Many people that visit Guatemala come here because of the spectacular wildlife, its arch of volcanoes and beautiful lakes and beaches. Another great reason people visit is because it is one of the best countries in Latin America to study Spanish. The locals tend to speak Spanish void of an accent (having a so-called neutral accent) instead of the Spanish in countries such as incomprehensible Mexican, fast-spoken Nicaraguan and complex Colombian (complex because the accents differ heavily between Cali, Bogota and the coastal accents where they tend to swallow words)
When it comes down to finding the right place to study Spanish in Guatemala there are a few different options available and choosing a spot depends on the type of traveler that is trying to learn Spanish. Most travelers one way or another will end up studying in one of the schools in Antigua or near beautiful lake Atitlán. Both of these are right on the gringo trail and host a wide variety of options in terms of accommodation, restaurants and nightlife to cater to Western standards including the company of many other foreigners. However, there is one spot that tends to be overlooked even though it is considered one of the best places to study Spanish: beautiful Quetzaltenango aka Xela.
Now the question that begs answering, why is Xela considered a great place to learn Spanish? And what makes Xela so wonderful and is it really that safe?
Let’s try and answer these with the following four simple statements.
1. Xela has great Spanish schools that are cheaper than those in Antigua and nearby Lake Atitlán
The quality of the better known Spanish schools tends to be equal across Guatemala, however because Antigua and Lake Atitlán attract more travelers schools in both these places are generally 25-30% more expensive than those found in Xela. This is one of the reason that many expats, NGO’s and corporate companies send their employees to Xela to study Spanish which in turn leads to a drive to have good schools as these businesses require their employees to speak good Spanish. Generally a 25-hour, 1-1, study week will set you back around $140 and about $190-200 if one includes a full-board home-stay.
Although we advise to visit schools and get a feel of the place and their teachers before committing to anything we have a short list of great schools that we visited ourselves. All schools offer 1-1 lessons (we have not seen group lessons anywhere), after school activities and options for homestay.
This is our favorite (yes we are biased, because we learned Spanish here ourselves). It is centrally located inside a small colonial building. They have good teachers, off-school programs and a large volunteer program if you are keen to get into social work whilst practicing Spanish. The volunteer program requires two weeks of schooling (learn about the village, the people and their ceremonies) before you can start volunteering.
2. Pop Wuj
A larger school just off from the heart of Xela. Similar to Inepas they run volunteer programs, however Pop Wuj offers a host of smaller ones that require less commitment than Inepas. We felt they were slightly more loose with their method of education and they had a lot of students when we arrived but this is where personal preference comes in as many others might enjoy this type of school.
3. ICA Xela
Closely located to Pop Wuj this Spanish school is one of the oldest in Xela to offer Spanish classes. They are situated in a lovely colonial building off the central part of Xela. When we visited this school they had only a single student (off season), however don’t let this fool you as the number of registrations of any school change by the week.
2. Xela has fewer foreigners than Antigua
Let’s face it, Antigua is a great place for a weekend away, a compact lovely village where you can enjoy some great food, partying every night and meet with many fellow foreigners. Yet this is also the problem that we had with Antigua when trying to find th right place to study Spanish. The village is overrun with tourists, endless traffic jams of cars fill the place with smog and good luck studying Spanish if you are out drinking every night.
Xela on the other hand has fewer tourists that visit because it is off the gringo trail. This in turn forces you to speak Spanish after school and when going out. On the other hand because there are fewer foreigners, staying in Xela creates a tight-knit network of people that do live here and actually makes you feel more part of a community than you would if you were in Antigua or the lake area. At the same time for those party people that do want to go out every night, there are probably more opportunities for dancing and having fun here than in Antigua whilst remaining authentic. When we arrived we wanted to stay for a week, however we ended up staying for more than a month, partially because we made so many new Guatemalan and foreign friends.
3. Xela is beautiful and surrounded by amazing nature
One of the biggest misconceptions of Xela (of it being a big dirty city) is partially due to the fact that it is Guatemala’s second largest city, when in fact the city feels more like a larger version of Antigua and in some ways more beautiful. The city has a large colonial city center with squares boasting Roman & Gothic architecture that reminds one of Italy or Germany. This is due to the work that was put into Xela after the 1902 earthquake to bring culture and prosperity to the city. Furthermore the city is situated on the edge of the Santa María volcano, which looms high and mighty over the city. This surreal mix creates the atmosphere of being in a movie.
Because of its location Xela also has great options for hiking. The Santa María and Cerro Quemado volcano are a stone-throw away and Xela is also the springboard to hike up the tallest volcano in Central America: Tajumulco. Furthermore on the outskirts of town there are hot springs and thermal baths to enjoy, powered by the heat of the volcano.
See for yourself:
4. Xela is safe and has a warm day-temperature
Let’s be clear, Xela is a safe city. Guatemalan’s that live here just want to live their daily lives. Petty crime exists but this is similar to any of the other towns in Central and South America. During our stay here we have heard recommendations about staying safe from locals and that certain types of crime exist but this is similar to any sizable city and similar to Antigua. The main advise as always is to be sensible.
Furthermore Xela during day time was quite warm when we visited in October/November. Temperatures go up to 25 degrees in day time when the sun is out in full force which basks the city in a warm glow. There are many roof terraces available to have a sit in shorts and enjoy an afternoon cocktail. That said at night it does get colder and warmer clothing is required.
Conclusion and links to more fun with Xela
For us and many others Xela is the right place to study Spanish in Guatemala. It is a city that invites you in and gets you to stay longer than expected. That said and to be very honest if you only have limited time then Xela might not sound that appealing, but if you do have the time and you do want to learn Spanish this is the right place.
Not only is Xela great for learning Spanish, it is also quite livable; for example they do many fun-runs including the Xela Halloween fun-run. Other activities include marathons and regular city-wide bike events. We have provided a few links for further information below and as always – if you have any comments or questions about Xela or who we are, let us know below!
- XelaWho: Quetzaltenango’s Leading Culture & Nightlife Magazine
- Entremundos: strengthening organizations that help develop Guatemala
- Quetzaltrekkers: hike the tallest volcanoes of Central America
- Yoga House: a place to do yoga and sleep
- Energym Xela: our favourite gym in Xela
- Marathons and races in Xela: event calendar