in total and 3 in school of which two were here.

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