Consider a wonderful way to help your kids learn Spanish — via immersion in a welcoming town in Mexico! I’ve just returned from a week of Spanish language school in Merida, Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula with my 8 year old son and my friend’s 6 year old daughter, and it was fabulous!
Read on to see if this option might be a fit for your family as well. Oh, and though this article focuses on the experience of Spanish immersion for kids, the Merida school I’m going to talk about offers adult Spanish classes, as well as a teacher institute about pedagogy, so there’s something for everyone.
Spanish Lessons for Kids: Why Immersion?
Why fly all the way to Latin America to learn Spanish for immersion when it’s possible for kids to just take classes in your home country or online? Well, though immersion seems more costly and difficult, I’d argue that the costs completely balance out in the end because language learning is SO much faster and deeper in a country that actually speaks it everywhere — and in Mexico, the cost of living is far more affordable than the U.S. or Europe.
What do I mean that immersion language learning is more efficient? Here’s an example from my own life. I studied French for TWELVE years in the United States — yet never progressed beyond level 3 of 5, according to my college assessments. Junior year of college I realized that, since I was going into public school teaching after graduation, Spanish would be essential to learn… so I found a language school in Mexico, and flew out for 6 weeks during the summer of 2002.
When I entered Mexico, I was at Spanish level zero. When I returned less than two months later, I was at level FIVE of five. Holy cow — immersion works! Given this, you can see why I was so passionate about my own children having experiences like this as soon as possible. But where in Latin America would be best for the first Spanish classes abroad for kids?
Why Merida for Spanish Immersion in Mexico?
Trying to find the best Spanish immersion schools, classes, or camp for kids, I put out a call on Facebook for suggestions. Wonder of wonders, the universe provided: a man named Kurt Wootton who I’d interviewed over TEN YEARS AGO for my other website, wrote to me: “Remember how you interviewed me on TeachingTraveling.com about the teacher institute I run in Merida, Mexico called Habla? Well, we also have Spanish lessons and camp for kids at the school — you should come and enroll your son!”
The pieces came together perfectly, as affordable airline tickets popped up (made even more possible by my credit card points) — and our summer trip was booked! Now a quick note: this article is not a sponsored post, meaning that I was not given anything free for this Spanish immersion camp. What I write in this article is honest, because it’s in all of our best interests to have correct information.
Is Merida, Mexico Safe?
Now, to address the question I’ve already gotten several times: “Is Merida, Mexico safe?” As of the July, 2022 writing of this article, Merida is ranked as one of the safest cities in North America (#2 safest, according to that link from CEO World Magazine: behind only Quebec City, and considered safer than every single U.S. city). Of course, nowhere and nothing is 100% “safe,” so always use wise and responsible judgment during travel. More on the joys of Merida in a moment — but first, let’s talk about what Habla Spanish camp for kids is like!
Spanish Classes and Camp at Habla, Merida
The Spanish immersion school in Merida, Mexico that my son attended July of 2022 is called Habla Center for Language and Culture. It is world-renowed for its expertise in teaching techniques — also known as “pedagogy” — so much so that every year they hold a Teacher Institute (in English) for educators of all subjects (not just Spanish) to impart their instructional wisdom… with delicious amounts of art, acting, and dance mixed in, not to mention good food. (Yes, the teacher institute is happening this week, and I’ve been stalking their Instagram stories.)
Though I speak Spanish, you don’t have to worry about coordinating with Habla staff if you do not; all of Habla’s email and phone support is fully bilingual — and the school’s staff is also welcoming, charming, and fun! The price of the summer camp and school is also highly affordable, from the perspective of this Boston mama. Finally, I was moved by the commitment Habla has to inclusiveness and diversity. The families and students at the school when we visited were of all races, ages, orientations, and backgrounds, and each and every one was treated with respect.
Excellent Spanish Teaching Techniques
What are Spanish immersion classes like at Habla Center for Language and Culture? I had my son write a daily diary each evening, so I got a detailed run-down of some of the Spanish teaching techniques used in Habla language instruction. Here are a few that made the 18-year veteran teacher in me leap with awe:
- Each day of camp began with a circle (which had a physical movement component of pulling in and out) where students practiced introducing themselves in Spanish — while also building community.
- To learn letters, adjectives, and nouns simultaneously, students were guided to do an art project where they took the first letter of their name (in my son’s case, “D”) and their age (in his case, 8), and then looked at a code correspondence sheet which then told them what to draw from that. He ended up creating a “Happy (the adjective corresponding to “D”) Giant (the noun corresponding to 8).” The coolness of this assignment blew my mind!
- For their final presentation (shared with families Friday), the teachers filmed a stop-motion video of each student’s hands putting together an art project that matched a sentence they constructed in Spanish, using their newfound adjective and noun knowledge. My son’s was “La sandia alta en la cancha” — the tall watermelon in the basketball court. Haha! And also wow — I’ve been studying Spanish for 20 years now, and my young son beat me in learning the word “cancha.“
- Since this was a camp for kids (in contrast to the camp Habla also runs for teenagers) there were lots of games! My son loved the “Duck, Duck, Goose” and “Red Light, Green Light” competitions they did — all in Spanish. As a teacher, I was thrilled to see the amount of movement, fun, and art integrated into every lesson, as research supports that this is the most effective type of language learning.
- I was extremely impressed at the development of my son’s Spanish accent thanks to the language lessons — but also the power of being immersed — including his Mama’s loooooong conversations in Spanish with people we met, which he was very patient for, perhaps because bribed by ice cream. Speaking of food…
The Food at this Spanish Immersion School
Ok, I’m going to say something that is going to make American parents of young kids fall on the floor in amazement: Habla Spanish language camp FEEDS YOUR KIDS TWO GREAT MEALS A DAY. I repeat: You do not need to do breakfast at home and try to simultaneously clean the dishes and put on kid sandals while covered in sunscreen! You do not need to pack lunches (and move heaven and earth to find something they’ll eat that doesn’t have peanut butter). No, my fellow countrywomen — Habla PROVIDES BREAKFAST AND LUNCH!!!
Not only does Habla provide two meals a day, but they are EXCELLENT quality meals, home-cooked with love by chef Karla. (I may be getting out of hand with the all-caps here, but my euphoria over this knew no bounds, tired food-prepping mama that I am.) Every breakfast, served 8:30am to 9am, consisted of huge piles of scrumptious fresh-cut fruit: from mango to dragonfruit, to melon and pineapple and watermelon, plus yogurt, granola, and a different fresh local bread each day.
Our favorites were the local concha breads (with a sweet crunch top), and a carrot cake (!). Here’s where things get even better: families are invited to join their kids at breakfast, even if they’re not taking classes at Habla! You bet your tail I did, every single day. Yum. (For more on local food, see my “Food in Merida, Mexico with Kids” post!)
Lunches were a hit with my picky eater son, and were always a variety of local foods that introduced kids to Mexico and Yucatan foods in welcoming ways. In his diary, my son rated every Habla lunch food with an elaborate thumbs-up sketch system, and the chicken (spelled in his diary: “CIKEN”) and rice and beans got particularly rave reviews. Oh, and every Wednesday there is a different free immersion activity, and we lucked out our week with learning how to do tortilla-making, pictured below!
What is Merida, Mexico Like?
Merida is a fascinating city. First, as explained before, Merida is ranked as safer than any United States city. It’s relatively big (900,000 inhabitants) so it has every convenience of big city life, including Ubers and UberEats, Walmart, and even Texas Roadhouse restaurants. It also has excellent museums such as the Palacio de la Musica interactive exhibit on Mexican music.
However, despite its size and prosperity, Merida is NOT overrun by tourists, and it has a decidedly relaxed, happy, genteel feel. There are flowers and beautifully ornate and colorful houses everywhere. Above all I’d categorize it as a supremely livable city. I truly enjoyed my time there and will 100% be back. The form of Spanish spoken there is also very clear for learners to understand.
When is the Best Time to Travel to Merida and Yucatan State?
The recommended time to travel to Merida is December through March because the temperatures are comfortable, and it’s the dry season. Now, our little group of four decided to visit during the “worst” time to travel to Merida and Yucatan state — July — and yet we still felt ok. (2023 edit: I went back with my daughter in July of 2023 and it was MUCH hotter than 2022. I might suggest picking a cooler time of year for your visit.)
Why is summer a less recommended time to go? June through October in Merida are extremely hot (94 degrees Fahrenheit every day) and rainy (usually a shower each afternoon), with ample mosquitos due to the humidity. To combat these issues: AC and pools help, as does sunscreen, hats, and staying in the shade (very possible because Merida has lush trees, as shown in the photo above).
Pack Long Pants and Mosquito Repellant
Important to add to your Merida packing list: mosquito repellant and long pants are key. Yes, make sure to pack lightweight long pants to protect against bugs, even though it’s summer! This will save you a ton of trouble avoiding bugs.
Where to Stay in Merida, Mexico During Spanish School
There is a wide assortment of AirBnbs to rent in Merida, along with hotels. My friend and I shared a very affordable condo rental that was gorgeous, as you can see from the photos. Definitely get a place with a pool if you go the rental route, as we spent most of our hot afternoons playing in ours. A perk of an AirBnb is that you have more time and space to yourself than a homestay.
Feel free to leave a comment or message me if you have further questions about our rental, or other food and transport services we used; I’m happy to recommend more specifics, including an excellent driver and cook, if you speak Spanish and are comfortable using WhatsApp to coordinate with them.
Despite the perks of rentals, if — no wait, WHEN — I go back to Habla with one or both of my kids, I will use their homestay option instead of AirBnb and live with a local family. The reason is that I’m dedicated to my children becoming bilingual, and 4 hours of immersion camp a day just isn’t enough; the continuous afternoon practice from living with a family — especially one with children the same age as mine to develop relationships — is key to mastery.
Further, homestays make food planning far easier, as many of them offer 2-3 meals a day bundled in with the already economical price. Just make sure you pick a place with AC, especially in summer, during the hot and buggy months. The Habla staff can help you coordinate. Whether you do a rental or homestay, there will likely be large purified water vats provided, as you can’t drink the tap water in Merida.
Homestays in Merida
2023 Update: I returned to Habla in July of 2023 (a year after writing this 2022 article) with my daughter this time, and we stayed with a very kind host family arranged by Habla. Indeed, homestays are MUCH better than AirBnBs for language and cultural learning, but you do need to have clear expectations about how the amenities and schedule might differ from what you’re used to.
My suggestion about going the homestay route is to make sure to be in clear communication with the school about what amenities you require (ex: AC all day, or just at night? Lunch at a certain time?) so everyone is on the same page. Again, homestays are incredibly fulfilling and valuable, but do often require some getting out of your zone of what you may be used to.
Merida Beaches, Cenotes, and Mayan Ruins
Though Merida is on the Yucatan peninsula a short flight from Florida, it’s important to note that it’s not directly ON the beach. (Someday I’d like to investigate Spanish classes for kids that are indeed directly by the ocean.) That said, the beachside, cruise-port town of Progresso is just a half-hour drive from Merida, and then there are toooooons of other wonderful beaches if you turn either right or left from there.
We adored the area around San Bendito (a little under an hour away), which is where I took the photo above, and where we saw a Yucatan sailboat race. Fun fact: that area — the small town of Chicxulub to be specific — is where the meteor that killed the dinosaurs supposedly fell, and there’s a delightfully cheesy small park there with plastic dinos that commemorates it!
Spanish Immersion for Kids in Mexico, in Sum
In conclusion, I am so deeply thankful for and happy with the week of Spanish immersion classes in Merida, Mexico, I did with my son, and I’m eager to do more soon! In all honesty, it wasn’t easy — it took a ton of coordinating, especially since we were doing an AirBnb instead of homestay — but it was absolutely worth it, and the phenomenal staff of Habla is in a huge part to thank.
If you’re looking for Spanish lessons for your kids, this could be a great option! Feel free to leave a comment or message me if you have any questions. Long-live fruitful intercultural and linguistic exchanges!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is a 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 4.2 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!