Recently, my wife and I returned from nine weeks in Mexico, five in Playa del Carmen, and four in Puerto Vallarta. We were there to attend Spanish language classes so that we could become reasonably proficient and travel throughout Latin America and Spain without needing to stick to the heavily touristed regions in order to be with people who understood English. We also wanted to dip our toes into the water of longer term travel and see how we felt about being away from home for so long. My wife had never traveled for more than two weeks and I had not been away from home that long since I’d been stationed in Germany in the Army.
We decided on Playa del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta because they were tourist towns in Mexico, but were not as heavily touristed as, say, Cancún. In the beginning, our Spanish was a little past beginner at best. I’d done Duolingo for about a year and my wife had done it for about a half a year. So, it was a stretch to describe us as conversational.
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
The first place we went was Playa del Carmen. We stayed at an apartment a half a block off of the heavily trafficked (foot traffic, not drugs, although I got offered those on a daily basis as well) Avenida Quinta, very close to the action.
Spanish Classes in Playa del Carmen
We chose Spanish with Elizabeth because of the good reputation and reviews that we saw. Although we booked a group class, it turned out that for all but a week and a day, we had private lessons with her. We met at the VIPS, which is a restaurant similar to an IHOP in the United States (ironically, there was an IHOP on Avenida Quinta, but it was closed, likely due to the impact of COVID-19).
Elizabeth’s style was very conversation heavy. She was an excellent interlocutor, and very philosophical. We joked that she was part mother, part therapist, and part Spanish instructor. She has her PhD in education, so she knew very well both the Instituto Cervantes standards for learning Spanish as well as the path of progression to get to fluency in the language.
While this approach is great for immersion learning, given that my wife and I were on different levels of understanding, it was challenging and frustrating for my wife. After a couple of weeks, we really pressed Elizabeth to go back and start focusing more on grammar and structure of the language (e.g. imperfecto and pretérito indefinido tenses) so that we understood why we were saying what we were saying.
After a little bit of coaxing and pressing, we were able to get her to focus more on exercises and the structure of the language rather than just four hours daily of conversations. That’s not to say that her approach does not work – we met an ex-student of hers who had started at absolute ground zero of understanding Spanish, took four weeks with Elizabeth, and then watched a bunch of Netflix series in Spanish, and Elizabeth’s ex-student was far more advanced than we were. However, that approach did not match our learning styles at the levels of understanding we had in Spanish, particularly since we were, at the time, significantly different from each other in our capabilities.
Once we were able to focus more on the structural parts and do more exercises, we progressed more rapidly, and we felt like the last two weeks were the best with her.
Additionally, she was kind enough to take us out to a very remote ranch in the jungles southwest of Playa del Carmen to a cenote and a giant cookout that her friend’s family was holding in honor of seeing their grandmother for the first time in over two years due to COVID-19.
The cenotes that most tourists visit are full of other tourists. This one was full of cool, crisp water…and bats. Fortunately, the bats were of no concern, as they ate fruits and pollenated the agave that makes tequila, mexcal, and raicilla!
The ranch was a somewhat working farm, as they provided animals for local restaurants in Playa del Carmen and Tulum. There were goats, chickens, and turkeys. Unfortunately, one of the turkeys had a very bad day when we were there.
That was an amazing and special experience that I don’t think that we could have ever had on our own, and it was thanks to Elizabeth’s kindness and the warmth of her heart that we were able to participate.
Costs in Playa del Carmen
Many expatriates live in Mexico because of the lower cost of living. We found this to be true as well. Although we rented an Airbnb with a kitchen, we never ate at home. We would make coffee in the mornings before going out to breakfast, but after that, we ate out. We usually ate breakfast before classes started at 10 AM and then went to a restaurant after classes ended at 2 PM for our dinner. We did buy beers for the evenings while we were studying or watching Spanish shows (we’ve watched everything from Paw Patrol dubbed in Spanish and Plaza Sésamo to Club de Cuervos), but we never ate at home. Additionally, we took our laundry, usually twice a week, to Lavanderia Marina (if you go, bring treats for their sweet dog Benito). It was out of the way from where we lived, but the great service and the sweet couple were worth the extra effort.
This was a typical breakfast in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
So, we never felt like we were scrimping in our lifestyle while staying in Playa del Carmen (nor, for that matter, did we scrimp in Puerto Vallarta). We often went out, and liked to go to Bloody Mary bar to watch our favorite Playa del Carmen band, The Roomies and would have a couple of beers while we were there.
We did not join a gym, as we’d read a great tip from our friends at Geekstreamers about bringing a TRX Go on our long-term travels so that we could work out in our Airbnb. That investment was well worth it.
We did purchase two items that we needed for our trip to Playa del Carmen (not included in cost summary below):
- A room dehumidifier (#aff): both Playa del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta were extremely humid, with most days seeing humidity in the 80-90% range. We had a dehumidifier for the bedroom where we stayed to protect our clothes.
- A water jug pump (#aff): the water in Playa del Carmen is not potable because of the limestone deposits in the water. Sure, brushing your teeth probably won’t cause you long-term damage (though I am not a doctor, so do not depend on this advice for determining your tooth brushing habits, though you should brush twice a day), but why risk it? We bought garafones of water – 5 liter jugs of water that we humped up three flights of stairs to our apartment. We bought six during our stay at 30 pesos each, so, roughly, 50 cents, USD, per liter of water that we used. This pump made life so much easier!
Additionally, to deal with snail mail while we were away, we took a tip from our friends at Go Curry Cracker and used Traveling Mailbox. Unfortunately, our post office decided that our requests to hold and forward mail were optional, so we only got a handful of pieces delivered to Traveling Mailbox. However, the service did work as advertised and was easy to work with. We will certainly continue using it in the future, particularly if we can get our own post office to understand our desires and not stuff our mailbox full of unwanted mail.
So, what was the monthly cost of our stay in Playa del Carmen while taking Spanish classes?
- Lodging: $1,252.57
- Daily living/tours/etc.: $3,464.65
- Classes: $1,158.40
- Total monthly cost: $6,374.64
- Total monthly cost without classes: $4,712.22
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
The second place we went was Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Puerto Vallarta has a very different vibe than Playa del Carmen. Playa del Carmen felt like the place you’d go on spring break from college. There were a lot of bars and dance clubs and a lot of people wearing t-shirts with the brands of the places that you see from people who have just come back from spring break. There were some expats, but we didn’t really meet many. However, Puerto Vallarta was very different, culturally. There were a lot more expats. Yes, there was a tourist area (we avoided the Malecon like the plague except when it was very early in the morning), but it just did not have the spring break vibe.
However, what it did have was hills and cobblestones, and our choice of Airbnbs certainly affected our daily life because of those two factors.
Objects in picture are farther than they appear
The climb was made more daunting by our arrival a day after Hurricane Nora hit and the midst of the rainy season. Twice, I did the banana peel slip on the wet cobblestones, and my wife ate it once while on the cobblestones and once while going to rescue turtles.
To be fair, the apartment did keep power and water during our entire stay. We had friends in our neighborhood (or colonia) that lost water for long stretches at a time. Still, the significance of that hill, particularly during torrential downpours, meant that we did not go out in the afternoon and evening nearly as much as we did during our time in Playa del Carmen, and we wound up using Rappi much more than we would have were we three blocks down the hill.
That said, we loved the vibe of Puerto Vallarta much more than we did the vibe of Playa del Carmen. We met a lot of expats and some locals. We loved the Zona Romantica, although they were struggling to dig out from under the mudslide caused by Hurricane Nora.
Classes in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
We chose to attend group classes at Spanish Experience Center in Puerto Vallarta. I had visited the Spanish Experience Center on my first visit to Puerto Vallarta and was really impressed with the location. We bought four weeks’ worth of group classes of three hours per day, and the “group” turned out to be one other student who was with us the entire time, so it was almost like getting private classes.
The classes were pretty well structured. We’d have conversation for about the first hour each day, and then, after our first break, we would start into the grammar lessons. My wife and I both preferred this method of teaching and felt like our Spanish improved markedly; we’d say we progressed farther in four weeks of three hours per day in Puerto Vallarta than we did in five weeks of four hours per day in Playa del Carmen. We even did some experiential learning while in class.
Yes, we drank raicilla during class.
Furthermore, the school had a kitchen, run by the delightful Patti, who served up some spectacular dishes every day for lunch.
Patti getting us lit during Mexican Independence Day
Additionally, our teacher, Jovanny, organized two different trips during our time in Puerto Vallarta. The first one was to San Sebastian del Oeste, which was a one-day trip, and the second was and overnight trip to two pueblos magicos, Mascota and Talpa. There were two huge pluses to the trips: first, it was like having our teacher with us the entire time, giving us immersion classes, as we only spoke in Spanish, and second, it was like having a private tour guide (well, it was), since that was where he’d go with his family for weekend trips. Therefore, instead of the usual bus tour where you get off for an hour, we were able to go to panaderias where he knew the owners or raicilla distilleries where his friend owned the plantation. They were well worth the extra expense. To show our thanks for him taking weekends away from his family, we bought all of his food and some extra bottles of hooch during our trips.
At the end, we got certificates from the school saying that we’d passed level A2 of the DELE certification.
Costs in Puerto Vallarta
We had our friend, Carla, join us for four days while we were there, and, since she’d paid for a plane ticket to come see us, we paid for most of her food and drink while there. This cost is included in the breakout below.
Like in Playa del Carmen, we did not feel like we scrimped. Our costs were probably higher because we took more Ubers, either when the weather was bad or when it was late and we didn’t want to tackle Mount Puerto Vallarta, and we also ordered Rappi several times, adding a few bucks to each meal that we ordered in rather than going out. All totaled, had we lived somewhere down the hill and not had our friend visit us, our daily costs may have been around $200 lower.
- Lodging: $2,201.67
- Daily living/tours/etc.: $2,417.54
- Classes: $1,735.92
- Total monthly cost: $5,850.20
- Total monthly cost without classes: $4,619.21
Comparing Puerto Vallarta and Playa del Carmen
At first blush, you might think that the comparison is a draw between Playa del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta. However, we spent nearly twice as much in lodging for a place that we would not return to in Puerto Vallarta. We could probably find a place for cheaper that we’d be happier with. We would spend more in Playa del Carmen because we were too close to the action there. So, we would probably spend the same amount in both places on lodging. Therefore, it would come down to daily costs of living.
- Playa del Carmen: $3,464.65
- Puerto Vallarta: $2,417.54
So, for us Puerto Vallarta is superior for beginners who want to get their first taste of immersion Spanish.
That said, we probably would not return to either. The weather was oppressively hot in both places. We weren’t keen on the cobblestones and ankle breakers in Puerto Vallarta. Now that we know enough Spanish to not be dependent on English speakers, we want to expand. Mexico City and Guadalajara are on our list for Mexico. We’ve heard really good things about Medellín from many, many travelers. If we were to return to either, it would be to Puerto Vallarta. We met some really great people there and made fast friends. We loved the school. We loved the culture and the vibe. We’d probably stay in Zona Romantica and do it during the dry season.
What did we learn about long-term travel during our trips?
We learned a few things during our travels:
- Weather really matters. We thought that we could stand the heat. We live in Texas. My wife is a native Texan. I’m from Georgia. We great up in hot, sticky summers. However, that was when we were kids. We’ve lived in air conditioning for a long time.
- Walkability is important. We walked a lot more in Playa del Carmen because it was easier to do so. We could drop our bags off at our apartment after class and then go walk around wherever we wanted to. We sweated a ton (see above), but we did walk a lot. In Puerto Vallarta, the daunting hill was a real factor in our decisions on our daily lives. As a result, we didn’t walk as much.
- We don’t like expat tourist bubbles. I went to San Miguel de Allende during the time in Playa del Carmen. It was a HUGE expat bubble. It was like Texas in the middle of Mexico. I couldn’t stand it. We met a lot of expats during our travels. Some of them were fantastic. They learned the language and embraced the culture. Others…not so much. We met more than one person who didn’t learn Spanish because they said that they didn’t need to. They clearly don’t respect their hosts in my opinion. That’s sad. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Because when you speak a language, English, well many people understand you, including Afrikaners, but when you speak Afrikaans, you know you go straight to their hearts.”
- Take advantage of opportunities you have to create lasting memories. We went to a remote ranch in Playa del Carmen. We rescued turtles in Puerto Vallarta. We would have never had those opportunities had we closed our minds to what was possible just because we didn’t want to be bitten by mosquitos. It paid off.