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Where You Can't Easily Fall Back on English

Dateline: 09/11/00

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If you vacation in a place such as Puerto Vallarta or Cancún, Mexico, and hope to work on your Spanish, you may end up being a bit disappointed. Numerous establishments exist almost solely for the benefit of English-speaking American tourists, and chances are many of the people you will come across in such areas will speak English better than you speak Spanish. And even the menus and signs will be in English or bilingual.

Cathedral at Ocopa, Peru
Photo by Luke Erichsen; copyright 2000, used with permission 
Tours of a former convent next to the cathedral at Ocopa, Peru, near Huancayo, provide a historical perspection on the region.

So if you really want to practice your Spanish while traveling, you're better off going to a place where you can't fall back so readily on your English skills. Yet, chances are you also like some of the amenities that come with visiting an area that regularly welcomes large numbers of tourists.

Hundreds of destinations probably fit those qualifications, but I'm going to suggest a place I visited last month: Huancayo, Peru. The city of about 430,000 has most of what most visitors would expect in a destination worthy of several days: comfortable (although not luxurious) hotels, easy access, safe and pleasant restaurants, reasonable prices, moderate weather, and interesting places to visit during day trips. What it doesn't have are hordes of American tourists or an abundance of establishments where English is spoken. In fact, in three days of visiting the best of what the Huancayo area had to offer, I heard only one local person who spoke English well.

In fact, you're more likely to hear Quechua spoken than English. Quechua is the second language of Peru and is commonly used throughout the central Andes, especially in outlying communities. And you may hear German or French as well — a check of the guestbook at the tourism information center  indicated that the vast majority of non-South American visitors (most of those being from Lima and environs) are from Europe.

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