You may have considered studying Spanish in Spain. Or perhaps you’ve heard of the Spanish learning mecca of Antigua, Guatemala. I’m going to suggest an alternative: Boquete, Panama. Cheaper than Spain, safer and less crowded with gringos than Antigua, the small town of Boquete offers mild temperatures year-round, and dry winter weather (December to February). It is located in the mountains, 45 minutes from the city of David in northern Panama, in a coffee growing region.
I found Habla Ya while searching online for Spanish schools in 2009. In February 2010, I spent three weeks at the school studying Spanish, and made noticeable progress. (I was starting from a low intermediate level). You can design your own curriculum, combining private lessons with small-group classes. You will likely be assigned more than one teacher, which is an advantage because each teacher has a slightly different style, as well as a unique personality and interests. The teachers are mostly young, very patient, and all have a university degree in Spanish. They are also certified to administer the tests for the D.E.L.E. (Diplomas of Spanish as a foreign language).
Habla Ya offers homestays, which increase the immersion experience. They will ask you to fill out a form in order to carefully match you with the best local family or individual. But if you would rather stay in a local hostel, hotel, B&B or vacation rental, they will help you arrange that too.
Before committing, I took my time communicating with the school by email. The staff at Habla Ya answered all my questions quickly and thoroughly, while remaining friendly and professional.
Habla Ya is serious about their students’ progress, so beside your classes, expect some homework every day. It’s not just work and no play though. The school organizes many optional activities and outings. Some day-long excursions (such as beach trips, hikes, rafting, rock-climbing) command a fee. However others, such as movie nights, salsa lessons, and the Saturday conversation session, are free.
It is also easy to meet other students and organize your own activities: Quetzal trail hike, coffee plantation tour, garden visits, zip-lining, etc. Boquete may be a small town, but it offers a surprising amount of things to do, as well as many restaurants, cafes, and a few bars. The countryside around the town is green and full of flowers, with forests and coffee plantations sharing the valley.
And if all this isn’t enough, there are also some volunteering opportunities if you are so inclined.
Habla Ya now has a second school in Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean Coast, and is planning to open one in Panama City by the end of next year. You can divide your class time between the different towns if you wish. They even offer online classes if you can’t physically travel to Panama just yet.
Prices range from US $8.75 to $19.75 per hour depending on whether you are taking private lessons, mini-group lessons (2 or 3 students), or group lessons (six students maximum). The hourly rate decreases the more weeks you enrol for. They also offer several different Spanish courses to satisfy different needs such as a crash course for travellers, or a less-intensive course for expats. You can find out all the details on their extensive web site: http://hablayapanama.com.
In summary I can strongly recommend Habla Ya for its organization, friendliness, professionalism, and truck load of extra-curricular activities in beautiful locations.