Latin Immersion
Coffee Room
By

After a few bottles of local red wine, the truth began to emerge.

One of us was recently divorced. Another faced a career turning point and needed some time to think.

My new friends, whom I met in a language school where I spent my two-week vacation, turned toward me, leaning in to shout over the live salsa music at this tiny bar in Santiago's bohemian Bellavista neighborhood.

"What are you running away from?" they wanted to know.

It turns out, people traveling alone in South America come here to escape something. But while the reasons may differ, anyone can do it like I did, with just two weeks and a small budget.

In the midst of a rough New York City winter, I daydreamed about getting away to a warm place where I could practice Spanish, so I turned to South America.

A language immersion program, where students attend morning classes and often stay with a local family, sounded perfect. Lodging and meals are cheaper, you improve your language skills and it's a safe way for a woman to travel alone.

I located a reputable program with schools in both Santiago, Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Both sounded good, but I found a better airfare to Santiago (about $700), and that was the dealmaker. My vacations are not complicated.

The program I chose, Latin Immersion, offers both homestays and apartments where you can live with other students.

Since I was flying blind and didn't know anything about the apartments, I decided to stay with a family, which seemed to be what most students did. I learned later that either option would have been fine, although the homestay gives you more of the local experience.

I arrived in Chile two days before classes began, and stayed in a hostel that I found through http://www.hostels.com/, a great place to research and even book cheap accommodations all over the world. The Che Lagarto hostel in downtown Santiago cost me about $14 per night.

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I spent those first days exploring downtown near the Plaza de Armas, guided by the book I picked up before leaving.

A tall blonde woman on her own attracts enough attention that I made every attempt to downplay the signs I was a traveler, including ripping out the pertinent pages from my guidebook and tucking them in my bag. But Santiago is arguably safer than New York City, and I never felt in danger.

After wandering around downtown, I hopped on the metro to go meet my homestay family.

Santiago's subway reminds me of the system in Washington, D.C., with its clean stations and just a few lines that don't necessarily get you everywhere you need to go. You often need to walk for several blocks or even take a cab, but for a tourist, it's almost better because you see more of the city that way.

The family I stayed with lived in a condo in the Providencia neighborhood, the posh commercial center of Santiago, with wide tree-lined streets, stylish stores and outdoor cafes.

The school was about a 15-minute walk from home, and classes began the next morning. Every Monday, new students take a placement test and then split into classes grouped by ability. I had paid for group lessons ($170 per week plus $140 per week for the homestay), but it turned out I was the only intermediate speaker, so I had my own instructor for several days.

The classes for Latin Immersion met every morning at 9 a.m. in this beautiful Spanish-style mansion whose rooms had been converted into classrooms. The staff put out rolls, fruit and juice every day, plus multiple pots of coffee, and the common area felt like a college dorm, with couches, a television, Internet access and a sunny patio with a pingpong table.

The majority of the students in the Santiago school were European, and many were in their 30s - mid-career adventure-seekers taking several months off work to travel throughout South America. The Americans were younger and just out of college, not sure of their next step.

I didn't encounter anyone doing what I did - taking just two weeks vacation to go to a language school, but I highly recommend it. I definitely improved my Spanish, but I also felt like I had a real break (that whole running-away thing really works). And I didn't come home broke.

The school also offers a combined class-and-ski program during the winter season - which takes place during our summer.

When I was there, it was late summer, so I spent most of my afternoons crisscrossing the city, checking out the different neighborhoods and sites. Among the highlights was Cerro Santa Lucia, a very vertical public park that is an almost Gaudiesque swirl of landscaping, terraces and pathways.

It is a great place to enjoy panoramic city views, and nearby is the artsy Barrio Lastarria, home to the Museo de Artes Visuales - a top showcase for emerging Chilean artists. (Speaking of artists, I perfected the one-arm self-portrait on this trip).

Dining in Chile is fantastic - I enjoyed sea bass or Peruvian ceviche with amazing wine for less than $10 in many places. Before leaving, I picked up a few bottles of my favorites - after the wine store proprietor let me hang out in the shop and try whatever I wanted.

With limited time and money, I couldn't travel all over Chile, but I managed to break away from school and hit the beach.

For a few days I lazed around the resort community of Vina del Mar, a two-hour bus ride from Santiago. From there I took another bus to the port town of Valparaiso, which was literally built onto the side of a mountain.

It is stacked in such a way that there are cable car lifts to take you up and down - truly one of the most unusual places I have ever seen. And in the late afternoon, as the sun is lower in the sky, the shadows on the multicolored buildings create living Edward Hopper paintings everywhere you turn.

That's the thing about Chile - everything is so luminous and striking, and the night sky is world-renowned. Maybe that's why people flee their problems and go to South America, to look at the world in a different light.

If You Go...

FINDING A SCHOOL: Latin Immersion operates in both Buenos Aires and Santiago, http://www.latinimmersion.com/ or (866) 577-8693. There are also other web sites like http://www.spanishabroad.com/ that do business with language schools in many different countries.

PRICES: With Latin Immersion, group classes (usually about four people) are $170 per week and private are $280 per week. Students can live in an apartment with other students for $105 per week, or with a family for $140 a week (including meals) or $105 (no meals).

ACCOMMODATIONS: In Chile and Argentina, the accommodations are usually with middle-class families and you are always given your own bedroom. The lodging differs in other countries, so do your research.

CHILE TOURISM:http://www.visit-chile.org/

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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