MOST FOREIGN TRAVELERS looking to learn Spanish in Guatemala make Antigua their first and longest stop, charmed by its cobblestone streets and its lively bar and club scene. More serious travelers, however, take the 4-hour bus ride to Quetzaltenango (or Xela) for a different kind of experience.
While Antigua offers a lot, there are compelling reasons for giving Guatemala’s second city another look.
Antigua is well known for its influx of would-be Spanish speakers, and that’s the very reason I recommend avoiding it. With an estimated population of 35,000, many of them European and North American expats, the odds alone suggest you are more likely to end up in conversation with another English-speaker in Antigua.
In Quetzaltenango (almost eight times the size of Antigua) you’re more likely to meet serious Spanish students and groups from universities who stay for stretches at a time rather than the casual travelers learning how to order a cerveza.
And homestays, which are as common as black beans and rice in Guatemala, suffer the same pitfalls as the language schools in Antigua. The abundance of gringoes has converted many a host family’s dwelling into more of a hotel.
Aside from the included meals, your experience ends up offering a hostel environment rather than a glimpse into Guatemalan life.
In Xela, you’ll spend more time engaging with your host family in Spanish there and less time planning your social life with the rest of the U.S. travelers.
Better Study and Volunteer Opportunities
With an estimated population of 250,000, Quetzaltenango has a distinctly more urban feel than Antigua or any of the more remote villages of Guatemala often pictured in photographs. As such, its schools offer a wide array of cultural, volunteer and social opportunities not to be found in smaller locales.
The Instituto Central America (ICA), a 30-year-old Spanish language school in Xela, has a sister organization called ICAmigos which pairs students with volunteer projects ranging from reforestation to literacy.
Meanwhile,the Celas Maya Spanish School emphasizes the importance of education for indigenous people, and offers students language classes in K’iche, the Mayan language of the region.
Hooking up with schools is easy. Book online or inquire after you arrive. Classes at most schools last 4-5 hours per day, in either the afternoon or evening, while volunteer opportunities can take up the rest of the day.
One tip: don’t be afraid to switch schools, teachers or homestays, even mid-week, if things aren’t working out. Teachers have different styles, schools have different philosophies and all homestays are, obviously, unique. You’re there to learn. No one will be offended if you ask the director of the school for another arrangement.
On the weekends, you can explore the Mercado la Democracia, a sprawling commercial district of vendors hawking everything from traditional Mayan wares to Pampers and plantains.
Or you can sip coffee on the terrace of Café la Luna and gaze out over the central park of Xela while you practice your verb conjugations. Guatemala is one of the largest coffee producers in the world, and here you can sample some of its finest.
And on any night of the week you can find free salsa lessons. Unlike Guatemala City, spending the night out is relatively safe, and unlike Antigua, you actually have a chance to converse with locals rather than other travelers.
Most schools organize activities in the surrounding area, such as hikes up Volcan Santa Maria, or afternoons at Fuentes Georginas, the country’s most popular natural springs.
To go to Santa Maria, leave first thing in the morning from Xela. The ascent takes 4 hours at a brisk pace, although you’ll probably get passed by Mayan women in sandals balancing baskets and babies on their backs. It’s a humbling experience as you’re huffing your way up.
On the weekend you may encounter a Mayan religious ceremony at the summit, with indigenous people participating in call-and-response style prayers that include shouting, jumping and singing in a mixture of indigenous and Catholic beliefs.
Alternatively, many tour operators and Spanish schools offer monthly moonlit tours. Bundle up and bring a flashlight.
The hot springs at Fuentes Georginas are phenomenal. Spend enough time in any Guatemalan town of decent size and undoubtedly the exhaust from the chicken buses will start to wear on you. These springs are a brilliant relief from the pollution and frenzy of city life.
From Xela, the hot springs are about an hour’s drive. Fuentes consists of four pools, each one hotter than the next, all heated by natural sulfur springs. There’s also a nature walk, restaurant and bungalows if you’re inclined to stay the night.
From Xela, you can take a four-hour tour from any number of operators in town, or venture on your own. Take a chicken bus to Zunil, the nearest town, then another up to the springs.
Xela might not yet be on most travelers’ itineraries in Guatemala — and that’s exactly why it’s worth checking out. Even if you’re set on studying in Antigua, it’s worth it to pop down for a weekend or so to check out what Xela has to offer.