Learning Spanish in Cuernavaca, Mexico

Cuernavaca Travel Blog

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With the typical disorientation of a traveler, I knew I wasn’t in my own bed from the moment I awakened. The birds outside my room’s open window were welcoming the day with songs different from those of the birds back home in Texas - their voices were richer, clearer, more tropical. I felt a light breeze waft over me and then I opened my eyes, recalling with a smile that I was once again in Mexico, this time in the exciting city of Cuernavaca.

I slid out from underneath my blanket and walked to the window, where I was greeted by a luminous blue sky floating above a small garden brimming with bougainvillea, roses, and orchids. I’ve been a frequent visitor to Mexico since I was a child, and at the age of 47, I’ve truly lost track of how many trips I’ve made, but I never tire of this magnificent nation, with its stunning landscapes, fascinating culture, and most importantly, its friendly and caring people who understand the value of savoring all that life has to offer.

As I walked down the hall toward the bathroom, I heard members of my host family chatting cheerfully in Spanish while they prepared breakfast in the kitchen. My mood dipped as their words innocently resurrected the one problem that I had always encountered in Mexico - a problem for which I had no one to blame but myself.

My Spanish language skills were horrible.

But this time it was going to be different. This time I would not make the same old vague promise to enroll in a conversational Spanish course when I returned home. This time I was going to experience Mexico as a visitor with real communication skills. This time I was here for two weeks of Spanish language immersion at the Instituto Chac-Mool.

Cuernavaca is home to the best Spanish immersion programs in Latin America, and Instituto Chac-Mool is widely considered to be the best of the best. I had always toyed with the idea of attending an immersion Spanish program, and living with a local host family while doing so, but never had the opportunity until this spring. My husband and I generally take a couple of week-long getaways each year, but since he had recently retired and was preparing to spend a month with his elderly father, we decided that this would be the perfect time for me to fulfill my longtime wish. And I was not disappointed. After two weeks in the school’s Total Adult Immersion Program, I was chattering away in Spanish to the point that my envious husband says we’re both going to the school next spring  I’ll learn even more, while he works hard to catch up with me.

Getting to Cuernavaca is easy. I flew to Mexico City and then enjoyed a relaxing 1¾-hour non-stop ride on an air-conditioned commuter bus from the airport to Cuernavaca’s bus station, where I purchased a taxi ticket bound for my host family. I learned about the bus from Instituto Chac-Mool’s toll-free help line, through which an English-speaking representative is always available to help students arrange anything from home-stay accommodations to airport transportation (including private drivers for those who don’t want to take the bus).

There are also dozens of hotels, bed and breakfasts, and apartment rentals available in Cuernavaca for students not wishing to stay in private homes. I wandered into a beautiful establishment named Hotel Casa Colonial while strolling through Cuernavaca’s historical district and am going to consider it for the trip with my husband. It will be a tough decision though my host family was so vibrant and fun that I am tempted to stay with them again, even though we would have more amenities at a hotel.

Cuernavaca is a wonderful destination whether you’re furthering your education or not. I could have easily spent another week there. The location is dramatic almost a mile high in the Sierra Madre Mountains, and the weather is good year round. Known as “The Land of Eternal Spring”, Cuernavaca lives up to its nickname with warm days (highs usually mid 80s) and cool nights. The city is more than 700 years old and there is so much to see and do  museums, galleries, dining, shopping, live music, dancing, movies, and more and public transportation is reliable and inexpensive. Instituto Chac-Mool, located in a residential area, is also within walking distance of many attractions.

I tried to see as many local landmarks as possible and these were a few of my favorites: The Palace of Cortes/Cuauhnahuac Regional Museum: Built in 1533 atop an Aztec temple, the palace was the summer residence of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and today it is also one of Mexico’s finest museums, housing some of Diego Rivera’s most famous murals. The Cathedral of Cuernavaca/Former Monastery of the Assumption: This amazing complex is an atrium surrounded by battlemented walls. It contains many murals and paintings, and it’s also famous for its Sunday Mariachi Mass. The Borda Garden: A residence built in the 17th century by Don Manuel de la Borda, this majestic home, garden, and museum hosts art exhibitions, concerts, and conferences. San Anton Waterfall: Cascading spectacularly almost 100 feet, the waterfall can be accessed through a long stairway behind it. San Anton also has a neat little market at its entrance where visitors can buy ornamental plants and pottery produced by local citizens. The Robert Brady House and Museum: Built in colonial style, this house and museum features the late painter Robert Brady’s fascinating collection of furniture, paintings, and statuettes from all over the world.

Instituto Chac-Mool accepts students at all levels of Spanish-speaking ability, from very beginners to native speakers. On Monday mornings before beginning the class, new students are tested and interviewed, then placed in the group appropriate for their skill level. Since I had taken three years of Spanish in high school and college, I was not a beginner, but I definitely wasn’t selected to join an advanced class either!

There were so many things I loved about this school, but I think my absolute favorite was that the class sizes are limited to no more than five students. Our sessions felt more like a small group of folks meeting to pursue a common interest than a rigid classroom experience. My class had four students, all of us from different backgrounds, and all of us stuck at a stage of Spanish language ability in which, although we could make our way through Spanish-speaking environments, we just didn’t feel confident. Our teacher was fantastic " she had limitless patience, even when one of us would blurt out an English word in frustration, and she made us feel very comfortable, which helped us more easily absorb all the new words and grammatical concepts we were presented with each day.

Although I did not take a specialized course, there are also courses offered for specific professions including doctors, attorneys, teachers, social workers, and others. There are also special courses for children, senior citizens, and business executives, and the school is accredited as an institute of higher learning for students wishing to receive college credit.

On Monday through Thursday afternoons, students may attend private tutoring sessions, cultural presentations, and instructional lectures. Early evening activities include cooking classes, Latin dance lessons, arts and crafts instruction, and other fun learning opportunities. (I highly recommend the dance lessons, although I won’t torture readers with the story of my personal experience, other than to note that laughter is a positive thing.) On Monday nights, the school often takes students to Las Mañanitas Restaurant for a festive evening of dinner and conversation with teachers from the school. The food is beyond delicious  try the Red Snapper Mañanitas.

Weekends are reserved for school-sponsored excursions (there is a small fee for each trip), and I was not about to miss out on two such adventures a day-trip to Taxco and two nights in Acapulco. I had previously journeyed to both cities, but I could not resist a repeat visit to either. Taxco is a jewelry shopper’s nirvana the center of Mexico’s silver trade and home of the world’s best bargains on beautiful silver creations. Even without the silver, the mountainside city ranks as one of my personal favorites. Its dizzyingly steep streets lined with red-roofed colonial buildings really take your breath away  in a good way! The trip to Acapulco is an occasionally-offered excursion, and I was fortunate that it was available during my stay in Mexico. Acapulco is the quintessential Mexican beach destination, on a bay ringed with hotels and thatch-roofed shelters  the perfect place to get some sun, sip a margarita, and pretend to be an international jetsetter. In both Taxco and Acapulco I had a great time utilizing my new and improved Spanish while talking to vendors and chatting with a few local residents.

Other excursion destinations include: Teotihuacán, which arose around the time of Christ as a new religious center in the Mexican highlands. Bring your sneakers and climb the Pyramid of the Sun. It’s a thrill. Tepoztlán is known as a mystical center. The Tepozteco pyramid, situated on the side of a mountain overlooking this small ancient town, is thought to have been built in the early Aztec era. Be sure to visit the marketplace and don’t miss the carnival, one of the best in Mexico. In Mexico City: The National Museum of Anthropology, located in Chapultepec Park, contains the world’s most impressive collection of Mesoamerican artifacts. The Zocalo (the main square of Mexico City’s historic center) features several must-see sites, including the Catedral Metropolitana, an enormous cathedral built over a period of 250 years in a mixture of architectural styles; Templo Mayor, where electric company workers unearthed a large round stone in 1978 that depicts the Aztec moon goddess Coyolxauqui, a find that spurred the excavation of the main temple honoring Tlaloc, the God of Rain, and Huitzilopochtli, the God of War; and Palacio Nacional, a government building housing Diego Rivera’s murals depicting thousands of years of Mexican history. 

Overall, my two weeks at Instituto Chac-Mool comprised one of the most fulfilling travel experiences of my life. I may never speak Spanish with true fluency, but I am so much more skillful than I was, and I plan to continue practicing and improving. As they say in Español, “Poco a poco, se anda lejos!”*

*Little by little, one goes far.

aswold says:
Nicely written and informative.
Posted on: Jan 19, 2014
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photo by: Mar_Mar