When the opportunity came up for me to head to Panama and learn some Spanish, I definitely jumped at it even if it was a bit of a detour from my original plan to explore South America. After 3 months in these parts and 3 weeks of Spanish lessons, ¿puedo hablo espanol ahora? (can I speak Spanish now? At least that’s my best translation haha). Here’s more about my experience learning Spanish and a bit of a review of studying with Habla Ya Spanish Schools.
HABLA YA LOCATIONS IN PANAMA
I wanted to study Spanish, but I didn’t want to be stuck in one place for too long, so Habla Ya with its 3 different campuses in Panama was a great option for me because I got to see 3 very different sides of Panama while going to class. I decided to spend a week in each campus – a total of 3 weeks of lessons from Monday to Friday.
Each location has its charms, so the different schools had quite different student profiles as well.
Bocas del Toro
I started my journey in first in Bocas Del Toro, popular for its island lifestyle and Caribbean blue sea – it’s very chillax and the island is quite small. Bocas was probably the most busy of all the schools and saw a lot of younger people and had a more party vibe. Many people took the chance to pick up surfing or scuba diving concurrently with their lessons (I tried both, more below)
Next I headed nearby to tiny Boquete up in the mountains of Chiriqui on the western end of Panama favoured by both adventurers and retirees. The student profile here tends to be much older and not as social compared to the other 2 schools. The vibe of Boquete is also very much more sedentary and quiet.
Read about my time in Boquete in this article that was also published in Singapore’s Today Newspaper.
And finally I finished up back in the bright lights of the capital and cosmopolitan Panama City. Panama City saw more variety and mix all around when it came to nationalities and ages of students, and had more students or expats who were looking to live and work in the country versus tourists.
For those who like variety like I do, being able to hop around the different campuses seamlessly is definitely an ideal option. There’s a certain structure to the lesson curriculum so you won’t miss out on levels even if you move between campuses.
It’s not always perfect of course – sometimes my classes in the different campuses were faster or slower so I repeated lessons at certain points, but it’s one way to ensure certain consistency across the campuses.
My Habla Ya Spanish Classes
Classes usually took around 5 hours with a 20min break in between. I took small group lessons where they placed me with a maximum of 5 other students of similar level in my class – you do a few written and oral tests right at the beginning for them to decide which class to put you in.
I started at Level A1 Week 2 as they decided I had enough vocabulary to not start from scratch. Day 1 was definitely super challenging for me as I was coming in cold while my other classmates already had a week’s base to start from, but I think it worked out alright, if not I would have requested to shift to the Week 1 class.
I liked group lessons because you can learn from interacting and listening to your classmates, and it makes lessons more fun with other people to talk to and practice with. In Boquete however, there were no other students at my same level so my group class was like a private class with just me. With one-on-one attention, I spent a lot of time talking, which definitely helped in my confidence, and my teacher was able to focus the class on addressing my specific issues. Other students I knew did a combination of group and individual lessons – you just needed to work out with the school beforehand how exactly you wanted to make use of your total course hours.
Moving across campuses also meant I had a wide variety of teachers and teaching styles, which can help or hinder your progress depending on how you learn. For example, some teachers were strictly Spanish only, others were happy to explain things in English if necessary. Different teachers helped me figure out what worked better for me – I do like being forced to speak and think in Spanish more, but sometimes I really need some English instructions to figure out what to do for assignments.
I enjoyed some of the non academic bits of lessons too – my teacher G in Panama City loved playing Spanish charades which was an exercise in vocabulary, while in Boquete, Friday afternoons are free and easy and my teacher T took me out to the market to get ingredients for a snack of Pollo Ceviche.
After School Activities with Habla Ya
There are usually 2 class sessions at each school: morning and afternoon sessions. In Boquete and Panama City, group classes only take place in the afternoons which can be a bit of a pain when planning activities as you either need to do short morning activities or leave the full-day stuff till the weekends.
Habla Ya organises activities for its students on a daily basis that range from shared meals, to cooking, salsa classes and even day tours. There’s usually a big sign up board where you can indicate your interest, which I thought was a great idea but would have benefited from being a little more organised. Some of the activities involved agencies and payment which were organised by the school, while others were meant to be student organised, which is a bit tough because not everyone knew everyone else. It was a great way to interact with students and professors from other classes though!
It also depended on the school – it didn’t seem like anyone was using the board in Boquete, but the ones in Bocas and Panama City were a lot more active. In fact, they were testing out using a whatsapp group for shared communication, so they are definitely working on improving community engagement.
There are also activities that you can do outside of the school – Habla Ya works with some of their partners to offer discounts or packages along with the Spanish classes so you can earn some certifications while learning Spanish. In Bocas, popular options included taking your diving certification with Bocas Dive Center or surf lessons with Monoloco Surf School. Also possible are rock climbing certification in Boquete and Yoga classes in Panama City – more on the Habla Ya website here.
Accommodation options with Habla Ya
You do have your pick of accommodation options depending on how much you are willing to pay and what you want to experience.
Homestay in Boquete
In Boquete I opted to do a homestay, and it really is your luck in getting assigned a good host family and whether you click with them well. You fill up quite a detailed form beforehand which lets the school best match you to a host family – it’s quite important to be specific if you have any needs or wants so the school can best allocate you.
My host family had a great house which was quite modern so I was very comfortable. It wasn’t super convenient – in Bocas and Panama City I was 2-5 minutes by walking from school, here I was about 15-20 mins walk from town down a rather quiet path – so walking to school in the day was fine but going out at night was not very doable. Still it is the best opportunity to see how the locals might live and practice your Spanish – my family didn’t speak any English so it forced me to use all the Spanish I had for communication.
Hostel options for budget travellers
In Panama City I stayed at a hostel called Panama House, which was nice as well because I got to interact with people outside of class and school, and also because it was super conveniently located right across the road from school, so it was very convenient.
For Bocas del Toro I actually stayed on the school’s campus, which was a converted classroom. Most people stay in the nearby hostels or home stays though.
Some final thoughts about Habla Ya
I really did enjoy my Spanish lessons with Habla Ya – I thought they were a pretty good school and they definitely helped polish up my Spanish – before that I had some intermittent Memrise/Duolingo app usage and whatever I picked up from muddling my way through Colombia and Ecuador in 2 months. 3 weeks of lessons will only take you so far though, the challenge comes after that in trying to use and maintain a certain level of aptitude. I was definitely more confident in speaking in Peru and Bolivia after this little stint in Panama for sure.
Thanks again to Habla Ya for the opportunity to work with them – if you’d like to know anything more, drop a comment or an email and I’ll be happy to try and answer you.
Habla Ya sponsored my lessons and some of the transport, tours and activities that I took part in during my 3 weeks with them. They are always looking for people to work with, so drop them a note if you are keen.