Where’s the best place to learn Spanish in South America?

learn spanish salsa

How many people do you think head off backpacking around South America each year? Quite a few.

How many people do you think take the trouble to learn Spanish whilst they’re there? Hmm… not quite as many, I suspect.

In this post we talk about where you should study Spanish in South America. I take a reader question from Meagan, get input from Spanish experts from around the web and draw up an action plan for a Spanish-learning trip to South America. Read on!

Learning Spanish while backpacking

Although most people who go to South America probably don’t get beyond learning the basic greetings and learning to count (primarily to be able to order the right number of beers!), there are plenty of people who genuinely set out to learn Spanish on their trip.

Meagan is one of those people. She read my post on learning Spanish while backpacking in South America, and spotted the one gaping hole in the article… it’s all very well having some ideas on how to learn Spanish, but what about where?

Enter Meagan.

Where should I learn Spanish?I just read your post on learning Spanish while backpacking in South America, which is what I’m in the process of planning for early next year. I read in the comments that if you could, you would go back to Buenos Aires in a flash. I was wondering what you think of learning Spanish there (I pretty much have no Spanish knowledge) as I heard their dialect can be more difficult to learn and also to use in other Spanish speaking countries. I was wondering what you think of this, and if you think it is true, where you think might be a better place to learn Spanish so that it’s easier to continue using throughout my travels in South America and eventually Spain.

What a great question!

To answer it, let’s begin by talking about Argentina and whether it’s a good idea to learn Spanish there. After that, Meagan describes her plans in more detail and I’ll outline what I would do to learn as much Spanish as possible in her position.

Argentine Spanish

tango dance south americaThe first thing to say is that wherever you go in the Spanish speaking world there are differences. Different vocabulary, different accents, sometimes different grammar. While this may at first sound like a big deal, it’s really not

Try comparing the English spoken in the following places:

  • East London
  • Liverpool
  • Glasgow
  • Belfast
  • New York
  • Texas
  • Johannesburg

Now ask yourself this: if someone who is from one of these places visited another place on the list, would they have any major problems?

Clearly not. OK, a Texan might have trouble at first understanding a table full of drunken Glaswegians arguing in the pub, but if he wanted to sit down and have a chat with them, he could do it. Over the course of the evening, his ear would get accustomed to their accent, they would cut back on the local slang a bit, and they’d reach a happy compromise.

The same thing applies to accents in Spanish.

Sure, they use some different words in Argentina, Mexico and Spain, but it’s no big deal. Would people have a little laugh at your expense if you moved to Madrid with an Argentine accent? Probably. But who cares. Within a few weeks you’d be speaking just like them.

When I went to Spain after living in Argentina, my friends (who I’d known before going to Argentina) had a good laugh at me.

“Dios mío, vino hablando Argentino!”

But like I said, it was soon forgotten. When I met new people, the fact I had a slightly different accent often proved a good thing, as we had something to talk about!

“Porque hablas así, tio? Viviste en Argentina o que?”

The broader point is that, for Meagan, because she’s a beginner, she’s unfortunately still going to sound “foreign” even after a month’s study. That “foreignness” is going to be way more noticeable to people she talks to on her travels than the particular accent she may pick up. So much so that, in my opinion, it makes the accent thing a non-issue.

Before you get really good at a language, you’re only really concerned with one thing: getting basic meaning across. And whether you do that with a Vos, Tú or Usted, with an accent from Buenos Aires, Sevilla or Medellín, is neither here nor there.

Learning Spanish in Argentina

recoleta spanish buenios airesI lived in Argentina for 6 months back in 2005. There are so many great things about Argentina that I don’t know where to start, but to name a few…

  • People are friendly, generous and welcoming. They love everything “culture” and Buenos Aires is a melting pot of cultural activity that will blow your mind. All this means that meeting people is easy, which makes the task of learning Spanish a lot easier. I met so many people who very quickly became great friends, and I miss them all a lot!
  • It is probably the best country for outdoor travellers in the world. Mountains, vineyards, glaciers, ranches, tropical rainforest, indigenous tribes, waterfalls that will leave you breathless, marine parks, national parks, skiing, a lake district that defies belief, and the Southern-most point on Earth (apart from Antarctica). Have I missed anything?
  • A unique style of Spanish, which although quite different from other varieties, is beautiful. As expressive and melodic as Italian, and rammed full of delicious slang to get your teeth into 🙂

So, to recap…

Would I go back to Argentina in a flash? Yes. Is it a good place to learn Spanish? No question. Is the accent a problem? Not for a beginner on a short stay – the progress you make is way more important than the accent you pick up.

Thoughts from Spanish experts

But hey – enough from me!

Not everyone has the same tastes as me (not everyone loves steak, wine and tango in Buenos Aires… can you believe it??) 🙂

I asked some Spanish pros from around the internet what they would recommend Meagan to go to learn Spanish.

1. Rob

Fspanish obsessed logoor me, you can’t beat Colombia! Colombia as a country has a bit of everything to offer, and is a kind of microcosm of South America. You’ll learn Spanish quickly there, and here’s why:

  • Friendly, gregarious, outgoing people. These people will bring you out of your shell if you’re shy, and you’ll get to practise your Spanish a lot, no matter your level.
  • Crystalline Spanish accent. Liz (the other half of Spanish Obsessed) is from Bogota, and has an accent typical of central Colombia. It’s a melodious and rhythmic accent, without too many strange contractions.
  • Great country. You’ll have a fantastic time in Colombia, and it’s far safer than it used to be. All Latin American countries carry some sort of risk, but by taking sensible precautions you should have no problems.

2. Andrew

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you’re interested in learning Spanish, especially if you’re more interested in Latin American Spanish than Peninsular Spanish (Spanish from Spain), which is most Americans and Canadians because they’re much more likely to encounter a Latin American than a Spaniard, then I really recommend Colombia in general and the Bogotá area in particular.

The reason for this is that Colombians are known throughout Latin America for having very clean, grammatically correct Spanish with a very neutral accent, thereby making their Spanish easy to understand and very proper-sounding.

If you were going to learn a specific dialect and accent that you would want to be the best general accent and dialect for use throughout Latin America, that would be the dialect and accent from the Bogotá region of Colombia.

Everyone will be able to understand you and you won’t have any sort of thick or difficult to understand accent. Colombians are severely overrepresented as TV and radio announcers for Latin American stations that broadcast in multiple countries for precisely this reason: they speak very correct Spanish with a neutral accent and everyone can understand them, no problem.

Check out Andrew’s Spanish learning site at How to Learn Spanish.

3. Conor

conor photoThe best country for a complete beginner of Spanish in South America depends on the personal preferences for lifestyle of the learner. That said, my personal recommendation would be Colombia.

Most accents in the country are clear and therefore, easy to understand – a boon for a complete beginner in Spanish. The country is stunningly beautiful and its geography diverse with mountains, Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, plains and rainforest.

Security has gradually improved over the last decade and the country is no longer as badly blighted by the paramilitary conflicts and crime that had previously hindered its tourist potential. The cost of living is also relatively low.

Moreover, Colombia boasts superb cultural attractions in architecture, art, music and food, especially in its principal cities of Bogotá, Cartagena, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla. Go Colombia!

You can find Conor at the Language Tsar website.

4. Amit

always spanishOne very important point to consider while choosing Latin America for a Spanish immersion program is the influence of indigenous languages. For example, Quechua heavily influences the Spanish of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, as Nahuatl does Mexico.

Being a US territory, Puerto Rico is perhaps your worst bet as it’s more Spanglish than Spanish out there! The Spanish of Bogotá, Colombia, is particularly respected for being one of the very few that have remained largely unaffected. Cali and Medellin are generally better bang for the buck than Bogotá in terms of living expenses and immersion experience.

But then, if expense is a factor, nothing beats Guatemala. Argentina’s accent can be a tad hard to get and the prevalent voseo is a very local phenomenon not very useful elsewhere. There are, however, a large number of people who find the Argentinian dialect quite sexy. It all comes down to your personal preferences.

All said and done, no immersion program is going to be any good unless you have a reasonable experience of your own with the language you are targeting. Try to artificially immerse yourself in Spanish for at least a couple of months at home (yes, it’s possible!) before you pack your bags. This will help you get started when the locals start rattling off their Spanish at you.

Building a Spanish immersion ecosystem at home is the single most important step in your Spanish program if you wish to make the most out of your trip; otherwise a mere 2-month stay will hardly give you any proficiency.

Find Amit at Always Spanish.

5. Julio

julioI would recommend Mexico because this country is the most populated of all the Spanish-speaking countries, ahead of Spain, Colombia, Argentina and several others. Also, Mexico exports many TV Soap Operas and many other programs that are  transmitted in other Latin American countries.

Mexico is a big country that offers you different types of weather and there are a lot of varieties of people, food, culture and many other things that are fascinating for foreigners. As for the accent, each region has its own accent, making them so different from each other (e.g. The Northern accent is very different of that of the South).

Briefly, I’d say that Mexico has a lot of variety, and for foreigners, it’s not so expensive – you can have a good quality of life. Besides, Mexico’s economy will be one of the strongest in the future!

Another country could be Peru. The Peruvian accent is also neutral and inside of Peru there is a variety of accents. Peru is a country full of history and a lot of culture, and besides, the cost of living is not as high as in other places and is a good place to visit and to live in.

Connect with Julio here.

Where in South America?

colombia house spanishSo, we have a variety of opinions on the best place to learn Spanish! In fact, I’ve only been to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, so I’m slightly biased on the matter 🙂

Where should Meagan go?

Well, all the places mentioned here will be great. The key to her decision is this: where will she be more at home culturally?

As you’ll see in the next section, a huge amount of the progress she’ll make on the trip will be down to the opportunities she gets to speak to people. Put simply, the more she likes the culture, the more she will interact with locals, in local events and goings-on. The more she interacts, the more she’ll learn.

Is this really so important?

Yes. I’ve travelled to places before where I haven’t particularly liked the city and/or the people very much (I won’t say where because you wouldn’t believe me!!), and that really got in the way of me wanting to go out, do things and meet people. As a result, my learning was slow. This is a big deal.

So… Buenos Aires? Medellín? Meagan needs to do a bit of research and make the call that’s right for her.

Meagan’s trip

Here are some more details about Meagan’s plan:

  • Travel time is not confirmed yet, but looking at about 2.5 months.
  • Ideally my trip would be about both learning Spanish and traveling. I was thinking to base out of somewhere (like Buenos Aires) for a few weeks to give myself some time to focus on hopefully building a base for Spanish and allowing me time to experience one place in more depth, then continuing on traveling throughout other parts of South America and continuing to develop my Spanish.
  • Ideally I would spend no more than 3, maybe 4 weeks in one place as I would still like to travel to other places/countries as well.
  • I don’t have specific plans as to how I would continue using Spanish after.

Action plan

Based on this, here is my plan-of-attack for Meagan’s Spanish mission:

  1. With 2.5 months to play with, and with both Spanish and travelling as the aim, I’d commit to staying 4 weeks in one place, and the rest to travelling around. 4 weeks is a good time to really get some Spanish together, which can then be used for the rest of the trip.
  2. Arrange your accommodation in advance. You can’t afford to lose a week hunting for a flat. Don’t stay in hostels – at least not those populated with foreign tourists. Renting a flat is probably the most economical thing to do for a month. See here for ideas.
  3. When it comes to studying Spanish (as opposed to practising), there is no objective difference between doing it at home or in South America.
  4. So, and this is probably the most important part of all… don’t wait! Start studying right away. Don’t waste your precious travel time learning the basics. Do all that before you leave, then you can really make the most of being abroad with more useful stuff.
  5. “I can’t learn at home” or “I’m too busy” are two of the most destructive fallacies of all. You can learn anywhere, and you do have time. Start by gathering some simple materials (books and podcasts) and commit to a short study routine every day. This post will show you how to build a routine. Create an immersion environment at home for better results. And see this post on fluentin3months.com for a more comprehensive look at studying remotely.
  6. For the 4 weeks on location, I would have private tutoring every morning for 2-3 hours, 5 days a week. This will cost a bit, but probably not as much as you think, and is well worth it. Find a tutor online before you go (use Google or even Elance) and make a deal for the length of your stay – you should be able to bargain heavily.  Don’t go through language schools, look for people offering private lessons. My amazing friend Luciana is still teaching in Buenos Aires, get in touch if you’d like her contact details.
  7. Go out exploring in the afternoons and see the sights. Head to cultural events if they’re happening. Something that worked really well for me in Buenos Aires was to chat to local staff at these events. Young Argentines are usually really happy to meet foreigners and happy to speak Spanish. Tell them that you’re looking for interesting things to do, parties, concerts etc. going on. Being locals, the things that they recommend you (and hopefully invite you along to!) will be exactly what you’re looking for – much better than events for tourists that you’ll find advertised in other places, for obvious reasons.
  8. Evening time is crucial. This is when you get to practise your Spanish and is where the real value lies in travelling to learn a language. The trick is to find things that happen multiple times a week so you get to meet the same people, who you then have a chance of becoming friends with, and so it goes.
  9. I like to look for courses or classes in things relating to the local culture, which are conducted in Spanish. Tango was undergoing a resurgence in popularity amongst young people when I was in Buenos Aires. As it happened, I joined a martial arts school where I went every day, made some friends for life and got mega-fit in the process! In Colombia, there must be all kinds of things going on… Salsa, cooking classes, etc. Do a bit of research and follow your interests, ideally something you can continue when you go back home.


learn spanish salsaSo there you have it!

Wherever you end up, Meagan, I’m sure you’ll have an amazing time. Go with an open mind, go with the important things prepared, go and immerse yourself in the culture, go and have fun, and know that everyone reading this is probably insanely jealous! 🙂

Above all, start the language learning now so you can really hit the ground running.

Enjoy this post? Here are 2 things for you to do:

  1. Like it on Facebook using the buttons around you.
  2. Leave me a comment with your own advice for Meagan!

Image1: colombia_travel; Image2 : carlos luque; Image3: galio; Image4: pat_ossa; Image5: eltiempocom

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  • What a great post! Last night I was dreaming about spending a year in Spanish-speaking countries, changing locations every 2-3 months. Yeah, it’s a dream…but who knows! Maybe it will happen someday sooner rather than later! And after reading your post, I’m adding Colombia and Argentina to my list.

    • Thanks Stephanie. As the years have gone by I’ve watched more and more people come back from Colombia and tell me how cool it is. I really need to go there now!

  • Rob

    Looks like Colombia’s the winner!

    • Hi Rob, yes… there’s not much to argue about is there 🙂 Thanks for your contribution to the article! Viva Colombia!

  • Well put Olly: “the progress you make is way more important than the accent you pick up.”
    Total beginners often worry needlessly about accent. Progressing in the language is far more important. You can pick and choose later at the intermediate stages depending on the friendships you develop and where you end up wanting to use the language you are learning.

    • Hi Rachel, thanks for your comment. The only thing I’d add is that, in case anyone is confused, I’m not saying that pronunciation isn’t important, because it really is, just not the particular accent.

      To illustrate this, I saw someone recommend the other day that Chinese learners shouldn’t worry about learning tones when they first start. This, to me, is terrible advice, because tones are integral to meaning and can’t be ignored. A totally different question is whether you have an accent from Shanghai or Beijing – that is not worth worrying about.

      Would you agree with me?

  • Keny

    I hear people say learn from Colombians a lot as well and never really understood it. Since starting to learn Spanish about 2 years ago I find little difference in who I’m learning from regarding their country of origin. Also there can be a lot of fluctuation in that country as well (how thick their accent will be and the rate at which they speak just varies from person to person).

    I will say that you should really go to what ever country’s accent you like the most or one that you think you will be most surrounded by. Accent just comes with time in my eyes getting the right sounds and pronunciation down as well as getting a good flow to your speech I think are far more important. I find it amazing when I come across people who know and converse a lot better than myself but have really poor pronunciation things as basic as silent h’s and rolling r’s.

    • Hey Keny. I love your last point about people with a low level being able to converse well. I’m doing an interview soon with a Spanish guy with a fairly low level of English but who is, by far and away, the best communicator I’ve ever know. Learning a language is 50% attitude… no question!

  • I’ve never focused on accent while learning new languages – I have more than enough to worry about learning the language itself 😉
    Thanks for this enlightning post!

    • Hi Annie, yes there’s certainly a lot to think about! Pronunciation I think is important, but accent can certainly wait.

  • Mariel

    Nobody said something about Chile that’s a surprise

    • Hi Mariel… now’s your chance! Tell us why should Meagan go to Chile 🙂

  • SB

    What a great article! This has always been a big question for me as I spent 3 months learning spanish in El Salvador and got to a pretty decent intermediate level… only to forget it after not speaking it for an entire year! I’ve been in Italy for 6 months and going to work on becoming fluent in this language before going to South America. Argentina had always caught my eye, but I was never 100% sure because of the accent, the supposedly high crime level etc, but from reading this article (and countless others), I realise the culture appeals to me wayyyy more than others in LA.

    • Thanks for your comment! Actually, I forgot almost all my Italian after learning Spanish! You’ve got to keep them both up to have any hope of not forgetting one of them, since they’re so similar! 🙂 Argentina really is awesome, I can’t recommend it highly enough!

  • Jorge MM

    You can design your own and combine learning spanish lenguaje with your interests, likes and hobbies. Immerse yourself in local life from first day, exchanges, visits people, companies, groups and make social life. http://golearnspanish.com/

  • Viviane Weinstabl

    Thanks for your post (I know its almost a year ago)! I’m also taking a Gap Year in which I will be learning Spanish and travelling; starting off in Granada, Spain, this year and then in Colombia and Argentina next year. I also really want to go backpacking to other countries.
    For the really long distance travel like from Argentina to Colombia – would you have any idea which airline to travel with, if I wanted to not pay as much as 1000USD for a single flight?

    • Hi Viviane. I’m not sure… things seem to change so quickly with air travel. You might think about buying a package of flights – I know they end up working out quite cost-effective in South America.

  • Ahmed

    Hi, I came across this wonderful post and wanted to get your input: I’m looking to take off work and spend 1 month learning spanish in Latin America. My understanding from your post is Colombia & private tutoring is the way to go. Can you recommend any tutor(s) in Bogota or surrounding regions that I can reach out to? I suspect I’ll be travelling around June of this year

    all your feedback is well appreciated

  • Danielle Krootjes

    Learning Spanish in Central America is often
    overlooked. There are some excellent Spanish schools in for example Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Learning Spanish in these countries is much cheaper than in Argentina and Colombia and the courses are often just one teacher for each student which forces you to speak a lot more: key when learning a language! There are also a ton of volunteer opportunities making it easier to put into practice what you learn in class. http://www.spanishlanguagetravels.com/en/

  • Mai-Thi Le

    Wow I’m really glad I came across this post! I’ve been scouring the net to find where it would be most worth it/ easiest to do a Spanish immersion program for 2 months early next year.

    I had a question for you though – How important is homestay as opposed the renting a flat for the duration of stay? Homestay doesn’t seem too much more expensive than renting a flat, but I also know what I could do with the extra money saved from not doing so 🙂 I was wondering if being out and about mingling with people to practice my Spanish is just as good as staying with a local family/ if it’s even necessary (for the practicing POV). Just trying to weigh all of my options for accommodation and still get as much practice with Spanish as possible.

    I appreciate your opinion and thanks again for this post! 🙂

  • Mark Irwin

    Hi Olly,

    I’m doing a similar trip to Megan, and I’d recommend staying in 1 place as you said for 2 months not 1. I’d also recommend Colombia like most of your commentors, it’s a freindly country where the people appreciate the effort in speaking spanish and are alwways smiling. I’ve been taking Spanish Classes in Medellin in Colombia Immersion. I’d highly recommend it to anyone doing a similar trip to Megan’s one.

  • Melanie Helene

    Hi Olly – how do i go about getting in touch with you to get Luciana’s details?

    • Hi Melanie! Sorry for the late reply. Get in touch with the contact form on the site!

  • David Duryea

    of course! por supuesto que si!

    • David Duryea

      Personally, I prefer the Colombian Spanish spoken in the capital Bogota but you really can not go wrong in almost any part of Colombia.

  • Thomas Luis

    I’d advise her to take a crash course in Spanish once she’s in Argentina. I did it in BA before traveling through S-A and it helped a lot! I found it on this website: https://goo.gl/4kUuu9
    Hope that helps!

  • While I see the point you’re trying to make about different accents not making a huge difference, I’m going to disagree with you on it “not being important”. I’m raised in the US speaking only English and have traveled the world, yet I often find people from Ireland, Scotland, and even some from Australians difficult to understand. In fact, I recently met an Irish man who I could not understand a SINGLE WORD he said. Relating this to Spanish, I’ve been learning in Mexico and while they can speak fast I truly believe Central American Spanish is easiest to learn. My spanish isn’t great, but I understand when people speak slowly here. The Argentines on the other hand… i can’t understand even when they speak slowly.

  • Vicky Skaife

    Hi Olly – this is a really great article.
    I am at the start of learning Spanish – currently easing myself in via basic Spanish apps. Am planning to take a career break to travel the Americas and your action plan is incredibly helpful.
    I liked our suggestion of a four week chunk of time to immerse at the start of the trip.
    For a much longer trip (say 9 months) would you suggest planning for any more weeks of language immersion later down the trip? Or would this be unnecessary if I throw myself into the local events?
    Helpful tip that you suggest to avoid hostels full of tourists, I’m planning for homestays as much as possible so this gives me extra ammunition!