Before I even finished watching all Jim and May’s video about their upcoming Spanish Immersion Retreat in Guanajuato City, Mexico, I felt my fingers inching closer and closer to my wallet. I had just started teaching myself Spanish a month or two before, by reading books, watching their previous videos, listening to music; you name it. But literally that same week, I had been wishing for an opportunity to leave my slightly tragic, work-heavy lifestyle for a bit, to practice my skills in the real world. It was a godsend, because honestly, I was a little nervous to travel on my own.
But boy am I happy I went through with it. Of course, it took some work for me to reach Guanajuato. There were a lot of firsts involved. A lot time spent on flights, and a lot of practice saying “no entiendo.” And the second I took my first step from out the airport into the staggering Mexican heat, I almost turned right back around. Either back to the states, or at least to find a 200 SPF sunscreen and a mini fan, because man, it was hot.
I’m sure everyone’s experience at this first retreat was different. But I know for a fact that we all gained valuable knowledge along with friendships that will span a lifetime.
Exploring a new city in a new country on your own, especially while learning a new language, can be very intimidating. So an immersion retreat might be a better way to start for you. The price might be a turnoff for some people, but it takes a lot of stress out of the equation knowing that it includes almost everything. There is so much information to take in, it is easier to not have to think about carrying a stack of pesos around for every single activity.
The whole point of these immersion retreats is to instill confidence in you to get around on your own. I will always remember taking my first colectivo (small bus) around town, calling my first taxi on my own, and withdrawing pesos from an ATM for the first time. I can now take these experiences from Guanajuato and apply them everywhere I travel to.
Practice Makes Perfect
There is no faster way to learn a language than to immerse yourself in the culture. This is why a lot of people move to another country to become fluent in their target language. It gives you no other choice but to speak, listen, and read everyday. And traveling to these countries is also more useful because you can learn to recognize a variety of dialects.
Our profesora was amazing. May’s morning lessons during the retreat were supported by activities later in the day. For example, one of the first lessons is about ordering food. Because, obviously… Mexico….tacos… need I say more? We learned all the basics and went to test our skills at a local restaurant called Los Huacales.
May pushed us one by one out of the nest by encouraging us to ask the locals questions. For example, I vividly remember needing laundry detergent one day and was asking her to go to the store with me. She taught me how to ask for it, but then encouraged me to go in solo. Which honestly is the most helpful in the long run. Getting pushed outside your comfort zone makes you remember these moments more. So the next time I needed to ask a stranger for something, I did not need help.
Having hosts constantly there to correct your Spanish and answer questions about vocabulary, in my opinion, is one of the most valuable parts of the trip. Sure, when you travel by yourself, you get to practice speaking every day, but to have people there correcting your mistakes every single time you speak? Priceless. Patience is key, but after you are corrected a few times on the same thing, you learn very fast.
Living Like Locals
Guanajuato is a beautiful city rich in culture and history. It’s no wonder why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.
While there, the entire group attempted to assimilate into the community. We were staying in an AirBnB instead of a hotel, eating at the local cafés and restaurants, walking everywhere or using public transportation, and most importantly talking to locals. We got to know their stories, which was the best part. Laura was one of our guides in Guanajuato, who I contacted the next time I went to Mexico. This networking and friendship development is easily the most rewarding part of traveling.
Lastly, this retreat allowed us to witness cultural differences between Mexico and home. Three people who attended the first retreat in Guanajuato, including me, had never been to Mexico before, so it was especially eye-opening for us. You can find my in-depth analysis of the differences between the U.S. and Mexico here.
Being a “Pionero”
Nine people arrived in Guanajuato on day one as strangers, but left as a family. We decided to call ourselves Los Pioneros, or “The Pioneers.” We still keep in touch through a group chat and through social media, even months after the trip. The relationships we have formed since meeting are lifelong.
Not only did the group learn about Mexican culture, but we learned about ourselves as individuals as well. Everybody in this retreat was from the U.S., but from all different parts of the country. From California to Idaho, Virginia, Montana, Georgia, Texas, and beyond. We ended up learning a lot about our own country as well.
I remember the day I decided to forgo my plan to road trip across the U.S. to instead travel solo to Mexico City, because the effect of the retreat hit that hard. It was day five of being in Guanajuato and I was on the phone with a friend who lived in Mexico City. I had already began planning my road trip, but my friend mentioned visiting Mexico City. I sat there and thought, “wow that is an actual option for me now.”
I had never seriously traveled before. Mexico was my first time out of the U.S., but honestly I felt like I was prepared enough to get around on my own. And I wasn’t going to find out for sure if I did not try, right? Challenge accepted.
The timing of the retreat was perfect for me as well. Although the immersion is awesome for any level of Spanish, I love that I had already taught myself the basics. So I could really focus on learning grammar, slang, and how to better express my thoughts, instead of only asking questions I could easily Google like, “how do you say dog?”
I want to leave you with a tip that I found really useful: journal your journey. Write down your thoughts during your travel, words you learn, places you want to go on your next visit. Anything. You will witness your self-growth as an individual, as a traveler, and as a language learner. Next time you embark on a new trip in your life, perhaps another language or country, you can see what made things difficult or easy your first time around.
Do not miss out on adventures like this because you do not think you can do it, you don't think you have time, or you do not think you have enough money. Follow your heart, as I feel like our mindsets are our worst enemy sometimes. This Spanish Immersion Retreat really has changed my perspective on many things, and I hope it can do the same for others in the future. This is only the beginning.