Thinking about learning Spanish in another country? Researching and planning can easily get the best of us and even deter us from actually booking the trip. Fear not! I’ve got you covered with this comprehensive, in-depth guide for everything you need to know about attending Spanish Immersion School.
There are programs all over the world in places like Spain and Latin America that specialize in Spanish immersion. Being a frugal traveler, I focused on Central America, where I knew I’d get the most bang for my buck.
Plus, who can resist warm beaches, lush jungles, thriving wildlife, and cultural richness?
Learning Spanish in another country has topped my bucket list for as long as I can remember. Countries like Spain, Argentina, Panamá, and Peru surface when googling how to learn Spanish abroad. However, the school that consistently tops the listings is a Spanish Immersion school in Panama called Habla Ya. Once I decided on Habla Ya, I was both elated and terrified at the idea of speaking Spanish four hours a day in a foreign country. But one thing’s for sure, I was ready for the challenge.
I didn’t want to simply learn Spanish, I wanted to dive headfirst into another country and its language. Habla Ya has locations in the nation’s capital, Panama City, in a remote mountain town, Boquete and in the laid back Caribbean archipelago, Bocas del Toro. The idea of traveling from a bustling metropolis, to an outdoor playground, to a Caribbean island on one vacation ultimately sealed the deal for me.
If you choose to attend all three campuses, consider that each campus has its own rhythm. You may learn at a slower pace with your professor in Panama City than your professor in Bocas, or faster in Boquete than in Panama City. When you bounce around the campuses, you get a great scope of this varied and exciting country, but you’ll definitely overlap information or skip concepts during the transition. My advice is to be flexible and work with the staff who, during my experience, did their best to accommodate students.
Immersion is intensive; classes with Habla Ya are Monday through Friday for 4 hours a day to ensure that no matter what amount of time your trip is, you are going to learn something. Each campus has different class schedules according to what level you’re placed in.
The schedule also aligns with the activities of the city. Classes in Bocas del Toro were in the morning so we could enjoy the rest of the day exploring the islands. In Panama City classes were in the afternoon, making it harder to see sights during the day as I’m not a morning person.
If you can be up and out by 9 am to see sights and make it to class at 2 p.m. on time, then you’re good to go.
Research what kind of activities are most important to you before you arrive in Panama, that way no matter what your class schedule is, you allot time for fun (and homework).
Before you leave for Panama you will take a written assessment online so that the administration can place you in the class corresponding to your skill level. I debated brushing up on my Spanish prior to taking the skills test, but at the same time, I wanted to start fresh since it’d been years since I took a Spanish class.
Once in Panama City, the first stop on my Spanish learning adventure, I took an oral assessment and was placed in A1, the first week of the beginning level. I spent 1 hour in A1 and my professor spoke only Spanish, but very slowly and accompanied by explanatory body language.
If we didn’t understand something we had to look through the dictionary, view drawings, or act out a desperate attempt at charades. In this hour the foundation of my preceding grasp of Spanish suddenly flooded into the temporal lobe of my brain and my professor advanced me two weeks ahead.
When students are placed in the wrong level it’s not made evidently clear until you’re actually sitting there in class. You’re either engaged and right on pace with your skill, doodling because you know what’s going on, or frantically sweating because you have no idea what’s going on. If either of the last two options occur notify the staff and they’ll likely switch you accordingly.
However, varying factors can affect whether or not you are easily transitioned into another level. If you attend in off-season attendance is low and you’ll be placed in the closest level class available to your skill. Sometimes, students feel overwhelmed and other times, not stimulated enough. This is something you have to factor when planning your trip.
Group class sizes are 2-6 students, depending on the season and campus. In both Panama City and Boquete, there were just two of us in class. In Bocas del Toro there were 4-6 students in class at a time. The curriculum taught depends on your level, but the professors teach lessons from a workbook and include handouts, conversation, games, and interactive memorization techniques. Every class conjures up new words, which are written on the board for studying and memorizing. Homework is assigned at the end of each class.
I’ve never been a big fan of homework, but I also don’t like being the ding-dong in class so I mostly kept up with my homework and studied the new words before class each morning. During the four hour class, there is a 15-minute break midway to grab a coffee, put your brains back in your head or socialize.
Panama has two seasons: dry and wet. The dry season is December to mid-march, and the wet season is — you guessed it — mid-march to mid-December. Factoring when to go is a huge decision.
You may be tempted to avoid traveling through Panama during wet/off-season, but I could literally write an entire blog post about why you SHOULD travel to Panama during the wet season.
Here’s the gist: attendance levels will be lower in Panama City, but you’ll also have no lines or crowds while sightseeing, and receive extra attention from your instructors as class sizes may be lower. Yes, it will rain. Every day.
Accompanied by shocking noise levels of thunder that sounds like God is really angry at you. It’ll rain in heavy spurts for an hour here and there, so be sure to pack a lightweight jacket or purchase an umbrella in Panama.
Somehow I managed to visit both Panama and Costa Rica during the rainy season and not buy or use an umbrella… but I’m a nut, so maybe don’t follow my lead on this one.
Just know that with this rain you’re greeted with gorgeous tropical green jungles more beautiful and alive than most other regions in the world. It’s funny because when I told people I’d be traveling to Central America during the rainy season, I began to question my decision.
Yet, when I reflect back on this experience I hardly even remember the rain being something that bothered or interrupted my plans.
As I wrote before, you’re not just attending a Spanish immersion school, you’re embarking on a language learning vacation. Panama is a ridiculously fun and diverse country! Here’s a quick look at some of the activities from each location.
Again, these are just some of the activities I saw and participated in while I was at each location, but they change weekly and depend on how many students are enrolled. Even if you don’t attend the activities coordinated by the school, there is no shortage of fun things to do and see at each location.
Keep in mind that a minimum of two students must be signed up for an activity for it to happen. During the off-season when attendance is low, this can be a bit of a bummer if no one wants to do fun things. However, it also depends on the campus.
Enrollment was lower in Panama City, so outings were harder to organize but I still managed to salsa dance, see Panama Viejo and the canal. In Boquete, I slept in a hammock for a week, and in Bocas del Toro, by far the most popular campus, outings were a daily event.
If you need help with accommodation, Habla Ya can help you arrange it or you can coordinate your own lodging ahead of time. Habla Ya hosted me during my stay in exchange for blog posts about my experience, here’s a look at my lodgings:
I stayed in a private room at a lovely hostel called the Panama House Bed and Breakfast. This was by far my favorite hostel because the staff was so friendly, breakfast was included (and delicious!) and my room was comfortable and clean. I loved playing with their friendly dog and talkative and rambunctious parrot, Rio. Plus, the school was on the same street and just a two-minute walk from my hostel.
I stayed in a dorm at a hip hostel brimming with character and comfort called Hostel Garden by Refugio del Rio. People travel to Boquete from all corners of the world to hike Volcan Baru, a six-hour expedition leaving at midnight and unveiling a view of both the Caribbean and the Pacific.
I get the intrigue of crossing something like that off your bucket list, but I cannot fathom any universe in which I would voluntarily hike for 6 hours.
So, how did I spend my time in this outdoor adventure enthusiasts dream? By laying in a hammock for a week.
I know we’re all so afraid to admit that sometimes traveling is hard and completely exhausting, but I will. After two weeks of Spanish Immersion in Panama City, my brain was mush. When I realized Boquete was a little oasis from the chaos of the city, I was happy to sit my tush in a hammock and not be bothered.
I hadn’t initially planned to visit Boquete until everyone in Panama City recommended it to me. As such, I was placed in a class too advanced for my skill and while Habla Ya accommodated me by giving me private classes, I was overwhelmed and took the opportunity to rest.
Alas, if like me hiking for six hours sounds like the seventh circle of Dante’s Inferno, there are much easier hikes around to entice in the beautiful greenery of Boquete.
All of which I didn’t do because I chose to sway back and forth in a garden. I’m thankful I did because it was just what I needed to rejuvenate me for my three-week action-packed 30th birthday adventure in Bocas del Toro.
I initially stayed in a hostel for a week that I wasn’t comfortable in, coordinated by the school. Fortunately, the staff switched me to a family homestay to bring the Spanish immersion experience full circle. My host mom welcomed me with open arms into her home.
She made me breakfast and dinner, did my laundry, and helped me practice what I learned in class each day. Our conversations taught me things more advanced than my skill level. I bonded with my host mom and experienced hospitality that helped me understand Bocas del Toro from a local’s perspective. It was hands down the most rewarding part of my Spanish learning experience.
Keep in mind that homestays open the door to the people living and working in Bocas. Do not expect comforts like hot water or internet. You will be rooming with geckos and critters (it’s an island jungle). You’re immersed with the real people who live there. Keep an open mind and you’ll have an authentic experience with the locals who make Bocas so special.
I whole-heartedly recommend a homestay, but if you prefer a hostel or private accommodation here are my recommendations.
Hostels: Hostel Mammallena is the perfect laid back environment to mix and mingle with backpackers and other students. There’s also a private dock and pool tables making it easy for solo travelers to meet other people.
Private: Private accommodation is more costly, and with it, you get more comforts. Sun Havens Apartments is an affordable luxury option for apartments and suites, ours even had a private kitchen. We also loved the Bocas Beach House, which had the ultimate island vibes with a private dock and beach.
Group classes start at $275 and each following week the price decreases. Habla Ya often runs specials, including discount rates for locals and longer commitments. Click here for exact rates listed on Habla Ya’s website.
Pros: Extremely friendly staff willing to help and accommodate you, caring and helpful instructors, exciting fast-paced city environment with fun things to do and see.
Cons: I thought that because Panama City was so big I needed two weeks there, but the truth is you can see all the sights in one week, then the city gets overwhelming. Enrollment is low here in off-season so there are not as many students to go on outings with. However, all it takes is one or two to make friends and practice your Spanish. I didn’t love the food, which was mostly fast-food restaurants that I get enough of here in the States.
Pros: Boquete is a picturesque outdoors town with lush mountains surrounding the small city. The flourishing wildlife and fresh mountain air make this location a great escape to explore Panama’s natural landscapes. Boquete had delicious food and plenty of restaurants offering vegetarian options.
Cons: I didn’t bond with this campus as much as I did in Panama City and Bocas del Toro. While the staff was accommodating, the structure didn’t resonate with my learning style as well. That said, one of my friends from Panama City attended courses in Boquete and fell in love with it. It’s a personal preference, and each student’s experience will be different.
Pros: EVERYTHING. Literally, this place is paradise. If you go to Panama and don’t go to Bocas del Toro… shame. The fresh food, the wildlife, and the water adventure activities had me contemplating uprooting my entire life to move there. I honestly fell in love.
Cons: The only thing I disliked about Bocas del Toro was the trash problem, which I’ll be writing about soon because it’s really a shock. This place is paradise and the trash is spoiling it. What I admired about Habla Ya are the initiatives they’ve taken to minimize trash and educate locals about environmentalism and permaculture.
Heck yes! This was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It’s been four months since this trip and I’m still glowing from the energy of my experience. I didn’t just go somewhere and do all the typical tourist activities and then come home rejuvenated but unchanged.
I immersed into a thriving and diverse culture in a beautiful, vast and dynamic country. Plus, I can speak more Spanish than I’ve ever been able to in my life. When I returned from two months of Spanish immersion my Mexican aunt was astonished at how much I’d learned.
I’m not fluent, but I can engage in conversations and actually understand what people are telling me. It’s rewarding to see my hard work, and the immersion method, materialize.
This was a Spanish learning vacation, but it wasn’t all beaches and cocktails. It was a real experience filled with bumps and hiccups that occur when you make an effort to travel meaningfully or for personal development. I went to Panama for Spanish immersion school but I didn’t just learn Spanish, I lived it.
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*Thank you Habla Ya for hosting me during this amazing experience. All opinions are my own. Gracias Habla Ya para la mejor experiencia de mi toda vida. Espero volver en el futuro! Todas las opiniones son mías.
Christina Lyon is a coffee-sipping, word-obsessed business blogger, content writer, and blog consultant. She’s on fire for helping creative entrepreneurs and small biz owners build thriving blogs that enhance online visibility and convert to sales. When she’s not reading or writing, she loves to play music and explore the beaches and wild trails along the California coast with her husband Steve and rescue pup, Clio.
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