Bolivia is not the first destination people tend to fantasize about visiting in Latin America.
Not when they could experience salsa in Colombia, tango in Argentina and of course the continent’s beaches, jungles, glaciers and samba rock.
But those who make it past all of that to Bolivia—usually later on in their South American adventures—rave about it. And in spite of the cute towns and fun cities, the main treasured memory of Bolivia seems to always be “the people.” A clichéd compliment, yes, but in this case it’s a deserved one. Bolivians are consistently spoken of in reverent terms for their generosity of spirit, hospitality and openness.
So when you go there, you’re really going to want to talk to the locals, and of course that’s always more fun if you speak their native languages. Yes, languages—plural.
And here’s where things get tricky. There’s so much more than Spanish in Bolivia! And even the Spanish that’s used in Bolivia has a lot of unique vocabulary and expressions that you won’t find anywhere else.
There are 64 languages spoken in Bolivia according to one count, and 36 official languages in the Bolivian constitution. Some of these official languages are effectively dead, but some are very much alive. The aforementioned survey put the main languages used by the population at 69% for Spanish, 17% for Quechua (also sometimes spelled Quichua) and 11% for Aymara. Oh, also: Four individuals in that survey said they use Araona, five said Moré and six said Pacahuara.
Most travelers will probably want to skip learning those last few, but a mastery of Bolivian Spanish and at least some notion of Quechua will do wonders for improving your travel experience in Bolivia. I’d strongly recommend memorizing some typically Bolivian expressions in both Spanish and Quechua before you go in order to be on a fun footing with the locals; this post hence provides 53 of the greatest ones for your use and amusement.
53 Bolivian Spanish and Quechua Phrases You’ve Gotta Know
1. estar camote — to be crazy in love
2. tener cuates — to have friends (cuate — friend)
3. Tu radio está th’anta. — Your radio is on the fritz/is old and crummy.
4. imilla — (f.) young woman (can be disrespectful), from the Quechua word for girl
5. llock’alla, yokh’alla — (m.) young man (can be disrespectful), from the Quechua word for boy
6. chupar — to drink, especially alcohol; literally, to lick or to suck
7. ch’aqui — (m.) hangover, from the Quechua word for “foot”
8. tombo — (m.) police
9. estar kh’encha — to have bad luck
10. opa — (m./f.) idiot, fool
11. cojudo — (m.) idiot
12. gil — (m.) idiot
13. kh’orotón — (m.) idiot
14. padre — (m.) idiot (also means father, as in standard Spanish)
15. paparupa — (m./f.) idiot, nonsense
16. estar charlando — to be lying (whereas usually in standard Spanish, this means to be chatting or giving a speech)
17. estar chuto — to be naked (it’s estar desnudo in standard Spanish)
18. lagartear — to laze around
19. pachanga — (f.) a party
20. jailón/jailona — (m./f.) a very vain person
21. huaso/huasa — (m./f.) shameless
22. singani — (m.) a grape brandy typical of Bolivia
23. quelliskiri — person who has a hot temper
24. cómo es’ — hello (a shortening of cómo estás, or how are you)
25. chacharse — to play hooky from school
26. ¡Anda a moler agua! — Screw you! (Literally, “go grind water.”)
27. ¡Qué chala! — Awesome!
28. Elay puej. — Well, yes, of course (used in Western Bolivia).
29. Está pintudo. — That’s amazing/great.
30. ¡Jallalla! — Hello everyone! (This word is both Quechua and Aymara, and apart from being a greeting it conveys a wish for hope and a fulfilling life).
31. wa — expression of surprise
32. La comida está lakh’a. — The food is flavorless.
33. wawa — (f.) baby
34. churro/churra — (m./f.) beautiful
35. estar yesca — to not have a dime
36. ¿Vamos a pirañear? — Are we going to flirt?
37. Tienes mucho ñeque. — You’re quite brave.
Faking Your Way Through Quechua on the Road in Bolivia
Quechua is actually a whole family of languages spread across the Andes. People who speak these languages in different places can understand each other somewhat, although those from more distant regions can have difficulty communicating. The linguistic changes are continuous as you move geographically—there aren’t any defined borders for the dialects/languages.
The following are useful and fun words and phrases in the Quechua spoken in areas of Bolivia. The pronunciation varies according to the region, but in general using your understanding of Spanish pronunciation rules won’t lead you too far astray from what you see spelled here. (Incidentally, Quechua spelling also varies and is the source of some controversy.) Stress is almost always on second-to-last syllable. When you see k’, that’s an ejective velar stop, or a clicking in the back of your throat. It’s a fun, very weird thing to try to experience as a communicative device.
You’ll be happy to know that Quechua has no irregular verbs, nouns (cases), or adjectives. Nouns also thankfully don’t have genders to memorize, and even the words for he/she/it aren’t gender-specific. On the other hand, words do tend to get very long (suffixes are tacked on to add meaning), and they will look like nothing you’ve ever seen before (except for the Spanish loanwords).
38. ¿Imaynallan kashanki?— How are you?
39. walliq — great, good, OK
40. Allinlla kashani. — I am just fine.
41. Manchay allin. — I’m doing completely fabulous!
42. Ñuqa-qa Mose ka-ni. — I am Mose.
43. Qam Estados Unidos suyumanta kanki. — I am from the United States. (Quechua speakers use the Spanish names for countries.)
44. Tinkuta tusuyta yachachiway! — Teach me the tinku dance! (See below.)
45. À! — (Add this sound after a command like the preceding one to make it sound more pleasant and polite.)
46. k’acha qhari — beautiful guy (a term of endearment, like guapo in Spanish)
47. k’acha warmi — beautiful girl (also a term of endearment, like guapa)
48. Mana yachanichu. — I don’t know.
49. Ch’allana! — Let’s toast! (After you say this, instead of clicking your glasses together, you should spill some of your drink on the ground as an offering for Pachamama, or Mother Earth. If you’re in a city you may, however, just raise your glass a bit if you don’t want to get the floor dirty.)
50. Challarikuna! — Let’s toast for us!
51. sonsochakoq — to make oneself a fool
52. champ’a uma — someone who’s going nutty, literally, who has weeds growing in one’s head
53. Tinkunakama. — See you next time.
Continuing Your Learning of Bolivian Languages
I learned some of these expressions in this post through online language exchanges—you don’t have to be in Bolivia to learn to speak Spanish with Bolivians! (I also happened to find a Bolivian expat bar a few blocks from my apartment—most of you are probably not so lucky.)
The first way to continue learning about Bolivia, its languages and its cultures is to explore offerings from Lonely Planet. They offer both Spanish and Quechua phrasebooks!
One excellent place to set up language exchanges with Bolivians is italki (under the “community” menu). You can even choose to find a private Spanish tutor based in Bolivia—a true blue native speaker from the country who knows the ins and outs of the local language.
You can also search the now-corporate CouchSurfing.com for members who speak your target language—by definition they’re interested in exchanges with foreigners. Another idea worth trying is contacting Bolivians who are learning English in Facebook groups and language schools, particularly if you’re looking to achieve the language or accent of a specific geographical area.
To learn Spanish the authentic way and pick up the language as native Spanish speakers around the world actually use it, check out FluentU.
For learning Quechua, the excellent first chapter of the English-language coursebook “Kawsay Vida” is available on Google Books, and if you like it you can buy the rest on paper and DVD. There’s also an outdated but still quite interesting guide to resources and learning, and a stiffly written but more complete free guide to the language in Spanish.
Best of luck, cuate! Tinkunakama!
Mose Hayward’s other important South American cultural anthropology includes a guide to the most jaw-dropping, slobbery kisses on the planet.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Spanish with real-world videos.