I studied Spanish in university, but with little opportunity to practice, my Spanish skills frittered away over the years. While planning our trip to Nicaragua, I had heard about a Spanish school in Nicaragua that was also a community social enterprise and completely fell in love with the idea of a stay there. Our mornings would be spent in 1 on 1 Spanish classes, our afternoons spent on excursions to volcanoes, crater lakes and rural villages. We could stay at the eco-hotel on site, or stay with a local family in a home stay. Best of all, they catered to families too. I was sold!
Why Study at a Spanish School?
Those of us that have tried to learn a language through a textbook or in a classroom, know how challenging it is. Studying at a Spanish School in Nicaragua where we had 4 hours of daily 1 on 1 instruction and were immersed in a small Spanish-speaking town in Nicaragua, allowed for true immersion, the best way to learn a language.
We spent a week (of a 4 week trip to Nicaragua) at La Mariposa Spanish School and it really was a wonderful holiday. It allowed us to improve our Spanish, get off the beaten path and experience life in a small Nicaragua town, whilst experiencing the major sites in the area. There are numerous Spanish schools in Central America, but we loved what La Mariposa stood for.
Since we live in North America, I think Spanish is the most useful language to know for both myself and my kids. You can choose to spend a week at a Spanish school or we met many young people that were spending a month or two there.
Nicaragua is a hugely under-rated destination in Central America, much less known than its big brother neighbour Costa Rica. However, most people that visit Nicaragua will tell you it was their favourite country in the region. Tourism is still in its infancy in many parts of the country, with lots of opportunity to get off the beaten path and lower prices. Nicaragua offers so many amazing things to do, from exploring its volcanoes and rain forest to its charming cities and beautiful beaches.
For years political instability kept tourists away, but it is now one of the safest countries in Central America. Just a short flight from Canada and the USA, Nicaragua has just started to emerge onto traveller’s radar over the last few years.
Since tourism is just starting to really grow in Nicaragua, you do not encounter many English speakers outside of the major cities. This allows for lots of opportunity to practice your language skills. If you are planning a trip to Nicaragua, these itinerary suggestions for 1, 2 or 3 week trips will help you get planning.
What were the Lessons like?
Each student has 4 hours of daily Spanish classes at La Mariposa from 8 am to noon. You have 2 hours of grammar with one teacher and 2 hours of conversation with a different teacher. The school caters to students from beginner to advanced and can even tailor the instruction for specialist professionals like law and medicine.
Since the classes are 1 on 1, they are intense. You can’t zone out since you are the only one in the class!
All around the school are small classrooms set up in the jungle where your grammar teacher will take you for your lessons. Using a whiteboard, dictionary and note book, your teacher will take you through a series of lessons each day. Since my grammar teacher didn’t speak much English, it truly was immersive learning.
The conversational classes are more relaxed as the teacher tailors your discussions to what you are interested in. We would often stroll through the town or La Mariposa’s community projects. It was an opportunity for me to clumsily put together questions for my teacher about her life in Nicaragua.
What did we learn in 1 week as beginners? Our lessons definitely helped us put together basic sentences and improved our vocabulary. We really liked the intensive nature of studying Spanish in Nicaragua, even if it was only for a week.
What Sight Seeing did we do?
La Mariposa Spanish School is located about an hour from the capital of Managua, near the beautiful colonial city of Granada. It’s location allows easy access to a number of Nicaragua’s top sites. Each afternoon, you can choose to join in the school’s excursions or charlas (talks) to learn more about Nicaragua. These are included in your fees and are a great way to practice your Spanish, connect with other travellers, and visit some beautiful places with a local guide.
Some of the highlights were:
- Laguna de Apoyo – a huge fresh water crater lake
- Masaya Volcano – one of Nicaragua’s 19 volcanoes, this is a stunning place to visit
- Pueblos Blancos – the white villages with very skilled artisans
While the highlights were really afternoons, we also got to see first hand the effect the school is having on the community through their projects. I visited a woman’s co-operative bakery, the urban nature reserve and the gardens where they grow much of the food that is eaten at the school and hotel.
What was the Home stay like?
Since we were travelling during June school holidays and didn’t book in advance, we were not able to stay in the eco-hotel. The eco-hotel has simple, but clean rooms, including family rooms. All of your meals are included and eaten communally as a group. The food is exceptionally fresh, sourced locally and mostly vegetarian. They also have cabins in the urban reserve, 10 minutes from the school.
We were a bit nervous about staying at a home stay because of our basic Spanish skills, but it was a really great experience. Our home was a multi-generational home with our host (grandma), her two children, her son—in-law and granddaughter. The homes are very basic and typical for Nicaragua – cinderblock walls, tinroof, windows without glass, no running water and very little furniture (although our house did have a flat screen TV).
City water flows twice a week to the outside of the home and they collect extra in barrels to store for the rest of the week. We did have a western toilet in our house, but you had to dump a pail of water to flush it and the family mostly used the latrine behind the house. There were no showers; Nicaraguans generally take bucket showers as water is scarce.
Our hosts served us breakfast and dinner daily and we had lunch at the school. The meals were simple (mostly vegetarian) – rice and beans or eggs for breakfast, but hardy. It took a lot of effort and work to converse with our hosts with our limited language skills, and there were so many things I would have liked to have asked them if I could communicate better. But it was lovely to be welcomed into their home and experience real Nicaraguan life.
How Much Does it Cost?
You can see La Mariposa’s full list of prices here. Generally it will cost $440-520 USD/person/week, which includes your lodging, meals, Spanish lessons and activities. There are family prices available.
One way you can decrease the cost is by volunteering in the afternoon instead of participating in activities. By working in the school’s community projects, you can better immerse yourself in the language and town life, and save on your fees. If you stay for a month, you pay reduced fees as well.
Why La Mariposa Spanish School?
If you want to learn Spanish in Nicaragua, there are many options to choose from. We have absolutely no affiliate with La Mariposa Spanish School, but were so glad we found it. We loved that it was a language school but also a community organization. Paulette, the owner, is committed to providing exceptional Spanish instruction that also benefits the community. We felt really good about supporting a tourism venture that employed local people, promoted sustainable practices and provided necessary programs for women and children.
La Mariposa is very convenient for short and longer stays. It is only a short flight from the US and Canada and only a one hour from the capital and international airport, Managua. It is located in a small town named San Juan de la Concepción, where the only foreigners you will encounter are other students at the school. It makes a great base for visiting some of Nicaragua’s best sites.
We absolutely loved La Mariposa, but had a good sense of what it was and what it wasn’t. You can read this post entitled, “Don’t Come Here If…” to get a feel for the type of environment La Mariposa offers. It is not luxurious, but is small-scale eco-tourism at its best. From our research, we felt it was the best Spanish school in Nicaragua.
Was it Family Friendly?
One of the things that appealed the most to us about La Mariposa was that they welcome families. Our kids were 4-8 years old and the only exposure they had to Spanish prior was from Dora the Explorer. We had no real expectations of what they would learn at the school, but felt any exposure was a good opportunity for them.
The week we were there, there were a number of other families, which was great for the kids. They did each have their own teacher, although usually the beginner level kids were in a group together. They played games like Uno to learn their colours and coloured photos while learning vocab and basic phrases. On the last day, Paulette even organized an afternoon excursion to the zoo for the kids.
The eco-hotel does have family rooms and cabins in the urban reserve. Having the kids with us was a great icebreaker at our home stay where there was another child for the kids to play with. Our host Mom was very sweet with the kids and spoiled them with ice cream for desert a few times.
Note: We have no affiliation with La Mariposa Spanish School. It is a great option for families that travel independently and are looking for a different type of holiday.
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