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Feature Article: Multicultural Travel News, March 2011 – Learning Spanish in Guatemala

Thursday, Mar 31, 2011

If you work in Hispanic marketing, either your job depends on your ability to speak Spanish or you don’t really need to speak Spanish to do your job.

If you’re the one that works in corporate advertising overseeing your company’s Hispanic market ad campaigns you don’t necessarily need to speak Spanish. You’ll have a trusted internal or external Hispanic market team or ad agency responsible for all account management and creative elements of producing Spanish language campaigns.

Yet, wouldn’t it be nice to join the bilingual club or at least achieve a passing familiarity with the language?

Your college days may be long behind you but here’s a way to combine your family vacation with a mini Spanish language course. Consider a one week crash course (or longer if you can spare the time) in La Antigua, Guatemala where more than 80 language schools offer instruction and sightseeing in one package.

Last October, during an 8-day trip to Guatemala I had the opportunity to tour three schools, meet with their managers to learn about their offerings, view their classrooms and housing accommodations plus enjoy a series of excursions, each easy day trips from La Antigua.

While Spanish courses abroad are most often associated with home stays with local families as the housing accommodations of choice (as was my experience when I studied in Mexico during two college summers,) today an executive can choose to stay in a five star hotel and have a luxury family vacation with some hours of Spanish instruction incorporated into the day.

In college, the family home stay with weekend camping trips was the way to go. For today’s advertising professional, I would have a different “housing” recommendation: the Porta Hotel Antigua, where I stayed, or at any or these other luxury properties that I visited, dined at and coveted during my days in La Antigua: the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, for the ultimate in luxury accommodations; Posada de Don Sancho on picturesque Arch St.; Hotel Meson de Maria, the closest to the Maximo Nivel school located just around the corner, or Hotel Palacio de Doña Leonor, a luxury boutique hotel in the heart of colonial Antigua.

The Porta Hotel Antigua is in walking distance from the schools I visited (if you’re like me, a New Yorker who likes to walk) and a lovely morning walk it was. The concierge’s directions included this delightful instruction: “walk one block to the left out the hotel main door, then go right when you reach the ruins.” Your family can stay behind and enjoy the pool, the playground and the lush interior courtyard with its resident parrots and macaws, following their breakfast buffet (your family’s not the bird’s) in the hotel (for about $25 a person.)

Or your family can join you as you walk to the main square (the Plaza Mayor) to breakfast in the small outdoor courtyard of the famous Café Condesa  where an omelette, home baked carrot muffin  and coffee is yours for under $4 (or $5 if you take milk with your coffee.)

After breakfast you head off to class and the family can start their sightseeing right in the main square itself. Surrounding the square are shops, City Hall, the present day Cathedral and the church ruins. The main square itself is beautiful with its central fountain, local musicians, and pony rides. Apparently the square is also wifi wired so while you’re in school your spouse can quickly check their email before taking the kids on a carriage ride around Antigua.

Visits can be made in town to the La Merced Church and Convent, Arch Street, the handicrafts market and the Museums promenade in the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, which includes the Archeology Museum, Museum of Pre Columbian Art and Modern Glass and Pharmacy Museums.

The three schools that I visited all featured daily Spanish language instruction with private teachers or group classes, daily and weekly group activities like salsa classes and movie night as well as excursions. Each school has its own unique orientation: Maximo Nivel stands out as an Executive Language Center; Probigua, billing itself as “The Spanish Language school with a purpose,” donates its proceeds to support local women and libraries;  PLFM, the oldest Spanish language school in Antigua, holds classes in a lovely garden location set among ruins and teaches Mayan languages as well as Spanish.

At Maximo Nivel (Maximum Level) Executive Language Center I met with Brittany Cardona, Assistant General Manager. Originally from Indiana, Brittany immediately understood how a U.S. advertising professional working in the Hispanic market could benefit not only from a basic understanding of the Spanish language but from first hand local, in-country experiences that would give context to the cultural cues used in ads.The majority of students here (both University students and private students or professionals) are from the US, Japan, Canada and Israel. Here, 4 hours of instruction a day is the norm (at $120 by the week) but Maximo Nivel can tailor a program to meet an individual’s needs for Business or Medical Spanish in a 5-day crash-course or extended program, from Basic/High Basic through Advanced I & II. There’s a Salsa class on Monday and the school offers volunteer opportunities for participants to help at orphanages, schools or medical clinics. Housing options include a traditional family stay, The “Family House Bed and Breakfast,” a private or a shared apartment, a hostel or a hotel.

In a follow up interview with Brittany by email she informs Multicultural News that “Máximo Nivel was founded in Cusco, Peru in 2003, after which we opened our Costa Rica office in 2006 and our Guatemala office in 2009.  Today, Máximo Nivel offers its TEFL/TESOL Certification, Native Spanish Program, International Volunteer Program, and Native English Program in all three countries – Peru, Costa Rica, and Guatemala.

Maximo Nivel Executive Language Center is dedicated to providing a comprehensive immersion experience to our clients from university students to professionals.  Maximo Nivel can tailor a program for the Marketing professional in order to provide the most intense customized program to achieve the goals set by the student.  Our courses are designed to encourage language learning through communication and interaction, not just studying grammar out of a book.  The marketing professional would also learn by studying real life examples of Spanish-language media, providing a better understanding of the target audience.

While the student is enjoying Spanish class at our first-class facilities, Maximo Nivel can assist in arranging tours for the family that accompanies the student.  Some family activities might include a visit to a zoo or children’s museum in Guatemala City, Florencia Park about 15 minutes outside of Antigua for a cookout and hiking trails, horseback riding or canopy zip-lining at a local coffee plantation, or simply going to the cinema!

Máximo Nivel’s success is based on our commitment to quality and the highest level of client service possible. We continuously invest in professional staff and first-class facilities to ensure your overall experience with us is nothing short of excellent.”

Learn more at www.maximonivel.com, call (US) 877-433-4141 or email info@maximonivel.com or reach Brittany Cardona at Brittany@maximonivel.com.

At Academia de Español PROBIGUA (Proyecto Bibliotecas Guatemala) students can choose between one-on-one instruction for 4 to 7 hours per day or group classes with three to four students. Trips and activities are part of the school program and housing can be with a local family or hotel. A special program is designed for doctors, nurses and social workers which includes visits to local hospitals and lectures on subjects such as traditional medicine.

PROBIGUA (Guatemala Libraries Project) is a not-for-profit organization that donates the school’s profits to establish and maintain libraries in the rural villages of Guatemala. Support for the women and children of Guatemala is a top priority in a country where 46% of the population cannot read and “educational opportunities are severely limited by a lack of access to books and other written material. Most towns and villages do not have libraries; neither do the public schools, which also do not supply any textbooks. Parents, many of whom earn the minimum wage of only $18 per week, simply cannot afford to buy books for their children.” The school employs women who are university trained teachers; it has established 26 libraries and 19 information technology centers; it runs two library busses to bring books to towns and villages around Guatemala; they have granted scholarships for students from poor backgrounds and have refurbished schools. For their “efforts to contribute to a better education for the children and youth of Guatemala” PROBIGUA was awarded the “Access to Learning 2001” prize from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  The Spanish language course fee is $125 per week for 4 hours of daily classes. I met with Tomas Ixcamey during my visit. Dr Rigoberto Zamora is the director. Contact info@probigua.org, or visit www.probigua.org. Tel (502) 7832-2998.

PLFM (Fundacion Proyecto Linguistico Francisco Marroquin) was established in 1969 with two purposes: to teach the Spanish language and to teach and preserve Mayan languages and culture. It is run by native Mayan professionals. Courses begin every Monday and students can begin study on any Monday throughout the year. Elma Contreras showed me around and I had a chance to see many one-on-one classes in progress in the cubicles set in the outside garden amongst the ruins.

She explained that most students stay with host families but bed and breakfasts or hotels can be arranged. Here students can study Spanish or Mayan languages such as K’iche, Q’eqchi and Mam among others. Participants also have their Salsa class and visits are made to the Chichicastenanago market. This school has worked with students from the US Embassy, Harvard, Virginia Commonwealth and the World Bank. Student fees at PLFM go to support Mayan people and their continuation of their culture and language. The half day schedule rate is $125 a week ($90 for the afternoon session.) Learn more andregister directly with the school at www.spanishschoolplfm.com (in English) or www.plfm.org (in Spanish) or email info@spanishschoolplfm.com. Students who prefer to make arrangements with the school’s US representative (for an additional $75 registration fee) can do so via Language Link at langlink.com or 800-522-2051.

Did I mention how breathtakingly beautiful La Antigua is? This one mile square, completely cobblestoned city, with its baroque colonial architecture, was once the capital of Central America (New Spain.) Actually most visitors see quaint streets. (I see sprained ankle waiting to happen.)

All three schools plan excursions for their students but my group used the services of an excellent local guide Catarina (Cathy) Moreira. She was friendly, knowledgeable and efficient. (Reach her at kuktours@gmail.com or Cattymor@hotmail.com or 502-5365-1090 or visit Kuktours.com.)

I particularly enjoyed the excursions selected for us from Antigua. We visited the local markets at Tecpan and the biggest and most well known market of Chichicastenango which is held on Thursdays and Sundays.

At Chichicastenango we shopped for handicrafts, and made visits to the church, a mask and costume workshop, and to the colorful cemetery where visitors invariably encounter a shaman performing Mayan rituals. (For overnight stays, the Hotel Santo Tomas is beautiful as is the Hotel Maya Inc.)

We also visited Lake Atitlan, formed in a volcanic crater (just one of 33 volcanoes in Guatemala) and it’s possible to take a small boat from one side to the other for a day trip or lunch.

Our group was warned that we had to make the return trip by 3:45 pm or passage would be impossible due to the winds called Xocomil. We also visited the archaeological sites of Iximche and Mixco where we saw a Mayan Ceremony performed.

Day trips by plane to the Tikal ruins are also popular with visitors as are hikes to toast marshmallows in a volcano.

Arch Street

Café Condesa Restaurant

Courtyard of Café Condesa

Plaza Mayor

WiFi available in Plaza Mayor

La Merced Church

Horse drawn carriages at the Plaza Mayor

PLFM Outdoor classrooms by ruins

Row of classroom cubicles at PLFM

Learning Cubicles

Cathy Moreira and artist at his studio across Lake Atitlan

Vegetable Market at Chichicastenango

Interior Courtyard of Hotel Santo Tomas

Boats Rides offered across Lake Atitlan

Volcano by Lake Atitlan

Mayan Ceremony

Article and Photos By Lisa Skriloff