Learn Spanish. Build connections, not walls.
Our friend Vicente just opened a Spanish school in Sucre, Bolivia, which got me thinking about Latin America.
Which also got me thinking, if you haven't already, I highly recommend learning Spanish, especially if you’re American.
Even just a little.
If you learn even enough to muddle through signs at museums, basic conversations, and the signs at bus stations, the door will be cracked open on a beautiful, interesting, previously inaccessible world populated by 500 million people. You'll be able to interact at a basic level and travel confidently in an entire, spectacular, continent (and a half) of people a few hours flight from the US. It'll change conversations with the 41 million Spanish speakers in the US from a daunting, awkward task to a learning and connecting experience, and will help you understand the culture of the country of 130 million people living right across the border from you that, admit it, you know almost nothing about. There are bilingual people all over the world. There's no reason you can't or shouldn't be one of them.
The more Americans that know Spanish, the better off the world will be. And personally, knowing a bit will totally make your life more rich and interesting. It's entirely worth it, and the initial time investment is not that significant. If you go and immerse yourself you can get to a level of basic functionality in three weeks - which will give you a fantastic base to learn more. I know, because we did. And if you go to the right place, you can manage the whole thing, from classes to transportation to food, on about $1000. I also know, because we did. (Volunteer somewhere, and you might be able to figure it out for even less!)
This post is designed to give you a big picture understanding of how to make it happen.
How to learn Spanish in Latin America
You can learn Spanish in community colleges or with local or online tutors from where ever you happen to be at the moment. That's good (DO IT IF YOU CAN!), but this is a post about learning in Latin America specifically. Because learning abroad is a genuinely life changing experience, and in many cases (I know it's hard to believe this), it can be even cheaper than hiring a tutor and learning at home in the US, even factoring in travel costs. It is definitely cheaper than learning in a university, so skip Spanish 101 and buy that ticket to Costa Rica.
There are some daunting aspects of learning abroad - I get it, I was stressed about the idea before we did it - but the things that I can absolutely assure you are that it is doable! It's affordable, safe, and manageable even on a week-long vacation, and definitely if you're someone with a bit of flexible time - between semesters, jobs, or contracts. Got three weeks of vacation time this year? Those 3 weeks could open up the world.
Here are the steps to take, and the order to take them.
1) Pick a country and town.
To tell you a little bit of our story, a few years back, in 2016, Angel (my wife) and I spent 4 months in Latin America on a self-organized trip, and we spent the first three weeks in San Pedro, a small town in Guatemala on Lake Atitlan, in structured classes (20 hours a week) and a homestay organized through Guatemaya Spanish School.
Our choice to go to Guatemala - and San Pedro specifically - was largely based on word of mouth recommendations. We had two friends who'd studied there on different occasions, and both of them felt like it was the right choice. They said it was a beautiful, friendly town, where quality of instruction was high and cost was as low as you'll find anywhere. And it was true. $200/week got us 20 hours of 1:1 instruction from university trained educators in an open air school with a beautiful view of Lake Atitlan, a homestay with a local family, and 3 meals a day. The three week cost, including flights (we caught a deal), was a little over $1000 total for both of us.
After Guatemala, we traveled for two months independently - El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina - and then ended our trip with another three weeks of instruction, in Sucre, Bolivia (which is where we met the aforementioned Vicente, who was my instructor). Budget was a major factor in our decision again. Courses there were $130/week for group instruction with 3 - 4 other people. We covered our own accommodation and food this time because we wanted the privacy after a lot of time in hostels and homestays. But beyond just budget, word of mouth and environment were also major factors in our decision making. We talked with friends who'd studied in South America, and Sucre was one of the top choices for culture and scenery. We'd visited Bolivia after Central America, and it was frankly one of the most stunning places we'd ever been. It wasn't hard to convince us to go back to study. We definitely didn't regret it.
Cost, word of mouth, and scenery are all important factors that influenced our decisions on where to go.
Another thing to consider is ease of access, depending on your time frame. Latin America is full of great places to visit that have Spanish language schools, but not all are easy to get to. If you want to study in Peru, you'll have no issue getting to Lima or Cuzco on an easy, frequent flight. But if you want to be near the Cordillera Blanca in Huaraz, you'll need to navigate 8 hour bus rides or infrequent flights. Similarly, if you want to study in Bolivia, lots of people fly into La Paz, but Sucre flights were expensive so we spent an overnight on a bus to get there. Central America obviously is easier to access from the US, but some locations require long bus connections. If I'd been staying in Guatemala for just a week, I likely would have studied in Antigua, which is easier to access than Atitlan as it's just outside of Guatemala City, where the main airport is located.
Factors like geography, climate, culture, and style of Spanish also are considerations. If you're looking for a big, metropolitan experience, and budget isn't your number one consideration, it might make sense to pay the premium to study in a place like Mexico City, Buenos Aires, or Santiago. If you want to learn to surf while you learn Spanish, it might tip the scales in favor of a place like Costa Rica, Peru, or even Uruguay - which are pricier than some other options. Or if you want to climb mountains on your weekends off, it might make sense to sacrifice the time needed to get to Huaraz or La Paz. Spanish in Chile and Argentina are idiosyncratic, and may be harder to learn if you already have a little bit of a base because you'll have to change your listening patterns and accent (Chile is to Spanish as Scotland is to English, roughly speaking. It's the same language, but only sort of.)
Affordable, beautiful options that come highly recommended include Peru, Mexico (my personal all around favorite Latin American country), Columbia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador.
Pricier countries are Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay.
This article is a decent review of some of the pros and cons of different countries. The site is ugly but it is pretty useful as a starting point (scroll to the bottom for the pros and cons list).
2) Pick a School
There are about a billion options, ranging from one person who takes on a couple students when they feel like it to big programs that cycle through dozens of students per week. Most towns of any size in Latin America will have someone who will teach you Spanish. But there are definitely some places where Spanish students congregate more than others.
My recommendation is to use Google to research the country you want to go to, then drill down to the city or area, and then drill down to the school to see if you can find a fit. Googling a “Latin American Spanish School” will be like trying to pick where you’ll have dinner by googling “restaurant North America”.
We studied at Guatemaya, a small school with just a few other students in Guatemala, and Me Gusta, a larger school with about 20 other students in Bolivia. Both were good experiences. We got to know our instructors really well in Guatemala, which was great, but we also came away with a few lifelong friends in Bolivia, so were happy with both decisions and would recommend either. The small school with 1:1 coaching meant we could ask whatever we wanted to know, but the large school offered specialized classes covering medical and other types of Spanish, so this was a perk of a larger environment.
For us the option to include a homestay was really valuable in Guatemala, because full immersion makes for a much deeper, if slightly exhausting, learning experience. By the end of our homestay, we were attempting (and failing) to explain group games in Spanish at a birthday party for the daughter in our host family, and that type of real world experience is hard to duplicate in a school environment.
But Airbnb is a way that you can replicate the experience all over, even if it isn't offered by your school. Some of our best personal connections in Latin America are with people who hosted us in Airbnb's, and it forces you, similarly to a homestay, to use Spanish practically. And costs are very frequently remarkably low. In Mexico we usually budget $20 - 30/night for two people, and in Bolivia it’s easy to find a nice room in someone’s house for $15 - 20/night.
To save yourself some research, you could just make it easy and go study with our friend Vicente in Sucre at El Camino, or our friend Javier on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala at Guatemaya. You have my word that they're both amazing options!
3) Pick a timeframe, but pay by the week.
3 weeks was a great amount of time for our purposes, starting mostly from scratch (Angel had never had classes, I took a bit of Spanish in college 15 year prior), to pick up enough to travel on. It gave us a base to learn more and travel functionally before sandwiching on another 3 weeks at the end of our trip. In that time frame we were confident in our ability to communicate our basic needs, and even speak one on one a little bit conversationally. I can figure out how to read the majority of signs and understand basic instructions. I still have no idea what people are saying if they’re speaking at a normal rate in long sentences, or conversing with each other in a conversation that I don't have context for.
Whatever your time frame though, pay week to week for classes. This is a standard approach so most schools will be happy to work with you on it, and it will give you the option to re-up if you like a place, or switch schools or locations if it isn't working for some reason. Booking ahead for your first week is a smart idea if you're making an international trip, but we showed up at the door in Sucre and everything worked out to start classes the next day.
4) Figure out how to get there.
A rule in Latin America is that finding transportation literally anywhere is possible, but if you want to get somewhere out of the way, you might be in for a bit of an adventure. Lots of places have easy direct flights, but flights to less popular destinations can be infrequent, so also quite expensive. Lots of places also require a bus or cab connection, and if you're really clever you might find yourself in the back of some guy's cousin's truck in order to get where you're going. Research what your trip will look like beforehand to save yourself some trouble and anxiety.
Transportation to most of the heavily visited areas in Latin America will be easy enough to figure out without knowing any Spanish. There's something of a Gringo Trail of backpackers from all over the world that form a steady stream through any place you're likely to end up on a first trip to Latin America. As such, even if there's no direct flight, if you want to go there, you can probably find an English speaking bus driver to book online that will get you there. You'll pay a premium over the local public transit cost, but you'll be able to communicate.
Once you've picked up some Spanish, you'll learn that you can just do what the locals do and save yourself a lot of money if you want. Book your transport on the ground using local transportation options. In most cases, this is relatively straightforward, and dramatically cheaper than options you'll find advertised online.
Rome 2 Rio is the best online resource to piece together the various types of transportation you might need to utilize. Other tips for Latin American travel are in this post. It's about Mexico but applies pretty much universally (although bus costs in Chile and Argentina are much higher than other parts of Latin America.)
5) Get resources and prepare
Anything you can do to give yourself a base in the language before you go will be valuable. Most classes are going to be customized to your skill level, so don’t pay someone to teach you the alphabet or basic grammar when you're just going to have to memorize it anyway. The basics are easy to learn for free. We used Duo Lingo, which is an amazing free app, and practicing with it for a couple of months beforehand was really valuable when we flew to Latin America. It teaches basic vocabulary and grammar. It would be hard to get fluent when you're being taught by a robot, but it does give you a framework to build on later.
SpanishDict is a strange name choice, but to me it's the best, easy to use free dictionary app.
6) Go Learn and immerse yourself!
After all of that, it's really just a matter of diving in!
If you have other questions I haven't answered - please comment or contact us and ask them! I'll answer you and update the post! It's easy to forget the questions you have before you do something, and I want this to be valuable to newbies!
If you like this post, you'll probably also like The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. It's our new book about living an adventurous life on the cheap and doing things like spending four months in Latin America when you don't have much of a budget to work with.
And if you like what we're doing here, consider joining the legion of Boldly Went supporters on Patreon!
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.