January 2004 issue

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Latin American adventure

Mexico and Central America offer language travellers a truly rewarding experience, thanks to welcoming people, beautiful towns and cities, ancient Mayan ruins and an unrivalled richness of landscape, wildlife and outdoor activities. Gillian Evans reports from Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica.

Learning Spanish in Mexico or one of the Central American countries is a colourful experience. Students are likely to encounter busy modern cities, lively international beach resorts, colonial towns and quiet traditional villages. These countries boast an abundance of charm, culture and contrasts. There is also a wide selection of geographical wonders, from sandy white beaches to active volcanoes, from jungles and rainforests to lush mountains and valleys.

Talking of Mexico, Jean Andersen, Director of Encuentros Immersion Spanish in Cuernavaca, describes it as being 'a kaleidoscope of colours, textures, tastes and experiences'. Dalel Cortés, General Director of Instituto Mexicano de Español y Cultura in Cuernavaca, adds, 'The tradition of hospitality is an integral part of the rich Mexican culture; it is also a factor in making students feel welcomed and content.'

Just a 90-minute drive south of Mexico City, Cuernavaca is an attractive colonial city that has long been a vacation retreat for Mexicans and, more recently, has been gaining popularity as a language travel destination. According to David Cano of Cuauhnáhuac Spanish Language Institute, Cuernavaca is called the 'City of Eternal Spring' because of its 'temperate year-round climate, prevailing sunshine and abundance of flowering trees and bushes'. Jonathan Henry, at the Universidad Internacional in Cuernavaca, is keen to highlight some of the city's many attractions. 'Tourist sites include the 16th-century cathedral, the Palace of Cortés, the Borda Gardens, a spectacular public market with a plethora of cut flowers, [and] numbers of inexpensive markets of folkloric art,' he says.

Another allure of the city is that the atmosphere is very relaxed during the day, according to language schools, while at night, there are many opportunities to have fun. Vivian Harvey, Educational Programmes Coordinator at Cemanahuac Educational Community in Cuernavaca, underlines, 'Cuernavaca is known for its excellent restaurants [and] easy way of life.'

Not far from Cuernavaca, but slightly off the regular tourist trail, is Morelia. According to Gabriel Cortes Hernandez at the Baden-Powell Institute in Morelia, the city has much to offer language travellers. 'Morelia is a city with lots of history, beautiful architecture, very nice people and a young population - [there are] five universities inside the city,' he says.

North of Morelia is the colonial mountain city of Guanajuato, which was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1988 and is, according to Jorge Barroso, President and Founder of Academia Falcón in Guanajuato, 'the most beautiful city in the interior of Mexico'. Barroso adds, 'This is an extremely enjoyable place to be, peaceful yet with plenty of life in the city's narrow streets, lots of good places to eat and drink, and plenty to see.'

For a more rural experience of Mexico, students could choose to study in Buenavista de Cuéllar, situated in the mountains of the state of Guerrero, close to the silver mining town of Taxco and a three-hour drive from Acapulco. 'Our location in a rural agricultural town offers our Spanish students a unique opportunity for total language, culture and social immersion,' says Thomas Shortell, International Coordinator at Tlatoani Language School in Buenavista de Cuellar.

In order to enable their students to get to know the country and its culture, Mexican language schools typically offer a whole portfolio of activities, from salsa dancing, local craft workshops and Mexican cooking to lectures on the history and economics of the region and conversation exchange partnerships with local people. Most schools also offer students the chance to take part in a volunteer placement.

'Many students participate in our programme for street children, [called] Entro de esperanza. The students teach, help and get involved on a volunteer basis with the centre,' says Beat Salzmann at Becari Language School in Oaxaca. In addition, with such a rich collection of geographical wonders close at hand, school excursions usually take in many of the natural areas of beauty. 'We also offer eco-tourism excursions to remote places in the Oaxaca region to visit indigenous tribes and the incredible fauna and flora,' says Salzmann. '[One of our] most attractive excursions is a night trip to visit a resort with pumas.'

Language Adventures, situated in Playa del Carmen on the Caribbean coast, puts its activities and excursions at the forefront of the language learning experience. 'Instead of teaching Spanish in a classroom or as an academic subject, Language Adventures utilises the Yucatan's finest natural wonders - from beaches and jungles to tropical rivers and the Caribbean Sea - as the setting for this unique learning experience,' explains Cristina Espinosa, Programme Director at Language Adventures. She adds, 'The participants spend their time outdoors taking part in all sorts of exciting excursions and activities while being 100 per cent immersed in a Spanish-speaking environment every single step of the way.'

Adventure is, of course, not limited to Mexico. Guatemala, for example, has towering active volcanoes, cool pine forests, tropical valleys and vast jungles. It also has some of the most impressive Mayan ruins and the largest indigenous Maya population of any Latin American country.

'Students are attracted to Guatemala because of its great cultural and natural diversity,' confirms Rigoberto Zamora Charuc, Director of Academia de Espanol Probigua in Antigua, Guatemala. 'In Guatemala, you can find mountains, forests, beaches and tropical lowlands. Students enjoy travelling to small villages and towns where indigenous people still preserve the Mayan culture and languages.'

Antigua, which dates back to 1542, is one of the most attractive cities in Latin America, made up of impressive churches, palaces and other colonial buildings. Academia de Espanol Probigua not only provides intensive Spanish classes, but also establishes and maintains libraries in many rural villages where there is no access to books. 'Probigua can also help students find volunteer positions in the city if they choose,' says Zamora. 'Students have volunteered at medical clinics, orphanages, other social service organisations and with the mobile library project at Probigua.'

There are language schools at other exciting destinations in the country, such as in Quetzaltenango in the western highlands and the resort town of Panajachel.

In addition to Guatemala and Mexico, Costa Rica must be counted as one of the world's most beautiful adventure playgrounds. The country is wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, giving it two wonderful and diverse coastlines, with a ridge of active volcanoes running down its centre. It also has rainforests, jungles, rivers, waterfalls and valleys. 'In general, the majority of our students are attracted to Costa Rica because of its geographical diversity and splendour, its accessibility and its safety,' says Jason Friesen at Intercultura Costa Rica.

Reto Patt, Co-Director of Wayra Instituto de Espanol, which is located just 150 metres from the beach in Playa Tamarindo, adds, 'Costa Rica [offers] numerous possibilities for relaxation, meditation, contact with nature, culture, sports, adventure and entertainment.'

For a taste of big city entertainment, most students head for the country's capital, San José, which has plenty of museums, shops, cafés and bars. 'San Jose offers tons of nightlife and international foods such as sushi, Indian, Turkish, Spanish, Italian and Greek,' confirms Alejandra Barahona, Director of the Department of International Programmes at Universidad Veritas in San José. It is also easy to meet local people in the city, adds Gladys Portela, Director of ALE in San José. 'The fact that Costa Ricans are talkative and very spontaneous helps students become involved in the local community,' she explains.

Intercultura Costa Rica offers students two different experiences of the country. It has two campuses, one located in Heredia, just north of San José, and the other on the Guanacaste coast in a small village called Samara. 'Heredia is an old colonial city [with] shops, nightclubs, restaurants and a soccer stadium. It is also close enough to San José for day trips,' says Friesen. 'Samara is a picturesque Pacific coast village, with a slow, isolated and very tranquilo way of life.'

Playa Tamarindo, home to Wayra, also offers students a chance to experience beach life in Costa Rica. 'Tamarindo is a beautiful beach town with good waves to surf [and] beautiful spots nearby to scuba dive and snorkel,' says Platt. He adds, 'The town is surrounded by the wildlife refuge and the Marine National Park Las Baulas de Guanacaste where, on certain months of the year, gigantic Baula turtles arrive on the beach to lay their eggs.'

Wherever students base themselves to study, most take the opportunity to travel around. 'Trips to neighbouring Nicaragua and Panama are quite common [among our students] and very accessible,' notes Friesen.

Agent viewpoint

'Most of [our clients have] already studied in Spain, so it is a new challenge for them to travel a bit further [to Latin America]. The culture and mentality of people is very well known and there is a lot to [discover] - culture, beautiful countryside, interesting cities, excellent seasides... It is also cheaper for long-term students to study in Mexico than in Spain. We send students to Oaxaca and Cuernavaca. In Oaxaca they like the typical atmosphere of a Mexican town. Cuernavaca is easily reachable from Mexico City and very 'American' and much bigger than Oaxaca. We also send students to Costa Rica. Most of them choose it because of the rainforest and the sea/beaches. It is nice to spend a shorter time there than in Mexico. It is easy to get around. There is also much to see, but Mexico offers even more. Life is different there, that's what most of our students are looking for!'
Julia Richter, Studiosus Reisen, Germany

'The proximity [of Mexico] to the US makes it very popular for students. There is also a large Mexican-Hispanic influence in the US, and Spanish is important for business, education and social work. Oaxaca is culturally one of the most interesting parts of Mexico, and there is always great curiosity about travelling there. It has a little of everything - archaeological sites, great cuisine, colonial architecture and outstanding pottery and handcrafts. Cuernavaca is a city in the heart of the country near Mexico City. It has a wonderful mountain climate, and the schools there have a long-standing reputation for quality instruction. We also send several hundred students per year to Costa Rica and even more to Guatemala. Students in Costa Rica are entranced by the natural beauty and they enjoy the volcanoes and rainforests. The glorious beaches add an extra appeal. Guatemala is appealing for its format of one-to-one classes and the prices are very economical. Our programme there is in the former colonial capital [Antigua], a charming town of cobblestone streets. The indigenous presence in Guatemala is very dominant and lends great colour and tradition to everyday life. Latin Americans [in general] are lively, fun, and show great acceptance of others.'
Kay Rafool, Language Link, USA

'Our students who choose to go to Costa Rica often go there because they want to experience something completely different from what they're used to in Europe. Many of them have already studied Spanish in Spain but now wish to travel further. They are often interested in the national parks, the rainforests and the possibilities of going hiking. We send students to San José and Coronado. Our students are very pleased with both schools [we represent] and feel welcome and taken care of by the school staff and teachers. We [also] send students to Mexico - La Paz, Guadalajara, Cuernavaca, Playa del Carmen and Oaxaca. In Guatemala, we work with a school in Antigua. The students choose these destinations for the exciting cultures and also, as I mentioned above, because they want to experience something completely different from Europe.'
Jennie Svärd, SI-Sprakresor, Sweden

'Many students with an interest in human rights and social justice select Mexico to learn about the other side of border issues between the US and Mexico. The first impression that always seems to last is the warm welcome they receive from Mexicans. Students are impressed with the patience of the people they encounter with regards to their Spanish. Students also like the fact that travel is easy and relatively inexpensive with Mexico's convenient bus system. Many language schools in the country are excellent. [Often], the language is taught completely in Spanish based on the students' skill set. While it takes a week or two to reaccustom to this way of learning, students overwhelmingly find this method more effective.'
Blaine Lukkar, Cultural Exps. Abroad, USA

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