Spanish School in Medellín Testimonial

18 March 2019

With support from the Santander Universities Mobility Bursary, Jessie joined a Spanish course in Medellín. Read about her language progression and travels in Colombia!

spanish school in medellin
Jessie Chung, Laws

The trip down south is always a long one, but nonetheless probably my favourite point of the compass to follow. I can thank the inevitable stopovers for cushioning my culture shock to Latin America. From Toronto to Mexico City baggage and flights morphed into maletas y vuelos, the constant reminders to pack the pepper spray became warm welcomes bienvenida, que disfrutes de nuestro pais! and from Mexico City to Medellín the feeling that I was definitely not ready became listo, listo, listo- which literally means “ready” in Spanish but is used in Colombia as slang for everything: okay, alright, done, cool, here. Listo. 

street art medellin

From 1991 to 2013 Medellín went from murder capital of the world to being named the most innovative city by the Urban Land Institute, which praised its cultural revitalization and remarkable urban turnaround amongst the many reasons for joy on the part of the citizens. Colombia has not been able to shed its violent past entirely. It is still known more for Escobar than García Márquez, the war on drugs rather than its eclectic cultural scene- but the past two decades have seen the country’s unparalleled strength in surmounting an apparent prophecy of doom to rebuild a reputation under the watch of the world. 

I have always been very passionate about Latin America, but living in London I have found it difficult to maintain my current level of Spanish as well as to improve. The programme at Toucan Spanish School in Medellín comprised of four hours of group lessons every day which allowed me to improve my level significantly and to do a fair bit of travelling over the course of two months. I remember first arriving and though having the vocabulary to speak the language, being completely unable to understand it between the locals’ rapid speech and their paisa colloquialisms. Somewhere along the way, possibly while sitting in the back of a rickety moto-chiva through the Colombian mountains or snorkelling in the Barú Islands, I found myself using Spanish confidently in and out of my classes and no longer afraid when being spoken to. 

streets of medellin

The classes at Toucan, which started early morning and ended in the afternoon, were perfect in providing some sort of structure in a city that was entirely new while giving us the rest of the day to explore. I stayed mostly in hostels but met the majority of the friends with whom I travelled and shared the greatest memories through Toucan. My first Latin American concert I attended with my German friend, as well as ten Colombians, a Peruvian, and a Mexican, as we waited for eight hours in the stadium before dancing all night long to J Balvin and Marc Anthony. I took a tour organized by my language school in Comuna 13, the once notorious battleground of the drug cartels and paramilitary and one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the world- which had now been transformed into an urban oasis of graffiti and artistic flair in the name of awe-inspiring reinvention. 

In Colombia, there is a saying no dar papaya which means not to put yourself in a position where you could be vulnerable to having your belongings stolen. This was something I kept in mind throughout my trip, but to dispel the great traveller’s myth of theft in Latin America, safety was one thing that I never had to worry about. The paisas or locals of Medellín are a gregarious and welcoming people. I relished the opportunities provided by Toucan in bringing together the community of expats around the city as well as connecting us with paisas. The weekly language exchange at Toucan was one of my favourite activities- students from the school could practice their Spanish skills with native speakers who were also learning English- and a great way for us to meet locals who helped us assimilate into the Medellín life. Some friends of mine and I enjoyed the language exchanges so much that we sought out a range of other exchange nights in the city- intercambios are actually very popular in Medellín as the locals are always looking for a way to practice their language skills and we as foreigners have no doubt the same goal in mind! 


Another benefit of the programme at Toucan was its flexibility, adapted for backpackers who wanted to pick up a bit of Spanish while on the road. The free weekends that I had allowed me to get quite a bit of travelling done in and around the department of Antioquía. We visited Jardín for a weekend and hiked to the Cueva del Esplendor to see a waterfall and go diving inside a cave. The Medellín cultural scene is also very much alive and bustling. Here, literature festivals until 5 am are the norm and the rock band is dressed in their pajamas onstage- they’ve also taken it upon themselves to serve the audience coffee to make sure that adrenaline levels far and wide rival their own. 

Aside from Medellín, I travelled to Cartagena and Bogotá where I paid a visit to the lovely Museo Botero- Fernando Botero is an artistic genius and the gigantic, inflated bodies and objects featured in his works are meant to signify a full life. A few weeks on the road later and I found myself back in Medellín taking the final leap in my journey- paragliding in San Felix over a stunning view of the entire city, arriba y abajo.

My trip to Colombia was a phenomenal experience. For one, I no longer feel that I’m lying when I list Spanish under the languages that I speak. In all honesty though, if you are considering undertaking a short-term global opportunity this summer, my advice is definitely to go for it! My summer abroad reaffirmed my love for Spanish and cultivated my global perspective- I am fascinated by foreign policy in Latin America and the great differences in judicial systems across the world. I am eternally grateful to have explored Colombia being the emerging tourist destination that it is while it has still remained much unchartered territory. 

So I’ll let you decide- magical realism or pure fantasy?

jessie in medellin