Learning Spanish in Nicaragua

From my viewpoint high above the lake, the blue water was sparkling clear. It was early May. The smell of rain occasionally floated in on a muggy breeze, but the rainy season had not yet fully arrived in Nicaragua. Barren brown mountains encircled the lake and rose up to form the upper rim of a crater. The trees that covered the mountains were mostly bare, their brittle branches casting waves of gray over the landscape. A red bush or a green shrub dotted here and there appeared even more vibrantly red and green against the muted colors of the landscape.

Nicaragua is full of cities that are full of Spanish schools, and I needed something to tip the scales and help me decide where to go. This was it. The promise of taking daily swims in warm, clear water that’s surrounded by the rising walls of a 200-centuries-old volcanic crater lured me in, and I enrolled in a week of private language lessons at Laguna de Apoyo Spanish School.

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After I paid my tuition ($240 for the week, which included room and board), I wondered what the quality of language instruction would be like. I wasn’t overly concerned because the price was reasonable. My goal was to learn enough to communicate during my 10 additional days of travel after I left Apoyo, but I knew that I could learn only a limited amount in week. By the end of my week, I felt like I fully got what I paid for and more. I left happy and willing to recommend the school to people beginning their language study, or for those who want to brush up on their skills.

I met my teacher, Wilmer, on Monday at 8:00 a.m. We sat in a shady mango tree grove, and every few minutes a monkey hurled a mango onto the ground from above, with tiny bite marks that revealed pale, unripe flesh. The leaves rustled lightly as the monkeys swung to their next tree, continuing their search for sweet, ripe fruit.

Mesa, silla, lapicero.

I repeated after Wilmer as he pointed to the corresponding objects surrounding us—table, chair, penand corrected my toothy l’s and non-trilling, flat r’s. I wrote the words in lists in my notebook, the sweat from my forearm causing an unattractive sticking sound, like Velcro, against the white plastic table.

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Laguna de Apoyo is located about 30 miles southeast of Managua, and is the deepest volcanic crater lake in Nicaragua. The village of the same name that spirals up around the lake is part of a protected nature reserve. Laguna de Apoyo Spanish School also functions as a hostel and an ecological research station, so I shared meals and talked with an eclectic mix of travelers during my week-long stay.

There was a trio of male Dutch interns, who collected birds from their traps in the garden each morning and inspected the birds’ wing span, beak length, and coloring. They penciled their findings into a spiral notebook, and then set the birds free. Just after lunch, the three of them peeled off their shirts to reveal impossibly long torsos and pale skin, and headed to the lake. They moved in sync and spoke little, like boys who had known each other forever. At night, headlamps strapped to their foreheads like miners, they hiked through the jungle searching for boa constrictors hanging from tree branches. I tagged along once, terrified and exhilarated, but we didn’t spot any snakes.

Jeffrey, the long-haired American proprietor, roamed the grounds each morning in bare feet, making a list of daily tasks. All day long he kissed and cooed his pet scarlet macaws, who he had rescued from captivity and who didn’t know how to live in the wild. Jeffrey was competent and smart, and tended to be a bit long-winded on a wide range of topics, from Nicaraguan politics, to whorehouses in Houston, endangered species, and local village gossip.

There was also Pablo, who was in charge of everything that Jeffrey wasn’t. Pablo spoke excellent English but politely conversed with me only in easy beginner’s Spanish. One afternoon, I climbed into his pickup truck and went grocery shopping with him. He turned it into a language learning treasure hunt, rattling off fruit and vegetable names in Spanish and sending me off to search for them.

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“Cuaderno, hoja de papel.”

An hour or so into our first lesson, Wilmer continued to run through his list of beginner’s vocabulary as I repeated after him. A lizard tiptoed up the trunk of a bamboo tree, blending into its greenish-brown surroundings almost perfectly. Chickens scratched around the leaves near our feet, bobbing their heads and clucking softly. I could feel my hair curling around my forehead, defenseless against the creeping morning humidity, which seemed to not affect Wilmer at all. About halfway through the lesson, Wilmer’s bright brown eyes began to take on a glazed-over look. He was slouched far down in his chair, and reciting words to me in an even, bored monotone, barely containing a yawn.

“Escoba, pala, roca.”

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I was happy that Wilmer stuck to a Spanish immersion methodology; in fact, he knew only a few English words, but when he taught me the words for broom, shovel, and rock, it seemed like he was simply pointing things out that were in the garden around us and making me repeat them. I didn’t have the language skills to ask him for what I really needed—basic tourism Spanish—and I began to worry that there was no context or logical order of his lesson. I looked around for a scrap of paper that might indicate that Wilmer had prepared some sort of lesson plan, but my notebook was the only paper between us. Wilmer suddenly looked even younger than I had first thought, and I wondered if he was actually a qualified teacher.

Then I took a deep breath, and relaxed, and realized that teachers make terrible, self-righteous students. I also realized that, as a language teacher myself, I had an advantage that other students might not—I could tailor my lessons to exactly what I wanted to learn.

The next morning, I took some money out of my wallet and we started our lesson by going over the different Córdoba denominations. Then—and I tried to do this with full respect towards my teacher—I showed Wilmer a list of things I wanted to practice: a dialogue in a taxi, asking for directions, getting a hotel room, and ordering and paying in a restaurant.

Considering that I may have hijacked everything he had planned for the week, Wilmer dove into my request with great enthusiasm. He played the part of a hotel clerk, a taxi driver and a waiter, stepping out of character whenever necessary to teach me new vocabulary, prepositions, and those troublesome verb conjugations. We had a fun, friendly week, and in the 10 days of my travels that followed, I utilized and practiced a lot of the language Wilmer taught me.

Because my teacher was professional, friendly, and flexible, and because my week in Laguna de Apoyo was filled with quiet morning walks and afternoon swims in glass-blue water, and because they serve the best coffee in Nicaragua, I highly recommend Laguna de Apoyo Spanish School.

The cost of tuition ($240) included room and board from Sunday through Saturday. Spanish lessons took place from Monday to Friday for four hours each day. My room was spacious with a comfortable queen-sized bed and private bathroom; my only complaint was the dim lighting in my bedroom. After the sun went down, I could only read or write with the aid of a flashlight. Bring a headlamp and maybe a spare flashlight, too, and expect to lose power for a few hours if a thunder storm blows through. Other than that, Internet and cell phone service worked fine.

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Field trip to Masaya with other students

The food was excellent. The meals were a basic and healthy combination of traditional Nicaraguan food and organic fruits and vegetables. Also included in the price were several afternoon field trips, intended to enhance our Spanish skills, as well as our cultural experience in Nicaragua.

Email or check the website for current Spanish language prices, as well as volunteering possibilities and other opportunities you can take advantage of. Jeffrey and Pablo are great resources for any of your questions, whether by email or in person. During my stay, they were both always on hand and very friendly.

Laguna de Apoyo Spanish School: http://www.gaianicaragua.org/spanish.html

Estación Biológica Laguna de Apoyo: http://www.gaianicaragua.org/

Email: apoyo@gaianicaragua.org

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