Fortunately, Guatemalans are tolerant teachers, and Antigua readily extends a welcome to linguistically challenged visitors. Two centuries after the massive earthquake that cost it its role as the nation's capital, the town has reinvented itself as the world centre of Spanish language learning. Each year, around 13,000 students - backpackers, pensioners, entire families, even officials from the US State Department - get stuck into the grammar amid the colonial splendour of this Unesco World Heritage site.
For anybody attracted by the idea of an extended trip to Latin America, there is a beautiful logic to the proposition. Guatemala is cheap, colourful and at the accessible end of the continent. Spanish is relatively easy to learn and will serve you in most places from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego. Begin your trip in Antigua and, when you feel confident enough, sell your study books to a new arrival and head off.
Other places in Guatemala and neighbouring Honduras are cottoning on to the idea, and offer all sorts of 'institutions' with ideologically correct and ecologically sound Nineties study themes: learn in an indigenous community, or while saving the jungles, or whatever. On Monterrico Island, you can apparently study Spanish by day and conserve sea turtle eggs by night. Antigua, though, remains the leader, with around 30 language schools and any number of private tutors vying for your cash.
Aside from the friendliness of most of its inhabitants, it is the amount of cash you'll have to fork out - not much - that is the key to Antigua's success. Twenty hours a week of individual tuition can cost as little as dollars 35 ( pounds 23), and for a similar amount, if you forgo a hotel, you can enjoy board and lodgings with a family. Add in an army of local travel agents offering weekend excursions to Mayan ruins or ascents of the volcanoes around the town (one still active), and a supporting cast of Indian women in traditional costume selling the shirt you saw in Camden market the week before, at a fraction of the price, and the appeal is obvious.
The quality of the tuition you might receive is perhaps the biggest variable: if a school has a bad name, it changes it. Those with the longest lifespans have the highest reputations and the highest prices (the first school in town 22 years ago, the Francisco Marroquin, charges dollars 125 for its 35-hour week of classes). You pay your money one week in advance, and take your chance. Most schools will insist you change tutor every one or two weeks, so it can often be a better bet to look for a private tutor you can stay with until you feel you are making progress.
Just how much progress that might be is up to the student 'Probably about 60 per cent of people stay less than a month - enough to get them by, then they're off,' says Aracely Moritz, who was one of the first teachers in Antigua and who now gives private classes to a few recommended clients.
Julio Garcia Perez, another well-qualified tutor who gives private classes, says students must come with the right attitude. 'There's not much a teacher can do faced with a student who hasn't done the homework.'
That, as other despairing tutors will tell you, is one of the problems with Antigua: there are too many reasons not to do the homework. The town has consolidated its popularity by becoming an oasis of home comforts at attractive prices in the middle of often exasperating Latin America. It has a sizeable population of expatriate Americans and Europeans who keep the tourists happy with cosy video bars, vegetarian restaurants, second-hand bookshops and launderettes. You can drift from freshly ground morning coffee (served by a laconic San Diegan), through lunch at the Rainbow Cafe ('try Phil's garlic bread'), to afternoon tea at Dona Luisa's (de rigueur, with the most-read noticeboard in town), and never look at a book.
None of these institutions is what you might call authentic, and one can feel awkward about the extent to which local people have had their town turned upside down. The Indian women who use not the launderettes but the public sinks to do their washing, babies strapped to their backs, seem like props put there to provide a dash of traditional colour. By and large, most locals seem quite comfortable about the gentrification, however; and for the visitor who expected things to be more rough and ready, there are Happy Hour Cuba Libres at 30p a shot, in a bar with not plaster ducks but wooden donkeys in flight across the wall.
Nowhere more starkly illustrates the incongruities of Antigua than a little business called Conexion, tucked away in the corner of a restored colonial patio. There the computer-literate student can send E-mail to all corners of the globe. E-mail] In the bureaucratically befuddled post office across town, a more representative Latin American institution, it took me three-quarters of an hour to assemble the right combination of official paper, string and tape to send a parcel.
Conexion is also one of several enterprises to undercut official telephone rates, and thus welcomes a steady stream of dishevelled types who find they can at last afford to ring home. I listened to a fragile English boy with light eye make-up: 'Hi Mum. Did you hear about what was going on in Chiapas? Listen, do you think you could ring the parents of this girl I know and tell them she's all right?'
In its scramble to cater for the needs of today, Antigua has turned its back on its past. There are 400 years of history here, but no one comes for that; it is something you get around to after the classes and the socialising.
The town's wealth of dazzling churches were mostly never rebuilt after the 1773 earthquake, and some of the better-kept ruins make excellent havens for study in return for a small entry charge. Most, though, are neglected and closed off. The cathedral on the central plaza has been viciously truncated, its interior reduced to the size of what was once merely the entrance porch. Behind it stretches an entire block of crumbling masonry.
At night the victory of present over past is clear. In a place with only the past to cling to, the churches would be celebrated with illuminations; here, they loom unnoticed above the quiet cobbled streets while modern Antigua gets on with life. During the day, the shell of the Compania de Jesus church houses a tourist market.
Today's comforts are what keep the students here. In our hotel we came across Jorg, an earnest German in a straw hat. He was pretty typical: he had learnt Spanish here for six weeks, set off travelling, and now, having caught one of the myriad bugs the continent has to offer, he had returned. Antigua was the best place to be ill, he explained. He was buying souvenirs and waiting for a flight home.
We stayed on in Antigua . . . and on, and on. It was simply far too civilised. My only regret is having discovered the place too late; I spent three years learning Spanish in a tower block in Yorkshire when I could have been reciting verbs in a flower-scented garden beneath a cloud-capped volcano.
Getting there: Journey Latin America (081-747 3108) sells tickets to Guatemala City via Amsterdam for pounds 457 return from seven British airports. Antigua is one hour from Guatemala City: 125 quetzal by taxi from the airport, 2.50 by bus from the city centre. (The exchange rate is Q8.7 to pounds 1; travellers cheques are more use than a credit card.) British citizens need a tourist card, available on arrival for dollars 5.
Further information: The Guatemalan Embassy (13 Fawcett Street, London SW10 9HN; tel 071-351 3042, fax 071-376 5708) can supply a list of language schools in Antigua and other towns. James Wilson stayed in a basic, clean hotel (the Primavera) for Q35 per night for two.
Travel alert: The Foreign Office warns that violent crime is prevalent in Guatemala, and advises visitors to register with the embassy upon arrival in Guatemala City (advice line: 071-270 4129).
(Photographs and map omitted)