Bocas del Toro is a cluster of tropical islands on Panama’s Caribbean coast. With the myriad of sprawling beaches, rugged roads, palm tree lined jungle paths and water activities, Bocas is any adventurers playground. While I kept myself busy with activities every day, my time on Isla Colón was centered around 3 weeks of studying Spanish in Bocas del Toro with Habla Ya.
Stepping onto the dock at Isla Colón after a 30 minute water taxi from the mainland, Almirante, the scent of salt and fish greeted me along with a huddle of men hollering “taxi!” Something else I hadn’t expected also welcomed me to this tropical place: English.
In this laid back environment where time slowed down and life seemed altogether simpler, hearing English honestly surprised me and I felt 2 competing emotions:
Slight elation – I’m off the hook! Every moment won’t be a miscommunicated struggle! However, this cheap excitement became overshadowed by my better judgment and feelings of…
Disappointment – There’s something beautifully raw about struggling through mispronounced conversations filled with frantic hand gestures. Pushing past the awkwardness forces one to use the only certain skill to solve the problem: speaking in Spanish! Not to worry, I still got my fix of awkward moments… but we’ll save those for another time.
Despite the presence of English, I still had endless opportunities to speak Spanish and of course, being in class for 4 hours a day was a surefire way to kick me into gear.
The large campus in Bocas Town is actually a house situated just a 10 minute walk to all of the restaurants and activities in town. There’s a garden, a balcony and plenty of space for socializing on breaks. Whereas in Panama City and Boquete I felt the presence of the off season with fewer students, Bocas was always buzzing with students from various corners of the world. The more students around the better because 3 students are required for activities to happen with Habla Ya.
Because there is so much to do in Bocas del Toro, I appreciated the recommendations from the school and the informational packet they included with important information about the area. When enough students wanted to attend an activity I’d usually go along with that. Being the poor planner that I am, I happily followed along with activities coordinated by other students. Shout out to my German friends Dominic and Andrea for always coming through with epic plans!
My first 3 weeks of learning Spanish were a mixture of data overload and my feeling a bit overwhelmed and incapable. However, I made it my goal to learn as much as I could in the time I had. Despite the presence of English, in Bocas my Spanish started to come together. All of the information up to this point started to click and I felt my hard work molding into a valuable resource.
In Bocas I realized that I had the tools to speak a good amount of Spanish, but I lacked the confidence to actually do it. Following this epiphany, my Spanish became more fluid.
I advanced past grammatical basics and phrases to more complex facets of Spanish like past tense and reflexive verbs. Furthermore, my professor heavily emphasized the importance of memorizing words to expand our lexicon. Classes included lectures, games and plenty of activities to help materialize the themes taught each day. As with other campuses, English and other languages are not permissible in the classroom. Anytime we got stuck in communication, we worked through it by finding another route for explaining ourselves. These conversational detours included drawings, listing opposite or similar words, and basically getting very creative! An immersive learning environment helped the rubber meet the road and I found myself gaining traction quicker than ever before.
One of the most frustrating parts of learning the fundamentals of Spanish occurs whenever the past surfaces in conversation, which happens quite often! I can suck the oxygen out of any room talking in present and future tenses. Topics like daily plans, likes and dislikes and present thoughts are part of the foundation I had already learned.
In reality, talking in the past makes up a large part of organic conversations. Ask me what I did yesterday and my sentences are short and abrupt. Past tense becomes more complex because in Spanish you have to conjugate the verbs differently. By the way, there are a lot of verbs! This presents a challenging task and requires repeated memorization, practice and review. Cue the brain games and activities! I still need a lot more practice to crystalize my conversational skills. That said, speaking with locals has become more natural and above all, my comprehension and understanding of Spanish has improved tremendously.
Building a vocabulary is perhaps the most resourceful tool in the beginning stages of Spanish learning. I hate hearing myself ask someone “como se dice ________” (insert the 90k Spanish words I still need to learn). Alas, once a word peaked in class that we didn’t already know, my professor wrote it on the board for us to memorize. My professor then quizzed us at the conclusion of class everyday as well as the next morning. These little quizzes exposed which one of us hadn’t studied the night before. (Guilty on occasion!)
Some words click immediately while others leave my brain faster than they came in. The most effective way for me to memorize words was not just to study them, but use them in conversation. This was especially helpful when I moved from my hostel to a homestay. Having small daily conversations with my host mom was extremely instrumental in my memorization and correct utilization of new words and grammar.
Plus, my host mom made me breakfast and dinner daily, providing the opportunity for small conversations with her twice a day. Staying with a host family not only enriches the experience but it provides a more genuine understanding of the lifestyle and culture.
While studying is a huge component of language learning, actually engaging in conversations is paramount. In High school, my Spanish classes were twice a week for 2 hours. I see the flaws in this environment as it’s simply not a sufficient opportunity to actually speak Spanish with others. While many people in Bocas speak some English, I always engaged my conversations with them in Spanish to savor every opportunity to practice.
This is where immersion shines. Conversation has been the most effective tool in my progression. In class lectures are centered around learning proper grammar with occasional opportunities to chat in Spanish. Building a proper grammatical foundation is fundamental but combining it with conversations with Spanish speakers is where you get to put what you’ve learned to the test. For those who spend only 1 or 2 weeks in classes, conversation is crucial.
Spanish immersion in Bocas has helped deepen my comprehension and understanding of Spanish exponentially. But one of my favorite parts of immersion is the people you meet along the way. Being a poor planning solo traveler, immersion was an excellent way to make friends! I never felt along because there were always other students around to go exploring with. The last 3 weeks I’ve met some amazing people, and by miles my biggest take away from this experience is the meaningfulness that comes with meeting like-minded travelers and learning from them.
Spanish immersion is about learning Spanish, but you end up learning so much more about other countries, cultures, and even yourself.
Now that I’ve experienced all three of Habla Ya’s campuses, I can report that if you’re a beach loving, island-chasing water baby like me — then Bocas is your place! From scuba diving and snorkeling, ATVing or zip lining through treacherous jungle terrain to hiking through verdent jungle paths to white sandy hidden beaches – Bocas del Toro is full of adventure activities. Let’s be honest, most of my time involved swimming in the Caribbean, but I did SO MUCH MORE. Every day after class I was doing something fun! Because I was so busy doing activities with the school and independently each day, I’ll save the details of just how diverse this seemingly small corner of Panamá is for another post.
But here’s a little teaser for you. Though I stayed in Bocas town, zipping off in a water taxi to explore another island was a daily ritual! Here’s a look at the virtually untouched paradisiacal Zapatillos islands where we stopped on a snorkeling tour.
Learning Spanish is a lot of work, but it should also be FUN! An environment you love will foster progression because you’ll feel like you’re in your element. A representation of my paradise personified is an island surrounded by warm water, friendly people and endless activities. Safe to say, I was definitely in my element.
Want more from my Spanish immersion experience with Habla Ya? Check out my first week of Spanish immersion in Panama City!
Have you ever done language immersion in another country? Tell me all about it below in the comments!
*Special thanks to Habla Ya for hosting me during my Spanish immersion experience! All opinions are my own.