Like most travelers, the first thing I did when I arrived in Medellín was look for some Colombian food. After picking a restaurant and sliding into a corner table overlooking the mountains, I asked for an Águila, the local beer, then looked at the blackboard and realized immediately that I had no clue how to order.
The waiter came over and spoke in lightning-speed Spanish. I kept saying “Por favor repitelo?” (“Please repeat that?”), but it was hopeless. I just pointed to a few items and hoped for the best. It was clear I needed help with my Spanish.
Language schools are a great way to learn the local language or brush up on your skills, gain a support system, meet other travelers and explore a new city all at the same time. After my arrival in Medellín, I did a quick Google search and found that a school called Elefun offered classes and activities and was within walking distance of my rented apartment. I signed up right away.
Elefun offers Spanish classes at beginner to advanced levels, for locals or travelers, in either group or private sessions. Most people choose group lessons based on their level, which is determined by a quick assessment, but students can also opt to have private lessons for more concentrated attention. The school has programs ranging from a few hours to a few weeks or months, so you can fit it into your travel schedule; the choice is yours, but a month is recommended for proper language acquisition. You can do morning or afternoon sessions for two to four hours daily.
Schools like this can be found on the internet and you can register easily, either online or in person. Activities are offered at various times to work with your schedule. Members of staff will even meet you at the airport and bring you to your host family or hotel.
Elefun has a pristine white courtyard and a buzzer to let people in and out of the facilities. Each classroom, named for the cities in Colombia, has flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi and air-conditioning. A sweet little lady offers café con leche and water to the people who are sitting waiting on the balcony, overlooking the mountain views.
The friendly receptionist knows the names of each student and their schedules, and posts a list of activities on the board weekly. They included sports activities, salsa lessons and food tastings of local snacks. The school puts laminated labels next to the foods to describe the exotic fruits, tasty sandwiches or fresh juices, which you can help yourself to in between lessons.
At night there are evening language exchanges to get in some practice with locals, and cultural excursions to local restaurants and bars to enjoy drinks and empanadas and learn more about the Colombian culture.
This program is an excellent way to explore Medellín. While the activity coordinators at the school offer a variety of excursions, the language program also allows people to experience the city independently. Medellín also has a spotless and efficient metro system, so you can easily venture off on your own between classes.
You can do free walking tour of the city, gazing at statues by Fernando Botero, tasting local delicacies along the way and hearing stories of the sites from a local’s perspective. You can join a free graffiti tour of the revived neighborhood of Comuna 13, riding colorful outdoor escalators, examining powerful murals created by local artists and ending the day with a Colombian michelada, a beer served with lime and salt, while taking in the artwork. You can ride the newly designed cable cars that transport visitors from the city’s metro station to high up in the hills, taking in some exquisite views, then hop on another cable car that goes directly to Parque Arví, which has a local market, a national park and the most idyllic vegetarian restaurant, Cable a Tierra, where you can have a full meal, with soup, entrée and a drink, all for a couple bucks.
When I told my teacher about my first day in the city and my troubles ordering in a restaurant, we spent the morning reviewing essential vocabulary and role playing. She then took me around the corner to a delicious café where her friend worked, ushering me to the counter and stepping back to leave me on my own. I looked at the menu and paused – and then, in near-perfect Spanish, I ordered a feast. The school even paid for it.