August 2011 issue

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Mexican adventure

An explosion of colourful indigenous cultures, beautiful scenery and exquisitely preserved architecture, not to mention delicious and unusual food and friendly people make Mexico an ideal Spanish language destination. Gillian Evans reports.

Visiting Mexico is an experience not to be missed!” exclaims Christopher Thebing at Academia Columbus, situated in Playa del Carmen on the Yucatan Peninsula. “Mexico is a great country and has great people,” he adds.

Jane Lewis at the Spanish Institute of Puebla also highlights “the warmth and kindness of the people of Mexico”.

Known for their relaxed and friendly attitude, the Mexicans certainly know how to welcome visitors to their country, and help students get the most out of their language travel trip. Most students stay with host families where they not only use the language and get to know the way of life in Mexico but also become part of the family. “Students who live with a Mexican family are often invited to family events or outings,” recounts Wouter Stut at Guadalajara Language Center in Tlaquepaque. “Here you really get to see the culture and differences about Mexico and any other part of the world. Stories and opinions are given and as Mexicans are by nature curious and interested in foreigners and their way of doing things you always feel welcome and appreciated.”

Another way in which students can gain an insight into Mexico is by taking part in volunteer work, which is offered by most language schools. Guadalajara Language Center works with an organisation that helps street children, and Escuela Mexicana in Guanajuato supports an orphanage, a care home for the elderly and a women’s refuge. According to Stut, volunteer work enables students to “see another part of Mexico that tourists normally don’t see”.

Mexico itself is an intriguing country, says Torsten Rufer at Escuela Mexicana, “with thousands of miles of shoreline and pristine beaches, jungles, snowcapped mountains, pre-colonial historic sites, amazing food and traditions”.

Thebing adds, “Mexico is a fascinating country, with a history that spans thousands of years. The richness of Mexico’s culture shows in every aspect of people’s lives, their language, their traditions, their customs, their food [and] their friendliness.”

Klaudia Zeravica at the Universidad Marista de Merida emphasises the fact that Mexico is a colourful blend of old and new. “It is modern on the one hand and has a [rich] antique heritage on the other. In the same land, the past and future melt [together].” Perched on the Yucatan peninsula, overlooking the Gula of Mexico, Merida itself is a mixture of old colonial and new cosmopolitan architecture. It has cathedrals and churches, museums and haciendas, and Mayan archaeological sites and cenotes or sinkholes (underground natural pools) nearby, as well as four universities and plenty of shopping malls. “My favourite tourist activity,” says Zeravica, “is [a trip to] the Hacienda Sotuta de Peón. It is a trip into the past.”

On the other side of the Yucatan peninsula, looking out over the Caribbean Sea, is Playa del Carmen, home to Academia Columbus. “[This] is considered the heart of the Mayan Riviera,” says Thebing at the school, “one of the most incredible coastlines you will find anywhere in the Americas. The turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea make this destination a heaven for those looking [to learn] Spanish in a relaxing setting.”

Playa del Carmen is a safe location and can easily be navigated by students. “Everything in Playa is within walking distance of the beach,” says Thebing, “[such as] the famous Fifth Avenue strip, where bars, restaurants, shops and entertainment cater for all visitors. The World Heritage site, Sian Ka’an, a natural reserve, is located just over one hour from Playa del Carmen, and here you can see thousands of different species of fish, birds, and mammals. Don’t be surprised to see dolphins swim by you or maybe even a manatee [a large marine mammal also known as a sea cow]!”

In southwestern Mexico, nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Madre and extending to the banks of the Atoyac River is the city of Oaxaca, a popular tourist destination with fine colonial buildings and a mix of indigenous cultures. “Oaxaca is so rich in culture and natural resources that it is very hard to decide what to do if you just come for a few days,” asserts Rogelio Ballesteros, School Director of Amigos del Sol in Oaxaca. Yolanda García at the Instituto de Comunicacion y Cultura Oaxaca elaborates, “Oaxaca is a beautiful cultural city enriched by 16 ethnic groups that make our city the most interesting of Mexico for the variety of languages, textiles, ceramics, tapestries, history, dances, food, archaeological sites, colonial buildings, folk art – and very important, the weather is spring-like all year round! Students who come to Oaxaca always come back.”

Another place that draws visitors back time and again is Guanajuato. “Guanajuato is so very different from almost everything people have heard about Mexico,” states Rufer at Escuela Mexicana. “Lost in medieval times and still surprisingly modern, safe and charming – the city offers you cultural inspiration, intriguing architecture and breathtaking views wherever you go. The highlights of the region are the colonial cities – Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende. The latter is surrounded by countless hot springs. Soaking in the blue morning sky in a hot spring and exploring colonial architecture in the afternoon – a fascinating combination.”

For more of a town experience of Mexico, students can study in Tlaquepaque, which is just under 10 kilometres away from Mexico’s second largest city, Guadalajara. “Everything here is within walking distance,” says Stut at Guadalajara Language Center. “All the houses have these typical Mexican bright colours and most of the days are sunny with a bright blue sky.” Tlaquepaque is famous for its handicrafts and twice a week the town holds a famous market that has rows and rows of stalls offering anything from arts and crafts to furniture and souvenirs.

But one of the biggest surprises for some students is the food, especially the different fruits and vegetables. In addition, says Stut, “The main meal is lunch which is taken between two and four o’clock in the afternoon. Dinner can be cereal or coffee with sweet bread and is taken around nine o’clock in the evening. Breakfast can be a heavy meal like chilaquiles [a corn tortilla].” Lewis at the Spanish Institute of Puebla also highlights her area’s culinary delights. “We have plenty of food typical to our area: cemitas [a large egg bread roll stuffed with avocado, cheese, meat and salsa] and mole poblano [a sauce with chocolate and chilli peppers] – things you can only find in Puebla.”

At Amigos del Sol in Oaxaca the teachers take students on a culinary tour of the city. “Students walk with a teacher to different restaurants, stands in the streets and other places where they can buy food or eat it. We show them the best quality places recommended by locals and tourists,” explains Ballesteros.

A university project turned into a reality when Keith Rolle set up language school, Baja California Language College in 1997. Situated just below California in the city of Ensenada, its climate, says Rolle, is ideal. “In the middle of the summer temperatures rarely rise above 80 degrees farenheit. The cool ocean breeze keeps things cool under the bright Baja sun,” he says.

Whale watching, deep sea fishing and sailing are high on the to-do list here, as is a visit to one of the regions wineries. With over 35 to choose from, the school’s new Spanish for Wineries, Vineyards and Agriculture course allows students to “explore and define the nuances of Baja California wine“. Afternoon sessions include tasting and critiquing, says Rolle, and during the week students venture off to visit the wineries and vineyards of the Guadalupe Valley.

Agent viewpoint

“Students choose Mexico because of its climate, cultural diversity and the standard of living. There are many well-preserved historical buildings, both from the Maya ages as well as buildings from the colonial period. Mexico has a long tradition as a tourist destination, so there are plenty of well-organised excursions and activities students can do before, during or after their Spanish course. We only send students to Guanajuato. It is an important university town, which gives the city a young and vibrant atmosphere. Add the colourful houses in the historical colonial town centre and there you have the perfect ingredients for a Mexican/Spanish cultural and language experience.”
Martijn Goedegebure, Linguaschools, The Netherlands

“I think what makes Swedish students travel to Mexico is the nice climate, that it is exotic and that the country has a special culture. Mexicans are known to be open and friendly and hospitable. We offer Guanajuato, Playa del Carmen, Oaxaca and Puerto Vallarta [as destinations]. The most popular by far is Playa del Carmen and it is the sea, beach life and climate that attracts students most. My biggest impression was the ancient culture and historical sites. In Yucatan I enjoyed visiting the old pyramids and seeing the remnants of the Maya culture.”
Stefan Engström, Blueberry Worldwide, Sweden

“What we and students love most about Mexico is the overwhelming warmth and friendliness of the Mexican people; the indigenous culture that permeates everything from food to art to the cultural world view; and the amazing indigenous pyramids and colonial architecture. From the Pacific Coast to the Yucatan, there are so many wonderful locations to study Spanish in Mexico. We work with wonderful and accommodating partner Spanish immersion schools in most parts of Mexico. These include beach locations; city locations and village locations in Tepoztlan, near Cuernavaca and Mexico City, San Cristobal de Las Casas and La Manzanilla on the Pacific Coast. [Students are surprised by the] warmth of the people, wonderful pyramid sites, eco-tourism (which is growing in leaps and bounds), the easy well-developed bus system to move around easily in this large country, and, of course, their money goes a long way.”
Laura Manning, Aventuras Languages, USA

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Cambridge Esol  
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French in Normandy  
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Clubclass Residential Language School  
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AIPEC - Cuernavaca Language Schools

Languages International Christchurch  


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Babylon Idiomas  
Escuela de Idiomas Nerja  
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Malaca Instituto - Club Hispanico SL  

EF Language Colleges Ltd  
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Rennert Bilingual  
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