Central America, Guatemala

Should you learn Spanish in Xela or Antigua?

August 19, 2011

Studying Spanish in Xela

If you’ve only got a limited time in Guatemala to learn Spanish or you’re looking to set yourself up in the one spot for a while, you’ll probably wonder whether it’s better to do so in Antigua or Quetzaltenango (Xela).

So having spent a week studying in both places, here’s my take on the subject.

Antigua

A UNESCO world heritage listed town, Antigua is less than an hour from Guatemala City airport, making it the perfect first stop in Guatemala if you’re arriving by air. It’s a very popular place to learn Spanish, and one of the cheapest places to do so in Latin America.

Studying spanish in Antigua, Guatemala

Spanish schools

More than you can poke a stick at, most with excellent reputations.

Food

The food in Antigua is pretty damn awesome. The variety is huge, so if you’re staying with a host family and are sick of the Guatemalan staples of rice and beans you can easily get McDonalds, bagels, Mexican, fried chicken or even a Southeast Asian fix. The downside? Eating out in Antigua is pretty expensive, and a meal including a soft drink or beer will run you upwards of 60 – 80 quetzales.

Of course, there is also plenty of street food to be had near Parque Central, but I admit I ate McDonalds more times than was probably strictly necessary.

Top tip: Go to Bagel Barn and have a bagel with chocolate chip cream cheese. You’ll want to kiss me in thanks, I promise. 

Transport

It’s really easy to get to Antigua from Guatemala City and once you’re there, tourist shuttles can take you almost anywhere in the country.

Top tip: Don’t pay your language school $30 for an airport transfer. Although I was told at the airport that there were no $10 shuttles to Antigua as all the guidebooks suggest, I did manage to bargain a taxi down from $30 to $15 for the 45km trip. 

Studying spanish in Antigua, Guatemala

Nightlife

Antigua is packed with bars and pubs, although each night it’s generally only one or two places that are hopping – you have to be in the know! If you’re a woman, ask your teacher or other students about ladies nights where drinks cost a tiny 5 quetzales.

Top tip: Reilly’s has a fun pub quiz on Monday nights – great for meeting people

Things to do and see

From hiking up Volcano Pacaya, or up to Cerro de La Cruz to taking a tour of a coffee farm – you’ll never be bored after class or on weekends.

Top tip: Take someone with you up to Cerro de La Cruz – it can be a bit dodgy

Safety 

Antigua feels very safe, so it can be easy to let your guard down. I knew of a few people (mostly girls walking alone at night) who were mugged at gun or knife point – the muggers are not out to injure you, just scare you and take your stuff. Apparently petty theft is on the increase.

Top tip: Don’t use the ATMs around Parque Central. If you’re taking money out, only do it inside a bank – the ATMs in Antigua have serious card cloning problems right now. 

Studying spanish in Antigua, Guatemala

The vibe

This was where Antigua fell over for me. It’s a little Disney-fied – a little too clean. It’s also very much a party town – you could go out until 3am every single night of the week if you wanted (or could afford) to.

While I like to have a drink, I am most definitely not a massive partier so this was a downside for me – it might not be for you!

It’s also very, very easy to meet people in Antigua. In fact, I met so many people I was looking for some alone time by the end of my week there.

Xela

In the highlands north of Antigua is the university town of Quetzaltenango. More gritty in feel than Antigua, it’s quite a liberal city with a strong – local – arts and music scene.

It’s generally a place where people a little bit more serious about travel, studying spanish and volunteering come to stay.

Studying Spanish in Xela

Spanish schools

Plenty. Probably not as many as Antigua, though. I loved mine.

Food

There isn’t as much variety as in Antigua, but it’s much cheaper. There are some really great atmospheric cafes within a couple of blocks of Parque Central, and there is a McDonalds and Pollo Campero for anyone who wants their fast food fix.

There are also lots of local comedor style restaurants serving tipico Guatemalan fare, and the popular Albamar, a more local verision of Pollo Campero with a larger menu.

Top tip: Cafe Luna, although slightly out of the way, does awesome hot chocolate. Go for the chocolate purro. 

Transport

Xela’s downside is that it’s much further than Antigua from Guatemala City (about 5 hours from Guate), so it’s a bit of an awkward first stop if you’re arriving by air. Your Spanish school will probably recommend you take a taxi from the airport to one of the bus companies that run regular coaches up to Xela.

There are plenty of shuttles operating from Xela – those to Lake Atitlan are popular.

Top tip: Getting around Xela is exhausting because of the altitude! At 2,300m, Xela’s hills are punishing on the lungs. Be ready for it – my teacher told me it sends some people running (stumbling?) back to Antigua. 

Nightlife

No where near as crazy as that in Antigua. There are a few pubs/bars and a club or two – ask around for what’s hot. There’s also a well known gay bar.

Top tip: Quetzaltrekkers and other organisations often host parties. Ask at your Spanish school for their evening plans, too. 

Things to do and see

Xela’s cobblestone streets are just as beautiful as Antigua’s, if a little more run down. There aren’t as many sites in the immediate vicinity, but if you’re into hiking, this is the place to come. There are also loads of volunteer projects you can get involved with.

Top tip: Make Xela’s cemetery a must visit on your list, but take your Spanish teacher with you for safety in numbers. 

Safety 

Although it’s considered a safe city by Guatemalan standards, Xela is not as safe as Antigua. A girl from my school was grabbed around the throat by a mugger at 7.30pm on a Sunday evening – if there is no one on the streets, you should get off them, too. Just be cautious.

Top tip: Don’t use the ATMs in Zone 1. Those around the mall in Zone 3 are fine. 

The vibe

I loved it. It’s much more relaxed than Antigua and the crowd a little more on the same wavelength as me. It also felt much more Guatemalan than Antigua.

The verdict

Hands-down, I preferred Xela. I was able to get to know my teacher, do some volunteering and avoid the rain in some comfortable cafes, and I didn’t feel guilty for not going out and partying every night.

My verdict? Go to Xela. It’s awesome.

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12 Comments

  • Reply Kris Koeller August 19, 2011 at 6:08 am

    Nice writeup. They both sound fascinating and worth a visit.

  • Reply Claire August 19, 2011 at 9:58 am

    I agree with your verdict. I studied in both places and I also feel as if the quality of the instruction was better in Xela. Loved both places, there are pros and cons to both, but if you want to really get down to business and learn some Spanish, then Xela all the way!

    • Reply MeganRTW August 25, 2011 at 3:30 am

      People in Xela were definitely more serious about learning Spanish, Claire! Plus, given some of the news coming out of Antigua over the last week or so, it’s sounding more and more like Xela is the place to go.

  • Reply Christine August 19, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    I am considering Xela in October, and this was exactly what I needed to know. Thanks.

    • Reply MeganRTW August 25, 2011 at 3:30 am

      Glad you found this useful, Christine! Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like any more info.

  • Reply Heather August 21, 2011 at 4:26 am

    Stumbled and saved for future reference 🙂

  • Reply GRRRL TRAVELER September 5, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    Very cool to know. At one point I was debating between the two and Xela just seemed more attractive and cultural to me. Antigua sounds exactly how I imagined it… overrun with foreigners.

    FYI- Learning spanish and volunteering was my backup plan if South Korea didn’t pan out. But I was having self-doubts about traveling alone and too many people were warning me about the problem with petty theft & holdups.

    Glad you feel good about your choice and be safe.

  • Reply Deb February 6, 2012 at 7:22 am

    Xela all the way!
    Can I give two Xela recommendations? i’m about to.

    Volunteering: it has to be non-profit EntreMundos (between worlds). They have a free database of loads of volunteer opportunties. And you can also get a personalized service from their volunteer advisor bod to help you find out about the different options, for about $3 donation, and a friend of mine set hers up before she got here for a $40 donation. She said it was totally worth it and nothing compared to those volunteer work agencies. http://www.entremundos.org

    Spanish school: I know there are tons, but I loved Utatlan Spanish school, in Pasaje Enriquez the most gorgeous colonial building in Xela. Small, friendly and relaxed but very professional As I was in town for over 2 months, I also taught English to Guatemalans in their English school (same location!) http://www.spanishxela.com

    • Reply MeganRTW February 8, 2012 at 7:58 pm

      Thanks for the great Xela recs, Deb. I’ve also heard good things about EntreMundos.

    • Reply Kelsey March 31, 2012 at 6:38 pm

      Thanks for this info! Deb, I want to study at Utatlan but ideally would like to teach English, as I’ll be there for 2+ months. Is this difficult to arrange? Their website says you can trade teaching English for Spanish classes, which sounds wonderful. Thanks for your help!
      Kelsey

  • Reply SFClark July 23, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    MeganRTW… this was a great post which makes me feel good about my final decision to go with IFRE Volunteers in Xela. Are you familiar with them? I have been told I will mostly be in Zona 05 living with a host family, taking spanish classes, and doing volunteer work… any tips on that area? I am going September 2012 for the 1st semester during my gap year before college, and while I’ve been in some poor countries, this is the first time I am on my own. I am going away for 12 weeks. Do you think that’s too long in Xela? I have considered splitting time between Xela and Antigua. Did you see many gap year students, or 18 year olds traveling alone? I am not a partier at all, but am concerned that once it gets dark, I will have to be in for the night. Last question… did you have any trouble with the elevation? Thanks again for all the information you provided here.

    • Reply MeganRTW August 9, 2012 at 8:28 pm

      Thanks for your comment, SFClark. I haven’t heard of IFRE volunteers, but there are lots of programs like that in Xela. It will be an amazing experience living with a host family – I didn’t do it but almost everyone I met was. 12 weeks is certainly a long time to spend in the one small town but the great thing about Xela is that you can do weekend trips to Antigua, to the Lake and all over Guatemala.

      There were lots of gap year students, and plenty of people your age (and younger!) doing similar things. Night time is definitely not the safest time to be walking around alone anywhere in Guatemala but so long as you’re in a group and are sensible you’ll be fine.

      The elevation isn’t a huge problem – you’ll only notice it walking up Xela’s many hills!

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