When learning a new language, best way is to immerse yourself.
Guatemala, land of the ancient Mayans, big Ceiba trees and tattooed taxi drivers. My sister had a friend and she was in love with Guatemala. She claimed that the most loving and kind people live here.
I thought that title was reserved for the Philippines. But apparently Guatemala was to be even better.
I roamed around North America for a year and a half in 2013. My travel took me dog mushing and snowboarding in Canada, tandem riding in the USA and cave diving in Mexico. Eventually I ended up in Guatemala, where I lived with a host family for one month in San Pedro.
What brought me there was the opportunity to study Spanish while living in one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala. I love lakes because I love to swim so deciding a town for my Spanish lessons was easily made. Guatemala is the perfect place if you want to study Spanish while experiencing local culture. Most of the schools offer a home stay with a local family that is included in the lesson price.
In Belgium, learning French is mandatory starting at the age of ten. We had French lessons with Bob et Bobette for several hours a week. This continued until finishing high school at the age of eighteen. I absolutely hated French lessons but there was no way around it. It didn’t make any sense to me at that time why we were learning a language that nobody liked.
Now I realize how learning French opened the door to understanding the Latin cultures of Europe better. French cinema is still my choice of movies and I have been lucky to be blessed with a lot of French friends who patiently listen to my babblings.
French is a Romance language, which means it has its origins in the Roman Empire. Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish are all Latin languages. Their grammar and words have a lot of similarities. Having been force fed French during my high school years made it easier for me to pick up Spanish grammar. I studied it for a month in Guatemala with my private tutor Demiz. It didn’t make me a native speaker but I am proud to say that I can get around with my basic knowledge.
San Pedro Lake Atitlan
Next to the beautiful Lake Atitlan lies the quiet town of San Pedro. It is more of a Mayan town than a Spanish Guatemalan town so the first language is Tz’utujil. Most of the Spanish teachers first language here is Tz’utujil, not Spanish. But their Spanish is so immaculate and the teachers are very well trained, you can’t notice any difference.
San Pedro is located in the Guatemalan highlands. During the day, the temperature is moderate hot and in the evenings you don’t need more than a jersey to keep warm.
Local food is delicious and very fresh. Basis of the Guatemalan kitchen is corn which is grown just outside of San Pedro. The corn is made into flour out of which they make tortillas. It is then served with beans, eggs or meat. I really loved the simplicity of the meals at my host family. Throughout my life I have learned to favor freshness above variety. The produce came straight from the market. The vendors were from neighboring towns and grew most of it themselves.
On Sunday, I would go out myself and buy mangoes. My mango addiction gets out of control when I get to the tropics. I sometimes gobble down eight a day.
San Pedro is the home of many USA expats who have opened restaurants and hotels here. You’re never far away from somebody who speaks English. You can even find freshly baked bread in the gringo area of town. Perhaps you want to immerse yourself completely in the culture and live completely on tortillas and beans. For me, having a sandwich on Sundays was a rare treat in between traditional Guatemalan cuisine.
Christmas and New Year in San Pedro
I stayed in San Pedro from halfway through December until half of January. This meant that I was going to celebrate Christmas and New Year with my host family. I deliberately chose to do this, since I don’t like to move around during the Christmas period. I also like to experience celebrations in different cultures. In 2008 my sister and I traveled to China during Chinese New Year. We were treated to a week of fireworks, I immensely enjoyed it.
Guatemala’s main religion is Catholicism so they celebrate Christmas like we do in Europe. Oddly enough, they don’t have a big Christmas dinner on the 24th. In the evening, they attend church and then they wait until after midnight to start the party.
I was asleep and so were Jackie and Bill, other students of the Spanish school. We were woken up at midnight so we could watch the fireworks and eat a midnight feast of sweet bread and grapes. Having food this late was pretty funny. The whole routine was repeated a week later on New Year’s Eve. This time it made more sense to me though since the party usually only starts after midnight on this occasion.
In between Christmas and New Year’s, the town was constantly bombed with parties, literally. You would hear a very loud bang go off somewhere in the streets, then followed up by music and people singing. When I asked my teacher Demiz what it was all about he answered that it was to let everybody know that there was a party happening.
I wondered how effective it was, scaring the bejeezus out of everybody first and then expecting them to come dance and sing. But it seemed to work fine in San Pedro. For the whole week, the city got bombed out of their wits and everywhere parties were happening.
Gateway to San Pedro is Guatemala City. You can take a bus to Panajachel, which is a town on the lake. From there you can walk to the pier where boats leave every hour to San Pedro. There are three bus companies that offer a straight connection from Guatemala City to San Pedro: Transportes Mendez, Veloz San Pedrana and Transportes Wendy. Buses leave at 11AM (Wendy), 11:30AM (Mendez), 12PM (Pedrana), 12:30PM (Pedrana), 2PM (Mendez) and 4PM (Mendez) and pass along 20a Calle between 4a and 5a Avenida, Zona 1.
When coming from Belize, I took a stop in Flores. This town is settled on an island in the middle of a lake. It’s very hip and a popular stopping place.
Spanish Schools in San Pedro, Atitlan
San Pedro, being very popular among travelers has several schools for studying Spanish. I took classes with Guatemaya Spanish Schools. 20 hours of Spanish lessons per week, including stay with a host family and three meals a day, except for Sunday, costs $165 USD per week. Stay is with one of the teachers and the rooms are very comfy. You have your own room with shared bathroom. Meals are local so lots of handmade tortillas, once and a while they will change it up with spaghetti or pancakes.
At school, you are paired up with a private tutor. You study grammar at the beginning of the lesson for about an hour and then practice through conversation for the rest of the time. It is important that you learn a language through practicing. Especially me, I love writing but I find that I lose concentration when I do only writing. Languages are meant to be spoken and written, so I mostly studied by writing in the evenings and then practiced speaking with my tutor.
Living with the Maya
The highlands around San Pedro are still the home to the Maya. Most of the teachers are of Mayan Tz’utujil descent. They are a great people with a rich history. All around Mexico, Guatemala and Belize you can find ancient cities once built by this civilization. Tikal, close to Flores is one of those cities. I visited another smaller one close to Tulum, Mexico.
When staying with a host family in San Pedro, you get to experience Mayan culture for yourself. There is still cloth woven using traditional techniques. I brought some of it home. The craft and beauty they put into these pieces is absolutely amazing.
Living with a family means sharing their experiences. During my stay, I shared a Christmas celebration, talked about culture and learned how to make tortillas.
Flores and Tikal
A little town in the middle of a lake, this is Flores. Gorgeous! Especially at night with lots of cosy restaurants. It’s the perfect place for a break if you’re travelling through to Belize. It is also the gateway to Tikal, an ancient Maya city hidden deep in the jungle. Tours can be booked from your hotel. Best would be the sunrise tour, sucks to get up so early but you’ll be missing the worst heath of the day.
At Tikal it’s possible to meet toucan and there are ancient Ceiba trees in the park. Ceibas are the Maya’s holy trees and the national tree of Guatemala. Our guide told us everything about how life was for ancient Maya. They used to play a variety of soccer between two people. Unfortunately, the winner would be sacrificed to the gods. It was supposed to be the highest honor though, so I think the champion considered themselves the lucky ones.
Around Lake Atitlan there are several remote villages where life is still lived very traditional. The only access is through walking or horses. Tourism around Atitlan has provided an income for some families but unfortunately, the families who don’t receive a part of the cake do with much less income. Some kids here leave school when they’re still kids to work and support their families. It makes it harder to break the cycle of poverty in San Pedro.
You can help, by donating much needed cash to help put a child through high school. There are two options: either make a donation to the website of Trek For Kids or travel to San Pedro and go for a fundraising hike in the mountains.
The trek involves a climb to the summit of one of the mountains around San Pedro. It includes dinner and overnight stay on the summit. All of the proceedings go to the Trek For Kids scholarships. So that local families can put their children through high school and university. This will eventually end a cycle of poverty and help the community moving forwards with more people educated.
In the end, can I say that Guatemalans are kinder and more loving than Filipinos? No, I cannot. Whoever made that into a competition must be out of their senses. It is a rich and nurturing country, filled with sad and happy stories. Like most places I have been, it left me with beautiful memories of the people who let me into their lives and what I learned from them.