The Research Phase

The first thing I want to do on my big Latin America trip is attend an intensive Spanish school. I figure I should build up my skills for a month or so before going out into the world. As it turns out, Spanish schools are numerous. And to be honest, I found it pretty daunting and overwhelming at first. To the point that I didn’t actually start in-depth research until I was about a month away from when I wanted to depart. Not my usual style, and I don’t recommend it, particularly due to increasing flight costs. 

In my research, I found it super useful to read other people’s blogs, Reddit threads, and comments on review sites. It was kind of a lot of work, and I can see how it would also be challenging for others. So in this post, I’m outlining my thought process and methodology. If someone else is traveling this same path through the internet, maybe this consolidated information will help!

Choosing a Country 

When I finally did get moving, I started broadly. Latin America is a big place, and I didn’t know which countries to visit. (Actually this is still up in the air.) I don’t know that much about Central or South America. I just knew that I wanted to learn Spanish. I want to be bilingual, and it’s a broadly spoken, and therefore versatile language. But I still felt unsure of where to start this journey. So, I fell back on what I do know: myself. I asked, what is really important to me in this experience? I wrote down my primary criteria for choosing a location, and ranked them:

  1. Safety
  2. Climate
  3. Cost
  4. Versatility of local accent
  5. Local activities
  6. Population density
  7. Not too touristy

Then, I made a list of countries in Latin America and did a bunch of internet searches. I learned about the geography of the region and read “Top 10…” blog posts, cost of living comparisons, weather patterns, etc. Then I basically rated the countries on a binary for the factors that are important to me.

Obviously it’s impossible to generalize that an entire country is touristy or not touristy, safe or unsafe–any place is going to have some of both. Maybe some of my broad generalizations are not completely accurate. I mostly wanted to get a feel for what’s out there and narrow my search a little. I do the same thing when I go to a restaurant with a huge menu: scan the categories, choose a section or two, and then don’t even look at anything else. Decision fatigue is costly, and whatever I choose with any thought or effort will be fine.

I’m going to review my criteria, but not exactly in order. For me, this process was more about generating a kind of mental Venn diagram, and then leaning more into my particular wants and needs for making a decision.


Right now the US State Department has “Do Not Travel” advisories for Venezuela, Haiti, and some parts of Mexico. So, those areas are out. But the State Department also has a lot of advisories to “Reconsider Travel – Contains Areas of Higher Security Risk.” I am basically taking this to mean, “Do your research, don’t be stupid, follow sound advice.” I’ve also had to examine what “safety” means to me. Certainly I am not interested in traveling to a place where I’ll be slaughtered by a drug cartel or kidnapped for ransom, but I think it’s pretty easy to see that those narratives are overblown, and it’s not so difficult to avoid places where that’s a statistical likelihood.

From what I hear, petty crime is a common thing throughout Latin America (at least compared to mellow Waimea and wealthy Boulder). It’s pretty possible that someone will steal something from me from me at some point. That’s a risk I’m willing to accept, and I’m going to get travel insurance and take what precautions are available to me.


One thing I had to acknowledge and account for: in Latin America, “touristy” seems to be directly correlated with “safe.” So though I want to have an experience that is authentic and immersive, and not oversaturated with gringos, I also need to remember that I’m a total n00b, and I need to be careful not to get in over my head. I’ve lived amongst tourists all my life, and they’re largely tolerable. So I’m opting to ease into this and play things on the safer side, sticking to more touristy places while I’m traveling alone.


Since climate is high on my list, I started here. I decided that for the time period I was planning to go to school (June and July), I didn’t want to be deep in South American winter. I just spent 8 years in Colorado, and to be frank, I’m a tropical creature. I’m not feeling ready for my return to the cold quite yet. So I thought about latitude and temperature, and for that reason, Chile, Argentina, and areas with super high elevation are also out. I’ve given consideration to prioritizing places that have beach access, but I realized that I’m about to travel for a long time. I will have lots of opportunities to go to the beach. I don’t need to base my choice of a language school on that. For my climate research, I mostly just looked at weather sites, or Googled things like “temperature in Medellín in July.”

Activities and Population

My search for activities was kind of broad. I like outdoorsy stuff in particular, and it’s important to me to spend time in nature while I’m going to school. I’m hoping to hike a lot. However, I can also appreciate the value of a popping restaurant scene, which is more likely to be found in a metro area. One thing I know about myself: I’m not a city kid. I grew up in a small town, where everything closes by 9:00 PM, and we have four traffic lights.

When considering where I would want to live long-term, the sweet spot for me is a smallish city. I was pretty comfortable in Boulder and Longmont, cities in Colorado with about 100k people each. Denver has over 700k, and that feels like a little much for me. But I enjoy experiencing different places, and for a limited time, I can enjoy the perks that come with urban sprawl.

At one point, I searched for a list of cities in Colombia sorted by population size. I read the Wikipedia entries for all of the ones that seemed close to the size I wanted. But I found that there are definitely popular centers for language study in most countries. The places that have the perfect number of people for me are not necessarily going to have a good selection of schools. Overall, I determined that I do care about availability of activities and population size, but they’re not that helpful for narrowing the field initially.

Versatility of Local Accent

The internet has lots of opinions on whether this is a valid thing to care about. It seems like it comes down to this: Spanish is Spanish. Essentially any Spanish speaker is going to be able to communicate with any other one, though maybe there are going to be challenges. Much like if someone from Scotland encounters someone from Louisiana. But there are some places where people have accents that are considered more “neutral.” In the US, that’s apparently Ohio. News TV stations send newscasters to train there, where they can learn to speak in a way that is not identifiable by obvious regional markers.

I’m not sure how tied to neutrality this is, but they say there are also places where people tend to speak more slowly and clearly. This clarity is easier for a foreigner to parse. Places that seem to be known for this neutrality and clarity are: Colombia, Peru, Ecuador,  and Guatemala. All of these countries met my other criteria, so it seemed like a good place to cull the herd. Since I’m going to be visiting Ecuador and Peru with my family later this year, I decided that I wanted to do the first leg of my trip somewhere else.


Cost is important because I’m not working right now, and I want to preserve my funds as much as I can. But it was a little difficult to research this before I chose a country because most of the costs I’ll incur are going to be specific to the school I attend. You can be kind of general when looking into the cost of living in a particular country or city using resources like, which I did to get some landmark points for reference. But it’s way too time consuming to sift through a list of cities in Latin America sorted by cost of living. So, though cost is an important factor, I waited until I had a clearer idea of the other factors before researching this more deeply.

At this point, I was looking mostly at Colombia. I determined that the Spanish schools are concentrated in Bogotà, Medellín, and Cartagena. A couple of people also gave me personal recommendations for Guatemala. Guatemala’s major hubs for language learning are Antigua, Quetzaltenango, and the Lake Atitlán area. The next step was to go to the websites of a bunch of different language schools to compare what they were charging for classes and homestay. I then made a spreadsheet listing all these prices. I even included a few schools in countries that I wasn’t actually considering. I figured it would help me to get some perspective on price variation. My spreadsheet also broke down class format, class hours per week, and whether extracurricular activities were included in the price.

It quickly became apparent that Spanish schools in Guatemala are very cost-effective compared to schools in Colombia. That price differential was pretty compelling. And when I saw some very nice photos of Lake Atitlán’s bright blue waters surrounded by steep volcanoes, I felt sure that Guatemala was the place for me to start my travels. 

Choosing a School

My criteria for a school were pretty loose at first. 

  • Homestay
  • Good reviews
  • I also initially wanted to attend a school where I could do a mix of group and private classes.

As I read more, I decided I also care about 

  • Age range of students – I don’t want to be a decade older than everyone else.
  • Experienced instructors – I’m not trying to pass the DELE (Diplomas in Spanish as a Foreign Language) exam, but I want to know that there’s some established standard of teaching. 

When it came to choosing a school to attend, I found a helpful website that aggregates reviews for Guatemalan Spanish schools. The site seems like it hasn’t been recently updated, but the information is still helpful. It makes the front runner schools obvious. I looked through the review site and individual schools’ websites to start. I also watched YouTube videos of past students describing their experiences, as well as travel YouTubers’ overviews of the cities and towns.


I always knew I wanted to do a homestay during my time in Spanish school. It seems like the easiest way to immediately have a comfortable setting in which to practice and build relationships. Plus, it really simplifies things logistically. Most of these host families feed their visiting students, and the school makes the arrangements. Fortunately, most schools provide this option, so this wasn’t a limiting factor.

Class Structure

In Guatemala, almost all Spanish schools do exclusively 1:1 lessons, no group classes. In terms of value for money, that is actually a huge plus. But I’ve only done group language classes in the past. I found that I enjoyed the social aspect of learning with peers. I’m also about a decade past college graduation. I am a little unsure of how good my attention span is these days, and 1:1 lessons sound intense. Most schools offer flexible scheduling options, from a few hours a week to 6+ hours a day, so I’ll start with 5-hour days and adjust as needed.

I decided that Quetzaltenango sounded too cold for my taste. That left Antigua and the towns surrounding Lake Atitlan. After doing a lot of research, I still couldn’t decide between the two areas. I liked the idea of just choosing one place where I could spend most of my Guatemala time. I like consistency and routine. But I also want to experience both places for some amount of time. Fortunately, many of these schools only need a week’s notice to secure enrollment. So, I contacted a couple of different well-reviewed schools, making sure they meet my criteria. I reserved my first week, and I’m leaving my exact timeline open-ended for now.

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I spent my 5th birthday in Guatemala!

Stoked to see where your travels take you! It was scary at times leaving my home to go some of the countries I’ve lived in and worked in; in the end, my little break in CO was more foreign to me than the lives I had in these places. Boulder was a lot on my senses; the outside was great but boy was I a fish out of water during those couple years! Have a blast!