I decided to study Spanish for two weeks in San Pedro, Lake Atitlán, mainly as in advance of my trip I knew that I wanted to learn español in Guatemala and so I had done a bit of research on the options available. When I found San Pedro (and Cooperativa) online, I was instantly attracted to it. It seemed like the perfect chilled out, small town where I could study in a beautiful setting and the school had some great reviews as well as a social aid element which sees the profits being channeled into social development programmes supporting some of the poorest families in the area. Having almost been persuaded to check out Spanish schools in Antigua, I decided that I didn’t really see myself staying there, although I had a lovely few days in the city. I took a shuttle from my hostel that took me directly to San Pedro and didn’t look back!
I arrived on a Sunday and as classes started on Monday afternoon (I chose the afternoons, I’m definitely not a morning person!), I stayed in Casa Atitlán (Cafe Atitlán) for one night. It was an okay hostel but the restaurant downstairs definitely made up for what the hostel lacked, such delicious food! I had a breakfast burrito the next morning and made my way around the winding narrow footpaths of San Pedro to Cooperativa Spanish school. Immediately, Mynor (the coordinator of the school) called my host family to pick me up and within a matter of minutes I met Alejandra, my home stay ‘madre’ for the next two weeks.
We walked up the incredibly steep hill to Alejandra’s house, and entered the ‘real’ side of San Pedro. It feels like the town is divided into this side (with mostly local Mayan people, the mercado, etc) and ‘Gringolandia’, near the ferry where there are lots of hostels, bars and restaurants for all the gringo backpackers and tourists.
I settled into my new home really quickly, and after a delicious lunch of chicken, pasta, tortillas and guacamole (every lunch, which is the main meal of the day, was accompanied by freshly made tortillas and guacamole or avocado…mmm!), I headed to the school for my first afternoon of Spanish classes! I met my teacher Luis and we went through what I wanted from the two weeks of lessons, and how the classes were going to work. After a few pages of a quite difficult Spanish test to judge my level (after having done just a beginner’s very basic course in Dublin, I definitely found it tough), we started into the basics and moved pretty quickly from there.
We covered a LOT in two weeks; the basics of masculine/feminine words, demonstratives pronouns, lots of vocabulary, adjectives, nouns, uses of Ser and Estar (to be), uses of Por and Para (for). We covered the following tenses: Present tense, present indicative, present perfect, present perfect progressive, Future (popular), Conditional, Simple Past tense and finally touched on the Imperfect tense. From day one, Luis spoke only Spanish to me and although at times this was challenging, I found it the best way to totally immerse myself in the language and felt quite proud of myself when I was able to completely understand what he was saying! It helped that I had the basics beforehand, I don’t know whether I would have been able for it otherwise.
The classes ran from 2pm to 6pm, Monday to Friday, and we had a coffee and snack break at about 4pm most days. Usually we broke up our lesson by firstly going over homework (I always got homework, and quite a bit of it!), then chatting about what I had done the day before, general chat about anything (our topics ranged from history, religion, family and personal stories, mayan culture, music, books…), and then in the second part we would go through a new grammar point and practice using flashcards, exercises etc.
I met some really great people who were also studying in the school, and there were a number of activities throughout the week such as movies or documentaries about Guatemala’s very tragic history, lectures on Mayan Numeration and the Armed Conflict in Guatemala, and salsa lessons. I think it would have been nice if there was more of a ‘formal’ introduction with all of the students but as everyone is coming and going, starting on different days and studying for different periods of time, this might not be possible.
The teachers at the school are all local to San Pedro and the school works to support the community through the development of outreach programmes benefiting 22 families in the area. All of the families involved are marginalised through physical disability or severe economic hardship. On my last day of classes, Luis and I visited two families and brought supplies with us of food and other provisions to both homes. It was definitely a world away from the area where I was staying with Alejandra, and even further away from ‘Gringolandia’. A stark reminder that Guatemala suffers from severe poverty, with 75 percent of the population estimated to be living below the poverty line.
The homestay with Alejandra and her husband Pedro was wonderful, I really felt lucky to have such a lovely ‘madre’ for two weeks. Firstly, a lady called Penelope from California was staying with me in the homestay and then when she left, Aaji joined for the rest of the time I was there and became ‘mi hermana’! Alejandra made the most delicious food and we had breakfast at 7.30am, lunch at 12.30 and dinner at 7pm (or so) every day, except for Sundays. I definitely felt completely over-fed! For breakfast we’d typically have: pancakes and fruit, a honey milky drink with plantain and sweet bread, toast with marmelade and papaya. Lunch was the main meal of the day and was always served with freshly made tortillas…the sound of tortillas being freshly made actually sounds like rain pattering on a roof, so comforting! Not to mention, delicioso. For lunch we had everything from chicken, beef, fish, potatoes, vegetables, noodles, soup, salad…there was always a variety but tortillas and guac/avocado was a constant! Alejandra’s husband Pedro worked as a health worker with a local NGO and most days came home to have lunch with us. He constantly was telling us to ‘terminar las tortillas!’ (finish the tortillas!) in a typical funny-Dad kinda way 🙂
Alejandra and Pedro’s son and daughter were away studying engineering and nutrition respectively at university in Xela, the second biggest city in Guatemala just north of San Pedro, so unfortunately we didn’t get to meet them. But we did meet lots of family members who were regularly in the kitchen chatting with Alejandra! One of my favourite times was at lunch (and sometimes at breakfast!), when Alejandra would watch her favourite telenovela from Mexico, ‘Un Gancho al Corazón’, which basically means ‘a blow to the heart’. It was a hilarious soap opera drama about a love triangle between a girl and her wrestler (luchador) boyfriend/fiancé and her boss..lots of subplots with more love triangles and general mayhem as well as plenty of ‘dun dun dunnn’ moments at the end of each episode. The best thing is, they’re ALL ON YOUTUBE!! So excited. Hey, it’s for my Spanish, claro?
A week of classes in the Cooperativa Spanish School and homestay (3 meals a day except Sunday), worked out as 1350 quetzals which is about $170. Really good value for money and I would absolutely recommend Cooperativa to anyone who is thinking of studying Spanish in Guatemala.