Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, or Xela (SHAY-la) for short, has a reputation among serious Spanish learners as an ideal location for language study. Despite being Guatemala’s second-largest city, Xela is off the tourist trail and few locals speak English, offering a great opportunity for total Spanish immersion.
Advantages of studying Spanish in Guatemala
Spanish language courses cost less in Guatemala than in other Spanish-speaking countries, especially in non-touristy Xela. The Guatemalan accent is also neutral and easy to understand.
A crucial advantage of Spanish schools in Guatemala is their tradition of one-to-one teaching, allowing intensive instruction individually tailored to your needs. Similar private lessons cost far more in neighboring Mexico, where group classes are the norm.
In addition, Guatemala is rich in indigenous culture and history and a fascinating destination in its own right.
SISAI Spanish School in Xela – Student Interview
My friends Deborah and Don have attended Spanish school in Guatemala multiple times. I first met this California couple at our homestay when we were all studying Spanish at Escuela Falcon in Guanajuato, Mexico.
When I heard about their great experiences at SISAI Spanish school in Xela, I asked Deborah to share her tips for learning Spanish in Guatemala.
Read on to find out more about this excellent Xela Spanish school and about studying Spanish in Guatemala.
Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Deborah and I live with my husband, Don, and our two toy Australian shepherds Olivia and Sofia. Currently, I am a digital nomad working as a website designer living in Mexico City.
In 2013, we left southern California and moved to Guatemala for six months. Our main focus was learning Spanish. Since then we have been traveling through Mexico and Guatemala while continuing to take Spanish classes.
I recently started my blog, Traveling With 2 Dogs. When we started traveling with Olivia and Sofia outside the US, I realized there was not much on the internet about pet-friendly places other than hotels. I could not find any information about pet-friendly restaurants or places to visit with a dog.
Nowadays, so many people travel with their dogs I figured this information needed to be provided. On my blog, I document all the pet-friendly places we stay and things we do with Olivia and Sofia. That includes taking the dogs to the Spanish schools we attend!
What was your level of Spanish before attending SISAI, and what previous experience did you have with Spanish study?
I took Spanish in high school and college. After that, I never spoke it and therefore forgot a lot.
My husband was a complete beginner in Spanish. He knew absolutely nothing. I also definitely needed to start Spanish lessons at the beginner level since it had been more than 30 years since I had spoken the language.
We attended SISAI Spanish School for four months in 2013. Lessons were five hours a day for five days a week with a private teacher, one-on-one. At the end of those four months I was speaking Spanish at level B1 (low intermediate). My husband was at a solid level A2 (advanced beginner) progressing to level B1.
In 2015 I returned to SISAI by myself for a month. During that time my Spanish became more fluid and my vocabulary expanded. I also lived with a host family. Staying with a host family improved my Spanish and my speaking confidence.
In 2018 Don and I both returned to SISAI for three months. This time we had Olivia and Sofia with us. They went to school with us every day. The other students enjoyed having the dogs to pet and sit in their lap while learning Spanish.
Prior to returning to SISAI, Don had a job where he spoke some Spanish daily. This helped him remember what he learned before.
When we returned to SISAI in 2018, Don was able to pick up where he left off at level A2 and in three months progressed to level B1. For me, after three months at SISAI my Spanish was a solid level B2 (advanced intermediate).
What made you decide on SISAI? How were your initial communications with the school?
When we decided to attend a Guatemala Spanish school, I did not have any idea how to select the right school. I wish I had had this blog to read and reference before going! It would have guided me through the selection process and saved us time and money.
I mention this because the first Spanish school we attended was not good at all. We began our Spanish school adventures in Lago de Atitlán, Guatemala. I selected a large school in San Pedro located on stunning Lake Atitlán. It looked nice from the website.
Although it was a beautiful place to study, we were not learning very much Spanish. The teachers did not have any formal training on how to teach Spanish. Most were not native Spanish speakers; their first language was Maya.
One of my teachers had never taught Spanish before. My husband’s teacher was more interested in practicing English than teaching him Spanish.
Around Lago de Atitlán the majority of the merchants and restaurants spoke English. It was hard to practice Spanish. I decided this situation was not helping with our goal of learning Spanish.
I began looking for another place to study Spanish in Guatemala. I found out that the most professional and high-quality Spanish schools were in Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela.
I found SISAI Spanish School through the internet and saw it had great reviews. SISAI was founded in 1989 as Juan Sisay Spanish School; the new name is an acronym for Sistema Académico Intercultural.
I contacted them by email, explaining that we were currently in Lago de Atitlán and looking at Spanish schools in Xela.
I also mentioned that we needed a place to live and did not want to stay with a host family. (Side note: The reason for not living with a host family was that we were going to be there for months. We needed our own kitchen to be able to cook the food we wanted, when we wanted. Homestays are good for short time periods or if you are traveling alone.)
Don and I hired a driver to take us up to Xela, about three hours away, for the day to look around. We met the director, Yaneth, at the school. We were immediately put at ease by her warm and friendly hospitality. She gave us a tour of the school.
While touring the school, a few students came up to us to tell us how much they enjoyed studying Spanish at SISAI. After the school tour, Yaneth took us to different apartments available for rent. She helped us find a great apartment within a 20-minute walk of the school.
What sold me on SISAI was how professional and organized the teaching program was. We were both serious about learning Spanish and therefore liked that the lessons were five hours a day, five days a week with a private teacher and customized lesson plans.
The school also provided twice-weekly mini-conferences and daily after-school activities. Both were great aids for learning Spanish.
I also liked that the school was small and friendly; genuine caring hospitality was extended to us from both the director and the teachers. We felt part of a family of students and teachers.
What time of year did you attend SISAI? What was the weather like? Would you recommend other students attend during this time?
Xela is about 1.5 miles in elevation nestled in the highlands of Guatemala. The climate is cool and breezy.
The first time we attended SISAI was from May to September 2013. We needed a jacket in the mornings and at night. During the day it was pleasant. The rainy season was from July to September.
In 2013 it rained a lot and was very cool. However, when we returned in 2018 during the same months there was very little rain and clear blue skies most days and warm.
When I returned to SISAI in January 2015, the weather was crisp in the mornings with warm clear blue sunny skies every day. The afternoons were pleasant in the high 60s to low 70s. The nights required a jacket.
Guatemala is known as the land of eternal spring, especially in Xela. It does not get hot or humid. You can visit year-round and be very comfortable.
How did you travel to Xela? Did you find it easy to get to your accommodation?
SISAI arranges bus transport from Guatemala City to Xela. Normally the journey takes between 3.5 to 4 hours depending on traffic and road conditions.
The school organizes pickup from the airport to the bus station. Two first-class bus lines offer daily non-stop service between Guatemala City and Xela: Linea Dorada and Fuente del Norte. The cost for a one-way ticket is about US $10.
If you arrive at Guatemala City’s airport in the late afternoon or evening, SISAI will arrange for you to stay the night with the school’s family in the capital. They will pick you up at the airport, transport you to their home, feed you, and take you to the bus station in the morning.
Once you arrive at the bus station in Xela, the school will pick you up and take you to your host family or accommodation.
What did you think of Xela as a location for Spanish study? How does it compare to other places in Guatemala as a place to study?
If you are serious about learning Spanish and want the most value for your money, then Xela is the place for you.
Very few people speak English in Xela. It is not a tourist destination. Any foreigners you see in town are there to learn Spanish or working at an NGO nonprofit. It is a natural total immersion experience.
Xela is the second-largest city in Guatemala. It is a mixture of old and new. Xela is at the heart of everything Maya. It was once the capital of Maya culture throughout Central America.
The school is located in Zona 1, the charming old historic section of Xela. Zona 1 is a very walkable area with cobblestone streets and narrow sidewalks. You can take a colectivo (public shared taxi van) to the other zonas.
There is a good-sized shopping mall in Zona 3 that includes a Walmart and Sears. Anything you need can be found there.
Safety concerns in Guatemala
Due to the rhetoric presented on North American news, Guatemala and its people are painted in a negative light. Yes, there is crime throughout Guatemala, and this is also true of the US. In fact, Xela is much safer than Chicago! This graphic is from Numbeo:
I always felt safe in Xela. I used common sense and did not go out at night alone. If the school had an activity in the evening, they always called cabs for the students to take home after the activity ended.
Restaurants and nightlife in Xela
There are a number of diverse restaurants in Xela that offer great food. The nightlife is lively with salsa dancing and live music. SISAI offers free salsa lessons as an after-school activity.
There are other places in Guatemala with numerous Spanish schools such as Antigua and Lago de Atitlán. However, these towns have a lot of tourists, school prices are higher, and local people and businesses speak English. These are wonderful places to visit, but not ideal for practicing Spanish.
What were your accommodations like?
Our first time in Xela, we rented a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment about a 20-minute walk from the school. It was fully furnished with typical hotel-style furniture. We paid about US $350 a month in rent.
It included electricity, Wi-Fi, and cable TV. The bathrooms featured the “electric” showers typical for Guatemala. An electrical showerhead is attached to the spout that instantly heats up the water before coming out. The showers were warm, but not hot. Contrary to popular legend, we never got electrocuted!
Normally, there is no hot water provided in the sinks in Guatemalan homes. We had to get accustomed to washing dishes in cold water.
When I came back in 2015, by myself, I stayed with a host family for a month. I had a private bedroom with a full-size bed and a desk. I also had a private bathroom.
What were your daily meals like?
SISAI host families provide three meals a day, seven days a week. In Guatemala the largest meal of the day is lunch; it usually begins around 1:30 – 2 pm.
Host families can accommodate special diets such as gluten-free, vegetarian, or vegan.
Marimba music is always played during lunchtime. I find this very charming!
In the evenings, a light meal is provided.
What was your daily schedule?
First day of school
On the first day we attended SISAI there was an orientation meeting with all the new students. The school director, Yaneth, gave an overview of how the school functions, explaining laundry pickup and delivery service, emergency numbers, phone numbers for the taxis the school works with, the resource library, and which teacher we would be assigned to.
(Note: We have attended other Spanish schools since then and have not encountered this type of helpful orientation.)
School is from 8 am to 1 pm, Monday through Friday. They are very much on time!
Usually my first hour with my teacher was spent on conversation. We talked about what we did the night before, how the excursion went, if it was fun and interesting, what we ate the day before, etc.
I used this time with my teachers to get to know them and for them to get to know me. We also would go over the personalized lesson plan the teacher had created for me.
The SISAI teachers provided weekly personalized lessons plans for each student. This helped me keep track of my progress and understand the end goal the teacher had in mind for me. I would also add in additional goals if I wanted.
There was a daily 30-minute break at 10 am. The school provided coffee and fresh pan such as cookies or sweet breads.
Local resident Doña Isabel came to the school during the break to sell home-cooked items like paches (similar to tamales) or vegetarian tostadas. They were usually around 5 quetzals (US $0.65). Her food was always delicious and safe to eat.
Sometimes I would pick up a cafe latte to go at the restaurant down the street. The coffee in Guatemala is soooo good!
Every Monday – Informational meeting
On Mondays after the break all the students and teachers would gather together in the common area for an organized group meeting. The purpose of this was to introduce any new students and to have fun getting to know each other and feel welcomed.
To me this was an important differentiator from other schools I have attended. SISAI made it a point to have all the students know each other and to feel like you belonged to the family. Whether you are traveling alone or with others, SISAI was very inclusive with everything.
During these Monday-morning meetings, a teacher would provide a schedule for the week’s activities and excursions. They would go into detail on what the excursions were, any cost involved, start and end times, and where to meet.
SISAI had activities every day after lunch, plus longer excursions on Saturdays, usually lasting all day. These Monday-morning informational meetings lasted about 30 – 40 minutes.
Tuesdays and Thursdays had a normal full-day schedule, with classes from 8 am – 1 pm and a 30-minute break at 10 am.
Wednesdays and Fridays after the morning break we would all gather together for mini-conference sessions lasting about 30-45 minutes.
The idea behind the mini-conferences was to have you listen to another teacher speaking Spanish to train your ear and learn about Guatemala or other interesting topics.
For Wednesday’s mini-conference one of the more advanced students would translate into English. This was another excellent tool for learning Spanish.
The topics for these mini-conferences varied weekly, from the beliefs and customs of the Maya people to the history of the Guatemalan war in the 80s, migration issues, and the current situation with the Guatemalan government.
For my husband and me, the mini-conferences were very valuable. We learned so much about Guatemala and soon fell in love with the country, the culture, and its people.
Weekly feedback survey
Every Thursday, the school director would hand out a survey to the students asking for our thoughts on our lessons, progress, and our teachers.
If you were at a homestay the survey would ask about the quality of your room and meals and any concerns you had. There was a place to write in comments or suggestions.
This was a safe place to put any information you wanted to communicate to the school if you did not feel comfortable doing so in person.
I have noticed that most Spanish schools provide a survey on your last day of classes. To me that is too late! What if there were things that needed to be changed or adjusted while you were there and you did not feel comfortable saying so in person?
What were your classes like?
All classes at SISAI are private; there are no group classes. In my opinion, this is the best way to learn Spanish at an affordable price: 25 hours of one-on-one instruction for US $220 per week (not including accommodation).
I felt the quality of instruction was excellent. The SISAI teachers are all certified language teachers, and most are university graduates.
What worked for me was having the same teacher every day for five hours. This functioned well especially when learning a new grammar tense or mood. We could practice this until I finally got it.
I did not have to change teachers or subjects every hour or deal with other students who might be learning at a different pace.
Every teacher at SISAI teaches Spanish as their career. It’s not a job to do until something better comes along. The teachers really love what they do. They all have their set of tools, handouts, workbooks, and creative ideas to help you learn Spanish.
What extra activities does the school offer?
Every afternoon, excursions and activities guided by SISAI teachers take place in and around Xela and surrounding pueblos. Since the teachers were with us on the daily activities, everyone got to continue practicing their conversational Spanish in a fun and comfortable environment.
Typical examples of daily activities are:
- Taking a chicken bus to one of the many local Maya pueblos and learning the historical highlights of that pueblo
- Taking a cooking class from a famous chef at a local restaurant and learning to make classic Guatemalan dishes
- Visiting a natural hot spring located on a mountaintop
- Learning how to play the marimba or backstrap weaving
- Helping with the reforestation project to plant trees in the nearby mountains
- Watching a movie and discussing it with the group
Weekend excursions are longer; for example, hiking up the volcano Chicabal and then visiting a sacred mountain lake the Maya use for their rituals. Often, the excursions are coordinated with the topics of that week’s mini-conferences.
What volunteer opportunities does the school provide?
SISAI Spanish School is a nonprofit cooperative, so all the teachers share in the income and expenses. Any remaining money is used to support 75 local families by helping their children attend elementary and high school.
Often, a family cannot afford school uniforms, shoes, backpacks, or supplies. That means the child cannot attend school. SISAI has organized a scholarship program called Educación Para Los Niños to provide supplies to the children.
The program is always looking for volunteers to tutor students in English and math. One year I helped tutor one of the students in English for a few months. It was fun and rewarding.
Other volunteer opportunities include helping in the front office at the school. For the past seven years I have volunteered as the school’s webmaster and Skype class coordinator.
There are other volunteer opportunities in Xela: for example, working at a cooperative for Maya weavers or an internship at a business.
One student I knew volunteered at an accounting office because he needed to learn business Spanish. If you are interested, SISAI can provide a connection to local businesses.
What are your future plans for learning Spanish?
Right now, we are living in Mexico City (CDMX). We will be here for five months.
We plan on attending a Spanish school here in CDMX. We also plan to travel around to different states in Mexico to experience the culture, meet locals, and enjoy great regional food.
We have learned that no matter your age it is never too late to learn another language. We have met some wonderful people of all ages from all over the world!
A huge thank you to Deborah for sharing her tips for how to learn Spanish in Guatemala! Be sure to check out her helpful posts on pet-friendly Spanish schools and traveling to Guatemala with a dog. Follow Deborah’s travels on Facebook.
All photos courtesy of Deborah of Traveling With 2 Dogs and SISAI Spanish School, Xela
Have feedback about Spanish classes in Guatemala or a Quetzaltenango Spanish school recommendation? Please share your thoughts in the comments.