Exploring Espanol

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At 66, Margaret Amundson is no stranger to adventure, having raced dragon boats in China's Hunan province and explored the Tikal ruins of Guatemala. When she cast about in 1997 for a school to improve her Spanish, the Michigan nurse looked first to Ecuador, explaining, "I was fascinated by the indigenous cultures, and I wanted to see the Galapagos before they are destroyed." At the Academia Latinoamericana de Espanol in the capital city of Quito, she was not disappointed. After three intensive weeks of private classes and living with a family, she went off better prepared for her explorations. Says Amundson: "Going to school and getting quarters with local people is a great way to enjoy a country without being a 'tourist.'"

People like Amundson are responsible for a miniboom in language instruction in this small South American nation, where more than 60 schools, academies and tutoring firms have sprouted since 1995. With a total of 100 language schools, Ecuador rivals Costa Rica, Mexico and Guatemala as a Spanish-learning mecca, and government officials are hoping to turn language tourism into a significant generator of income. "It is exactly the kind of quality industry that our country so badly needs," explains Concepcion Barahona de Pozo, Ecuador's tourism undersecretary.

Most of the language schools are in the pre-Columbian city of Quito, although a score have opened in Cuenca, a mountain community 35 minutes by air to the south. Nearly half the language students are more than 40 years old, with as many from Europe as the U.S. They study Spanish to prepare for travel, to scout retirement sites--or just to learn something new. They are attracted by Ecuador's diverse cultures and spectacular topography. Off-hours, the adventuresome can trek in the nearby Andes.

Berlitz schools, they are not. Along Quito's busy Avenida Amazonas, schools operate out of makeshift storefronts and converted homes. "We don't assure fluency, only that you will learn enough to get around," says Francisco Pastor, director of Academia Equinoccial. The regimen of four or five hours of daily classes plus afternoon, Spanish-only outings with instructors brings special meaning to "total immersion," often leaving the student exhausted by dinnertime, just when his host family is eager to engage him in small talk. "Listening was the hardest thing for me," says John Hale, 43, who studied in Quito with his wife and two children. "My head was usually pounding by the end of the morning."

Anecdotal evidence suggests that learning a language may get harder with age. Hale, who knew some Spanish, found himself outdistanced by his 11-year-old son, who "could take phrases and repeat them back better." Laments Ed Blumenstock, 57, a California ob-gyn: "I hoped that six weeks of classes would be enough, but it's not. I can't have a real conversation without murdering the language."

Fortunately, Castilian Spanish tends to be better pronounced and slower cadenced than elsewhere in Latin America. "Even when you botch up, it's worth it," notes Peter Moller, 58, a retired Colorado college professor who took a brushup course and then led a trip to the Galapagos. "People in Latin America are very understanding." Even so, those contemplating language immersion might want to learn the basics at a community college, then plunge in talking upon arrival.

For many visitors, Ecuador's bargain prices are as alluring as its scenery, especially following the September currency conversion. The going rate for private lessons is just $5 an hour. A first-rate dinner for two in Quito is $15; taxis are usually less than $2. Accommodations with local families average $12 to $15 a night. For a typical student, a month's expenses may never hit $1,000.

Of course, there are challenges beyond verb conjugation. With entrepreneurs rushing to cash in on the student trade, the government warns buyers to check references. Then, too, visitors must learn to dodge Quito's unforgiving drivers, leap on buses that rarely seem to stop and make do with unreliable heat and hot water. Waldemar Steuer, 59, a retired German mining engineer who took a three-week course this fall, found one solution for the 45[degrees]F nights: he slept in his suit with four blankets.

Such discomforts, though, are a small price to pay for the richness of the experience. Margaret Amundson's reward came on a subsequent trip to Costa Rica where she spent an entire day talking in Spanish with a tour guide. When she slipped at one point, he turned to her, surprised, and exclaimed, "I didn't know you spoke English." Recalls Amundson: "That really made my whole trip."