Basic Spanish Terms Every Slow Traveler in Latin America Should Know
In our opinion, one of the best ways to become more connected with a place is to learn the local language. Now we aren’t saying you need to become fluent — that takes months, if not years to do. What we are saying is that even learning the most basic terms will go a long way in helping you not only connect with a place better, but also make your travels much (much) easier.
In Colombia and most of South America, the official — and most common — language is Spanish. In fact, Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world with almost 450 million people saying it is their mother tongue (Chinese is first and English is third). Similarly, 21 countries around the world — including in Europe, North America and Africa — have Spanish as their official language. Plus, knowing Spanish will probably help you in the long run as some experts expect that in the coming years almost 10% of the entire world’s population will speak and understand Spanish (which is a big leap from the current 6%).
Learning the language of your location — or of locations, you are hoping to visit — will not only make you a better traveler, but it will also help you travel better (and easier). Now we know learning a new language can be hard (believe us we are working on it right now), but let us let you in on a little secret: learning a new language is muuuuuch easier when you are totally immersed in it.
So if you are planning on exploring a Spanish-speaking destination (one of the 21), we suggest doing a bit of learning beforehand and then just diving in headfirst once you arrive. These basic terms below are a great place to start.
\\ Quick Tips on Spanish (Espanol)
| Feminine & Masculine: Spanish is a gendered language, something it inherited from its Latin origins. This means adjectives will usually end in either a (for females) or o (for males). For example, alta (female, tall) and alto (male, tall).
| Tenses: Spanish also has more tenses than English (I, you, he/she, we). So it is important to understand how that will change verbs. Here is a quick breakdown (note, this is very surface level):
- yo (I) = o, oy (tengo, bebo, soy)
- tu (you) = as, es (tienes, bebes, eres)
- el/ella (he, she) = a, e (tiene, bebe, es)
- nosotros (we) = omos (tenemos, bebemos, somos)
Hello | Hola
Goodbye | Adios
Good morning/afternoon/night | Buenos dias/tardes/noches
How are you? | Como estas?
Good | Bien
Bad | Mal
What is your name? | Que es tu nombre?
My name is… | Mi llamo…
Excuse me | Perdon or Disculpe
I don’t understand | No entiendo
I’m sorry | Lo siento
I don’t speak Spanish | No hablo espanol
Do you speak English? | Hablas ingles?
How much is it? | Cuanto cuesta?
Yes | Si
No | No
Please | Por favor
Thank You | Gracias
You are welcome | De nada
Too expensive | Demasiado cara(o)
\\ Basic Numbers
1 | uno
2 | dos
3 | tres
4 | cuatro
5 | cinco
6 | seis
7 | siete
8 | ocho
9 | nueve
10 | diez
20 | viente
50 | cincuenta
100 | cien
| In Colombia, the currency is quite big ($1 = 3808 Colombian pesos). So everything is combined with mil (1,000). So 20,000 = viente (20) mil; 2,000 = dos mil. |
\\ Food & Drink
What is it? | Que es?
What | Que
I would like… (I want) | Yo quiero
No thank you | No gracias
I don’t like | No me gusta
With | Con
Without | Sin
Water | Agua
Milk | Leche
Coffee | Cafe
Beer | Cerveza
Wine | Vino
Meat | Carne
Cheese | Queso
\\ Getting Around
Where is… | Donde esta…
Where is the bathroom | Dónde está el baño
Money exchange | Cambio de dinero
Money | Dinero
Restaurant | Restaurante
Cafe | Cafe
Market | Mercado
Grocery Store (supermarket) | Supermercado
\\ Specific Phrases in Cartagena, Colombia
While the primary language in Cartagena is of course Spanish, there are various words that have become the norm in the city that you might not find in other Colombian and Spanish-speaking cities. This is mainly because there is such a strong influence from various other cultures and regions, including the Caribbean and Africa.
Aja! | short greeting, used to approve/confirm something
Bacano | all that is nice and likable
Cucayo | burnt rice that usually sticks to the bottom of the pan, served with gravy
Compa | short of compadres, which means friend, mate, and buddy
Chevere | good, pleasant, and nice
Champetuo | a person who likes the local “champetuo” music, which is a music genre based on African and Caribbean rhythms (can also mean a loud, flashy person)
Filo | to be hungry to the point of starving
Fria | cold beer
Nombe | short version of “no hombre” which means no man, or a denial of something (note: the longer you hold the word — noooooombre — the stronger the disagreement)
Vale | friend, buddy or pal; someone who is close to you. You also often use mi (my) with it: mi vale, my friend.
Learning a new language takes time and a lot of effort and dedication. But the payoff is massive — especially when traveling in a place that speaks that language. Like we mentioned previously, a great way to learn a language is to be fully immersed in it. For us, even though we both took Spanish classes in school, it wasn’t until we spent three months in Peru that it really clicked.
These basic terms are not nearly the same as learning the language fluently — but they are terms that we have used countless times while traveling around Latin America. They will help you connect with the locals on a more personal level, and help you travel around more easily. Because who doesn’t want that?
Note: just like any other skill, it takes practice and dedication to learn a new language. That is why we use Duolingo pretty much every day. Duolingo is a free app (not the pro version) that is super intuitive to learning Spanish. Plus, it is kind of fun :)