Nicaragua offers full-immersion classes at bargain prices.
The roosters wake you. You emerge from your room to find your host mother, who greets you with a smile, a plate of fruit, and a sing-songy "Buen' dia, mi hija. ¿Como almanece?" ("Good morning, my child, how do you rise?")
The best way to learn to speak Spanish is to go abroad and study. And you'll find fantastic deals on language classes in Nicaragua, a cheap and safe nation in Central America. For about $150-$200 a week, Nicaraguan full-immersion schools generally offer 20 hours of instruction, room and board with a family, and field trips. In comparison, a similar program in Spain would cost about $475 a week. Language trips are usually two- to four-weeks long, with discounts generally offered for longer stays. Being pressed for time is very un-Nicaraguan, by the way, so plan on staying a while.
In appraising programs, keep in mind your interests. Do you want a colorful, bustling colonial town with a wide choice of restaurants and throngs of fellow turistas? Then go to Granada and enroll at Casa Xalteva, which charges $135 for one week.
Do you imagine a quiet lakeside retreat with birds and monkeys providing a pleasant soundtrack for your studies? Then consider Laguna de Apoyo's Proyecto Ecologico, which charges $190 for one week.
How about a taste of campesino farming life? Hijos del Maiz offers an off-the-paved-highway experience in El Lagortillo, in the northwestern province of Estelí, for $120 a week.
Want to time your studies to coincide with Nicaragua's coffee harvest, between December and February? Then enroll in the new Matagalpa Spanish School in Matagalpa, which will show you Nicaragua's great green north while teaching you Spanish for about $90 to $120 a week, depending on the amount of instruction.
The Spanish taught in Nicaragua is understood throughout the Spanish-speaking world. But the national dialect is distinct. It's rapid and liquid. It often leaves off the ends of words. When choosing a school, keep in mind that up-country campesino Spanish is less intelligible to other Latin Americans than urban Spanish, though it is also wonderfully melodic, with its own cadence and rhythm.
Note that rates quoted above include meals, room, and instruction. Discounts of nearly 10 percent are usually offered if you stay multiple weeks. You'll face other costs: You must buy a tourist card for $5. An optional airport shuttle to your school may add about $15 to $25 each way, or more.
Most schools offer classes year-round; some travelers plan their trips around the tropical seasons: March, April, and May are extremely hot, dusty, and dry, especially in lowland cities like Leon and Granada. The North American winter is usually the most pleasant time to visit because the rains have ended and everything is vibrant, green, and fresquita.
Imagine the scene: The sun is already warm at 8 A.M., and you feast on eggs, white corn tortillas, and gallo pinto (rice and beans). You are offered a fresh pot of organic local coffee. "Pa'cargar las baterias" says your teenage host brother, a new expression which you duly scrawl in your notebook: "To charge your batteries."
--Joshua Berman is the coauthor of Moon Handbooks Nicaragua, Moon Living Abroad in Nicaragua, and GoToNicaragua.com. He is also the creator of "The Tranquilo Traveler", a blog about slow travel and other interesting ways to see the world.