Just to get this out of the way:
Yes. Yes, you can travel in Central America and Mexico without knowing Spanish. I’ve been twice now, with limited (though consistently improving) Spanish language abilities, and I’ve met many travelers whose Spanish skills are far more lacking than my own. And we’ve all done fine.
But learning Spanish for travel has infinite benefits and this doesn’t mean that traveling without knowing Spanish is easier. It’s not. And this doesn’t mean that traveling without knowing Spanish will offer the same experience as knowing the language would. It won’t. However, if your only prior Spanish speaking experience is ordering food from Taco Bell, don’t let that get in the way of your dreams of heading south.
In fact, you can head south and learn the language while you travel. Chances are, you’ll be happy that you did.
Here is why:
1. A better travel experience
One of the joys of traveling is being surrounded by new sights and sounds and experiences, being able to take all of it in, and learning as much as you can about your new environment. Without knowing the language, certain doors to certain experiences remain closed. This is why every traveler I’ve met has made the effort to at least learn the basics: Hello. Goodbye. Where is the bathroom? The bank? I would like to order this for dinner. Thank you. Every new word or phrase opens a new door, a new opportunity. Learning the basics of language allows you to stray further from what feels comfortable, from what feels safe. Further from the places that cater only to tourists, and from tourists themselves.
2. Understanding Your Surroundings
There is a definite tourist trail throughout Mexico and Central America, which is why not knowing Spanish is not a deal breaker if you have the urge to travel. But if you have traveled this trail, and haven’t taken the time to stop and talk to those around you, those who aren’t just passing through, I think you’ve missed out on something. A big something. Yes, people speak English. But many people appear more open and more comfortable when you can speak to them in the language that is comfortable for them.
In my experiences traveling, if I really want to know a place, then I want to talk to the people who live there. Period. Knowing the language allows you to know people. And knowing people allows you a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the world around you.
Being a white, able-bodied female in a predominately white section of America, I don’t often have the feeling of being an outsider. In Mexico and Central America my blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin set me apart from the majority. I’m sometimes ignored, sometimes looked at, sometimes cat-called. I am always very aware that I am different (not to mention American, which is another story all together.) Thus being able to speak to people in their language is a way for me to transcend the feeling of being an outsider. It is one of the best tools I’ve found for doing so. That and laughter.
This one is simple. I don’t know how many times I’ve asked for directions repeatedly within a two block radius because I doubted my ability to understand directions in Spanish. I don’t know how many times I’ve nodded my head and smiled because I got lost when the conversation exceeded my linguistic capabilities. I don’t know how many times I have been certain that I understood someone, only to realize later that I had misinterpreted them. I don’t know how many times, but it was enough times that I genuinely coveted the language skills of fluent friends and travel companions. It just makes travel easier.
5. Personal Benefit
In addition to the reasons above, the best part about learning Spanish is that you will bring this new skill set home with you. Being bilingual is an asset: personally, socially, and professionally. Just ask anyone you meet from a European country who is speaking to you in English. It helps to be bilingual. Being from a country whose native language is English can be a handicap when it comes to bilingualism. But I promise that the incentives are there, even if they are less obvious in the beginning.
So, how do you learn Spanish?
My first recommendation is that if you are in school, even if you are not required to learn a second language, do it anyway. Take classes. Learning a language is something that you should work on daily, and classes provide both the structure and curriculum for you to do so.
If you aren’t in school, there are still plenty of resources out there. One of my favorites is an online, interactive BBC course, Mi Vida Loca. Though it is set in Spain, where the language is a little different than the Spanish of Mexico and Central America, it’s a great introductory course, and you’ll be able to sort out the differences later.
Also helpful is the website: www.studyspanish.com
(And it explains some of the differences between the Spanish of Spain and Latin America.)
Next, find a language partner.
Find someone who you can practice Spanish with. I’ve heard many people say that this is the best and cheapest way to improve your language skills. It also helps you become confident speaking, which can be intimidating if you haven’t practiced before you travel.
Offer to help someone with English in exchange for help learning Spanish. This may not seem realistic everywhere, but you could be surprised. Even in my small, non-Hispanic, Ohio town, at the Mexican restaurant I met a waitress who told me that every semester she would exchange language lessons with a different college student studying Spanish. Give it a try.
And finally: Go to Guatemala.
There are many reasons why I fell in love with Guatemala. One of them is that a noticeable segment of tourism in the country is centered around Spanish language schools. Because of the prominence of Spanish language schools and their affordability, Guatemala has earned a reputation as a top destination for those interested in studying Spanish.
When deciding on a language school, perhaps the easiest way to narrow your choices is to decide where you would like to live for a month… two months… six months… while you are taking classes. Probably, you will narrow your focus to either Antigua, Xela, or Lake Atitlan.
Antigua: is a language school hub as well as a tourist hub. With an economy built around tourism, it sometimes feels more like a small college town in [insert US city/state here] than a true Guatemalan city. Visitors, volunteers, students, and expats all flock to Antigua. Many of these people are interested in improving their Spanish. Thus, with numerous volunteer activities, dining options, and nightlife opportunities, Antigua is a no-brainer for many looking for language school opportunities.
Xela: officially known as Quetzaltenango, “Xela” feels like the real Guatemala to me, and would be my first pick for studying Spanish. Not a hot-spot on the tourist trail, most of the travelers that you meet in Xela are there to learn Spanish. Or at least, that was why they arrived initially. Students and teachers alike will tout the superiority of Xela to Antigua, noting that it lacks the distractions and English language catering that classifies Antigua, making it an environment suited to the more serious language learner.
Lake Atitlan: is both breathtaking and fascinating. Though perhaps more isolated than Antigua or Xela, the number of towns around Lake Atitlan justify planning enough time to explore them all. Regardless of which town you decide to make your home, any of the others are a short boat ride away, and can be explored on weekends or days-off from classes. San Pedro and Panajachel both have good Spanish schools, and enough tourists and tourist-centered restaurants and activities to keep life interesting and entertaining.
You can read more on BorderTramp about the above locations. Check out the “Doing” sections of each city or town for information on Spanish Schools. I either took classes, or met with the administrators of all the schools listed on the site, and I would recommend any of them. Outside of these recommendations, I encourage everyone to do their own research. Email schools to find out prices and what is included. Home-stays are generally offered, though optional, at every school. After-school activities, like cooking classes and field trips, are also the norm, and its not uncommon for these to cost a nominal fee covering expenses and transportation. Also ask about the teachers: who are they, what training do they receive, how much experience do they have, etc.
A sometimes overlooked factor in picking a language school is how many other students are enrolled, as this can make a big difference in your experience. If you are the only student, field trips might not be offered. If there are 100 other students, you might enjoy a more vibrant atmosphere or feel lost in the crowd. Just as you would consider size when deciding on a college to attend, take the same into account for Spanish schools. Oh and by the way, you might look into whether or not college credit is offered for your classes.
Finally, if you are reading this while traveling and don’t have time to plan ahead, don’t stress. Find a school, walk in, and sign up on the spot. I’ve done this twice now, and have had a great experience both times.