You would think that after living in Quintana Roo, Mexico, for five years, I would be able to speak Spanish fluently. When my husband, Lou, and I moved to Mexico after taking a community college class to enhance our ancient knowledge of the Spanish language previously studied in high school and college, wouldn’t you think we would have transitioned from the United States to Mexico with ease? Not so! We soon turned to Spanish tutors, translators, CD’s and books to add to the hands-on experience we got speaking Spanish in our daily lives. After a year of struggling to communicate, we signed up for a three-week home stay and one-on-one classes at a language school in Antigua, Guatamala.

After this school experience, our skills were improving as far as basic communication goes, but to me there was still a gap that I longed to fill, to become fluent in the melodic Spanish language. The following year, Lou and I built and opened an elegant jungle B&B in the small Mayan Pueblo, Macario Gomez, only fifteen minutes from Tulum’s mystic shore. Our workers all hailed from Macario Gomez and spoke Mayan along with Spanish as their second language. My husband amazed me by using a combination of hand signals, drawings and his own language version that he calls “Louie’s Spanish” to communicate with the craftsmen who helped him build our house and the cenote-style pools, waterfalls and guest casitas at La Selva Mariposa.

I stood back and watched with envy and tried to enhance my Spanish language skills without as much real life experience: listening to CD’s, reading the newspaper and local tourist publications and doing Spanish workbook exercises. My Spanish was sufficient when it came to communicating with our housekeeping staff and the gardener, but I longed to have a more eloquent presentation so that I could have more in-depth conversations with our neighbors and Spanish speaking friends.

When we opened La Selva Mariposa three years ago, the majority of our guests was from the U.S. and Europe, and still is today. English is the preferred language we choose when sharing our passion for Quintana Roo and all the natural treasures that surround La Selva Mariposa in our articles and conversations with our hotel guests. It seems easier to give directions, tourist site recommendations and restaurant choices in English. I often felt that my Spanish language skills were diminishing rather than growing.

Last June, when a repeat hotel guest whom we had become very friendly with let me know that she would be going to language school in Oaxaca, Mexico, after her stay with us, I became intrigued. Lou and I had always wanted to visit Oaxaca and both agreed, from our experience in Guatamala, that attending a language school was a great way to see a new area and explore the culture from a more personal perspective rather than that of a tourist.

Our hotel reservations at La Selva Mariposa were slowing down during the summer months and Lou offered to stay and take care of the guests while I went to Oaxaca with our friend, Aline. He reminded me that his passion for travel was stronger without the additional stress of being a student in a language school. He also mentioned that he was getting older and perhaps his window for learning Spanish grammar had closed. Of course, I would never agree with him on this as we are the same age.

“Hey, Moe,” Lou said one steamy evening as we sat under a whirling fan sipping a cool beverage. “I have been thinking about the trip to Oaxaca and have a great idea. Why don’t you fly with Aline to Oaxaca, attend the language school for two weeks and then I will drive from Macario to Oaxaca City to pick you up, and we can see some new sites in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Campeche on our drive back home? I agree that at least one of us needs to improve our Spanish communication skills, and I nominate you to take the classes and then you can help me with my mangled Spanish.”

I loved the idea, and was grateful for his generosity in taking care of the hotel responsibilities while I flew off to Oaxaca to study and scout out this intriguing ancient city. I went online and found the information on the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca( before I committed to going with my friend. The school was established in 1984 and is housed in a 19th-centuryprivate estate surrounded by gardens and is located in the colonial center of the city. All of the instructors are native speakers and classes, with about six students each, are conducted totally in Spanish. There are several programs to choose from: such as the twenty-hour program, and the main program that offers about seven hours of language learning per day for $160 a week. Besides the three-hour grammar class and the informal conversation session each day, the students choose one of the cultural workshops to engage in each afternoon (ceramics, Mexican music, Mexican cinema, textile weaving, salsa dancing or Oaxacan cooking) for a week or two at a time. There is also an optional one-hour daily inter-cambio session with a member of the community where both parties have an opportunity to converse and synthesize lessons learned in the more formal morning classes. The school also organizes tours to the near-by ruin sites and to villages to observe the native artisans at work in their own homes and studios.

I was enthralled with this wellrounded option for stretching my language skills and building confidence in speaking a foreign language, and the price was so reasonable. My friend was going to stay at one of the posadas or inns that offer private room and bath, shared kitchen and a Oaxacan breakfast cooked and served each morning by the lady of the house. The cost of the home stay with an Oaxacan family is about the same as a week at one of the inns ($90) and includes two meals a day. The family is paid directly in either pesos or US dollars. The school also will recommend apartments and hotels in the city if you prefer this type of accommodation. I decided to try the posada arrangement, as I had the opportunity to experience the home stay in Guatemala. Aline and I felt that this option would give us more freedom to explore the city and we would not have to return home for the family meal between classes. It did not take me long to send the $55 registration fee to the school by way of . I was so impressed with the prompt, professional and thorough communication the school staff took to answer any questions I had.

We flew on Mexicana Airlines from Cancun to Oaxaca City with a transfer in Mexico City. The airport in Oaxaca is easy to maneuver and transport vans are abundant outside of the terminal. We purchased a ticket for the ride to our posada in the city for about $15 and soon realized we were the only riders in our vehicle. We gave the driver our address and within twenty minutes we were at our door, welcomed by the smiling face of our senora, Veronica, waiting to greet us and show us to our accommodations. Our rooms were on separate floors of the three-story house and both included a double bed, bedside table, chest of drawers and minimal lighting. The bathrooms were adjacent to the bedrooms and the basics were provided by the house. Veronica let us know that she or a staff-member would be cleaning our rooms each day and the sheets would be changed several times a week. Since our hosts also operated a commercial laundry on the premises, having our laundry done on a same-day basis was an extra bonus. We took a few minutes to get organized before Veronica offered to drive us to the school to see the campus and meet the staff. She pointed out sights along the way as we meandered through the maze of one –way streets towards the center of the city.

As we walked through the massive stone entrance to the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, surrounded by an eight-foot-high stone wall that kept out the noise of the city traffic, we had already fallen in love with this magical colonial city and the lush grounds with, palms and mature trees that would be our school and campus for the next few weeks.

Entrance to school

A buzz of Spanish could be heard as we passed the informal circles with teachers and students joyfully engaged in conversation. The administrative staff introduced themselves and we felt as if they were waiting for us, and only us, to arrive. Erin, who spoke English with an English accent, took us on a tour of the school grounds and buildings and explained how the testing and orientation would take place the next day. We noticed that students ranged in age from eighteen to seventy-five, and many smiled and greeted us as they passed by on their way out of the building.

We had the weekend to explore the city and were pleased that we had signed up for a tour on Sunday to the famous Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban.

Amazing picture of Monte Alban

Flowers by zocalo fountain

We walked a few blocks to the spacious Lleno Park that was teaming with activity, and we thought this was the famous zocalo, or main city park, we had heard so much about, but would not discover that exciting and famous location until the next day. There were posters on every corner and building announcing that Guelaguetza 2009 was just kicking -off this weekend. We had no idea what this meant, or that we had arrived just in time to celebrate one of the most important weeks in Oaxaca.

Great twirling skirts parade small

(Part 2 will be continued in next month’s edition of

Mari Pintkowski and her husband, Louis, live and operate the boutique hotel. La Selva Mariposa just 15 minutes from Tulum.

Learn more about “living the dream” by reading Mari’s book, Embarking on the Mariposa Trail,