Driving into Antigua was like arriving in a whole new country. The colonial churches, cobbled streets and Spanish Baroque-style architecture is a stark contrast to both the lush jungle surroundings of Lanquín, and the sprawling, dirty urban jungle of Guatemala City, which we rode through in our shuttle bus en route to Antigua.
Guatemala’s former capital, Antigua is still arguably one of the wealthiest cities in the country and is now an extremely popular tourist destination, as well as being home to many retired expats from Europe and the USA. The city is set in a valley between three towering volcaones: Volcán de Agua, Acatenango and Volcán de Fuego. Volcán de Agua is dormant, but Acatenango and particularly Fuego are still very much active, which we were to find out within about half an hour of our arrival.
As usual we hadn’t booked anywhere to stay, and had instead marked a few hostels on the map for us to try when we arrived. However, when we stepped off the bus into the Parque Central we were greeted by a man called Eddy who told us he was from Los Amigos Hostel just down the street, and that he had rooms available at a good price. Admittedly, after our shambolic arrival into Lanquín we were slightly wary of anyone from a hostel trying to accost us straight off the bus, but Eddy was so friendly and kind-mannered that we decided to go along with him to check out Los Amigos.
When we arrived at the clean and cosy hostel, Eddy told us we could have a private room for 120 quetzales per night – which, as the dorm beds were 60 quetzales per night, felt like a real bargain! After we dropped off our bags Eddy took us up to the roof terrace, where we got our first sight of Volcán de Fuego…with ominous looking black smoke billowing from the top.
“Ah you’re in luck, the volcano is burping!” Eddy exclaimed delightedly.
“Excuse me…burping?” I replied, thinking that any sane person’s reaction to a volcano “burping” anywhere in close proximity would be to hasten swiftly in the opposite direction, but Eddy reassured me.
“It does this most days,” he said. “It’s nothing to worry about.” He then went on to explain that Fuego has been erupting almost daily since around 2012, but it is rarely cause for alarm. Occasionally they have to evacuate the smaller villages that are close by, but at 16km away Antigua is not really at risk.
We booked our room at Los Amigos for 2 nights before setting off to explore the city and search for a Spanish school. Antigua is a world famous location for Spanish schools, as in fact is the whole of Guatemala – the Spanish accent here is very neutral and in general Guatemalans speak more slowly than people from other Spanish speaking countries, which makes it an ideal environment to learn the language. We had done some research before our arrival and picked a few different schools to try, so armed with our map we headed off to the first option on our list: Antiguena Spanish Academy.
As it turned out we never made it to the other schools we had earmarked. When we got to Antiguena we were met by Julio, who runs the school along with his father (also named Julio) and shown into his office, where he told us a bit about the school, the teachers, the structure of classes and different types of accommodation the school has to offer. As well as daily classes taught by experienced Spanish teachers, the school runs activities every afternoon that are included in the price and range from things like city tours and film screenings to visits to a macadamia nut farm and a chocolate museum. Students can stay either with host families or in a guest house, and they can choose to have class for anywhere between 2 and 6 hours per day.
Julio is obviously very passionate about the school and its students, and we were so impressed with what was on offer that we decided to sign up for 4 hours of class per day for 3 weeks, while staying in a local guest house which provided us with 3 meals per day. All together our accommodation, tuition and food cost us £150 per week each – a bargain considering what you might have to pay for 1-2-1 tuition back in the UK!
That Thursday we moved into our lovely little guest house and unpacked our bags for the first time in over a month, then the following morning we met our teachers and started our lessons in the beautiful school garden. My teacher was a lovely lady called Gaby, who was so friendly and bubbly that within a few minutes we were joking and laughing (or at least, I think we were, my Spanish was still a little rudimentary at this stage). Dan’s teacher was called Sylvia, and she was also extremely friendly. Our first few days of lessons from 8am to 12pm were exhausting, having spent the previous couple of months not having to concentrate on anything for longer than the time it takes to ask, “where does this bus go?”, but within a few days we got into the swing of things.
More to follow soon…