This blog post is specially dedicated to our future students who intend to enroll in a Total Spanish Immersion Program (Spanish course + home stay with local host family). Some of you may have already traveled to other Latin American countries, but from my experience, many of you have never been to our neck of the woods.
Therefore, you may not exactly know what it’s like to live in a developing country in Central America nor what to expect when you immerse yourself into the Spanish language, Latin culture and way of life. We are here to prepare you for the adventure of a lifetime! So if you are planning on coming to Panama to learn Spanish and live with a local host family, here are a few tips, advice and realities to take into account that will help you get a better idea about what to expect from your Spanish immersion program.
There is nothing like the warmth of a Latin American family. And once you get the grasp of the language, there will be plenty of laughs... and before too!
First of all, living standards are not the same as they are in the United States or Europe. This is by far the most important thing to keep in mind when deciding whether a family home stay is for you or not. Nobody knows you better than yourself so you are the only person who can make this call. You will end up sacrificing some comfort with a family home stay but in return you will be exposed to the Spanish language 24x7. If you're not up to living a bit simpler, then check out our other accommodation options. Nobody will hold it against you: happy students learn faster!
Living conditions are simpler than in the USA, Canada or Europe but you will definitively feel welcome with the families that make possible each Spanish immersion program
It's also worth noting that the local living standards in Boquete are higher than those in Bocas del Toro, so if you think you're up for it, but still have some doubts, doing a Spanish immersion program in Boquete instead of in Bocas might be a wise decision. And if you still want to study Spanish by the beach, you can perfectly do so after your time in the mountains and stay at budget hostel, mid-range or upscale hotel, an apartment or even a vacation rental in Bocas del Toro while you attend our Spanish school in Bocas del Toro.
In the hopes of experiencing Panama at its best and learning Spanish in an effective manner, if the following challenges are simply too much for you, don't panic: as we've mentioned above, we have loads of other accommodation options that you can choose from in order to fully enjoy your Spanish program.
So, what realities to take in mind when considering a home stay with a local family?
- Are you taking hot water for granted? Well, think again! In Panama, having hot water is not the norm. In Boquete, the climate can get quite fresh, so more and more families (but not all!) are installing electric devices on their showers to heat the water (foreigners call them suicide showers because you usually can see the wires on top of the showers). Don’t be scared, I´ved had this sytem for 2 years and I am still alive =). They won't heat the water as much as a proper gas system will, and you might have to use it with less water pressure for it to work properly, but it does do the trick. If you are thinking about coming to Bocas del Toro, you have to know that NONE of our families have hot water. They would probably laugh if you asked them why, since in this warm Caribbean weather in a tropical rainforest by the beach it is not needed at all. You will see that you may actually be grateful for that.
- Were you going to request a home stay with your own private bathroom? Sorry to disappoint you, but in a developing country where middle class houses are small and modest, it is very uncommon to have more than one bathroom in the house. You will always have your own room of course, but bathrooms will most likely be shared with the rest of the family. If this is a deal breaker for you, no problem: stay at a hotel and be happy =).
- Do you need high speed internet at your home at all times? Now that you have read point 1 and 2, you can probably guess the answer to this one. We only have very few families that have internet in their home. No worries though, at the school you can use our wifi connection at any time of the day. Personally I would recommend you to try and disconnect from the digital world for a bit - you are on vacation after all, and being disconnected is part of the experience. Remember those good old times when people sent postcards? If for work reasons, you need to stay connected while abroad, as mentioned above, you can use the Internet at the school or almost every hotel has a very decent internet connection.
- Are you expecting to stay with university professors, professional photographers, artists, or someone with the same level of education as you? Please remember that you are coming to a small village, and that most our host moms and dads did not have the opportunity to go to university, or sometimes even to high school. They will typically be working in stores, restaurants, hotels, driving buses, taxis, working as fishermen or farming. That does not mean that you will not engage in interesting conversations with them! In fact you will most probably learn from their tremendous life experiences so don't be shy and ask them about their lives! It is just different from what you are used to. Soak it all in and embrace the unknown!
- Are you a person with special dietary needs? Our host families in Panama are very welcoming and loving, and they will do everything in their power to make you feel comfortable. Mainly through feeding you lots of food! If you really don’t like something, feel free to tell your family, but please don’t expect your family to be able to accommodate wheat free, gluten free, lactose free, calorie-free, fat free or other whatever “FREE” diets. These are creations of the developed world! If you asked a middle aged Caribbean host mom to cook gluten free, she would probably just look at you as if you had 3 heads - Just like in the movie “my big fat greek wedding”, where the main character says he is vegetarian, and the Greek aunt tells him “What do you mean, you don't eat no meat? [The entire room stops, in shock] ...That's okay, I make lamb". Moreover, Panamanian food will typically include lots of rice, beans, meat and fried food so if you think that you will not be happy on this diet, and would like to cook for yourself, a hotel or apartment would be a better choice for you. That being said, some of our host families can accommodate vegetarians =) so make sure to fill out your immersion interview as soon as possible before we run out of these host families if that is what you need.
- Are you allergic to cats, or scared of dogs? If you do not want to live in a home with animals I would suggest you to go to a hotel instead. Almost veryone in Boquete or in Bocas del Toro has at least a few chickens or a rooster, a dog, a cat or all of the above! And if one host family doesn't, their neighbors do! It is virtually impossible to find a home without pets, even though most dogs (and all chickens) will never enter the house. It is just part of Panamanian culture. In regards to the chickens, if you're doing a home stay, bring ear plugs! You really don't want a rooster waking you up very early in the AM every single day.
It looks scary, but don't worry, you will be fine!
Sometimes there won't be Internet even at the school. It's not the end of the world: chill out and go enjoy life!
A family home stay is not for everyone. It requires being able to adapt to a completely different culture and lifestyle, but don’t get me wrong - now that you know what to expect, you will absolutely love it if you're willing to adapt! Most students cry when they have to say goodbye to their host mum and dad...
Other things to expect when you are traveling to Panama:
- Mosquitos - YES they are everywhere, and cannot be avoided. More in Bocas than in Boquete. Don’t let them poison your stay, and just accept your faith - you will get bitten! You can limit the bites though by using insect repellent, coconut oil, taking vitamin B1 and avoiding to be on the beach after 5pm or when the clouds are up (then the chitras or sand flies start to attack, just when the sun goes down).
- Lizards, spiders, cockroaches, and other critters - You will see them, so better get used to the idea. Spotting a roach in someone’s home does NOT mean that their house is dirty, nor that the roach lives in that house. You are in the tropics, and even the cleanest of houses (including my own) will have the occasional cockroach and other insects. We can try to control them, but unfortunately we will never eliminate them completely. None of these will kill you, just be grateful you are not in Australia where there are nasty critters that can do REAL harm.
- Will it rain when you come to Panama? Oh yes it most certainly will. In Boquete you can avoid heavy rain if you come during our summer (December through April), but even then you will have some occasional light showers called Bajareque. During Boquete's rainy season, it will most likely rain in the afternoon but the mornings are usually safe, except during the wettest months which tend to be October and November. In Bocas, it’s a whole different ball game as the seasons are different. The less wet months tend to be February, March, June, September and October, but if you surf, you do want to be here during the cloudy season because that's when we get waves! Some weeks it can rain every day (but NOT all day). Mostly at night, sometimes for a few hours in the morning. There is no way of knowing when, or for how long, but afternoons tend to be drier. This is not going to spoil your vacation though because rain showers here do not last very long. You will always be able to enjoy the beach, even if you start out with a rainy day. Knowing this before you come will avoid any disappointment, so don’t get cranky if you see a grey sky when you wake up.
I hope that this article helped you get a better idea about what to expect from a family home stay. Obviously there are much more cool things to it than what's just described on this blog post. To learn more about what the typical host family is like, what's provided in each home stay, the advantages of doing a home stay and much more, I would strongly recommend reading the following pages.
- Family Home Stays: www.hablayapanama.com/accommodation/homestay/
- Spanish Immersion Programs: www.hablayapanama.com/programs/immersion/
Inviting your host sister for a cup of coffee (Boquete has amazing coffee) is a great way to practice your conversational Spanish skills
Now off you go and start packing! We cannot wait to meet you and show you a fabulous time in Panama while you learn Spanish and get to know the local culture=).