Fancy learning Spanish? We’re pleased to suggest four options.
1.) Shell out a fortune for a language school in Japan, so that you can sit in a stuffy room slightly larger than a kennel, with a group of people who are as unlikely to learn Spanish as you are. Then, you can end up deciding that you’re too busy and don’t really mind that the school won’t reimburse your colossal registration fee.
2.) Buy one of those cassette courses everyone goes for and then lose interest after lesson three.
3.) Go to Spain.
4.) Or do as we did; head to the old Spanish colonial town of Antigua, in the Guatemalan highlands.
Antigua is one of the prettiest, not to mention most historic cities in Central America, and given the number of times it’s had to withstand earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions, its existence is something of a miracle.
It is also a Mecca for people who want to learn Spanish.
Antigua sits cradled in a valley, an hour and some by bus into the highlands above the sprawling chaos of Guatemala City, the country’s unlovely capital. It is dwarfed by three volcanoes: Aqua, Fuego and Acatenango.
Although it once served as the Spanish seat of power for the entire Central American region, Antigua’s glory days are over. It is now a relaxed, picturesque spread of colonial-era buildings, squares, street cafes, hidden courtyards, cobbled alleys and churches in various stages of earthquake-induced collapse.
Antigua is, understandably, a traveler’s magnet — the sort of place where you bump into that guy from Ottawa you couldn’t get rid of in Belize, or that Belgian twerp who overturned your canoe in Panama. Or that girl/guy you fell in love with but lost sight of in the Cancun bus station.
Catering to the transients is an abundance of hotels, restaurants, bookshops, Internet cafes and bars.
There are artesania (craft shops) in abundance, selling the famous Guatemalan woven crafts, as well as ceramics, silverware and jade. Antigua’s greatest claim to fame, though, are its Spanish schools.
Schools are plentiful and cheap — ridiculously cheap! Full-board, home stay and seven full days of one-to-one tuition rarely exceeds $200 and can come for half the price.
Best of all, the schools are a joy to be in. You’re not stuck in a dingy classroom. Instead, you learn the Spanish for, “This is a pen” in leafy courtyards smothered in aromatic flowers, to the sounds of fountains and with views of lazily smoking volcanoes.
There’s no risk of picking up weird dialects that will make you incomprehensible from Madrid to Tierra del Fuego. Guatemalan Spanish is clearly pronounced and “pure,” despite the fact that half the population is Indian and of Mayan descent.
Another Antiguan attraction is climbing the area’s numerous volcanoes. This, though, is not without its risks. Guatemala’s volcanoes have bark and bite. While most tourists will only encounter the titillating glow of frenzied, but safely distant, magma, not to mention regular spurts of fire, some have been killed by lava bombs or have succumbed to sulfurous gases.
There is something rather disturbing about witnessing an eruption. Particularly at night. And particularly after your guide has just told you about a German tourist whose head was “melted” by a scalding splash of molten rock earlier in the month.
Magma is fired high into the darkness and it does look pretty — lots of red blobs that rise up rapidly and then seem to stop, as if suspended in midair. Next comes the disturbing bit, when you notice that these apparently motionless blobs are getting bigger. Which means they’re coming right at you! Closer. Bigger. Then, all being well, they lose momentum and tumble back into the cone. If they don’t, it’s head-melting time.
Local tour guides sometimes put profit before caution. It’s worth asking around the resident expat community to ascertain current conditions on the “big actives.”
There are plenty of other Antiguan activities: gentle hikes with an alpine feel to them, visits to other villages, horse riding, cycling and so on.
Local tour operators can get you just about anywhere, even if that means visiting the neighboring countries — from the corals of Honduras to the beaches of El Salvador. They’ll also ferry you to and from Guatemalan highlights such as the ruins of Tikal in the northern jungles or the surrealistically beautiful lake Atitlan that lies considerably closer.
You can, of course, arrange all this in Guatemala City, but here in Antigua, there’s more traveling company — and you’re less likely to get shot in the head by death squads who have mistaken you for a civil-rights activist.
One of the more bizarre day-trips from Antigua is a visit to the shrine of “the evil saint” San Simon, aka Maximon (pronounced moshimon), in the village of San Andres 18 km away.
Despite the predominant Catholicism of Guatemala, people from all walks of life throng here to be cured of disease, debt and evil spirits by a motley crew of drunken witches and wizards. The shrine is permanently wreathed in a miasma of cigar, incense and candle smoke. It is particularly popular with prostitutes.
The “healers” employ unconventional techniques that range from pouring shampoo, washing liquid and brandy over the patient’s torso to spitting beer in his/her face and beating the poor wretch with bundles of sticks and leaves.
In fact, it seems that anything goes. One fat man, naked from the waist down, wasn’t just drenched in cooking oil and beer but was being daubed with shoe polish by a wizened old crone who kept interrupting her ministrations with swigs from a bottle of Venado (a vile local gin that would be outlawed in most developed nations).
All in all, the Casa de San Simon is an excellent place to stock up on books about witchcraft and stories that no one will believe when you get back home. Which, of course, you’ll be able to relate in perfect Spanish.
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