Where’s the best place to learn Spanish in Latin America?

Every day the Cactus Language Team receives many phone calls from our clients and potential clients. Most already know where they would like to take a language course because of a particular affection for a city, the desire to visit a specific place and combine it with language learning, because it’s cheaper to fly to or because of a romantic interest! However, the phone calls we enjoy most are from clients who know they want to take a language course but don’t necessarily know where. They seek our advice as to what’s best for them, and this is where we really get to show off our excellent product knowledge and recount stories of our own language courses and travels.

As the Latin America specialist I’ve been asked several times, “Where is the best place for me to take a Spanish language course?”. Of course this is near impossible to answer because of personal preferences about city size, levels of tourism, location, other attractions in the nearby area, etc. However, there are certain common factors in choosing a place to study a language, and I am going to use them to try to find my recommended top location for taking a language course.

Location does seem to be people’s top priority. As this is so subjective, according to individual interests, I won’t give one answer for this but instead my three personal preferences in the 4 following categories:

Types of Location

1. City: If you like city life and want a place with lots of people, plenty of culture, good public transport, food and great nightlife, it’s hard to look beyond Buenos Aires, the most cosmopolitan city on the continent with an atmosphere that oozes cool and provides a fascinating fusion of European and South American culture. The real up-and-coming city though is Bogotá. Gradually shedding its reputation for violence (in fact it has been as safe as any other city for many years) and gaining a reputation for experimental cuisine, it provides fantastic modern Latin music and culture as well as amazing museums where you can learn about the country’s pre-Columbian and colonial history as well as the legend of Eldorado. For sheer Latin American supercity craziness you can try Mexico City. Incredible nightlife and a huge population mean you won’t be bored and there’s plenty of archaeological wonders close by. However, you do have to contend with the high levels of pollution.

2. Beach: With so many beautiful white sand beaches in the Caribbean it’s really hard to choose. If you want a beach in the middle of nowhere where you can get away from the crowds and enjoy a peaceful beer at sunset, with only a handful of locals around, it’s hard to beat Samara in Costa Rica. Its sandy beach and consistent waves make it very popular with surfers. If you want a white sand beach resort it’s hard to get better than Playa del Carmen, on the Caribbean side of Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula: it is developed, but the clear blue sea and pristine beaches show you why. And for a Caribbean island, head to Sosúa in the Dominican Republic for a heady cultural mix, white sand, blue seas and watersports at a slow pace.

3. Historic towns: For an environment which lives and breathes its own history of two powerful and cruel empires, which left an indelible mark in their spectacular architecture, look no further than the Inca capital of Cusco. Colonial churches are built next to Inca temples and wherever you look there is a piece of the city’s fascinating but bloody past. For a Spanish Colonial city right on the Caribbean coast with its own romantic stories, discover the rich gem of Cartagena de la Indias in Colombia. A small city which offers a colonial centre and a rich history of music and dance is Santiago de Cuba, birthplace of Compay Segundo, Buena Vista Social club and salsa itself.

4. Off the beaten track: If you want to learn a language in a quiet little town and immerse yourself under the skin of a culture you need to go somewhere a little more difficult to get to. Beautiful Boquete in the cloud forests of Panama is a good starting place. Panama is developed enough for you not to feel too isolated as a foreigner, but gives you a small town vibe and if you stay any more than a week most people will know who you are. Or for the sheer novelty of taking a language course in the world’s closest city to Antarctica, Ushuaia in Argentina has to be included in this category – just remember it’s chilly, even in summer! To discover first-hand what life is like for ordinary people in one of the last bastions of Communism you can head to the small town of Trinidad in Cuba, where there’s not a huge amount to do but plenty to experience!

Other Factors to Consider

So, once you’ve chosen a destination to suit you, what else is important? Of course quality of tuition and accommodation are paramount. Cactus only works with the best language schools worldwide so there is less to choose between destinations in this regard. In our experience, ease of getting around, price, activities and a good mix of ages and nationalities are the other main criteria to bear in mind when choosing a language course.

So which is the winner in each of the above 4 categories? In the table below I have given points for each location according to how it fares in other factors to consider: a total of 12 points are split between the 3 schools in each category.

Getting Around Course Price Activities Student Mix TOTAL Comments
Buenos Aires 6 2 6 6 20 Courses cost more despite lower cost of living
Bogota 4 6 2 3 15 Great value for money, but small school so fewer activities
Mexico City 2 4 4 3 13 Uncomfortable public transport
Samara 4 6 4 3 17 Less good student mix because of ease of travel from N.America
Playa del Carmen 4 2 4 6 16 Can be expensive, being a resort
Sosua 4 4 4 3 15 Very much a young person’s place
Cusco 4 6 5 3 18 Students are mainly English speakers
Cartagena 4 4 5 3 16 Few nationalities at present, but this will change
Santiago de Cuba 4 2 2 6 14 Cuba is more expensive than you’d think, with fewer activites
Boquete 5 6 6 2 19 Fantastic activities, mostly English speakers
Ushuaia 5 4 3 4 17 Not a lot going on as it is a small school
Trinidad 2 2 3 6 13 More expensive than you may expect

So, by these very rough calculations, can we say that Buenos Aires is best if you like a city, Samara if you want beach, Cusco for culture and history, and Boquete for an unusual place?

As Cactus offers so many more options that are suitable for different interests, we can’t say that it’s a definitive answer. We haven’t even mentioned the 4,000 miles of mountains and coastline that is the beauty of Chile or the complete other-worldly madness of Bolivia. It’s all my interpretation on a highly subjective matter so please, if you don’t agree, let me know your top 4 Latin American destinations for learning Spanish and why.

And if you want to know more, drop me a line and we’ll chat about it.

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