I'm Christina Lyon, a coffee sipping, piano playing, beach loving, word-obsessed freelance writer and musician. I'm on fire for helping freelance writers get paid and small biz owners succeed online. When I'm not reading or writing, I play music and explore the beaches and wild trails along the California coast.

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Spanish Immersion School in Panama – What To Know Before You Go!

Christina Lyon

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?

A view of Panama City from the window of the Uber driver, with the Panamanian flag waving in the wind.

Spanish Immersion School in Panama with Habla Ya

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.

The Campuses

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.

The Schedule

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).

Doing my homework for my Spanish Immersion experience with Habla Ya.

Assessment and Placement

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.

Learning The Different Levels

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.

Class Structure

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.

In Panama City it rained aggressively for hours at a time.

When to go and yes, it will rain

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.

Things to do in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Activities

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.

  • Panama City: Salsa dancing, Panama Viejo, the Panama Canal, and going out to authentic Panamanian restaurants in a hustling and bustling city.
  • Boquete: Coffee tours, hiking nature trails, white water rafting, conversational outings, and restaurant meetups.
  • Bocas del Toro: Snorkeling tours, chocolate tours, kayaking, scuba diving, bike rides, and movie nights.

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.

A shot of me learning to salsa in Panama City.

An indigenous cacao farmer led my tour through the Almirante Cacao Farm.

There are plenty of activities in Panama to participate in during Spanish immersion school, like visiting indigenous communities for a cacao tour!

hiking-Cacao tour-Bocas-del-toro-Spanish-immersion-school

Hiking through lush landscapes while visiting an indigenous community in Almirante for a cacao tour.

I'm holding a Panamanian flag in front of a view of a ship at the Panama Canal.

The Miraflores locks at the Panama Canal.

Different varieties of Panamanian coffee at the Cafe tour in Boquete.

Attending a coffee tour was the one and only outing I attended in Boquete, and I loved it!

Accommodation

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:

Bed & Breakfast in Panama City

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.

The backyard of the Panama House Hostel in Panama City

Hostel dorm in Boquete

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.

The gardens at Refugio del Rio, where I stayed for a week while attending Spanish Immersion School in Boquete.

The hammock I laid in for a week while trying to contemplate the secrets of the universe… in Spanish.

Hostels and Homestays 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.

A note about homestays.

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.

Our apartment at Sun Havens was bright, clean, manicured and comfortable.

Sun Havens was exponentially higher priced, but for two nights it provided luxuries like hot water and the internet.

View of Bocas Beach House, a hostel in Bocas Town where I briefly stayed while attending Spanish Immersion School.

Bocas Beach House can be booked on AirBnB.

Pricing

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 and cons of Spanish Immersion school per campus

Panama City

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.

Boquete

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.

Bocas del Toro

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.

The most amazing Spanish Immersion experience with Habla Ya in Bocas del Toro

Habla Ya’s Bocas campus had higher enrollment than the other campuses, which made it easier to organize activities.

Is Spanish immersion school worth it?

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.

Thank you for reading! I appreciate your support and if you’d like, feel free to follow me on Instagram!

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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.

February 18, 2018

Travel

*This post may contain affiliate links, and I may receive a commission on purchases made through provided links (at no extra cost to you).

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  1. Eric Gamble says:

    What a great experience!! So my family is cuban and everyone always asks me when I am going to go back and see my mother’s home in Havana. My response is always the same, as soon as my conversational spanish improves because I want to go through the old neighborhoods and mingle with my old cousins.
    Sadly I flaked out when I was younger with regards to speaking spanish. I have tried several times with private tutors & a class here in New Orleans but I feel strongly that an immersion school like Habla Ya is what I need. Plus it would allow me to explore a new latin american country that is on my bucket list…so double win! Thanks for the info!

    • What an amazing experience that would be, to visit your family in Cuba! I went to Cuba before taking 6 weeks of immersion and had very basic conversational skills, but I still got around and made connections which was really meaningful to me. Being that you have family there I think it’d be great to do immersion so you could not be limited in communicating with them. And yes, Cuba is an amazing country to visit I wish I had relatives there but honestly after going last April I feel like I do!

  2. Ourjournal says:

    Great article! Your photos are fantastic. It looks like you had a lovely time doing this. 🙂

  3. Constance says:

    That looks like a really cool experience, I’d love to learn Spanish someday and this seems like a really immersive experience in which I’d most likely actually be able to retain some of it. Thank you for sharing this, it’s really helpful for future plans.

    • So glad you found this helpful Constance! It was a very unique and special experience to me. I’m amazed at how much I’ve retained but also need to continue practicing so all my hard work doesn’t go to waste. I highly recommend immersion, it’s a life-changing experience. Thanks for reading!

  4. Aditi says:

    Oh, how beautiful is that experience. Such a lovely place to be in, and to have friends who are like family! <3 Cheers!!

  5. Jayne says:

    I’ve always wanted to learn a new language but am far too lazy so immersion sounds like the best way to do it! I think I’ve just found a good excuse to hit up Panama 😃

    • That’s what I love about immersion, it sort of forces you to learn whether you’re ready or not! haha, and yes, it becomes increasingly more interesting with the beautiful backdrops Panama offers.

  6. Lyssie says:

    This is so cool! I didn’t know there were places that did Spanish immersion. I wanted to immerse myself in Spanish so I got a job teaching English in Spain. It half worked; they wanted me to only speak English in the school, but no one else in the town spoke English so I had to learn Spanish. It definitely helped tune my ear in to Spanish and helped me learn slang and more common words. I would highly recommend anyone immersing themselves in a language, culture, and environment!

    • What a wonderful experience, Lyssie! Immersion is the quickest and most productive way to learn, right? My grandparents lived in Cadiz for 7 years and that’s how they learned Spanish. My grandma would chat with the women working at the markets and she became fluent. I found the classes laid down the foundation, and then the conversational opportunities are really what crystalized what I’d learned. My goal is to live in a Spanish speaking country and like you, learn the language from getting to know the locals. Thanks for reading!

  7. Wow, this Spanish Immersion School In Panama is really interesting with so much to offer and learn. I tried immersion before, but not like this one and will surely love to experience this soon If i get the chance. Your photos really speaks how awesome your experience here. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

    • Panama is definitely a great country to learn Spanish in! I’m glad you found this guide resourceful and hope you get a chance to attend, it will surely help with Spanish development and also be an incredible experience. Thanks for reading!

  8. This sounds like a very interesting programme! A friend of mine wanted to do something like thi, but she wasn’t sure if it was worth it. I’m glad to see it is. I am a native Spanish speaker, but I would love to do something like this with a French immersion school or something like that. Panama looks beautiful and the hostel where you stayed looked so colourful and comfy! Thanks for sharing!

    • Yes, I would highly recommend an immersion program to your friend! French immersion would be so wonderful! Once I’m fluent in Spanish I want to attend an Italian course as I have family there I’d love to be able to converse with. Panama is an incredibly beautiful country and the hostels I stayed at were very comfortable and bright. Thank you for reading, Dann!

  9. Aireona says:

    I did a short immersion in Puerto Rico a few summers ago, and ever since I have wanted to do it again, for longer. My Spanish is passable as a tourist, but not a close friend, if you know what I mean. Looks like Panama might be a great place to go back and do more study.

    • Puerto Rico sounds like another great place to learn Spanish! Prior to Spanish immersion my Spanish was also passable as a tourist, but I know exactly what you mean. When it comes to having an extended and meaningful conversation it gets difficult. Panama is an exciting place to study Spanish. I just loved the idea that I could learn Spanish in a metropolitan city, a beautiful mountain town and on a Caribbean island, all with the same program and in the same country. Cheers to Spanish learning!

  10. I really want to learn Spanish! And it seems like a great thing to do – and that coffee. So fresh! 🙂

  11. Alice Ford says:

    This sounds like such a fun experience. If I was younger and freer I would absolutely try something like this. The activities like Salsa dancing and other side trips sound great as well.

    • Hi Alice! It was truly a spectacular experience. There were several people my senior in class with me so I believe you can definitely do it! The activities definitely alleviated the work load of learning Spanish every day, plus they were a great opportunity to work on what we learned in class. 🙂

  12. Leslie says:

    I think that’s the way to learn, going to that country. I wanted to learn Italian and I did pick it up a bit from living there a month.

    • Hi Leslie,

      I completely agree that being in the country is the most immersive and productive way to learn a new language. I lived in Italy for a month as well and definitely picked up a little bit, though I’ve since forgotten it haha. But next time I visit Italy, I’d love to take classes to learn Italian.

  13. Jesus David says:

    ¡Muy buenas experiencias! Sobretodo la lluvia. Hahaha. I really loved your post, and everything is right, hope to see you again Christina, welcome back to Panama!!

  14. Jen says:

    I would love to learn Spanish! I have visited Barcelona but definitely need to see the rest of Spain.

    • I am not fluent but immersion was a great way to accelerate my learning, I hope to take classes in another Spanish speaking country again to become fluent. I have also only visited Barcelona, and would love to return to see other cities in Spain.

  15. Mateja says:

    It seems you had an amazing experience in Panama. Such a great way to get to learn a language and to explore a country!

    • I really did have an incredible time there! It was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had traveling through another country, and I’m so glad I took classes and immersed myself into the culture. Thank you!

  16. Amazing article! Full of tips, i love Panama, although I was only 8 hours in a connection, anyway I enjoyed my time there. Thank you for sharing.

  17. elizabeth says:

    Loved reading this article, packed with useful information and tips, looks like a great experience, loved seeing your photos too. Panama is a destination I love would to visit soon. I think this was a fabulous way to learn the language too.

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