Backpacking in Central or South America without speaking a word of Spanish is a challenge to say the least. I know this from my first experience in Costa Rica when, aged 19, my sloppy Spanglish meant that even getting myself a beer or bus ticket had to be helped along with elaborate sign language. I was a true gringo, forever falling back on my stock phrase of “habla ingles por favour?” to get me by. But relying on others speaking English will only get you so far and it can be hugely frustrating when you find yourself in a situation where you simply cannot be understood – trying explain your symptoms to a pharmacy, enquiring about directions when you´re hopelessly lost or just trying to work out if you’re accidentally ordering deep fried guinea pig for breakfast (nearly the case once when I was in Peru!). More importantly, it´s nice to be able to converse politely with locals, articulate yourself with confidence and show your appreciation in the local language. So to get our heads around the basics, my cousin and I decided to kick-start our 2 month trip through Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia with a week’s Spanish school at the reputable Habla Ya in Bocas Del Toro.
We had done extensive research and whilst Guatemala seems to come up trumps as the cheapest place to learn Spanish, Bocas Del Toro seemed equally affordable and the most fun. We were charmed by the idea of learning Spanish in the morning then spending our afternoons surfing, spotting sloths in the mangroves and snorkelling on neighbouring islands. Bocas doesn´t disappoint, I can´t think of a better spot to be based for a week´s tuition than this laid back surfer town which lies within a short boat or bike ride of some of Panama´s best beaches.
WHY HABLA YA?
There are two language schools you can choose from in Bocas del Toro but Habla Ya (which also has schools in Boquete and Panama City) had really glowing reports online. Aside from having a solid reputation, we liked the fact that the school can hook you up with a local homestay or B&B and offer lots of extra activities – from free salsa lessons (which I took advantage of) to excursions and dinners with other students.
The school itself is really well set up with air conditioned classrooms, a kitchen that students can use and a place to lock up your bikes in the garden. Located just a 10-15 minute walk from the hustle and bustle of Bocas town, it´s ideally placed and has really welcoming staff.
We particularly appreciated the induction talk the day before our classes started, when we were given detailed maps of each of the surrounding islands, suggestions of things to do when we weren´t studying and advice on staying safe. They really look after their students and make sure your stay isn´t just focussed around studying. In fact, even if you choose not to study at the school, the website is a great resource for visitors to Bocas del Toro with tonnes of information on travel and local amenities.
PRIVATE vs GROUP TUITION
My cousin didn’t speak a word of Spanish when we arrived and mine was rusty Spanglish which I could vaguely recollect from being in South America 4 years previously. We opted for group classes but in hindsight a couple days of private lessons to start off with would have helped bring us up to speed quicker.
Another option is to combine group and private classes, which some people did, but personally, I´d struggle to focus if I took more than 4 hours Spanish a day. We enjoyed the fact that the classes were small (mine was just 3 students and Laura’s 4), rooms air conditioned and the teachers super friendly and relaxed. I really liked the informal structure of the lessons with our teacher, Letitha, who broke up learning difficult tenses with games and conversational sessions.
WHERE TO STAY IN BOCAS
Bocas Del Toro has seen a tourism boom in the last decade and whilst there are plenty of hostels to pick from, the best places get booked up in advance during peak season so keep this in mind. Habla Ya Spanish School itself can organise a place to stay for you and I would recommend booking this in advance to avoid finding out your top choice is booked up. Whilst home stays are popular, we figured that after 4 hours of Spanish tuition we´d be grateful for the opportunity to speak English and switch off! However, lots of students opt for home stays and these are have a great reputation in Bocas del Toro – Habla Ya only use trusted families and your Spanish is sure to improve faster if you´re immersed within a local family.
We opted to organise our accomodation ourselves, booking the fabulous Surfari B&B after reading good reviews online. We wanted to be in the middle of town, somewhere quiet but close to the bars and restaurants after class. Surfari B&B was perfect – affordable private rooms with ensuite bathrooms and amazing hosts. It´s run by a charming Canadian couple who are hugely knowledgable about local happy hours and the best restaurants. Jim and Charlene made it feel more like a homestay than a B&B. The resident poodle, Daisy, and two cats give you a warm welcome each morning and we´d wake up early for the rooftop breakfast of pancakes, eggs and fresh fruit before borrowing bicycles to get to class.
If you want somewhere more lively with a younger crowd, Selinas is the best party hostel (probably the best hostel in the whole of Panama). However, private rooms are expensive and it´s not ideal to be somewhere so noisy when you´ve got an early start each morning – not to mention pretty annoying for others in your dorm! We used the facilities frequently though (definitely pop in for happy hour) and it´s great at weekends when a DJ takes residency in the old camper van in the bar! There´s also a pool table, swings and a private swimming area right off the dock.
OTHER STUFF TO DO IN BOCAS DEL TORO
The best thing about signing up to a week’s Spanish school is the instant social group you’re introduced to – the school run special events like dinners, salsa lessons and outings, plus they set up a whatsapp group so we were constantly in the loop of what was going on. It was great being based in one place for a whole week and really getting to know it. Each afternoon we’d pick a different island or beach to explore but we still didn’t manage to fit everything in.
Want to know more? Read my other post about the best things to do in and around Bocas here