Linger longer, learn the lingo

Steve McKenna learns how to wrap his lips around 'Espanol' with the locals in Latin America.

Latin America is an increasingly popular holiday destination for Australians. The thing is, most of us head there knowing little in the way of Spanish, unless you count si, no and gracias. While this won't matter so much if you're sticking to major tourist spots such as Machu Picchu, staying in five-star hotels or mingling with fellow English speakers on the gringo trail, if you're looking to leave the beaten track, chat to locals, sleep in humble B&Bs, ride local transport or eat in down-to-earth diners, it's essential that you know a bit of the lingua franca.

Fortunately, Spanish schools have swelled across South and Central America in the past few years, offering every chance to learn the lingo, while immersing yourself in the culture.

Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Santiago (Chile) are the obvious - and most expensive - options, especially if you want to indulge in city life. If you'd prefer less hustle and bustle and more bang for your buck, you won't go far wrong with these sublime spots.

Arequipa, Peru

Lima may be its capital and Cusco its tourist darling but Arequipa is, quite simply, Peru's best-looking city.

Set against a backdrop of enormous snow-layered volcanoes, it has magnificent architecture and a fabulous selection of cafes, restaurants, museums, shops and parks, making it a wonderful place to stay a few weeks.

It's also a smart place in which to knuckle down and start swotting up on your Spanish. Not only is Arequipa budget-friendly, it's far from clogged with English speakers, unlike Cusco, where they're everywhere.

I found it much easier to learn Spanish surrounded by people who couldn't speak English, forcing me to speak their language. Like they say, practice makes perfect. Well, almost.

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The Spanish School Arequipa (spanishschoolarequipa.com) offers beginners' courses for $US125 ($135) a week (20 hours class time).

Sucre, Bolivia

Just strolling the streets of sunny, postcard-pretty Sucre, with its blaze of ornate whitewashed buildings, manicured parks and colourful plazas, is a pleasure.

It's remarkably laid-back for a capital city - a status it guards jealously from the country's biggest metropolis, La Paz - and it's a wonderful place to pitch up for some Spanish classes.

Private lessons at Bolivian Spanish School (bolivianspanishschool.com) cost $US6.50 an hour, although it's half the price if you study in a group.

After class, Sucre offers a string of excellent bars and restaurants to hang out in. The newest is Florin (Calle Bolivar 567), a stylish Dutch-Bolivian place that serves an excellent blend of national and international food.

Don't leave without trying Florin's delicious "pique a lo macho". One of Bolivia's most famous dishes, it comprises a jumble of chips, beef, chicken, salami sausage, tomatoes, onions and peppers, lashed with a creamy "beer" sauce.

Boquete, Panama

Rural and idyllic, the highland town of Boquete is the place to base yourself if you like long walks in the verdant countryside, quiet evenings and fine coffee from the award-winning local plantations.

Panamanians say Boquete has changed beyond all recognition in the past decade because of the influx of elderly Americans retiring there.

But it's still a sleepy place and Spanish is, by far, the dominant language used on the streets.

Panama is one of the Americas' more expensive places to study, though still less pricey than Buenos Aires or Santiago.

Boquete's highly rated Habla Ya Panama Spanish School (hablayapanama.com) offers a selection of tailor-made courses, with discounts the longer you stay. A 60-hour crash course is $US500 ($538).

If you'd prefer to learn by the seaside, El Paraiso (elparaisoschool.com) offers week-long courses at Bocas del Toro, a beautiful archipelago on Panama's Caribbean coast, a three-hour drive from Boquete. The price is $US205 a week.

Medellin, Colombia

Though other Latin Americans will disagree, Colombians claim they speak the purest form of Spanish in the Americas. And if you believe Paisas, the people from Medellin, there's no better place to pick up the language than in the City of Eternal Spring.

Back in the 1980s and '90s, you'd have been mad to come here. Medellin was under the vice of drug lord Pablo Escobar and murder and kidnappings were rife. With him long gone, however, this perennially sunny city is much safer, very friendly and a joy to spend time in.

Medellin's plush upmarket suburbs such as El Poblado have scores of excellent restaurants, cafes and bars that are filled with beautiful people who are eminently approachable - especially if you can speak Spanish.

There are some fine Spanish schools in town. Enroll at Nueva Lengua (nuevalengua.com) and you'll get 20 hours of lessons for $US180. Nexus Academy (nexusmedellin.com) is another option.

Antigua, Guatemala

There are more Spanish schools in Antigua than coffee shops - and that's saying something. This gorgeous old colonial town is arguably the prettiest in central America and certainly the most popular with foreigners but it won't be to everyone's liking. In fact, some moan that it's too touristy and not the real Guatemala, largely because it's clean, safe and well-run.

But despite a heavy smattering of tourists, there are worse places to learn Spanish. And with so much competition for your custom, you're bound to find cheap deals - including packages that enable you to stay with a local family.

By lodging, you can immerse yourself deeper in Guatemalan culture and practise your Spanish at the dinner table while sampling the local cuisine.

For a full overview of language schools in Antigua, see visitguatemala.com.

Academia de Espanol Antiguena (spanishacademyantiguena.com) and Proyecto Linguistico Francisco Marroquin (spanishschoolplfm.com) are long-standing institutions. Expect to pay about $US90 for a 20-hour course, plus $US70 for a week's lodging.

Honorary mentions

GRANADA, NICARAGUA Super-cheap Spanish schools abound in this gorgeous colonial town, which sits on the banks of Lago Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. See granadanicaraguaspanish.com.

CORDOBA, ARGENTINA Dubbed one of the cultural capitals of the Americas, this vibrant university city is awash with theatres, museums, cafes and bars — plus a handful of Spanish schools. See coined.com.ar.

CUENCA, ECUADOR This charming colonial town, tucked amid Andean mountains and valleys, boasts pleasant drinking and dining spots and is a fine place to learn Spanish. See sicentrospanishschool.com.

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