Let’s say you’re picking your way among the charcoal peaks and crevices on the lava trail of a live volcano. In places, the ground is crisp and lacy, like the meringue of a burnt pie. Through the lacy parts, red-hot embers glow like the eyes of angry demons. Every now and then, there’s an eerie crunch-and-sizzle sound beneath the feet of the six-foot-three, 220-pound hiker ahead of you, as a slab of the charred meringue collapses into the abyss. You pray he doesn’t plunge into the fiery dungeons below—taking you with him.
If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve already survived the vertical climb to watch the sun set from atop Volcan Pacaya, 12,000 feet over Guatemala. Even if you survive the abyss—most do—you may return to the base with the rubber melted off your hiking boots.
The western highlands region of Guatemala is like that: wild, colorful, bigger than life, rough, unregulated, exhilarating. Linguists believe that the people of Antigua, insulated by smoking volcanoes, coffee plantations and remote Mayan villages, speak the purest form of Spanish in Latin America (the least-infiltrated with English words or slang). That is why the colonial city of Antigua has one of the highest concentrations of Spanish language schools in the world. And that is why it’s actually me who’s inching my way across the gates to Dante’s Inferno in the pitch dark.
A few months ago, i’d jumped at the chance to spend six weeks in a Spanish language immersion class with my daughter, Sarah. Newly graduated from college and considering a bilingual job, she needed fluency. Since I know hundreds of Spanish nouns and phrases, maybe I could pick up some verbs and be able to compose actual sentences. I’m also thinking, “Yes! Uninterrupted mother-daughter bonding time!” Only now she’s not speaking to me. Well, technically she is speaking to me, but as part of the immersion experience, she allows only Spanish words to pass her lips or reach her ears.
That was great fun the first week, quite a bit less so the second and a downright annoyance the third. At that point, I just wanted to blurt out a simple English question like, “Please explain to me the difference between por and para,” and get a straightforward English answer. Also, if I’m about to crash into a red-hot lava pit, I’ll be in no mood to dig out my English-Spanish dictionary to piece together, “My feet are on fire.”
The brochure for PLFM Language School in Antigua was downright seductive. Classes are conducted in lush, terraced gardens beneath the stone walls of a 400-year-old cathedral. The 16th century colonial city was established by conquistadors as the seat of the royal Kingdom of Guatemala. Before it was toppled in 1743 by earthquakes of Biblical proportions, its official name was The Most Noble and Loyal City of Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala. Within its gates stood more than 50 magnificent cathedrals, palaces, churches and convents. Along the narrow, one-lane cobblestoned streets, flower-draped stucco walls surrounded grand Mediterranean-style mansions, several hospitals and a large university. After the earthquakes, the government abandoned the devastated city and stripped it of its noble name. Since then it’s been called, simply, La Antigua (The Old City).
Today’s population lives modestly amidst the magnificent ruins. Some say it remains the most beautiful Spanish colonial city in the world. The Governor’s Palace still overlooks the greens and fountains of the Parque Central, which twinkles with fairy lights at night. An ancient arch still marks the entrance to the city center, framing the peaks of three imposing volcanoes, Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. Agua, the liveliest, sends up smoke signals several times a day. Convents, villas and palaces have been transformed into movie-set bed-and-breakfast inns.
New classes start each Monday. We arrive a few days early to explore the city. Sunlight dances among the remnants of 16th century grandeur, languishing behind wrought iron gates, towering over tiny cafés, salsa clubs and sparse one-room stores. Hand-carved wooden doors set into stucco walls conceal modest u-shaped residences that are roofed only over the cooking, sleeping and bathing areas. Many small boutiques carry fine Guatemalan leathers, jade jewelry, hand-woven textiles and tableware at a fraction of U.S. prices. Sarah and I spend lazy hours over fresh-made guacamole with homemade chips and pitchers of sangria.
We walk through the vast marketplace, which occupies several blocks of Alameda Santa Lucia, with its endless varieties of dried corn and beans, tropical fruits and garden produce. We fill up on local coffee and tortillas right off the griddles at restaurants and street carts. We buy our ruled notebooks.
We have a variety of lodging options. B&Bs near the school range from basic ($175 weekly) to luxurious ($400). The best bargain is a home stay with a local family ($85 per week, all meals except Sunday; private bath occasionally available at extra cost). I look longingly at the pretty little balcony room with colorful bedspreads, pots of red geraniums and caged parakeets, overlooking the old city. But, alas, the landlady speaks English. We opt instead for a concrete room in a home on the edge of town, where all danger of English is past. Our bathroom (walls but no ceiling) is down the hall, and sometimes there is warm water. I’m trying not to pout.
Classes run seven hours a day, with a civilized two-hour midday break. Sarah signs up for the smaller campus—a historic villa with sunny rooms near our lodgings. I walk the half-mile to the main campus in the city. Along the way, I pass a farmer with two goats and a stack of plastic cups. He’s selling fresh—and I mean really fresh—goat’s milk. At the outer edge of the city is the parada, where dozens of Guatemala’s famous “chicken buses” load and disgorge passengers. They careen around corners, belching eye-burning clouds of black diesel smoke. I envy my new friend who, for $60 a week more, lives in a quiet room with an actual window, right behind the cathedral.
PLFM teachers speak no English. My classmates are Harvard Business School students, Peace Corps volunteers, U.S. State Department employees, international diplomats, business executives and random people, like Sarah and me, from all over the world.
We each work one-on-one with our own personal teacher—a new one each Monday. Sometimes my teacher and I sit at our little garden desk; other times we stroll through the city on everyday errands where I can practice on the locals. My accent is pretty good, and people smile gently at my crude but sincere efforts. By Week Two, I’m quite pleased with myself as I finesse transactions at the pharmacy and laundry completely on my own.
I ration my two-hour lunch breaks between work at the Internet café and window-shopping like a tourist. Every day I pass the Mayan ladies who spread their textile displays on the cobblestones near the Convento. Twice a day, their children run to greet me like a long-lost friend. Even if I don’t buy, the sweetness lingers.
Sometimes I buy some 50-cent tostadas and a bag of local cashews and study my conjugations on a park bench. On the best days, one of the enterprising young teachers gives me a private Cuban salsa dance lesson (about $3).
We can take field trips with our teachers or join a school-sponsored outing. Sarah chooses an overnight trip to Lake Atitlan, and on another day visits a coffee plantation.
One sunday we take a two-hour bus trip to the Mayan town of Chichicastenango, one of the largest market centers in the Western world. We wander through a vast maze of bazaars selling carved wooden santos and ceremonial masks, textiles, antiques, pottery, produce, coffee, small crafts and traditional Guatemalan clothing. Vendors sell flowers on the steps of Iglesia Santo Tomas, circa 1540, where shamans still burn incense while worshippers practice their blend of Catholic and Mayan traditions.
For a few quetzales, a uniformed guide takes me into the maze less traveled by tourists.
I buy a carving of Santo Tomas himself, and watch housewives balancing a week’s worth of groceries on their heads and fat squawking hens or a bolsa of chicks under their arms. We slip onto a private rooftop for a view of the Chichicastenango cemetery, its hillside blanketed with elaborate, sherbet-colored tombs.
By Week Four, Sarah has relaxed her no-English rule, though she still responds to me mostly in Spanish. She’s bonded with her teacher, who’s about her age, and they meet regularly at a café near school to giggle over a racy Spanish-language novel. Meanwhile, I’ve connected with some mom-age fellow students who don’t mind lapsing into English over our sangria and guacamole.
On Week Five, Sarah picks up a flu bug, and I grab that opportunity to move us out of the barrio to a charming private guesthouse near the school. The owner fusses over Sarah like a loving grandmother, and we luxuriate in the hot showers, courtyard garden and volcano views from the rooftop garden. Ah, Antigua, te amo.
Post Script: Sarah passed her certification test, and her new job pays for her continuing Spanish classes. I never did learn how to say, “My feet are on fire,” but I have pretty much nailed the difference between por and para.
Proyecto Linguistico Francisco Marroquin is an accredited language school. Tuition, textbooks and airport transfers: $175 per week. www.plfm.org.
Not to Miss
Semana Santo (Holy Week/Easter) processions in La Antigua are among the most elaborate in the world. Hotels are booked solid a year in advance. Smaller processions occur throughout the year.
The U.S. State Department reports incidents against tourists throughout Guatemala. Don’t pack jewelry or valuables, and exercise common sense.
Antigua has several royalty-worthy hotels. At the top is Hotel Posada del Angel, recipient of the 2007 Grand Award from Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report. The president of Guatemala favors the Yellow Room; President Clinton stayed in the Rose Room. The Palacio de Leonor Antigua Hotel, circa 1543, was the private residence of Dona Leonor de Alvarado, the daughter of a Spanish conqueror and a Tlaxcalan Indian princess. Find them and others at www.aroundantigua.com.