Colombia! How to improve your Spanish without going to a language school.

A lot of people associate Colombia with narcotics, danger and the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar who was responsible for a long reign of drug related terror. However, I want to emphasise that this is very poor picture of the real Colombia. Of course we cannot forget the tragedies of the past but we must look beyond the outdated representation of this country. Colombia is an incredible place. It’s a country full of life and ambition and the people are some of the friendliest I have ever met. The landscapes, food, history, and culture make it an extremely interesting place to visit. I’m going to focus this post on the ways you can practice Spanish in Colombia without going to a language school. If don’t want to spend more money on Spanish classes, there are alternative ways to improve your language skills.

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My favourite place in Colombia – Valle de Cocora

Learn on your own surrounded by Spanish speakers

I stayed in Medellin for about a month and a half, a place known as ‘the city of eternal spring’ for it’s wonderful climate. Being British, the weather was probably a big reason as to why I spent most of my time in there practicing Spanish…

I was taught a large amount of grammar in Guatemala. However, being a beginner, most of this had gone straight through my head and out the other side! For this reason, instead of paying for more Spanish classes, I focused my time on going over all of the information that I had stored away in my notebook. I booked myself into an Airbnb with a Colombian family, bought some stationary and went to different parks to revise my Spanish. My speaking skills were pretty poor at the time but I managed to get by with the family and this immersive experience boosted my enthusiasm to learn more. If you really try hard to revise on your own, you can see a significant improvement. Within a couple of weeks, I could converse more and more with the family and I knew that all my revision had really paid off!

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Revision paradise – The Botanical Gardens in Medellin

Get to know the locals

Travelling alone in a foreign country means that you need to take some precautions to keep safe – be aware of your surroundings, etc. However, this isn’t to say that you can’t make an effort to get to know the locals and learn more about their culture. It’s definitely the best way to practice your language skills! I’ll tell you about one friend in particular…

About half way through my time in Colombia, I started to feel a bit confused about my mission to learn Spanish. I was finding it difficult to up the level of my listening and speaking skills and part of me wanted to give up all together and just focus on my travels. During that time, I visited a church in Cartagena and met a young guy who worked there. He was very enthusiastic to learn English and also wanted to help me to practice my Spanish. Over the next few days, we met up and conversed about our different lives and taught each other new words and phrases from our languages. I felt more confident with my speaking skills and saw this as a sign to not give up learning Spanish. He remains a good friend today and I really owe it to him for giving the motivation to continue language learning.

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The beautiful streets of Cartagena.

 

Research free Spanish classes (Yes, they do exist!)

Free language classes probably sound like a myth but I assure you that if you look hard enough, you will find them. Universities often offer free classes and the reason for this is that trainee teachers need real students so that they can practice their teaching skills. I attended free conversational classes at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Medellin. The classes can be a bit hit and miss depending on which teacher you get but they’re a great way to learn new words and phrases. If you want to find free classes, I’d say the best way to start is by asking other foreigners who live and work in the area where you want to study. This is how I found out about them.

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Made to feel at home in Colombia.

The Secret Island of Mexico

After Guatemala, I spent a couple of weeks in the south east of Mexico where I learnt about how to be a professional beach bum – the excuse being that I had been sick during my last week in Guatemala and really needed some full on relaxation! I’ll talk about some of the main places I visited including somewhere I like to call The Secret Island of Mexico.

Tulum

Tulum town was my first stop in Mexico, a place know for beautiful beaches and famous ruins. You can choose to stay in the centre of town but I’d recommend taking a bus, taxi or bike to the beach because its a long way to walk. The town itself is cute and is very close to Tulum National Park, which is home to an incredible ancient Mayan archaeological site. The most spectacular thing about the ruins is that they are located next to the crystal waters of the ocean and white sand beaches. It’s fairly easy to cycle from the town to the ruins – just make sure that you rent a good bike! I went with a friend and we chose to rent our hostel bikes which looked like they were made in the 1920s. Unsurprisingly it took us some time to brake.

I didn’t take any Spanish classes in Tulum but some hostels offer classes and I think there are a fair few schools in the town. The opportunity to learn Spanish on the beach is very appealing, but you need to be aware that you might also encounter a lot of English speakers in Tulum.

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The ancient ruins of Tulum. Not a typical beach based shot of the ruins.

Cancun

Cancun is a place that often springs to mind when people mention Mexico. I only passed through Cancun briefly so I’m basing my opinion on first impressions but I have to be honest, the city didn’t really charm me. If you like beach party holidays, then Cancun is definitely a great place to go, particularly for Spring break! However, if you prefer smaller towns and cities with the opportunity to do more cultural things then I’d skip Cancun.

Isla Holbox, The Secret Island of Mexico

I refer to Isla Holbox as The Secret Island of Mexico because usually a place as spectacular as Holbox is a well known spot for tourists and backpackers, however, most people seem to head to the islands closer to Playa del Carmen and skip out Holbox – or aren’t aware of its existence. I was lucky enough to be travelling with someone, who had met someone, who had been to Holbox. My friend had scribbled down the details of how to get there and this included taking 3 hour bus ride from Cancun and then a short boat ride to the island. This is how I came to know the paradise.

I can put Isla Holbox above all places for a great beach holiday. It’s a really special place. The main town follows the shoreline of one of the beaches but is not too built up meaning that the scenery is not ruined by monstrous resorts. An apparently normal form of transport in Holbox is a golf cart, and this can make for quite a humorous sight. As for learning Spanish, some the hostels offer classes but it’s a good idea to do some research and book your lessons in advance. There are several options to take tours to different parts of the island and one of them includes snorkelling with whale sharks! It hurts me to say that I did not get to do this but I have a friend who did and she said it was just about one of the most incredible animal encounters she’s ever had.

The island is small but still big enough to explore. One day my friend and I went cycling for the day and we discovered a glorious beach. We happened to be the only ones there so we could enjoy the beautiful surroundings all to ourselves. Apart from a wooden pier, there were no other man made structures and the white sandy beach was lined with the greenery of trees and bushes. A natural paradise pictured below.

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A hidden beach on Isla Holbox.

Valladolid

Valladolid is a city located in the southern eastern part of the state of Yucatan. The narrow streets and colourful buildings are very beautiful and I felt like I could see a bit more of authentic Mexican life. I recommend visiting the Cathedral of San Gervasio in the centre of town which is a very charming. You also must visit a cenote, which is a natural pit in the ground that exposes a pool of water underneath. This description does not really do justice so I have included a picture below!

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A cenote just outside of Valladolid.

You can often swim or dive in a cenote but be warned that the water can be very cold! There are a few cenotes in and around Valladolid that are worth visiting.

I spent a lot of time practicing my Spanish speaking skills in Valladolid after meeting a couple of guys from the north of Mexico and an Argentinian girl. Although it’s a bit daunting at first, I think that it’s really important to make an effort with regards to making friends who speak Spanish. You’d be surprised how much you communicate once you try. Valladolid is used as a base for many people heading to visit Chichen Itza, the site of some world famous Mayan ruins. It can get extremely busy and it’s not a good idea to go during the heat of the day (like I did)! You may find yourself melting into a pool of sweat. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed marvelling over the ancient site and it’s history. It was also a great chance to bond with my new Spanish speaking group.

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The famous site of Chichen Itza.

Why Guatemala?

Guatemala is an extraordinary country. The scenery is breath-taking and there is so much to do: from wandering around the beautiful cobbled streets of Antigua …relaxing by the shores of Lake Atitlán… to the hiking up some of the most incredible volcanoes – or staggering up, like I did! Although Guatemala isn’t known for its beaches, Belize and Mexico are only a weekend trip away. There are huge numbers of language schools with lots of homestay options. What’s more, it’s probably one of the cheapest countries to learn Spanish in Latin America with 1-1 classes often no more that £5 a hour.

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A view of Lake Atitlán from the top of San Pedro Volcano.

Lake Atitlán is known to many as the most beautiful lake in the world, surrounded by volcanoes and picturesque little towns. It’s a great place to learn Spanish because there are lots of things to do in your free time including kayaking, horse riding, zip lining and hiking. I studied at the Cooperative School San Pedro La Laguna in one of the many towns on the shores of the lake. I chose to study 4 hours a day but you have the option to do more or less depending on your schedule. The professors were friendly and experienced and the school offers salsa classes and movie nights included in the price of the lessons. Getting involved in the extra curriculum activities is a really great way to practice your Spanish outside of school and meet other people with similar interests. My favourite aspect of this school is that it is involved in a Social Aid project which helps people in the local community. They construct houses for poor families and professors make regular trips to families in the community to provide them with goods to satisfy their basic needs.

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The beautiful setting at the Cooperative School San Pedro La Laguna.

The town of San Pedro La Laguna is a very lively place compared to other towns on the lake, with lots of backpackers bars and cafes. It’s good fun but it also means that you’re likely to run in to a lot of other foreigners – not ideal if you only want to focus on your Spanish. However, if you want a more authentic experience, opt to do a homestay and get to know the locals. Alternatively, Xela, Guatemala’s second largest city is supposed to be a good place to learn Spanish if you want a more immersive experience. The city is made up of locals rather than tourists and therefore it’s easy to avoid other English speakers. There are also lots of opportunities to get involved in voluntary work, a great way to give something back to the community. Many people also head to Antigua to learn Spanish, a beautiful colonial town about 40 minutes from Guatemala City. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, known for its Spanish architecture and the ruins of colonial churches. You also have the opportunity to climb a lot of volcanoes near to Antigua, including Acatenango where you can look inside a neighbouring volcano – a pretty impressive sight!

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Cerro de la Cruz, the lookout point over Antigua.

One place you must not miss if you visit Guatemala is Tikal, the ruin of one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Mayan civilisation. Most people stay in a city called Flores and take a tour from there to Tikal. The old part of Flores is located on an island and is also a very nice place to explore with colourful houses and many lakeside hotels and restaurants! I chose to do a sunset tour of the ruins and was extremely impressed by the beauty of the site and the excellent tour guide who had a passion for explaining the history of the ancient site. There is something very special about Tikal compared to other ruins and I think part of reason for this is because it is set in the middle of the rainforest. The surrounding wildlife makes you feel somewhat lost to modern civilisation…

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The spectacular ancient city of Tikal, seen from one of the tallest ruins.