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An immersion course in Spanish in Puebla, Mexico


I have dabbled with learning Spanish for more than a decade. Mexican soap operas entertain me. Spanish songs entice me. Ordering tacos and tamales in Espanol makes the eating doubly scrumptious. And going to various Spanish schools south of the U.S. border make my stays there all the more fun. But the one school that really gets serious about its students mastering Espanol is located in Puebla, the fourth largest city in Mexico and about 100 km east of Mexico City. Spending three weeks at Spanish Institute of Puebla taught me a great deal of the language with a plentiful mixture of culture and laughter mixed into the concoction.

Let me put to rest any scary stories about flying out of Tijuana, Mexico. It is a breeze. Long-term parking can be had for as low as $5 a day, and there is no traffic jam if you’re dropped off on the U.S. side of the airport entrance. Passengers check in there and simply walk over a bridge to the Mexican side of the airport for the gates. Volaris flies directly to Puebla for about half the price as planes coming from Los Angeles or San Diego to Mexico City with a bus transfer on to Puebla.

My hat’s off to those who opt to stay with a host family while in Puebla. About half of the students at the Institute do so. The others, and I am one of them, want a tad more privacy or perhaps luxury and stay at either a hotel or an Airbnb. The school operates a 3.5 star hotel about four blocks from the school. I chose to stay at El Carmen, an Airbnb boutique hotel that worked out perfectly. The room was charming, had access to a kitchen, and three entry combination codes to ensure safety and privacy. It also didn’t hurt that it was kitty-corner from a park, a block away from a church that held concerts, two blocks away from the school, had about a dozen fantastic taco joints within a block, never ran out of hot water, and was only five blocks away from the cathedral and zocalo. (For more information, go to Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza on Airbnb for Puebla, Mexico.)

National Geographic, with plenty of good reason, acclaimed Spanish Institute of Puebla as a model school for teaching Spanish. About half of the students take small group classes and the others have private lessons. I opted for the group class. I took a placement exam before coming to the school and then another conversational placement evaluation my first morning there. The placement was superb! I was matched with two other ladies from the states who love tinkering with learning Spanish yet surely are far from having a handle on it. Greatly, I appreciate that we were placed with others with similar backgrounds and ages. There was another class of our same level with younger students. Truth be told, we do not learn a language the same way and at the same speed. The school recognizes this and places its students well.

Students make a pledge to speak only Espanol while at the school. School officials plaster the pledge on the entry wall in case one slips. When I forgot and asked the secretary a question in English, she politely ignored me until I remembered my pledge and plodded away in Spanish. Our teacher was young, enthusiastic, and patient. Guadelupe taught us the subjunctive, let us talk her into showing us Spanish movies with Spanish subtitles, sped up our combining verbs with indirect and direct objects, and introduced many idioms. My favorites turned out to be “Que te pasa, calabaza?—What’s up, pumpkin?” and “Fresco como una lechuga!—It’s as fresh as lettuce!” We spent four hours in the morning in class with a thirty minute break in the middle to regroup and not lose our sanity, had a delicious lunch at a choice of two locales, and then met one-on-one our guides for two hours to reinforce our classwork, see the city’s sites, or master something new—whatever our wishes happened to be. (For more information, see https://www.sipuebla.com)

All work and no play makes Juan quite a boring hombre, and Spanish Institute knows this well. Two or three times a week they organize excursions: to Mexico City, Teotihucan, local pyramids and ruins, Cholula for its phenomenal churches and ruins, and Tlaxcala for its artisan museum and city murals. I was in Puebla for Day of the Dead so we visited a town known for its residents who suffered a death of a family member during the past year. They opened their homes and hearts to visitors to share in memories of the deceased. We brought flowers and candles to the altars they set up to commemorate their dear ones. In the nearby town center carnival games, craft stalls, and firecrackers testified of vivacity as death and life mingled into one.

While in Puebla, I came to master the Spanish word for “laugh” quite well. “Reir” means “to laugh,” “reirse” is its reflexive form, “la risotada” is “a loud laugh,” “risible” is “laughable,” “risa” is “laughter,” and “Que risa! is “What a laugh!” An absolute Gotta do while in Puebla is attend a lucha, a wrestling match that only Mexico knows how to do. Buy a good seat for Monday night’s performance at the Arena so you can see well the antics, costumes and grins of the wrestlers. Who knows? You might even have one or two of them land in your lap as they’re tossed from the ring. Definitely, you will “soltar la risa” or in English translation, “Burst out in laughter.”

Visiting great museums (especially The Amparo, Biblioteca, and Museo de la Revolucion) will help give you the needed walking exercise, plus plenty of historical information and views of the city. Be sure to browse El Parian, an arts and crafts market within walking distance of the cathedral. And churches, they seem to be on just about every block of the city. Puebla Cathedral took 300 years to complete. To say it is huge is an understatement; its bell tower is the tallest in Mexico; its shape is of a Latin cross and contains five naves; it has fourteen chapels, two organs, and numerous statues of saints and angels made of onyx. Another favorite is The Church of Santo Domingo where images and elements symbolize The Virgin Mary. Talavera pottery and Puebla artistry is almost synonymous. It is sold throughout the town, but I recommend visiting where the objects are made. I did this one afternoon with my guide and enjoyed thoroughly learning of the production, viewing murals depicting Dante’s Seven Deadly Sins, and buying treasures of tile.

Let’s say you want to do more than walk and view sites so how about horseback riding? It proved to be a highlight for me. Spanish Institute arranged for three of us to spend a Saturday with horseman Edmundo and his wife Patricia in Calpan, a pretty town down from the Popocatepetl volcano. We were picked up at the school and drove for about 45 minutes to their lovely home in Caplan. There we had a delicious breakfast, followed by a few hours of expert instruction by Edmundo. His love for his horses rivals his charisma and his joy for sharing his passion with others. I opted for a fairly leisurely ride, zig zagging out of trails, riverbanks, and town. Others chose some galloping and a few bravo maneuvers. Edmundo videotaped my maneuvering of my horse, Princessa, proving to family and friends back home that I can habla the Espanol and control a horse all at the same time! In the late afternoon we visited their neighbors who opened up their home to commemorate Day of the Dead, had a delicious dinner of mole, and returned back to Puebla early evening. (More information can be found either through Spanish Institute of Puebla or on Airbnb, looking for Patricia and horseback riding under “Things to Do.”)

Did I just mention mole? There is no such thing as a bad meal in Puebla. And cost? Restaurants are insanely cheap! The city’s specialty is mole poblano. To me, fantastic is an understatement for mole. The sauce is a blend of about twenty ingredients: chilies, sesame seeds, aniseeds, peppercorn, cloves, thyme, marjoram, bay leaves, cinnamon, chicken stock, fried bread, tomatoes, and, oh yes, did I mention CHOCOLATE?! The chocolate soothes the chilies, and the chilies sharpen the chocolate. In other words, it is to die for! Restaurante Fonda de Santa Clara at 6 Oriente 12 Centro de Puebla might just have to kick you out at closing time if you go there. Andrea is the manager; her grandmother bequeathed her this restaurant while leaving others to seven other grandchildren. The cooks are all mothers as grandma believed that a mother’s love transcends into her cooking. I took a cooking class from Andrea, along with a family of three visiting Puebla from Germany. They were a nice group, especially when they admitted that mole poblano even tops weinersnitzchel. (More information can be found by stopping by the restaurant or looking on Airbnb “Things to Do—Cooking Classes” in Puebla.)

I’ve become rather hooked on having massages wherever I roam. Goa, India, is hard to beat with its variety of treatments. Thailand massages knock the knots right out of you. Filipino massages down at the beach lull one to sleep with the rhythm of the waves. And the massages in Puebla have their own unique style. Lila is a pro at Mayan massages of the four elements. She can combine stretching, bending, and relaxing all in one session. Her key is balance as she gentle connects the energy between body and mind. Reader beware: you will want a massage just about every day. Truly, she’s just that fantastic at her skill. (If in Puebla, contact her by phone at 22-25-46-45-47 to set up an appointment.)

No, I did not become fluent in Spanish with my three weeks in Puebla. Admittedly, I have a very long ways to go if I ever get there. I returned home to Thanksgiving with family and then Christmas with non-stop activities so my language immersion has taken a backseat. I am confident that once the New Year rolls around, I will return to my somewhat dedicated student endeavor. Until then, I will just have to cherish my memories of escuela, amigos, lucha, excursiones, museos, Iglesias, caballos, comida, y masajes. And that’s quite a lot to keep me feliz!

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