The misty highlands of Guatemala boast spectacular volcanoes, a thriving indigenous culture - and some of Latin America's best Spanish language schools.
A plump woman in a traditional Mayan costume stands by the roadside under a rickety shop billboard. She flattens balls of maize flour with her weather-worn hands and tosses them into a sizzling pan. The smell of freshly fried tortillas wafts through Antigua's narrow streets and the billboard overhead flaps noisily in the light mountain breeze. It's a quintessential Latin American scene, except for one detail. The billboard is written in English; it says, "Learn Spanish Here".
This small Guatemalan city, built by the Spanish in 1543 and prized since for its quaint beauty and lavish colonial architecture, has assumed a new life in recent years as a centre for education tourism. Lying 150 miles east of the Mexican border and 1,530 metres above sea level, Antigua is home to more than 70 Spanish language schools. Each offers one-to-one tuition, plus lodging and meals with a local family, for the price of a few lessons in the UK. I joined the growing number of European visitors plunging into the deep end of "total immersion" learning, Latin American-style.
On arrival I'm little more than a polite mute with no Spanish skills. My school arranges for me to live with Alvaro and Chuchi, a local carpenter and his wife, and their four noisy children. The results are emphatic. By the end of the week I've become an integral part of the family. I assist the kids with their homework, I help Chuchi make tamales (a pasty-like local speciality), I play football in the street with Alvaro and I join the family in ritual viewing of the latest trashy Mexican soap opera.
The foundation of my speedy transformation is the five hours I spend each morning with my teacher, Manuela, at Ixchel school. The first Monday is spent poring over grammar and textbooks, but as my confidence grows we begin to chat. By Friday we're discussing life, love, politics, religion, trashy Mexican soaps and anything else that crops up. Almost without knowing it I find I'm able to converse in another language. Not only that, I've made a friend. There's a lot of intimacy involved in spending five hours each day with someone, face to face at a small desk. Students and teachers often socialise outside class and share the occasional romance.
When the sun goes down, Antigua gets cold and noisy. But the party scene, centred on foreign visitors, can prove the biggest hindrance to language students. There are so many fellow English speakers in the city that it's hard to dedicate oneself solely to speaking Spanish. For that reason some students opt to take the spectacular four-hour bus ride west to the town of Quetzaltenango, where there are fewer trendy tourist bars and more opportunities to mix it with the locals.
Set under the imposing shadow of the gently smouldering Santa Maria volcano, Quetzaltenango (known to all who live here by its nickname, Xela, pronounced shay-la) is not blessed with the picturesque 16th-century churches or the "eternal spring" climate of its neighbour. Its charm lies in its normality; not that Guatemalan normality is anything like the European kind. That much can be gleaned from five minutes in Xela's central square, where brightly festooned "chicken buses" are crammed to spilling point with a vivid mixture of man and beast, as folk of all ages from the nearby Indian villages adorn the pavements with an array of colourful hand-made local textiles.
The school format is the same as in Antigua. Most teachers are qualified in teaching Spanish as a second language, although with such a profusion of schools (there are around 30 in Xela), quality varies. It's advisable to visit a few schools in person before you sign up. Most teachers are accustomed to teaching beginners and intermediate speakers, rather than advanced students. However, Lindsay Heath, co-ordinator of one of the town's biggest schools, Celas Maya, believes pupils of all levels can benefit. "The classes are flexible to meet every student's needs; you can focus on grammar, conversation, literature, culture, as you please," she says."Apart from learning at a quicker pace, students here are more motivated to pay attention and there are actually results. Within about eight weeks a student can cover all elements of grammar and reach a level that might take years as a school or college student."
Many schools, particularly in Xela, have a strong social focus and encourage students to get involved in one of the numerous volunteer programmes in the area. There's a huge demand for help in everything from orphanages to the local newspaper. Less altruistic pleasures include salsa classes and some fabulous trekking in the surrounding highlands.
The students themselves are an eclectic mix of backpackers, families, career-breakers and holidaymakers, brought together by a passion for Latin America and its common language. Some, such as 32-year-old Kim Vickery from Tennessee, are at Celas Maya for an educational bargain. "I'm trying to start a career as a lawyer with Hispanic clients and need to vastly improve my Spanish. An intensive two-week course at home costs almost $1,000. This entire trip will cost me around $600," she says.
Even for Britons, with prices from pound;70 a week for 25 hours of tuition and full board, a learning holiday in Guatemala can work out cheaper than the equivalent amount of private tuition at home, despite the sizeable air fare.
During a month at Guatemala's language schools I made giant strides in my Spanish. But the real beauty of studying here is the ease in which you become entwined in a genuine and free cultural exchange. Whether you're learning from your teacher or the tortilla seller in the street, you'll find yourself discovering more than just a language.
Languages are the subject focus in Teacher magazine on May 12
GOING TO GUATEMALA
Classes can be booked over the internet or on arrival in Guatemala. You will invariably find a school that allows you to start classes the following day.
Try the following: Ixchel, Antigua: ixchelschool.com
Sakribal, Quetzaltenango: www.sakribal.com
Celas Maya, Quetzaltenango: www.celasmaya.edu.gt For other schools go to www.conexion.comschools.htm (Antigua) or www.xelapages.comschools.htm (Xela)
Ixchel in Antigua charges pound;100 for one week (including 25 hours of private tuition and full board for six nights).
Celas Maya in Quetzaltenango charges pound;85 for one week (including 25 hours of private tuition and full board for seven nights).
American Airlines flies from London to Guatemala City (one hour from Antigua) from around pound;700 return (www.americanairlines.co.uk). Most schools can arrange pick-ups from the airport.
Although the writer encountered no problems travelling in Guatemala, it is advisable to check with the Foreign Office for safety information prior to travel (www.fco.gov.uk)