Over the years, I’ve attended five Spanish schools in four countries, but my experience at Livit Immersion Center in Puebla in fall of 2017 has been the best so far.
As a fifteen-year-old, I spent a summer on a language exchange in Veracruz and fell in love with Mexico. These days, between drug-related violence and devastating earthquakes, the country receives more than its share of bad press. However, I believe travelers who do their homework can still safely enjoy this incredible destination.
My love affair with Mexico continues, especially with its gorgeous colonial cities, and I visit a couple of times a year. I’m fascinated by places like Mexico City, Guanajuato, Puebla, Zacatecas, Morelia, and Mérida, none of which feature on the US State Department’s no-go list. Of course, you should always do your own research on current conditions when planning your trip.
Mexican Spanish is my favorite Latin American variant of the language. It was the accent I learned at school growing up in Texas, and for me, it remains the clearest and easiest to understand. Many other Spanish learners I know have commented the same thing. Additionally, the abundance of Mexican movies and TV shows makes it easy to practice listening comprehension at home. Mexican Spanish is rich in creative slang and witty double entendres. It also incorporates many words from indigenous languages like Náhuatl, adding to its color and diversity.
I had visited Puebla twice before and been captivated by its opulent architecture and fascinating history. My plan was to return for a longer stay. Unfortunately, the devastating September 2017 earthquake struck a few weeks before my departure. Many friends asked if I would cancel my trip, but since major earthquakes are a relatively rare occurrence I felt one was unlikely to reoccur during my stay. The affected regions also desperately need tourism revenue to rebuild, so the best way to help is to visit.
The destruction of the quake was evident in Puebla but even more so in smaller towns closer to the epicenter. Unfortunately, many historic structures in Puebla and surrounding communities were damaged and temporarily closed. It broke my heart to see those gorgeous buildings cordoned off with yellow tape.
However, the Mexican people’s resilient spirit is inspiring. The rebuilding process has already begun to reopen these emblematic treasures to the public. And Puebla still boasts such a wealth of attractions that I never felt a lack of things to see and do.
I timed my visit to avoid rainy season, which falls in summer and early autumn. But my primary reason for coming in October and November was for Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), which I had never experienced in Mexico. I wasn’t disappointed. This incredible celebration features some of the most beautiful, moving traditions and displays of folk art I have ever seen (see more below).
Choosing a School
From my research, I found two Spanish schools in Puebla with consistently excellent reviews on TripAdvisor, Yelp, and 123 Teach Me: Spanish Institute of Puebla and Livit. Both schools feature a similar daily program of four hours of instruction in the morning coupled with two hours of afternoon conversation practice with a local guide.
Spanish Institute of Puebla seems like a great school. They were extremely responsive in communicating and even graciously gave me a tour of the premises the last time I was in Puebla. However, they operate on a three-week schedule for group classes, and this didn’t work well with the dates of my visit.
At Livit, classes start on a weekly basis. Ultimately, though, I chose it due to its smaller size and warm, family-run atmosphere. Having attended larger, more impersonal language schools, I’ve realized I vastly prefer the friendly, welcoming environment and highly personalized attention of a small school. As a woman traveling alone, having that type of support feels especially important.
I almost don’t want to give Livit the rave review it deserves, because I don’t want it to grow too much. I loved the fact that it was so small and intimate. My first week, the school had six students, and the second week nine. It was fun to eat lunch family-style with the students and owners of the school every day. Fortunately, the owners assured me that they have a plan in place to limit growth if needed in order to preserve the cozy atmosphere that only a small family-run school can offer.
The other students at Livit were friendly and interesting. The school receives people from all over the world, but the majority are from the United States.
The school is located in a beautiful historic home that Maru and Scott remodeled and live in themselves with their friendly rescue dog Beluga, adding to the family atmosphere. (Note: the school accommodates any students uncomfortable with dogs.) The property includes two small but very nicely outfitted apartments students can rent if they prefer not to do a homestay. The school is about a 15-minute walk from Puebla’s main plaza.
I was lucky enough to have Maru, one of the owners of the school, as my teacher for the two weeks I was there. She is an outstanding instructor and helped me brush up my Spanish where it was most needed. From what I observed the other teachers were also extremely qualified. This contrasted with another Mexican school I attended which charged less but often employed relatively inexperienced teachers. Having a highly qualified teacher makes a big difference.
I also enjoyed Livit’s creative, fun approach to language learning. The four hours of daily instruction were mixed up with a wide variety of activities and games to keep things interesting. There were cute little labels on many things at the school with the object’s Spanish name like “jabón para manos” or “el espejo.” When it came time to order coffee or pizza for the school, students even got to practice their real-life Spanish by volunteering to make those phone calls.
As an advanced (C1 level) student, it’s often been difficult for schools I’ve attended to find other students at the same level for a group class. My first week at Livit I shared class with one other student, but the second week I received private instruction for the price of a group class. I really appreciated that Livit did not cut the daily instruction hours from four to three as other schools often do when there is only one student in a group class.
Monday, Wednesday, and Friday we enjoyed a delicious homemade lunch of traditional Mexican food prepared by Maru’s mom. We ate family-style in the kitchen or in the lovely garden, weather permitting. Tuesdays there was an outing to a local restaurant to sample typical Poblano cuisine, like tacos arabes or cemitas. Thursdays a filling packed lunch was eaten in the van en route to our afternoon excursion.
Monday through Wednesday we spent two hours each afternoon with our guía (guide), a local university student. Many activities were possible with the guía: visiting historic sites or museums, touring a ceramic workshop, or just sitting and chatting in a café or bar. The main goal was practicing conversation in a fun, relaxed way.
My homestay was fantastic; the best I have experienced. My hostess Lupita was a wonderful and caring person, a patient conversationalist, and an excellent cook. We enjoyed many long chats that improved my Spanish. After a while though I did miss being able to prepare my own breakfast and dinner, and so on my next visit I would consider staying in one of the on-site self-catering apartments. You also can’t beat the short commute to class in the mornings!
Excursions with Livit
The Thursday excursions led by Scott to nearby destinations were a lot of fun. Traveling by car gave us the opportunity to visit quirky off-the-beaten-path places, my favorite kind of outing. Scott is a laid-back, spontaneous guy and an amazing fount of information about contemporary Mexican culture and language. I really enjoyed hearing his long-time expat’s perspective.
Puebla offers a wealth of sights, and there are also many interesting day or weekend trips you can take. Livit’s owners were very helpful in providing advice for weekend outings. I spent a lovely day in the nearby city of Tlaxcala. When I return I plan to go further afield for a weekend in the northern Pueblo Mágico of Cuetzalan.
Día de Muertos
I absolutely loved experiencing Día de Muertos in Mexico. I was fascinated and moved by the beautiful traditions and elaborate ofrendas (altars) constructed to honor the dead.
The city of Puebla itself isn’t especially famous for its Day of the Dead celebrations, but there was still no shortage of impressive displays to visit. The city provided a free map of the 30 most prominent altars. I devoted all my free time for three days checking out almost every ofrenda on the map! Many were in historic buildings I would never have visited otherwise. A wonderful way to get to know the city on foot while admiring incredible works of folk art.
Livit also took us on an excursion to Huaquechula, a small nearby pueblo famed for its altars. A fascinating cultural experience that would have been very difficult to do alone due to lack of public transport.
After two weeks at Livit, I hopped on a bus to Xalapa for eight days exploring the neighboring state of Veracruz before heading home to the States.
I maintain my Spanish with at least one stint at a language school each year. In early 2018, I’ll be escaping the cold by attending La Calle Spanish school in Mérida, Mexico for two weeks. However, I enjoyed my time at Livit so much that I’m definitely planning a return to Puebla soon.
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