When we decided to spend six months of our world tour travelling through South America, we knew that we would enjoy our time there a lot more if we learnt a little bit of Spanish.
While we could probably make do with a few simple words and a bit of Google Translate, actually learning how to put some basic sentences together would make for a much more enjoyable experience.
Fortunately, we knew a friend who had travelled around South America a few years earlier and she told us about the Montañita Spanish School in Ecuador. She had spent two weeks there learning Spanish and highly recommended it.
Why learn Spanish in Ecuador?
It turns out that Ecuador is a great place to learn Spanish. One of the main reasons is that Ecuadorian accents are quite neutral, unlike some other Latin American countries. Ecuador is also a relatively cheap and safe country to travel in.
For such a small country, Ecuador has an incredibly diverse range of scenery and wildlife. In one day, you can go from the tropical Amazon jungle, up into the alpine Andes mountains and finally, back down to sea level to explore its coastline.
Why learn Spanish at Montañita Spanish School
Probably the best reason to choose Montañita Spanish School is the quality of its teaching. It’s one of the top five ranked Spanish schools in the world. There are other Spanish schools in Montañita but Montañita Spanish School is the only licenced one.
As the icing on the cake, the school also offers a range of other activities to make your time in Montañita more enjoyable. These are optional but many students do them. They are surfing lessons, Salsa lessons, cooking classes and Yoga classes.
Surfing is probably the most popular of those activities and a large number of students give it a try. It’s a nice way to fill in the time between your morning and afternoon Spanish classes.
Our Two Weeks at Montañita Spanish School
We spent two weeks in Montañita at Montañita Spanish School. The first week was a regular week of Spanish lessons and in the second week, we did activities that were included in their Travelling Classroom program.
Arriving in Montañita
We arrived in Montañita on a Monday morning, having taken an overnight bus from Tena. We checked into our room at Montañita Cabañas and then headed over to the school, which is only a short five-minute walk away.
The Placement Test
On arrival, our first activity was taking the placement test. This test assesses your current level of Spanish so that you can be assigned to the correct class.
The test is all in Spanish (including questions) and contains increasingly difficult questions. Liliana, the education coordinator, assesses your test results and then has a discussion with you about the level she thinks you’re at. In my case, I could barely answer any of the questions on the test and it was obvious that I would be in the bottom class. Cindy fared slightly better and started one level above me.
It’s important to note that although you normally change levels at the end of a week, you do have the flexibility to move up or down mid-week if you think that your current level is either too easy or too hard.
An Orientation Tour of Montañita
At lunchtime every Monday, the school offers an orientation tour of Montañita. In our case, Anne, one of the school’s interns, showed us around town. Along the way she pointed out essential places such as the laundrettes, banks and ATMs, good restaurants and bars etc. Having just arrived in town, this was really useful for us.
Morning and Afternoon Classes
At Montañita Spanish School, if you’re doing group classes you’ll have both a morning and an afternoon class. Your classes will either be at 8 am and 1.05pm or 10 am and 3.05pm. Classes last two hours and you switch times each week. That way you don’t have to struggle to get to 8 am classes two weeks in a row!
As a nice little touch, students attending the early morning classes are provided with a breakfast snack. It consisted of a freshly squeezed juice (different each day) and a delicious “pan con queso” (a pastry filled with cheese).
Our First Spanish Lesson
Because we’d missed the morning class, our first class was in the afternoon. We were at different levels, so Cindy’s class was after mine.
At my beginners level, the first week is all about providing you with sufficient vocabulary to construct sentences. At Cindy’s level, you start to learn lots of regular and irregular verbs and how to conjugate them and put them together in sentences.
I really enjoyed my first lesson. Our teacher Isabel was amazing and her enthusiasm was infectious. There were only three of us in the class, which made it really easy for each of us to take a turn answering questions.
As much as possible, teachers at Montañita Spanish School will speak to you in Spanish, rather than resorting to English. The reason is that it helps you picks up more vocabulary and it also gets you used to listening to and deciphering spoken Spanish.
It really works. Even with my very limited vocabulary, I found myself understanding a lot of what was being said to me, simply because of the context in which it was being said. For example, if Isabel said “Listo Simon?” to me when we were doing a written exercise, after a few times, it quickly became clear that she was asking whether I was finished with the exercise.
The Welcome Dinner
Every Monday evening, Montañita Spanish School organises a welcome dinner for new students and all students are encouraged to attend. It’s a great way to meet your fellow students. We went to two of these and they were both very well attended.
The Rest of My First Week
As I mentioned earlier, for absolute beginners such as myself, the first week of Spanish lessons is primarily concerned with giving you enough vocabulary to start building sentences. That vocabulary is a mixture of useful nouns (such as professions, places, colours, animals, fruits and vegetables), handy adjectives and a few useful verbs and conjunctions. You also learn the numbers, which is of course super handy.
The other main focus of the classes is getting you speaking Spanish, even in rudimentary sentences. In the first part of the class, they’ll often ask you how you are, what you did last night, what you’re doing tonight, what you ate for lunch etc. You are gradually able to string together basic sentences and you very quickly begin to understand what they are asking you. It’s actually quite impressive how easily you can get the gist of a question without fully understanding every word in it.
You might think that simply learning new vocabulary wouldn’t be much fun but it is. The teachers keep things interesting by using a variety of techniques to test what you’re learning. You might do crosswords, play memory games, or play charades. It was never boring.
By the end of the week, we had learned a lot of new vocabulary. Of course, I hadn’t memorised every word but I could remember enough to be useful. I started to understand a lot more when speaking with locals in restaurants and bars.
My first aha moment came later in the week when I took our first load of laundry down to the laundrette and was able to have a complete conversation with the owner. Although it wasn’t much more than me giving her my name and her telling me how much it would cost and when it would be ready, the conversation was entirely in Spanish. It was extremely satisfying.
The Second Week
Classes run Monday to Friday and you then have the weekend to yourself. We decided to take it easy on Saturday and just hang around town and chill out. But on Sunday we took a local bus forty minutes north to Puerto Lopez where we went whale watching. It was a great afternoon out.
The following Monday, classes resumed and I progressed to level A1. I had two new teachers for my morning and afternoon classes and again, they were both excellent. One benefit of having a range of teachers is that you get to listen to a variety of accents. Plus, each teacher has their own unique way of teaching.
The second week focused on learning verbs and how to conjugate them. Like many languages, Spanish has a mixture of regular and irregular verbs and learning which is which, is a bit of a challenge. It’s just something that you need to get past.
Fortunately, my teachers went out of their way to make this process fun, using a mixture of practical exercises and team games to reinforce the grammar rules and to help us memorise the different groups of irregular verbs.
As mentioned above, the school offers a range of extra-curricular activities to make your time there fun. Of these, the ones we tried were Salsa classes and surfing lessons.
Surfing is the most popular activity that the school offers. I gave it a try during the second week and I really enjoyed it. I’d never surfed before and I honestly didn’t expect to do very well at all.
Classes are held at Olon beach, the next beach down from Montañita. It’s just a short drive away. If like me, you have no previous surfing experience, you’ll start off learning in the white-water, rather than tackling green waves. But first, you’ll learn the basics of catching a wave on the beach, before you even head out into the water.
To my great surprise, I was able to catch waves and stand up on my board during my very first lesson. I hadn’t expected that at all and I have to put it down to the excellent tips and feedback from my teacher, Alec. It really helped that there were only three students to each teacher. That allowed for personalised coaching.
Over the course of the next couple of days, I progressed further and improved my technique quite a bit. Unfortunately, on the very first day, I managed to bruise my ribs by holding the board against them in the water. By the end of the third day, they were quite sore, so I had to call it quits and not surf for the remaining two days. It was quite disappointing because surfing was a whole lot of fun.
On Saturdays, the school holds a surf trip, to a beach about fifteen minutes outside of Montañita. It’s a chance to surf and socialise. It’s a small extra cost unless you are doing the travelling classroom, in which case it’s included in the cost of your package. Unfortunately, we had to leave Montañita on Saturday to catch the Wanderbus back up to Quito, so we couldn’t make it to the surf trip.
The school organises regular Salsa lessons which are either held on the rooftop at the school or in the common area at Montañita Cabañas.
Cindy and I tried out one of the classes and had a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I, in particular, have two left feet, so we weren’t very successful. But we did have a great time.
Yoga classes are offered most afternoons after classes during the week and also first thing in the morning. Most students opt for the afternoon classes, avoiding the early wakeup call! Classes are held on the rooftop terrace at Montañita Spanish School.
The school also holds cooking classes at Montañita Cabañas. During the second week, we were there, students made a range of yummy empanadas.
What Spanish levels does Montañita Spanish School cater for?
Montañita Spanish School accepts students of all levels. While the lower levels are focused on increasing your vocabulary and knowledge of Spanish grammar, higher levels are focused on improving your spoken fluency.
The school offers both group and private lessons. I found the group lessons more than adequate, for my level of Spanish. But I could also see that switching to private lessons once you reach a higher level of competency could be quite useful to improve your fluency. Group classes usually have no more than five to six students in them. I had no more than four in mine.
Who studies at Montañita Spanish School?
The majority of people we met studying in Montañita were quite young. Many were doing it as part of backpacking around South America. In particular, there were a lot of young people from Switzerland and the Netherlands because we were there during the European summer holidays.
However, the students’ ages ranged from 18 right up to a gentleman in his sixties. There was also a father and his daughter from the U.S. So basically, age is no barrier.
Students come from all over the world. As I mentioned, there were plenty from Europe but also plenty from the U.S and Canada.
Where do you stay in Montañita while studying?
Many students who study at Montañita Spanish School stay at the nearby Montañita Cabañas which are only a short walk away. The cabañas are a nice little tropical oasis and it’s fun to hang out with your fellow students after class. However, even if you’re not staying there, all students are still welcome to hang out in the common areas at the cabañas.
The school can also help you organise a homestay with a local family in Montañita. This offers an even more immersive experience for learning Spanish, as well as giving you more of an insight into the daily lives of Ecuadorians.
Your final alternative is to arrange your own accommodation in Montañita in one of the many hostels, hotels or apartments.
Our final thoughts on Montañita Spanish School
We really enjoyed our time at Montañita Spanish School. It’s a very professionally run school and the curriculum is very well executed. All of Cindy and my teachers were of an excellent standard and were truly passionate about teaching Spanish.
The additional activities that the school organises, such as surfing and salsa, really add to the experience. They go out of the way to encourage students to socialise with each other and to enjoy their time in Montañita.
Even though we are no longer into partying all night, we still enjoyed our time in Montañita. It’s a really chilled out place with a great vibe and a relaxed atmosphere. I really enjoyed having a set routine each day for a couple of weeks, after several months of constant travel.
I especially enjoyed walking back and forth between the school and the cabañas every day, while checking out the iguanas under the bridge and in the trees near the river. They were so chilled out!
We highly recommend spending at least a couple of weeks at Montañita Spanish School if you’re keen to learn Spanish while travelling around South America or perhaps even during your summer holidays.
You can find up to date information about the cost of studying at the school and the various course options on their pricing page.
Full disclosure: We were kindly hosted by Montañita Spanish School and Montañita Cabañas during our time in Montañita. However all of our opinions expressed here are truly our own. We really enjoyed and benefited from our time at the school.