Que Buena, Guanajuato

Saludos from Ashland's sister city, sunny Guanajuato, Mexico. My family and I are two weeks into a three-week Spanish language vacation here. While I had heard from a number of Ashlanders that Guanajuato is cute as a button, with old-world cobblestone streets and brightly painted houses, I had no idea how perfect it would be as a place for kids to learn Spanish.

We picked Guanajuato on the recommendation of friends and also because it offered a relatively inexpensive and nearby opportunity to fully immerse the kids in another language and culture, an experience we really wanted them to have.

In the afternoons, we're exploring this beautiful colonial-era city, and in the mornings we study at Escuela Mexicana (www.EscuelaMexicana.com), which offers classes for both children and adults at every skill level. Some courses also cover aspects of culture, literature and history. My 6-year-old and 8-year-old took one class that included an overview of legends, festivals and traditions, and in another they made piñatas and "alfeñique," a traditional Mexican candy.

One of the children's teachers, Gabriela Coronado Villegas, has been at the school for nearly seven years. She said she's seeing more Americans bringing their kids to Guanajuato and similar places for language immersion.

"It's good to start the children at a young age, and here in Guanajuato it is easy to study," she said. "We play a lot of games and try to do fun activities to make sure children enjoy learning Spanish."

Indeed, my boys are in a class with four other American children, all of varying language abilities and all having a blast singing songs, cooking and learning to folk dance. When I first told my 8-year-old that we were going to Guanajuato to learn Spanish, he sobbed, "What do you mean we have to go to school on our vacation?" Now, he's asking if we can stay longer.

I am in the "Principiante" class for beginners, or as I like to call it, the "super-basic-talk-like-a-toddler" level. While I learned to translate, "I'd like some ice cream, please," to "Un helado, por favor," my husband was in some advanced class where they discussed global warming and common diseases. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

There are several language schools in Guanajuato, and each has unique offerings that can include housing options such as family home-stays or apartment rentals. If going to school on your vacation is not your idea of a good time, Guanajuato is a lot like Ashland in that there is something for everyone.

The city hosts a world-famous Cervantes festival and is loaded with shops, restaurants, art and museums. Most attractions are within walking distance, inexpensive and kid-friendly. The kids loved the Museo Del Pueblo, or People's Museum, which has a collection of miniature folk art such as dolls, houses and tools so small you need a magnifying glass to see them.

Outdoor theater and music performances can be enjoyed almost every night. My favorite is a traditional Spanish minstrel performance done by local students called "estudiantina." The group, dressed in 17th-century-style Spanish costumes, leads crowds of onlookers through the streets playing instruments, singing and performing sketches.

For history lovers, the state of Guanajuato is considered one of the most important and culturally rich areas in Mexico. The site of stately churches, bloody rebellions and haunted haciendas, Guanajuato is also the birthplace of famed muralist Diego Rivera.

I adore Ashland's unusual mix of big-city culture and small-town charm, and Guanajuato is very similar. For such a compact, walkable city, it has an amazing number of things to see and do. In addition to language and salsa dancing classes, one can watch some fierce local soccer matches, bicycle in a nearby park or simply relax at one of the many cafés, sip coffee and listen to street musicians sing about love, adventure and beautiful places.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at decker4@gmail.com.

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