Spanish studies in the beautiful Medellin

Rhys P, Bachelor of Engineering

Intern Latin America, Colombia

My experience in Medellin was nothing short of incredible. After travelling through South America in 2015/2016 I had a desire to return and improve my Spanish skills. Thankfully with the QUT short term exchange program this was made possible. I studied at EAFIT for two weeks for an intensive Spanish course. In my beginner’s class there were three students and it is amazing how much we were able to cram into only two weeks.

Our teacher was called Cielo (Sky in English) and like the majority of people from Medellin she was extremely warm and welcoming. Before this I had never attempted to learn a second language however I have learnt that it can be extremely frustrating at times. The quality of not only my teacher, but all of the teachers at EAFIT made the experience much more enjoyable and they were able to remove this frustration and create a great learning environment.

The campus itself was not what I was expecting at all. Due to the much-discussed past of Colombia I was expecting the campus to be slightly run down. It was a pleasant surprise when I arrived on my first day to see an absolutely beautiful campus. The campus is full of trees, nature, wildlife and is an amazing place to study.

As for Colombia itself, it is my favourite country in the world and after I complete my studies at QUT I want to move there. The people made me feel extremely welcome, the food is amazing, it is such a diverse country. It truly is an amazing country and I highly recommend it as an exchange destination.

The highlights of my trip were definitely the amazing places that I travelled to and the friends that I made along the way. The only advice that I have for other students is to pack your bag and go!

Exchange in the Heart of Colombia

The City

Bogotá is a huge city of 8 million people. There’s a ton of wealth there, but also crazy inequality. The wealth is all concentrated in the north, and the city gets progressively poorer as you move south, in a weirdly perfectly linear fashion. Where you’ll spend most of your time, in the centre, is the perfect ‘not too cold, not too hot’. The centre is chaotic, intelligent and mildly intimidating – the meeting point of student culture from all the universities (the hipster will find home here), homelessness from the south and fancy restaurants and cafes from the north.

pic 1This part of the city is particularly (creepily, at times) well set up for students and foreigners. There are indie film festivals of high quality almost every month, the biggest music festivals in South America and plenty of high quality local music on a regular basis. And of course, there’s the dancing. You can’t escape that. I was not into dancing before I arrived, and here we are six months later, yet another captive of the salsa.

If you’re adventurous and open minded, this huge, at times insane, but incredibly charismatic metropolis is there for the taking.pic 2

Universidad de los Andes

Los Andes is a seriously high quality university – it’s ranked one of the best in South America. (They also claim to have the best wifi in all of South America, which I was not able to disprove after 3 months backpacking.) I had some of the best professors I’ve ever had there. It is easily on par with QUT (possibly better! Depends on the program.) Facilities are great – especially the free gym, which includes a 5th floor pool with one of the best views of the whole city.

Pick your subjects carefully according to your level of spanish/how much you want to study. I took one history course in spanish (I could barely introduce myself when I arrived) that I really struggled with. On the other hand, lecturers (and students) invariably speak perfect English and are very accommodating. My economics professor didn’t mind at all whether I submitted essays and exams in English or Spanish (this is luck of the draw though, some professors will only accept work in Spanish.) There are also a large number of very interesting courses offered in English. In particular there is an International Law subject offered in English and HEAPS of business courses. (There could be in other faculties as well, I don’t know.)

Campus life is also excellent – there is a big society for international students run by local students, who greeted us on the first day with a salsa lesson (you get the idea). Most classes are also fairly informal, discussion/tutorial style, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to make friends with other local students.

Language

Don’t be deterred by a lack of Spanish! I had almost no Spanish at all when I arrived, and it was fine. (Just don’t be as ambitious/stupid as me and take ALL you classes in Spanish; make sure you have a couple in English so it’s not a total disaster.) Colombia is arguably the best place in the world to learn Spanish – they’re famous for speaking clearly and slowly, without much slang. I’m basically fluent after 6 months – you’ll be amazed how fast you pick it up.

Universidad de los Andes also offers a free 3 week intensive Spanish course before the semester starts, which I highly recommend!

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Colombia’s most famous author – read Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude

Accommodation

Most domestic students live with their parents so there’s no on-campus accommodation to speak of. I lived at Residencial 10 (you can find them on Facebook). It’s an international student residence with about 45 bedrooms and a serious party culture. There is a casa (house, beautiful old colonial mansion) and the edificio (a building above a bar) that are around the corner from each other, both 5 mins walk from the university. All the partying (and there’s a lot of it) goes on in the edificio, so if you want a huge social life at your fingertips but a little peace and quiet sometimes, go for the casa like I did. The owners are two Colombian guys around 25 or 26, and they run a really cool operation. They make an effort to get a good proportion of spanish speakers (we had a bunch of Peruvians and Mexicans) so you can practise.

If you want something quieter, cheaper and probably better for your spanish, check out private apartments with other students. There are a few websites around, just google ‘apartamentos en Bogota’. The best areas are La Macarena (incredibly beautiful and safe, HEAPS of amazing int’l restaurants and you could walk or cycle to the university) and La Candelaria (the historical district with most hostels. Also beautiful and closer to the university, but slightly less safe because tourists attract pickpockets). Both of these areas are in the “Centro” and are perfectly safe – see the section on Safety, below.

Whichever option you go for, book a hostel for your first week so you can go and check out the places before signing up to anything. Casa Bellavista is a great hostel (or at least was in 2015, very close to Los Andes, Residencial 10 and lots of museums etc.

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The Centro, Bogotá

My Chile experience : Final words

Chile was an AMAZING student exchange location and I would recommend it to anyone. It is relatively safe, easy to travel, the university is extremely helpful and the area of Viña del Mar and Valparaiso is stimulating, without being too big and overwhelming. There ARE cultural differences, one being the street dogs!

They are everywhere (and so is their dog poo). It is also hard to get used to the language but rewarding once you get the hang of it. I made some of my closest friends on student exchange, friends that I have already gone to visit in the USA and know would welcome me all over the world. I was in Chile for their national holiday, September 18th, and enjoyed huge fiestas and asados (BBQs), experienced Valpo NYE (THE best in South America), enjoyed many a “terremoto” (a local drink of wine, grenadine and pineapple ice cream), went camping on volcanic lakes and saw some of the most beautiful sites in the world (truly, Chile is a world class destination for natural beauty). I can’t recommend it enough.

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Valle de la Luna, Atacama Desert

My Chile experience : Academic & finances

Academic

The university offers exchange students two options for subjects, of which you can mix and match. You can take “pregado” courses (regular classes, in Spanish, designed at a level for Chilean students) or “specially designed courses” for exchange students, some of which are taught in Spanish, some of which in English. I took 4 specially designed courses, 3 in English and one Spanish Communication class.

The specially designed courses are significantly easier and more flexible then the “pregado” courses because they understand that exchange students want to travel and don’t have study as their number 1 priority. They focus on Latin American cultural immersion such as Latin American film, politics, economics etc and the assessment can be easily passed. I really enjoyed these classes and they suited me because I didn’t want to study too much. However my Spanish would definitely have benefitted from at least taking some specially designed courses in Spanish, not just English. I wish I had taken 2/2.

The university offers opportunity to volunteer with local organisations. UAI asks that you pay a $100 fee deposit to them to show that you’re serious (to discourage students from signing up and going once and then pulling out), however if you want you can just contact the organisations directly. I volunteered at the Valpo Surf Project and I’d strongly recommend anyone to do the same. The organisation aims to teach leadership, environmental responsibility and give confidence to at-risk kids in Valpo through English classes and surf lessons. Check out their website!

Finances

I’ve always worked throughout university so I had about $7,000 savings before going. I also received a $3000 bursary from QUT and got the $6000 additional HECS loan. This was more than enough and I travelled comfortably throughout semester and did everything I wanted to do.

I just used my regular bank card in ATMS however I would recommend loading money onto a travel card. You don’t need to get a Chilean bank account. It helps to get cards two, and keep one in safe place eg don’t take it out in your bag. Or just leave your cards at home and carry a small amount of cash on you if you go out. I had a backpack stolen with both my credit cards in it in Santiago and it was a BIG PAIN because I was about to go on a trip to Peru and had to get an Australian friend to withdraw a big chunk of cash for me, and I just transferred the money to her account.

Chile is probably the most expensive South American country. Transport, alcohol and food are extremely cheap however items in restaurants, big supermarkets and shopping centres rival Australian prices.

My Chile experience : Campus and vibe

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The inside of the UAI Viña campus

UAI is a beautifully designed university on a hill with a great view of Viña. There is no public transport to the university itself, so everyone gets a bus or train to one of the two designated spots where UAI sends private buses to pick up students. They come once every hour or two, and UAI will provide you with a bus timetable. UAI is a private university and considered “right wing” in Chile, something which a lot of people frown upon because there was an extreme right-wing dictator called Pinochet in the 70s-80s.

Chile is quite politically divided and if you say you support the right, they associate that with dictatorship, however there are Pinochet supporters who still agree with him because of the important economic progress he made. It is a touchy subject. The Chileans at the university are quite wealthy and conservative, and also quite young. There is a high school vibe about the university. I didn’t meet many Chileans there, I mostly made Chilean friends through contacts in Valpo, going to parties etc.

The university hosted lots of events and trips for exchange students to meet and get to know each other. I went on a surf trip and a ski trip with uni throughout the semester.

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The view from the campus at sunset

My Chile experience : Viña del Mar vs Valparaiso & accommodation

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Art on the streets of Valparaiso, Chile

The first thing to know is that all exchange students attending UAI are at the Viña del Mar campus, NOT the Santiago campus. Viña is a seaside resort town about 1.5 hours west of Santiago (a very easy, cheap bus). It is very quiet in the winter, PACKED in the summer with rich Chileans taking their summer holidays. Viña is nice…. But it feels like any Western country. I chose to live in the neighbouring town of Valparaiso. It’s true, Valparaiso is dirtier and poorer than fancy Viña, and there was quite a rivalry between the two (you either love Valparaiso or you hate it). I love Valparaiso and barely went to Viña except for my classes. I did my research before I left Australia and decided that I wanted to live in Valpo. There were only about 3 of the 150 exchange students that chose to do this. I strongly recommend it.

In Valpo you actually feel like you are someplace different, it feels like a more authentic experience… it’s bohemian, artistic, has a great live music scene, amazing colourful houses and is the street art capital of South America, if not the world. In contrast, Viña is the Miami of Chile. It was very easy for me to get to Viña for classes and I preferred the nightlife in Valpo. A lot of people feel more unsafe in Valpo, but I know about 6 people that were robbed, and 5 of them were in Viña. Crime is rarely violent but petty theft is common. You just have to be careful about showing your valuables and walking alone at night.

I got to Valpo a few weeks before semester and stayed in a hostel and then an Airbnb place while I house hunted. I then searched on the website compartodepto.cl to find a share house in Valpo, sharing with Chileans, French and Argentinians. There was heaps available, mine was $140,000 CLP a month (about $280 Aus dollars), but you could definitely find something cheaper. My room was in a perfect location in Valpo on Subida Ecuador, very spacious and had a balcony. All bills were included, including unlimited internet. I just bought a local simcard with Movista network to put in my iPhone 5 and it worked just fine. A lot of people just bought cheap Nokias to use whilst in Chile.

My Chile experience : South America & Spanish

I chose UAI, the partner institution, because I wanted to go to a country where I could learn Spanish in South America. It was out of Colombia or Chile but I felt that Chile might be safer, and also offers more as far as natural beauty. This definitely turned out to be true! Chile was an absolutely stunning country to travel. From the beautiful desert in the north, to the misty lakes region and mystic island of Chiloé, to majestic Patagonia and Torres del Paine National Park in the south. As I was overseas from the start of July to the start of February, I also spent time in the States, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina.

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Christmas Day, 2014, spent with at Lake Llanquihue, Puerto Varas, overlooking two volcanos.

I took a Spanish course one night a week for 6 months before going to Chile but it was NOT ENOUGH. Nothing can prepare you for Chilean Spanish – it is the worst of all Spanish. It is extremely quick, they don’t pronounce many consonants in words and they have a lot of slang. If I could do one thing different it would be not just to study Spanish before going but LISTEN and WATCH Chilean Spanish in movies, TV shows, youtube clips, podcasts. At least just Google some common Chilean phrases! You can know “textbook perfect Spanish” but this will not help you with the Chileans. However, once you get the hang of it you will love the Chileanismos and it’s fun using them everyday. Best to incorporate as many into your speech as possible so you don’t just sound like a clueless gringo, and trust me they appreciate it.

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With Emma, a friend from my exchange program, in the beautiful San Pedro de Atacama.