The Jewel of Guatemala

By Bernadette Bernon
October 26, 2001
Antigua, Guatemala

I remember the young Guatemalan waitress in the hole-in-the-wall restaurant looking at me quizzically, and then with wide-eyed alarm, as I tried to order dinner. I fumbled with my Spanish-English dictionary, and then eventually seemed to get my point across, that I hoped for something without meat, without lard and without salt — seemingly the three favored ingredients in Central America! Finally, curiously relieved, she trotted off to the kitchen to rustle up some rice and beans. Douglas began flipping through the diccionario, and smiled.

"You originally told her — I think — that you like to eat vegetarians," he said.

Photo of Mayan treasures sign The ironies of life in the 21st century.

After linguistically stumbling through Cuba and Mexico, one of the goals Douglas and I set for ourselves this year was to learn Spanish, a language in which neither of us has had any training. We were determined to really work on it here in Guatemala, a country renowned for its high-quality immersion-language courses and its clear accent. While we were backpacking around the highlands, we started by spending a week in a Spanish-immersion course in the city of Quetzaltenango: four hours a day, for five days, each of us with our own teacher who spoke almost no English. At first, my head was splitting from so much grammar, but by the end of that week, my teacher, Yadira Ordonez, and I were discussing in Spanish — granted, quite fractured Spanish — the economic situation in Guatemala, how the military works, the power of the evangelical religious movement here, information about our families, our work, and our personal lives. I was beside myself with excitement to be having these (very painfully slow!) conversations in a language in which, a mere one week before, I'd barely been able to ask for directions to the loo.

That week studying in Quetzaltenango showed us that to get serious about learning Spanish, we needed to enroll in an immersion school for a minimum of three weeks, so upon returning here from the U.S., we decided upon Antigua as the place we'd most like to hang out. That's where we are now, enrolled in school from 8 a.m. to noon every day, each of us with our own teacher, and then studying on our own all afternoon. (It's a little like being back in college, only with a roommate you have permission to sleep with.) This is week two, and already we're talking up a storm in our halting but eager Spanish, and ambling through one of the most beautiful little cities in the Americas.

Photo of a Guatemalan chicken bus

I just love this town, especially in the fall. We've been here four times now, and seen it from many angles. The first time was a few years ago, back when we were making a living! We came here for a quick holiday on the way home from Salvador; and we stayed in the best hotel in town, the breathtaking Casa Santa Domingo, a restored Dominican monastery dating back to 1642. When we came a couple of months ago, while I was dealing with my thumb doctor in Guatemala City (it's only a 45-minute ride between here and the capital), we chose other digs.

We've seen Antigua in different seasons, and we like it best in the fall. There are fewer tourists; the weather is still warm, and most of the college kids have returned to school in their various countries. The cobble-stoned streets, lined with magnificent 17th-century buildings, are quiet, the bougainvillea is still in bloom, and the air is perfumed with the aroma of roasting coffee. (Antiguan highland beans are reputed to be some of the best in the world.)

Photo of the volcanoes that surround Antigua In almost every direction, you can see the volcanoes that surround Antigua. Founded in 1543 as the capital of Guatemala, after an earthquake damaged the city, the capital was moved to a new site, Guatemala City.

Antigua is nestled between three dramatic volcano cones, all of which my maestra (teacher), Fabiola Chiquito, and I could see from our assigned desk on the rooftop terrace at Instituto Antigüeño de Español, one of more than 60 schools here. As we sat privately and talked, we could look over the terra-cotta roofs to admire Volcán Agua and Volcán Acatenango. In the distance Volcán Fuego (fire) still spews a plume of smoke. Fabiola told me that the earth is very hot up there, and on clear nights you can look up and see the volcano's dramatic red glow.

Douglas and I are living at Posada La Merced, a sweet little hotel with a colonial courtyard garden of flowers and a gurgling stone fountain right outside our room. It's a perfect place for us, and close by we have our favorite places to hang out in Antigua. We bargain with the locals in the mercado, a couple of acres of vegetables, fruit, cheeses — everything you can imagine, and ridiculously cheap — and we cook many of our meals in the guest kitchen at La Merced, eating at the courtyard tables. When we want to splurge on dinner, we walk a few doors down the street to a four-table restaurant called Fernando's, where Pepe, the Spanish chef, makes mouth-watering tomatoes flambéed in rum, gazpacho Andalusia, and paella. Dinner for two there is about $6. For a dessert treat after class, sometimes I cajole Douglas into going with me to Café Condessa, where we split a big piece of warm blackberry-apple pie with cream; berries are in season here and we can't get enough.

Photo of La Merced, Antigua’s most striking colonial church La Merced, Antigua's most striking colonial church, was built in 1548, and rebuilt several times after earthquakes. Douglas and I can hear the morning bells in our posada around the corner. At six a.m. the bells have rung anywhere from 47 to 83 times, and we're entirely baffled by the system. But we're up!

There are little cinemas in town, too — rooms off cafes, really, with a few couches, a television set, and a video-player — where for about a dollar we've seen a slew of movies (some in English and some in Spanish with subtitles) that focus on the politics and wars in Central America — La Hija del Puma (Daughter of the Puma); I am CUBA; Buena Vista Social Club; El Che: Investigating A Legend; The Riddle of the Maya; Fresa y Chocolat; Traffic; A Place Called Chiapas; and Carla's Song. Antigua also has plenty of internet cafes, new and used bookstores, laundries, and El Sitio, which is a beautiful cultural center of dramatic and visual arts. Sometimes at night we'll walk over to the Hog's Head, a British bar that shows CNN and BBC, so we can catch up on what's happening at home.

Last week, Fabiola and I went to the mercado, and she explained to me in Spanish what certain unusual-looking fruits and vegetables were. She identified concoctions for different maladies —indigenous Guatemalans remain devoted to herbal medicine — and introduced me to her novio Tomas, whose family runs a modest stall in the mercado that sells men's clothing. I felt I already knew her fiancé, as he'd been featured in so many of Fabiola's Spanish ejemplos over our time together. Tomas asked me all about the United States, if I'd ever been to Alaska, what it was like, had I ever seen a bear, and what did snow feel like, what fruits grow in the U.S., what does the Grand Canyon look like, what does my father do, what was New York like after the attacks, was my family near there, and are they scared? Tomas brought my hobbling Spanish to the brink of desperation, but Fabiola jumped in with the odd word and bridged things whenever I found myself grinding to a halt.

Photo of fresh fruit, yogurt, granola and honey A favorite breakfast of ours is fresh local fruit, yogurt, granola and honey at a place nearby called Perlito — all for about a dollar.

It was a breakthrough conversation for me, although it must be said that I'm still only dealing with the present tense. If I can't say it in the present tense, at this point it doesn't get said, and last week I actually had to ask Fabiola to slow down and stay with the present tenses longer than usual, until I felt I had it down. Douglas, on the other hand, rushed with his maestra headlong into the past tenses — a perfect statement of the differences between us as people. I'm perfectly happy in the present, where I am. He loves to dwell in the past. "It's a Jewish thing," he joked when I brought this to his attention. "I'm looking forward to doing future tenses too, so I can talk about how bad everything's going to be!"

This week, simply for the purpose of getting a different perspective, Douglas and I both changed teachers. He moved from Mercedes to Julio and is enjoying their time together. ("Mercedes was good," said Douglas, "but I couldn't ask her to teach me las vulgaridades. I need a guy for that.") Meanwhile, I moved from Fabiola to Amalia Jarquin, who is a private Spanish teacher, and I'm bowled over by her. College educated in international relations, Amalia is an excellent teacher who's not only making previously indecipherable things sink into my head, but offers an incisive perspective on world events. Part of my vocabulary now, thanks to my talks with Amalia in Spanish, are words such as atacar, miedo, seguro, antrax, sintomas, sufrir, poderosa, pobre — attack, fear, safety, anthrax, symptoms, suffer, powerful, poor — as she and I spend a little time every morning with the newspaper discussing (still slowly, mind you!) the affairs of the day.

Photo of fountain in the courtyard of La Condessa
A fountain in the courtyard of La Condessa. Most of the buildings in Antigua were constructed
in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Spanish were in power.

Photo of marimba band The sounds of the marimba can always be heard somewhere in the evenings.

So this is how Douglas and I are spending our time right now — out the door by 7:45 a.m., Spanish school from 8 till noon or 1 p.m. or so, studying till dusk, or until our heads are ready to burst with new words and tenses and ideas. Then we walk in the Parque Central with its towering stone fountain in the shape of Mayan women with water spewing from their breasts. We watch the villagers who've brought their weaving to sell. We listen to marimba bands playing Guatemalan love songs. For a few quetzals, we eat empanadas, chile relleños,and pupusas stuffed with local cheeses. We talk about life, and this cool town we're getting to know — sometimes in our halting Spanish — and we wait for hurricane season to end.

Inside Information On Visiting Antigua

Where We Went To School

In Antigua, we attended the Instituto Antigueno de Espanol. The director, Julio Garcia, who speaks fine English, can be contacted by phone (502-832-7241; email at Find out about the school at The fees there are in the middle range for Antiguan schools. For five days of classes, four hours a day, the fee was $70 a week each, and this included a list of interesting activities, free bikes, and movies. Housing and three meals a day with a local family for seven days is an additional $50 per week per person. The most expensive program in town is only about twice that much, and we saw others for as little as $50.

Photo of the courtyard of the Hotel Modelo Annex Studying in the courtyard of the Hotel Modelo Annex.

Amalia Jarquin is the private teacher with whom I also studied. She's a terrific, very prepared teacher, and great fun to get to know. She works out of her home, just around the corner from Posada La Merced. I very much enjoyed my time with her, and give her the highest recommendation. She can be reached by email ( or by phone (502-832-2377). Her weekly fee was $65 per person, and she too can arrange home stays with Guatemalan families.

Finding a Spanish Language School

For a comprehensive list of schools, go to any search engine you like on the internet and type in (SPANISH+LANGUAGE+COUNTRY NAME) and you'll find all you can handle. Because Spanish language education is a cottage industry in Guatemala, it probably has the most schools in Central America, but we've also met people who've been happy with their language programs in Mexico and Costa Rica. As an endorsement of the quality of the programs here in Antigua, the U.S. government sends employees to several schools here, usually for nine-week, eight-hour-a-day individual programs in which the employees are housed with families. The group of U.S. Coast Guardsmen we met say the language study is the best part of their jobs so far. All are now fluent.

Most schools offer options: four, five, six or eight hours a day of classes for five and six days a week, depending on how much school you want and what else you want to do. Many schools have bicycles to loan, movies to watch, salsa and meringue lessons, cultural lectures, and advice about weekend trips. Most can arrange for you to do volunteer work — in Spanish — in local projects. In some of the highland villages, Todos Santos for instance, the local language school also offered classes in Mam, a local dialect, and weaving on back-strap looms.

Classes are almost always one-on-one, and the quality of instructors varies considerably among and within schools. You can arrange your matriculation over the phone or internet if you know exactly who and what you want, or you can choose a town in which you think you'd like to spend time, merely go there, and then stroll around to talk to the program directors and students. That way you can see firsthand what you might be getting into. There are so many well-organized schools to choose from in most Guatemalan cities that you can arrive one day, find a school, and start classes the next.

Selecting and Changing Teachers

To give yourself the gift of language school for an extended period, just for the pleasure of learning, is one of the payoffs of cruising, so if you don't like what you're getting, speak up. After several days you'll know if the fit is good, and whether you want to continue with that instructor or that school. Loyalty to your learning comes ahead of being a meek little student. Some schools actually have a policy of changing teachers every week. Not a bad idea, really.

Photo of a garden courtyard in Antigua A garden courtyard in Antigua. In 1944, the government declared Antigua a national monument; in 1979 UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site.

Staying in Antigua

In Antigua there's a range of hotels from the sublime to the intolerable, from about $125 a night to a few dollars a night, and in our visits here we've stayed in different hotels that span that entire range. For $20 a day, we recommend Posada La Merced, where we have a very nice room with a comfy bed, a private bathroom with unlimited steaming hot water day and night (a big deal in this country), a desk, two good reading lamps, book cases, a big window overlooking the pretty garden courtyard and fountain, and free use of a fully-equipped communal kitchen. (Equally nice rooms with shared baths are a fraction of that cost.) Gail Rogers, the New Zealand woman who owns La Merced, is a warm-hearted and savvy former tour leader who's made a wonderful home here for herself and her daughter Isabel. Gail speaks impeccable Spanish and English, can help arrange anything, and will even coach you on conjugations. Ironically, while we were staying here, we met in our hotel the couple whose boat is next to ours at Tortugal Marina in the Río! What a small world. Hotel Posada Merced is located on 7a. Avenida Norte, 43 A, and can be reached by phone or email (502-832-3197, 502-832-3301;

An Unusual Family Vacation

Photo of sitting on the balconey railing

We met two American families (mom, dad and two kids) who were all taking Spanish language classes at a local school — each with a different teacher, and living in a small hotel where they could cook meals and eat together. The kids were excelling and having a ball, and the parents were not far behind. While the parents said they originally had to drag their children here, now none of them want to leave, and they plan to return again next year for more. Around Antigua, there's lots to do, including hiking the mountains, horseback riding, and bike riding around the various little pueblos surrounding the city. If you plan to bring your young kids, request teachers for them who are particularly experienced in early-childhood education. My teacher in Quetzaltanango was a primary-school teacher before becoming an immersion-Spanish language teacher.

Other Towns

There are few communities in Guatemala that DON'T have language schools. When we first started studying, we were in Quetzaltenango, and selected a school there called Celas Maya ( We liked this school, which pays its teachers fairly, is set in a pretty courtyard, and offers extremely reasonable rates (less than Antigua) with lots of extra activities. We looked at many places to stay and made our home in the picturesque Hotel Modelo Annex, a six-room, friendly place with a garden courtyard, spacious rooms, private baths, and low cost. Quetzaltenango is a large and busy modern city that offered lots to do: several videotape/movie houses, the excellent (and cheap) Royal Paris, and Las Calas restaurants near the school and hotel.