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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.
While direct shuttles between Guatemala and Mexico are becoming more and more popular, it’s still easy and affordable to take public transportation. When I left Guatemala I was determined to make it to Mexico via chicken buses. Half of the appeal was the adventure of a longer bus journey (call me crazy), and the other half of the appeal was the price.
When time is more of a constraint than money, direct shuttles offer a definite appeal to the border tramper. However, if you’re trying to save money to make time, then traveling like the locals do is your best bet.
For example, a shuttle between Xela and San Cristobal costs around $35 USD. To take public transportation, the cost is around $15 USD. For many travelers that I met, an extra $20 is a drop in the bucket. And the trade off for not having to worry about anything other than being on time for the shuttle makes the decision even easier.
But when you’re covering your basic expenses with $20 a day, you start thinking differently about how you spend your money.
Below is the extended version of what this trip entailed. Information most helpful for others interested in making this trip is in bold.
Part 1: Quetzaltenango to Huehuetenango
When saying goodbye to Guatemala, I had decided, without giving it all that much thought, that I did not want to exchange a lot of Quetzals at the border, preferring instead to get into Mexico and find an ATM where I could withdraw Pesos. I assumed the exchange rate would be better.
One final street vendor hot-dog for the road, and I had Q140 to make it to Mexico. (Around $20 USD)
From the city bus/vans in Xela, I was dropped off with the Minerva Market to my right, and made my way through the long row of street vendors, then continued walking inside of the Market, after asking at least two people for directions, and came out at the Minerva Bus Terminal.
There was a bus leaving for Huehuetenango when I arrived. Easy.
The cost from Xela to Huehuetenango is Q20, and takes at minimum, two hours.
In Huehuetenango, if you arrive early, it’s possible to make the journey into Mexico in one day. It won’t be a short day, by any means. But it will save you the cost of a hotel for the night.
Arriving in Huehue a couple hours before dark, and still feeling the effects of my final hangover in Guatemala, I decided to stay put. My goal was to cross the border during daylight hours. (Recommended.)
At the terminal in Huehuetenango, there is an entire street with almost nothing but comedors, tiendas, and hospedajes. I had heard that sleeping options are better closer to the center of town. But because sightseeing wasn’t on the agenda, I figured the closer to the terminal, the better. I was also lacking any interest or motivation in searching for a bed. The sooner I had a place to lay my head, the better.
There are at least half a dozen options in sight for sleeping. None of them, I will admit, are overly appealing. For whatever reason, Hotel Socut appeared as the most inviting of options. Maybe because there was a restaurant attached, and the front lobby was open and visible from the street. Maybe because it was well lit inside, I felt drawn to it. Maybe it was because the building is painted pink.
Regardless, I felt comfortable enough as a single female checking in for the night. Though, I will admit, all I could think of at the time was sleep. Had I been more rested, or had more energy, or more brain functioning, I may have preferred staying closer to the town’s center. But as it was, a combination of fatigue and not giving a f*** prompted me to take the first relatively decent room that I could find.
Rooms at Hotel Sucot are Q50 for shared bathrooms, and Q80 for private baths. The bed was pretty well worn, but there was a TV in the room, and a jug in the lobby where I could fill up my water bottle.
I turned on the TV to drown out any noise coming from other rooms, and I slept well. Really well. Even better, breakfast the next morning at Restaurant Sucut was delicious, kept me full until Mexico, and cost Q18. With the cost of the room, breakfast, and dinner the previous night, I now had Q30 left to my name, and was quite happy that I would be right on budget.
Part 2: Huehuetenango to La Mesilla, to Mexico!
Day two seemed off to a good start when, at the terminal in Huehuetenango, there was again no wait to catch a bus to La Mesilla, the Guatemalan border town. I was told that buses leave every 15-20 minutes, beginning at 4am. The ride from Huehue to La Mesilla is a little over 2 hours.
In La Mesilla you’ll be dropped off at the small Bus Parking Lot/Terminal. There will be a few tuk-tuks around and it would be a cheap ride to the border, I’m guessing around Q10. But, its also only a ten minute walk. Leaving the terminal head to your left, and immediately there will be a Y in the road. The left is where the bus arrived from. And to the right, the road continues downhill to the border. Stay on the main road, which is lined with shops on both sides, and you’ll be breathing Mexican air in no time.
Probably, I should have stopped at the Guatemalan office before I left the country. I didn’t. And no one said a word.
[UPDATE: Yes. You are in fact required to officially leave Guatemala. Take the time, find the office, and go through the proper exit procedure. Skipping this step, I was told, doesn’t necessarily get you in any trouble in Mexico. The problem would arise the next time that you try to leave Guatemala, and they fail to find an exit stamp from your previous visit. Luckily for me, my passport will expire and I’ll have a new one before I’m back in Guatemala. At least I’m hoping that circumvents any potential problems. But the bottom line is: if you can avoid any headaches and hangups when crossing borders, you won’t regret taking the time to do so.]
What I do know, however, is that the immigration office in Mexico is not just across the border from La Mesilla. Its about 4 kilometers away, in the “town” of Cuauhtemoc.
And it was in Cuauhtemoc that I realized that my plan to avoid changing money at the border had failed. There is no ATM.
However, let’s back up. To get to Cuauhtemoc from the border, it’s easiest to take a taxi. Several should be waiting just across the border. I was told the price is 8 pesos, but was charged 10. Fair enough.
However, I didn’t have pesos, and there was no ATM. So, with the Q16 left in my pocket (remaining after my final bus fair and a snack), I sheepishly approached the money changers. They offered 26.5 pesos, at a rate of 1.66 pesos/quetzal. I hadn’t prepared to exchange money, so I didn’t ask any questions. And I was quite pleased later to confirm that 1.66 was not a bad rate. Whether this is always what is offered, or if they figured no one was going to win by them taking a cut of my meager amount of cash, I don’t know. It’s worth knowing what the going rate is, and making sure you get it.
After changing my money, I started walking in the direction of Cuauhtemoc. I don’t really know why. I should have just got in a taxi. Several blocks later, at the very edge of town, I stood sweating with my hand waving, and watched three cabs with empty seats drive past me. Finally, with the help of a friendly local mechanic who successfully hailed the cab for me, I was on my way to Cuauhtemoc. From my 26.5 pesos, I had 16.5 remaining.
In Cuauhtemoc, I was dropped off at the Immigration Office. There was no line, and the staff looked as confused as I did when I entered. I handed over my passport, and after filling out the entry form, I was asked how long I was going to stay in Mexico. I responded seis semananas (six weeks) because that’s roughly how long I thought I would be here.
However, plans change, and it’s always best to be prepared. To avoid having to change or update your tourist card mid-travels, which I can’t imagine is an easy or fun process, if there is any doubt as to how long you will stay, ask for 180 days, or seis meses (six months). This is the maximum amount of time allowed for visitors without a visa. (This applies only to persons from countries where a visa is not required to visit Mexico. To view the list of countries, click here.)
So, now with my tourist card and passport in hand, I asked where I could find an ATM. And of course, you know the answer. I asked how much it would cost for a collectivo to Comitan.
I had 16.50 pesos leftover from the cab ride, and so I began to panic, quietly. I stepped away from the Immigration counter, praying that another English-speaking tourist would walk through the door. And then I remembered that a few nights before, at an Indian restaurant in Xela, I had met Dave. Dave had just returned from San Cristobal. And as we were paying our bill, Dave pulled out 20 pesos, and asked if anyone wanted them, as he wasn’t going to be returning to Mexico.
I said yes.
(Dave from Xela, if you ever read this, Thank you.)
For those of you who stayed awake in math class, you’re right. I still only had 36.5 pesos. And you don’t get very far trying to bargain with colectivos in Mexico. So here’s what happened, and why I will be forever appreciative of the kindness of strangers: In the immigration office, after inquiring about ATMs and the price of a collectivo, during my panic I informed the woman assisting me that I had 35 pesos to my name. I was fully expecting a blank stare in return. I had no hopes of this solving anything, I merely felt like I should express my plight to someone.
Without a word, without even looking up from her paperwork, she put a five peso coin on the counter.
And life was off to a good beginning in Mexico.
In total, I spent a little over $20 USD for the two-day trip, and I learned a lot, which will hopefully make your trip easier.
Making the trip? Here would be my advice:
1. Bring more cash than you think you’ll need.
2. Get an early start to avoid spending money on a hotel in Huehuetenango.
3. Stop at the Guatemalan Office before leaving the country.
4. Find out what the current exchange rate is.
5. Never doubt the kindness of strangers.