So you’ve memorized your Spanish prepositions and irregular verbs. And now it’s time to put those linguistic skills to the test. Or maybe you’re just eager to meet a few locals and flirt with the language barrier for now. No matter your objective, Medellin offers language exchange nights — intercambios — to suit every taste.
This includes big gatherings in trendy bars to smaller get-togethers in cafés. There are all kinds of language exchange nights in Medellín where you can practice your Spanish.
[Note: shortly before this article was published, Medellin English – Spanish Events stopped running language exchange nights at Skybar. However, the organizer has been holding events at other locations. Readers can stay up to date by following the Medellin English – Spanish Events Facebook page. Skybar has continued to run language exchange nights on Wednesday nights. Their announcements can be found on the Skybar Facebook page.]
Boasting over 13,000 social media subscribers, Medellin English – Spanish Events organizer James Varriale, originally from New York City, has built up a substantial base of followers over the past couple of years. He estimates the attendance to be about 100 each week.
“It’s about 50-50 Paisas and foreigners,” James says, in between “holas” and “bienvenidos” as the crowd starts to roll in around 6:30 p.m. “The foreigners are from everywhere: the U.S., from Europe, from Asia, from Australia,” he adds. And what about the locals? “The Paisas that come are usually bright, curious people.
It’s an opportunity to mix it up with local people and with foreigners, and there’s no rules; there’s no formal situation,” Jim says, emphasizing the relaxed, informal nature of the Skybar language exchange night.
“I think Skybar is good because there’s a nice mix of Colombians to gringos in general,” says Shane, an ESL teacher and private tour guide from Tacoma, Washington. “There’s a lot of people with good levels and there’s people with low levels,” he adds.
For those looking to network with other expats, I think the Skybar language exchange is a good place to make contacts. Every time I go, I see plenty of new faces among the foreigners in attendance. And many of them are expats living in Medellin, not just travelers passing through.
Richard, from London, England, is taking six months off to learn Spanish in Medellin. He tells me he finds the people at the Skybar language exchange to be “very friendly, and it’s a very welcoming crowd.”
James, the organizer, echoes that sentiment: “It’s not an intense bar crowd. People are actually coming for a reason. A lot of guys, a lot of girls, have met their partners at these events.”
Skybar is a spacious venue, with plenty of seating available. For the language exchange nights, they offer a few food and drink specials, such as free sangria to the first 50 attendees.
They recently added a beginner’s salsa class to the program, which starts at 8:45 p.m. each Wednesday. Many people participated both times I was there around late January. And those who chose not to work on their salsa steps continued with their conversations.
Skybar is located in the heart of El Poblado at Carrera 38 #8-83, just half a block from nightlife hotspot Parque Lleras. It’s about a 15-20 minute walk or a short taxi ride from metro Poblado. Photo courtesy of Skybar.
On the opposite end of the spectrum (and the other side of town), The Wandering Paisa hostel in Laureles offers language learners a very different option. Every Thursday night at 8 p.m., they host a language exchange night in their cozy hostel bar.
This venue has a more intimate vibe for a few reasons. For starters, the space is physically much smaller than an expansive bar like Skybar. But there’s also a familiarity among the attendees which contributes to the vibe.
Being located in a hostel, the language exchange is heavily influenced by the guests who happen to be staying there on a given Thursday night.
As with many hostels, there’s usually a camaraderie among guests who are either traveling together or have gotten to know each other during their stay in Medellin.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, I’ve found that a number of Colombians attend the Wandering Paisa language exchange on a regular basis. This also contributes to the familiar, relaxed atmosphere. Many of the Colombians already know each other, so it’s not just one big group of strangers every week.
On the other hand, many of the hostel guests may well leave before the next language exchange, which does add to the turnover among the foreigners who attend.
Seattle native Brent Knowles founded the hostel and language exchange night seven years ago. For him, the “whole idea of the hostel was basically to have a cultural event center where people could really change their perceptions of each other.”
He observes that the language exchange night “always has a steady new crowd of people. With the Colombians, there are people who aren’t looking for a party scene, some people who are looking for something a bit more serious. So we get people kind of in the middle.”
Brent describes the nights as starting off more casual and relaxed: “It’s very informal. You can kind of just come in and listen to a conversation, you can have a beer, there’s no pressure.” But he notes the transformation as the night goes on: “After about 10 p.m. it descends into more of a party vibe.”
In my experience, even after the “party vibe” sets in, the atmosphere at the Wandering Paisa language exchange still remains very chilled and relaxed. Many attendees break off into smaller groups or pairs and move out to the back patio or the front porch area to continue their conversations.
There’s a very hospitable, welcoming feel about The Wandering Paisa, and that’s conducive to meeting people and getting into conversations with them.
“There was a good mix of foreigners and locals, a great relaxed and social atmosphere,” said Kuli Singh, a Londoner whom I met at a recent Wandering Paisa language exchange night.
He’s trying to improve his Spanish while on vacation in Colombia. He also said, “I was able to talk in my stilted Spanish and get help from the Colombians as they were very patient!”
The Wandering Paisa hostel is located at Calle 44A #68A-76. That’s just a block north of the major intersection at Avenida San Juan and Carrera 70. It’s only about a 5-7 minute walk from the Estadio metro station (Line B).
The location is very convenient for going out after the language exchange, with the busy nightlife of Carrera 70 only a couple of blocks away. Salsa lovers will find plenty of venues to choose from in this area. These include popular clubs like El Tibiri and Son Havana. The photo above is courtesy of The Wandering Paisa.
Down in Envigado, another language exchange night has quickly built up a big following over the past year or so, largely from word of mouth. The Colombia Immersion Spanish School offers an alternative to its counterparts in Medellin every Friday night from 6:30-10:30 p.m.
“Envigado is different because it’s a little out of the way,” notes Colombia Immersion’s marketing and communications manager Avalon Bauman.
Her description of the typical crowd at their language exchange nights makes it clear why theirs are different from the ones in Medellin: “We have our [Spanish language] students; we have our neighbors and friends and we have English teachers that bring their classes here.”
The goal, Avalon says, is “to create a community of locals and foreigners that want to have that exchange of culture and language. And it creates a really nice, friendly environment.”
Adam Bones, a digital nomad from the London area, elaborates on what it is that sets the Colombia Immersion language exchange apart from others in the area: “Colombia Immersion is quite different in that it’s nestled into Paisa suburbia–more like a public house [pub] than your typical bar in Poblado.”
He goes on to illustrate the success of Colombia Immersion’s outreach to the Paisa community: “It’s we’ll known all over Envigado, and I’ve met Colombians from all over the valley who travel there to practice speaking with foreigners.”
This high Colombian turnout, estimated at 60-70% of attendees by Colombia Immersion’s Avalon Bauman, affords foreigners an opportunity to meet many locals and practice their Spanish with them.
In general everybody mixes and mingles at the Colombia Immersion language exchange without any formal structure. However, the organizers do arrange some icebreaker games like human bingo and speed meeting about halfway through the night to facilitate contact with new people.
In my experience, this is very effective in getting attendees to broaden their circle of acquaintances at the meetups.
Many of the foreigners who attend the Colombia Immersion language exchange are students studying Spanish there at the school. “You really want to learn Spanish if you’re studying here because we do an intensive course,” says Bauman.
She also points out that they attract the kind of student who’s interested in the types of field trips they organize. These involve visiting neighborhoods where tourists don’t usually go, such as Moravia, Manrique and 13 de noviembre.
The Colombia Immersion Spanish School is located in a converted two-story house in a residential neighborhood. Visitors will find a small bar on the second floor and balcony and patio areas for outdoor mingling.
I’ve gone to the language exchange several times over the past nine months, and the place has almost always been packed.
Many attendees migrate to the bustling Envigado nightlife areas after the language exchange shuts down at 10:30 p.m. Popular bars like El Callejón are just a few minutes’ walk away.
The Colombia Immersion Spanish School is located at Carrera 40 #40D Sur – 49, kitty-corner from the Iglesia San Rafael, in the El Dorado neighborhood. It’s about a 10-minute taxi ride from the Envigado metro station. Photos provided by Colombia Immersion Spanish School.
Back up in Poblado, some language exchangers have found another Spanish school which offers a different take on the language exchange experience.
The Toucan Café, part of the Toucan Spanish School, brings together foreigners and Colombian locals every Thursday night from 6-8 p.m. And they’ve just recently expanded, adding another language exchange on Tuesdays from 6-8 p.m.
The organizers at Toucan take a decidedly more learning-focused approach than the other language exchanges featured in this article. “The language exchange is directed by one of the teachers [from the Toucan Spanish School] because the idea is for it to be something academic.
It’s social too, but the focus is more academic, which is why it’s not held in a bar or disco,” Carolina Alvarez, Toucan’s student coordinator, tells me. “The teacher is there in case anybody has technical questions,” she explains.
Michelle McNaughton, a fifth grade teacher from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, clearly appreciates Toucan’s approach. She came to Medellin for a few weeks to improve her Spanish and says: “I like that there is some structure to it.
Teachers from the school often join attendees at tables. While they join, they do not take over nor do they go into ‘teacher mode’ or whip out a whiteboard to correct mistakes.”
Toucan seems to strike a good balance between serious learning and having fun and socializing at the same time. Furthermore Michelle adds: “[The teachers] listen a lot and may offer a word or help facilitate if there is a lull in the conversation.”
Referring to one of the language-learning games, Christine Yeh from Taiwan said, “I like the second part of the activity where we need to guess who we are so we have chances to ask questions in English or Spanish, and it involved a lot of interaction and it’s fun.”
In addition she noted the organized structure of the meetup: “We had around 4-5 people [at] each table and the staff rotated to different tables from time to time.”
The Toucan Café is located at Calle 10 #41-32. It’s about a 10-15 minute walk or a short taxi ride from the Poblado metro station. Photos courtesy of Toucan Spanish School.
And the Winner Is…
So which language exchange night is the best? The answer of course will vary from person to person.
For those who are very focused on improving their Spanish (or only have a short time in which to do so), the Toucan language exchange might well be the best bet. And for the young, single expat looking to meet lots of new people, Skybar could be the best choice.
Wandering Paisa and Colombia Immersion probably lie somewhere in between. With Wandering Paisa you get the unpredictability and adventurous spirit that comes with hostelers.
Meanwhile, Colombia Immersion attracts many foreigners who are serious about learning Spanish and also want to make a difference in the community where they learn it. Plus there’s the added bonus of enthusiastic participation from the local Envigado community.
However there’s nothing to stop you from trying them all! Just don’t forget to report back to us about your experiences in the comments section below.
Do you have a favorite Medellin language exchange that we didn’t include in this article? Please let us know about it in the comments and we’ll try to cover it in a future article.