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.


Early morning streets in Cartagena

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.



| Simple Ways to Be a More Sustainable Traveler |



\\ 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)



\\ Greetings


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?


Colombians getting their morning coffee.

\\ Shopping


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 :)