It seems there comes a time on all overlanders trips along the PanAm when they settle down to take Spanish lessons if they are not lucky enough to already speak the language. Many people chose Guatemala because they have cheap language schools and speak a very clear Spanish (I did not appreciate the easy to understand Spanish in Guatemala until I got to Honduras where they speak like lightning and drop all the S). We chose to do language classes in San Pedro around Lake Atilan becuase our friends Adventures in Skyhorse and Carpe Viam we also taking lessons there and found super cheap camping for the week.
Lake Atitlan is a stunning lake surrounded by volcanoes and tropical foliage. There are towns all around the lake you can access by crazy steep switch back roads, or once at the lake, by hiking trails around the lake or by boat taxis. All the villages around the lake have traditional Mayan villagers, and each village has different traditional dress, weaving specialties and handicrafts.
The sad thing is that the lake is in an environmental crisis, struggling with high phosphorous levels and pollution (from locals washing clothes and bathing in the lake, waste water from hotels and the government introducing new fish like the bass that ate all the local fish and animals who helped control bacteria levels). I read some articles that said that is is past the point of fixing, others say that it can be rescued. Regardless, it breaks my heart to see something so beautiful destroyed for future generations. Shortsighted development practices are the curse of our planet, greed trumps sustainability, not just in Guatemala, but almost everywhere.
San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro is an interesting town. It has an area near the lake called Gringolandia which is a pretty perfect description. It has cheap and delicious gringo food (Philly cheese sandwiches, hummus, hot wings….) and rum and cokes for $1.00 almost everywhere. It is a town full of backpackers and people enrolled in language courses. But, up the hill, is a traditional Mayan town, so you can have the best of both worlds if you choose. We had fun hanging out here with friends playing cards in hooka lounges, dominating on pub quiz night and making the most out of the all you can eat breakfast buffets on Saturday. It was easy and fun to be with our road friends. And sometimes after ten months of traveling, easy and companionship other than each other is a nice break.
San Pedro Spanish School
So to get to the Spanish school dropout portion of the story. Sam and I signed up for a week of one on one classes for four hours a day. Since we were taking classes the week of Semana Santa, teacher choices were limited. Sam got a great teacher who had been teaching English for five years. I got a nineteen year old girl who had been teaching English for three months. During the second day of my classes, I found myself getting more confused about Spanish than I was coming in. My teacher was jumping all over the place, and would keep introducing new ideas and verb tenses with almost zero practice or explanation. I kept reminding her I was at a beginning level, but honestly, she was just in over her head. After spending over an hour translating a complicated paragraph out of a text book while my teacher texted her boyfriend, I decided I had had enough.
I was and English as a second language teacher for five years in my twenties to adults and high school students and know a bit about teaching languages. My teacher unfortunately did not. But to be honest, I felt for her. She was young and did not have the tools or training to be successful, and instead of complaining and risking getting her fired, I just told the owner I did not want to go to school. Back to the Rosetta Stone and verb flash cards for me….
Hani also had a really bad teacher at another school and had to switch language schools. My only advice for people who plan on taking language classes in Guatemala, ask how many years your teacher has been teaching Spanish. If it is over three, you will more than likely have a very good teacher. We heard there is more demand for classes and teachers than there are qualified teachers, so basically, almost anyone can become a Spanish teacher in Guatemala.
Santiago is one of the most traditional Mayan villages around the lake and we all took a boat to it for the day. Two be honest, there was not much to see here, but the boat ride was really fun.