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Learning Spanish on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala is a great choice. Especially San Pedro has become a mecca for Spanish students. There are a huge variety of schools with different prices and concepts. Yet, some of them don’t live up to the promises they make on their websites. Read our comparison of the five most talked about Spanish schools in San Pedro to make sure you’ll find the right place for your studies.
The reason many backpackers choose Guatemala to learn Spanish is that tuition and living costs are much lower here than in most other Central American countries. This is especially true for San Pedro La Laguna, where you can get 20 hours of one-on-one Spanish classes for only 75 USD. Add another 65 USD, and you’ll get a week of accommodation with a local family including three meals a day, six days a week. That’s very hard to beat!
When it comes to choosing a specific school, the decision gets much harder. Let’s start this little comparison with a disclaimer. We cannot include what we believe is the most important factor for your progress: How well you connect with your teacher. There’s just no way to measure it, unless you’ve started to learn. If you feel that, for some reason, you don’t learn well with the teacher assigned to you, let the school find another one. For a school with a professional attitude, this should not be a big deal.
However, there are some other factors that can be compared and that you might want to consider before registering with a school:
- Are you looking for a lively school with lots of students and activities going on? Or do you strive for total immersion into the Mayan culture?
- Is it important for you to have someone on the school’s staff who speaks English? Or do you feel fine handling problems in Spanish?
- Do you prefer making a reservation beforehand, even when this means 40 USD in extra costs?
- And, after all, how tight is your budget? Does a difference of 30 USD per week matter to you?
We have visited every one of the five schools discussed below in February 2013, talked to the management and worked our way through their websites. You’ll find further details about prices, school size and other things in this PDF table. Now let’s get started by taking a brief look at each of the schools, before we share some general tips with you.
Casa Rosario was established in 1992 and is the oldest Spanish school in San Pedro. There are signs all over town that will direct you to the “garden classroom”, a piece of land on the shores of Lake Atitlán that will be reached over a footpath. You might be surprised—as we were—because there is no office. No reservation is required to attend Casa Rosario, hence there are no reservation fees to worry about.
The website says there are two other school buildings, but that’s not true anymore. All classes are held in the “garden classroom” now. There’s only one other building (a ten-minute walk away) with shared rooms that students can rent for 25 USD per week.
The school’s website is operated out of the United States and makes some rather disproportionate claims. It states that Casa Rosario is ”San Pedro‘s best Spanish School“, with “the most beautiful location, and probably the cheapest prices“. In our comparison, however, the school is actually one of the most expensive ones. Speaking of beauty, we’ve found that the “garden classroom” is not well maintained. Check out the pictures in our gallery. The photos on the school’s website are a couple of years old and were taken before the lake’s water level rose.
San Pedro Spanish School
This is the biggest school in San Pedro with 25 teachers and branches in San Marcos and San Juan. It is also the school we chose for our studies because—among other things—it has a beautifully kept and very lively campus. We didn’t regret this decision. However, there were some issues we disliked.
Originally, we thought that the San Pedro Spanish School had a set teaching concept. But later we found out that every teacher follows his or her own plan, which is not always discernible to the student. In two weeks of Spanish classes, I’ve learned when and how to use the subjuntivo as well as imperfecto and pretérito, but I left the school without even knowing the names of the months or colors. The school’s website claims: “Upon completion of your studies or at the end of each week, the teacher hands you a Report Card so you can check your progress.“ None of us has ever seen such a “report card“.
If you want to reserve a place with the San Pedro Spanish School, this costs you 40 USD (non-refundable). It’s the highest reservation fee of all schools in San Pedro. Our tip: In case you are fine with afternoon classes, you probably won’t need a reservation. Just send the school an e-mail with precise information about your planned stay, and things should be fine. There is, however, no guarantee in this case.
If paying your bills in Quetzales instead of Dollars, make sure you get a fair exchange rate. It should be the daily exchange rate of the Bank of Guatemala. When we paid for the first week, we were told that the actual daily exchange rate was $ 1 to 8 Q. I checked this later and found out that this was not the case, it was $ 1 to 7,86 Q at that time. The difference wasn’t too big, but here in Guatemala, it’s a restaurant dinner for two.
When we studied Spanish here, we also opted for the homestay, which means you live in a local family and get three meals a day, six days a week. The San Pedro Spanish School tells you that they put up to three students in one family. However, towards the end of our homestay, there were five students living in the family’s house—a couple from Australia, a Dutch woman, and us. It felt a bit more like a hostel than a homestay. If this isn’t what you are looking for, let the school know beforehand and make sure you’re the only student in the host family.
A plus of the San Pedro Spanish School was, however, that difficulties could be discussed in English with Ramon, the director, or with Selvin, the receptionist. That made things much easier. The first teacher assigned to me was extremely young and had only a few months of teaching experience. In my perception, he wasn’t explaining grammar well and couldn’t answer all the questions I had. After I talked to the school’s staff, I was assigned a new teacher the very next day and was fine from that day on.
Corazon Maya Spanish School
The Corazon Maya Spanish School has the most remote location of all schools. It takes you more or less 15 minutes to walk from here to the tourist district with hotels and restaurants. The school is located in a relatively poor, yet safe neighborhood of San Pedro. If you’re aiming for total immersion into the Mayan culture, this might be the place for you. Don’t expect the staff to speak English.
The small school was founded 14 years ago and operates under its current name since about ten years. In addition, it is the cheapest option among the schools under consideration. Students also get free coffee, tea and snacks during breaks. There are no cafés or restaurants nearby, only a small shop (“tienda”) across the street.
Unlike other schools, Corazon Maya offers housing in on-campus bungalows. Students can reap, dry and crush their own coffee, with grows on the school’s premises.
Orbita Spanish School
This is the smallest school, but nevertheless an interesting one. After working as a Spanish teacher with other schools, René López has developed his own teaching curriculum (see photos) and founded the Orbita Spanish School in 2001. To us, it seemes to be a well-thought-out approach to teaching Spanish.
While other schools rely on photocopied pages from different textbooks, Renés students work with proprietary learning material. Every teacher at Orbita uses these text books—Level 1 to 7—and verb tables that René has created himself. The costs are already included in the tuition. Advanced students will find texts about touristic sites around Lake Atitlán and the Mayan culture as well as the history and economy of Guatemala. If we had known about René‘s teaching concept earlier, we might have decided to study with Orbita.
As this school has only seven teachers (see our pdf table), a reservation is highly recommended. When we visited Orbita in the beginning of February, classes were already booked until April. Fortunately, there is no reservation fee, but only a (refundable) deposit worth the first week’s costs. You have to make this deposit via PayPal and will be charged a transaction fee of 0.30 USD plus 2.9 percent of the total amount.
Classes will be held in the same house in which René and his family live. The building is located close to the Pana dock and, in our eyes, needs some fresh paint. However, it has a rooftop patio with a nice view over Lake Atitlán.
Orbita Spanish School offers free coffee and snacks. Students can rent a room with either private or shared bathroom and kitchen access right in the school building. Having returned home, students can continue their Spanish classes with Orbita via Skype.
Cooperativa Spanish School
This is a true cooperative of local Spanish teachers and one of the big players in San Pedro. Wandering around the campus, which is located on a hill, you might notice there are no blackboards to write on. The reason is that the teachers write on a sheet of paper, which the student can carry home after class.
The impression of the school’s area is somewhat clouded by all the trash that fills up the path leading from the restaurant strip of town up to the school. However, the school plans to move into new facilities in April 2013, so this might be solved in the near future.
One annoying thing about the Cooperativa Spanish School is the non-refundable reservation fee of 25 USD. Reservations are recommended two months ahead for morning classes from November to March and from July to August. If you are fine with afternoon classes, you might not need a reservation.
The website is somewhat imprecise about the cost of transportation from the airport. It says: “Shuttle from the Airport to San Pedro La Laguna for a total cost of $120 U.S. for 1-3 persons“. This “shuttle“ is actually a private taxi. You can get a seat in a real shuttle bus for only 30 USD, but this option is not mentioned on the website. It’s the same shuttle bus that the San Pedro Spanish School offers to their students. So, in case you don’t arrive at the airport late, you might want to save 90 USD.
The school can find a way to get you college credits for your Spanish classes, if you need those.
Community service: All Spanish Schools in San Pedro get involved with some sort of community service, from educating children to building basic private homes. It is, though, tricky to compare, how effective those programs are. In the end, you have to rely on the schools’ own information, usually shared on their websites. If this is an important criteria for you, ask whether you may take part in these community services.
Extracurricular activities: In addition, all schools offer extracurricular activities like salsa classes, excursions to the market in Chichicastenango, or a hike to Indian Nose and the volcano San Pedro. Some schools also offer cooking classes or kayak tours. Note that larger schools have such activities almost every day, while smaller schools like Corazon Maya offer them a few times per week. If you’re interested in a special kind of activity, ask whether it’s free or if you have to pay extra.
English: Some schools will tell you that it’s better when your teacher doesn’t speak English. We don’t buy this. If your teacher speaks English, it means he has studied a foreign language himself and knows about the difficulties learners have. It will also be much easier to avoid misunderstandings and solve problems.
Homestay: If this is of interest to you, inquire about how many students will be placed with one family (check our pdf table) as well as wifi availability in the family’s home. Our experience is that a homestay doesn’t make much sense in the very beginning of your Spanish studies. We think that you’ll get most out of it when you already have basic Spanish knowledge to build upon.
Reservations: We would never pay 40 dollars just for reserving a space in a Spanish school. You will always be able to find other options once you have arrived in San Pedro. However, that might mean you don’t get into the morning classes or don’t get into the school you selected.