Spanish in Xela, Guatemala
- Alternative Visits to The Famous Mayan Ruins in Guatemala
Anyone visiting the Classic
Mayan ruins of Tikal will be impressed. Rising out of the dense jungle,
the looming temples demonstrate the might of the ancient Mayans and demand
respect from visitors, even thousands of years after their construction.
At full moon or at sunrise
|If you're looking for alternative
ways to be introduced to Tikal beyond a standard visit, you could try any
of the following suggestions.
From A Galaxy Far, Far
Tikal was featured in the
first Star Wars movie in 1977. If you keep a careful eye on things, you'll
see a spaceship landing on the rebel planet of Yavin IV in dense jungle
with impressive ancient towers rising out of the tree canopy that look
a lot like...Tikal. To get the same view on the site, climb up to the top
of Temple IV and look out over Temples I and II.
As a bird watcher
Tikal has an incredible
array of bird-life, and even if you aren't a budding ornithologist you'll
be impressed by the 410 species of bird that have been found on the site.
Humans aren't the only tourists, with the North American Songbird paying
a visit to Tikal to escape the cold winter months back at home. If birds
aren't your thing, you could always stay alert for the wide range of other
fauna, including howler monkeys, toucans, spider monkeys, falcons, coatis
and (if you are very lucky) the occasional jaguar or cougar.
If you can manage it, you
can visit by 'unofficial' access to the site out of normal hours, either
through tour operators or by trying independently. The noises of the jungle
at night or the strange calls of the howler monkeys in early morning bring
a strange ethereal feel to Tikal and you'll probably have the site to yourself.
You certainly wont need to worry about the relentless attacks of mosquitoes
that you get during the peak times for the site, and sunburn will not be
a concern either. It probably wont be cheap, but you'll see a side of Tikal
that few people have been lucky enough to experience.
As a conspiracy theorist
The Winter Solstice is at
the end of the Mayan calendar, on December 4th. According to the Ancient
Maya, their calendar finishes in the year 2012. At Mayan New Year, crowds
of foreign and Guatemalan believers in Mayan religion and legend flood
the steep steps and lofty platforms of Temple VI to welcome the new year
in their colourful robes, counting down each year to what many people interpret
as the end of the world. If you believe it or not, it's certainly an impressive
In a time machine
Its not the most likely
trip you'll ever take, but if you can get your hands on one you'll be able
to visit the amazing milestones in the history of Tikal and the Maya. Choose
from any point, from the first constructions raised on site in the 4th
Century BC through the classic period between 200 and 900AD when the site
flourished to its abandonment in the 10th Century AD, probably due to overpopulation
and agrarian failure. It would certainly be an impressive time to show
up, as Tikal was so important in the Classic Mayan Civilization that the
collapse of the Mayan Empire shortly followed. The next stop could be the
'discovery' of Tikal hundreds of years later, bushwhacking through the
jungle with tree-gum collector Abrosio Tut to stumble across the overgrown
pyramids. You could pick any incredible historical period; after all, you've
got a time machine!
For those unable to move
freely through time, you can still get a sense of the rich history of Tikal
through the guided tours that run all year round. As excavations have been
conducted on the site since 1956, you'll have plenty of information on
However you decide to discover
this ancient jewel of the Mayan civilization, don't make it a missed opportunity.
Guatemala is a country full of historical treasures and breath-taking landscapes
that, incredibly, has managed to avoid mass tourism.
Spanish in Xela, Guatemala by Alex
Learning Spanish in Guatemala
is popular and some places are well-known for it. But if you want to remain
fairly off-the-trail, Xela is the place to go.
A large chunk of Guatemala’s
tourism revenue comes from teaching Spanish to travellers. It’s not like
it’s the only Spanish-speaking country on the continent, but a number of
factors make it a number one choice.
start with, the Gutemaltekas speak slowly and clearly. Anyone who has been
to Cuba will appreciate the importance of this – you aren’t going to learn
Spanish if you don’t understand a single word muttered through lazy lips
at machine-gun speed, half of the letters chewed into a uniform blob on
their way out. Secondly, Guatemala is on the way: for anyone (and
especially North Americans) going down the continent this is a good time
to learn a few phrases – at the beginning of the trail. Third, the Guatemalan
culture is heavily indigenous, so it makes it an interesting place to stop
for a week and get to know it. And last, but not least, Guatemala is much
cheaper than most of Latin America, making it a competitive proposition.
As a result, you get quite
a motley crowd of students. Maybe not so much top-end travellers, but definitely
a lot of backpackers eager to stock up on “Donde esta…?” and “Cuanto cuesta…?”
for the long journey ahead, as well as a lot of the more adventurous North
American High who might not be up for roaming around the continent, but
at least they will get out of the US / Canada into a native culture to
spend a month somewhere different while learning the language. You normally
pay for a week’s course, quite a few hours a day one-to-one with a teacher,
although that can modified to your needs.
Once in Guatemala, you
will usually be directed to one of the two places.
Atitlan is a very scenic mountanous landscape with volcanoes and postcard
indigigenous people. A string of villages along the bank of the lake lets
you adjust the level of spirituality according to your habitual marijuana
dosage. This place is the Guatemalan equivalent of a stereotypical backpacker
beach village. Antigua, on the other hand, is somewhat of Guatemalan Cuzco
(but, in my opinion, not as nice), an area with Irish bars and cosmopolitan
restaurants cordoned off from the rest of Guatemala for the safety of the
tourists and, in places, paved to accommodate travellers’ high heels.
Everyone says they visit
Antigua because it has the volcanoes around it. I am sorry but I don’t
buy it. People go to Antigua because everyone else goes there. Central
America has volcanoes all over the place. By the way – very important –
there is a village in Guatemala where turtles lay eggs, I read it in the
Most people are happy with
those two in terms of Spanish classes. And then there are grumpy buggers
like me who start kicking when they are herded to developed locations.
But I didn’t know of any other options, and I didn’t want to end up in
some total tomb somewhere. Luckily, I was given a tip, which I am now spreading
with this article.
Personally, I decided to
avoid Antigua in the very beginning, lest I bump into the Lord of the Underworld.
But Lake Atitlan was highly recommended. It was pretty and all but after
a couple of days up in smoke with Bob Marley (again…) me and Luke, the
guy I met there, began planning our escape from the Lonely Planet trail.
The furthest we could think of at the time was El Salvador but since it
was a bit of a mystery Luke decided to brush up on his Spanish. His Atitlan
allowance was now spent, though, so it would have to be Antigua.
No way in hell. I told Luke
I’d see him there in a few days, in brief transit and he’d better be finished
After a few-day trip through
the mountains I caught the chicken bus to Guatemala City, which was going
through Antigua. Chicken buses. Oh yeah. Don’t be fooled - the guy
who is driving is not the one in control of the vehicle. It is the other
guy - the primate who jumps around the roof at full speed, shouts "Guatemala,
Guatemala ciudad, Guatemala, GuateGuateGuateee!!!!!!!!" like there’s an
imminent danger of GuateGuate, hangs out of the door and tells the driver
what to do (a bit like an F1 team). And everyone else on the road: all
roads are one lane each way and the general road ethics is to speed overtake
on the oncoming lane regardless of tight mountain turns, and when something
is coming your way, the bus pushes other cars to the side to come back
into the right lane, at full speed. Whether it works out or not is largely
a matter of chance. The guy is the original backseat driver, and he actually
does backseat drive, only he doesn’t have a seat and instead macholy hangs
out of the bus fully at 45 degrees. Which is why all vehicles in CA have
"Jesus is my guide" on the windscreen (phew, I thought he had forsaken
us...) apart from one truck I saw that simply had "I am different" all
across the front. Packed is not the word. It’s just a sea of bodies. Yet
someone always insists on getting from one end of the bus to another. A
necessary criterium to exercise that right is an oversized basket, or at
least a big stinking sack of potatoes.
Once in Antigua I heard the
terrible news: Luke failed to get signed up and was only starting. I did
want to go to El Salvador with Luke, though, and I was beginning to think
that my Spanish could do with some classes too, so with a heavy heart I
decided to stay and look for classes in the morning.
Later at night I was drowning
my sorrows in Guinness, at the local command & control unit of the
Irish Empire. This is when God heard my pain. He sent me a bunch of jolly
Americans who were awfully nice to spill the beans about Xela.
Next morning, carefully avoiding
to dirty anyone’s designer fashion with my backpack, I walked to the bus
station and caught a GuateGuate!!!!! to Xela.
Quetzaltenango, aka Xela,
is the second largest city of Guatemala, I think. As soon as I got off
the locals began looking at me with curiosity, like what the hell is he
doing here? Good sign. I like Xela a lot. It’s a big city but it had this
warm sunny vibe on the streets by day, really mellow and totally authentic.
The people just went about their business, but courteous and nice. A little
too dark by night though.
It turned out Xela is the
underdog for Spanish classes in Guatemala. Staying here is a real cultural
submersion, schools are numerous and the number of foreigners is just about
perfect – not too many to invade and enough to have a drink with if you
fancy. The prices were lower than in Antigua – 100 bucks for a week (6-7
hours a day, one-to-one) with a very good school and about half of that
with private teachers or less established schools.
I had been recommended a
school, and I was already a day late for that week, so I was just going
to go with that one, although I got a bit freaked out by the fact it had
a school bell for lunch etc. My assigned teacher was an easy-going and
giggly young lady. The beauty of having such a private on-to-one is that
you can call the shots if you know what your language needs. She tried
to drag me through the thorns of the grammar but, with so little time,
I wanted it more conversational. She would keep trying to get me talking
on the-book-is-on-the-table kind of topics like family, my country, my
hobbies. I kept diverting it to sex, drugs and tips on catching Cuatemalan
women: since I was in school in the middle of a backpacking trip, I did
have to at least keep myself entertained. Piously perplexed at first, she
eventually surrendered and even showed a cute curiosity for those topics.
Which was much more merciful than Luke's fate: his teacher was a feisty
evangelist and she would not let the conversation stray away from the Lord.
I stayed in a nearby hostel
Argentina, where most travelers tend to stay. There was a bizarre neighborhood
watch arrangement: at 9 o’clock a group of 10-14 youths would come out
in balaclavas and ski masks, with baseball bats and all other kinds of
close-quarter combat melee weaponry, and…well...keep the neighborhood safe,
very actively. One of the guys in the hostel wasn’t aware of it and had
to take a lengthy detour on his way home one night when he saw them outside
the hostel. Too right, you’re not gonna think they are security, are you?
Word of warning if you think
those guys look cool: don’t take photos! Many Guatemaltekas believe that
photos steal your spirit, and you really don’t want to be informed of this
by a bunch of youths in ski-masks and with baseball bats.
There are a few nice mellow
bars to go to for a drink at night, and salsa nights for foreigners. While
you are learning to speak you may as well learn to walk, again not very
expensive and salsa teachers are abundant. You can’t take your guns to
the bars though, unfortunately, as the signs in the venues tell you, so
people have to resort to breaking bottles over each other’s heads.
Walking around the tombstone
shops of Xela one afternoon (there are lots of them, business must be good…)
I met Sary on the central Plaza. She is a sweetest little thing and I wish
I had met her before signing-up. She has her own school, at lower price,
complete with accommodation, breakfast and an art gallery. Us and her friend
went for some salsa and had a fantastic night. Her site appears to be down
right now, but if you do go to Xela to learn Spanish do try to sign up
with her, she’s such a sweetie. I hope the webmaster won’t mind: www.learn2speakspanish.com
All in all I was happy with
this turn of events. Go to Atitlan if you want peace of mind, “peace” in
the pipe, tranquility, lake, mountains and an international village. Go
to Antigua if you want an international hangout with all amenities. But
if you’d rather not stop cultural immersion and / or don’t want to get
sucked into an over-developed location just because you can’t say “Cuanto
cuesta…?”, Xela is the answer.
Alex is the webmaster of
Travel Online - an independent resource on travelling in Valencia,