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.