If you’re looking to strike some major goals off your bucket list, look no further than Ecuador—they’ve got it all there.
This tiny country is jam-packed with must-see travel destinations.
The Andes mountains, the Amazon, gorgeous beaches and the Galápagos. Three of the world’s 10 biodiversity “hotspots.” Five UNESCO Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites.
And it just so happens to be full of lovely people.
There were simply too many things in Ecuador I dreamed of seeing, so when I had the opportunity to go abroad—even though I knew relatively little about the country—I chose Ecuador as my destination.
I returned after college. Long story short, I’ve spent a total of three years in this great little country and, I’m happy to report, there’s always more to learn.
Then it’s the perfect time for you to learn more about this beautiful, diverse country through its unique brand of Spanish.
Ecuadorian Spanish 101: Speak Like Locals in the Amazon, the Galapagos Islands and More
Regional Variations of Ecuadorian Spanish
After arriving in this country that’s roughly the size of Colorado, prepare to be amazed at the amount of ethnic, cultural, ecological and linguistic diversity.
La Costa (The Coast)
People from here are known as costeños and are a fast-talking, slang-slinging bunch. Traveling north along the coast, from the largest city in Ecuador (Guayaquil) to the predominantly African-Ecuadorian province of Esmeraldas, you’ll come across tons of variation in language and demographics.
The general key to speaking coastal Ecuadorian Spanish is to drop the letter s from the ends of your sentences. Oddly enough, in the southern province of El Oro, they do the exact opposite and add the letter s to many words, but this is definitely the exception. In Esmeraldas, the Spanish dialect exhibits many strong African influences.
In Guayaquil, one accent change is that the “ch” sound is sometimes pronounced as an elongated “sssh,” but this is seen as being, ahem, a bit roughneck. Many guayaquileños use the sound facetiously or for emphasis.
La Sierra (The Mountains)
People in this region are known as serranos and speak with a musical, sing-songy lilt. They also tend to speak more slowly and clearly as they enunciate every word very cleanly. It’s a great place to learn Spanish!
However, you’ll probably find plenty of Quechua words thrown into the mix, more so than on the coast. Ecuador’s capital, Quito, is nestled in los Andes (the Andes) as is the historical city of Cuenca. Small villages dotting the hillsides and valleys are predominantly occupied by la gente indígena quichua (Indigenous Quichua people).
La Amazonia (The Amazon)
Here you’ll find a mix of gente indígena kichwa (Indigenous Kichwa people) and serranos. You may notice that Amazonian “Kichwa” has a different spelling than the serrano “Quichua.” Interestingly enough, these two Kichwa groups use such different dialects of Kichwa that it is, at times, difficult for them to understand one another.
Farther out in the jungle you’ll find Achuar, Shuar and Waorani people who all speak their respective indigenous languages, though many people in these communities do hold Spanish as a second language as well. People who live throughout this region but hail from other parts of Ecuador are often called colonos, reflecting residual colonization-era tension. The relationship between these indigenous and non-indigenous groups is at times a source of conflict.
The Spanish in this region is heavily mixed and accented with indigenous language. If you’re in Tena, you’ll be hearing Kichwa. In Puyo, you might also hear Shuar or Achuar languages in the mix. The general accent is somewhat similar to that of serranos, slower and more sing-songy. In many rural communities, Spanish is a relatively recent arrival and is mainly used as a second language for interacting with non-indigenous people. That means you’ll find plenty of people in older generations who speak little to no Spanish.
Las Islas Galápagos (The Galapagos Islands)
The demographic here is similar to the coast, and the people speak just like costeños from the mainland. Prepare to encounter lots of people working in the booming tourism industry. The upside to this is that the people there are well-versed in communicating in Spanish and English with visiting foreigners.
The complexity doesn’t just end with these major regions. Oh, no. In Guayaquil, the wealthy urbanites living in Samborondón (a luxurious and heavily-guarded gated community) speak with a very musical accent that sounds closest to Argentinian Spanish.
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Essential Elements of Ecuadorian Spanish
You need to be able to spin a good yarn. You can’t speak Ecuadorian until you can tell a 5-minute long story with tons of exaggerated hand gestures. Despite speaking near-fluent Spanish upon arrival, I found myself sorely disappointed with my success in socializing at the beginning, simply because I couldn’t command the attention of my Spanish-speaking acquaintances and entertain them for even a few minutes.
This is especially important in the cities Guayaquil and Quito. Here are a few pointers to prepare for when your friends are all eagerly saying “cueeeeeeenta” (tell me, spill it!) and you don’t want to let them down:
- Think of a hilarious story, something that happened to you that makes you giggle in retrospect. You’ll do better if you can be humble and make fun of yourself too.
- Try to tell this story to yourself out loud and stretch it out. Every few lines should have some sort of punchline that impresses, shocks or entertains people.
- Identify the key words that you’re missing to describe the event or situation. Write these down and look them up for later use.
- You get extra bonus points if you can stand up and act everything out, express the actions with your hands, make hilariously exaggerated facial expressions or do imitations of people’s voices.
People here love to share stories and experiences. It seems cold and strange to not divulge personal details. The more you share with your new Spanish-speaking friends, the more wonderful things they’ll share with you!
This is a big one for Ecuadorians. For Ecuadorians, making every single word diminutive (adding –ito/-ita to the end of words) does not sound overly-saccharine. Rather, it sounds normal and, when used strategically, extra polite.
“Tómate un cafecito, mijita.” (Drink a little coffee, sweetie)
“Espérate un poquitito” (Please wait a little bit) — This one is more informal than the rest, because the diminutive word of the word poco is poquito, so Ecuadorian Spanish is taking that a step further and making it even more diminutive in a way that’s not technically correct. Nevertheless, you’ll still hear this phrase often.
“Un momentito, por favor.” (One moment, please)
“Ya mismito…” (Any minute now…)
“Sí, lo voy a hacer ahorita.” (Yes, I’m going to do it now.)
“¿Quieres tomar una colita?” (Would you to drink a soda?)
“Estoy medio enfermita así que me tomé una agüita.” (I’m kind of sick so I drank an herbal tea). — You’ll notice that the –ita suffix actually changes the meaning of the word from water to herbal tea.
“¡Acolítame, pana!” (Help me out, buddy!) — The word acolítame (from acolitar) is a strange but tremendously popular Ecuadorianism which is synonymous with apoyame (support me).
All of the above are phrases that you will absolutely hear Ecuadorians say to you.
In the examples related to waiting, adding that diminutive is meant to assume the listener that it won’t be a long wait. However, since you’re in Ecuador, chances are pretty good that it’s going to be a long wait.
After a brief stint in Ecuador, this becomes so second nature that you’ll find yourself making everything diminutive in Spanish—and many Spanish speakers from Latin America will know exactly where you picked up this adorable habit.
Warm, Politeness and the Gentle “No”
As you may have gathered, Ecuadorians are very polite and humble in their speech, by and large. This is especially true for people you’re doing business with.
Overall, Ecuadorians are some of the warmest, kindest and most generous people you’ll ever meet, and they manage to take their kindness to extremes. By this I mean, they don’t want to say the word “no.” People will often nod their heads, smile and say “sí, sí” even if they don’t agree with you, understand your broken Spanish question or know how to give you directions properly.
That’s why I live by the “rule of 3.” Basically, don’t just ask one person. Ask three people that same question and take the answer that 2 of 3 people give you. If three people give you three different answers, keep going until you get a statistically significant correct answer. Hey, at least it’s great speaking practice!
Ecuadorians tend to be far more open to discussing race and have no fear of being politically incorrect. This is often shocking to newcomers.
Casual racism takes two forms: nicknames and generalizations. So, for nicknames, people are often referred to lovingly with things like la negrita (the black girl) or la chinita (the Chinese girl, the girl who looks Chinese, the girl with Chinese-looking eyes).
Western-looking people are often called la blanquita (the white girl) or la gringuita (the American girl).
You may notice that all of the above nicknames use diminutive suffixes, thus expressing affection. When someone is described with these words and they’re not made diminutive, this is more of a way to refer to someone descriptively without expressing personal connection or affection. For example, la gringa might be a random foreigner who walked by the storefront yesterday, while mi gringuita might be used by a homestay mom to refer to her foreign exchange student.
Groups of people are largely generalized with overarching terms like los negros (black people), los gringos (all Western-looking foreigners) and los chinos (all Asian people). Chino is used to indiscriminately define any somewhat Asian-looking person, regardless of whether or not they’re Chinese.
I advise you to look beyond the words used by the person and instead look to their intentions. Do they mean to speak in a derogatory manner? Or is it just about the vocabulary that they grew up with?
Sure, there are issues with racism in this country as there are in any other—but in many ways Ecuador is consistently becoming more progressive about the way different communities are represented. After spending some time in Ecuador, you might find yourself starting to really enjoy how people speak about race without hesitation or fear of sounding racist.
Numerous indigenous groups once thrived in the region that is now Ecuador. To this day, many communities celebrate Kichwa heritage and strive to keep their language and culture alive. Not only is the strong presence of these communities felt, but many Ecuadorians recognize that they themselves have descended from indigenous peoples to some extent. This rich heritage is a national point of pride, so it is not surprising that Kichwa melds together with Spanish in Ecuador.
Quite a few common words and phrases come from Kichwa and are found in all sorts of everyday Ecuadorian conversations.
Kichwa is not traditionally a written language, so the spellings sometimes vary—the most contested letters are perhaps q and c. K is thought by some to be more appropriate for spelling Kichwa words with a hard “k” sound. However, this varies between communities, regions and countries.
Take a look at these Kichwa words which are used constantly by Ecuadorians:
- mishki (sweet) — You’ll often hear this in the context of tripa mishki (sweet tripe) which is a typical Ecuadorian dish.
- cuy (guinea pig) — We keep them as pets, but they’re raised for (very little) meat in Ecuador.
- achachai (cold) — Exclaim “achachai!” when you climb up Cotopaxi and start feeling chilly.
- arrarrai (hot) — You can shout “arrarrai!” (with those rolled rr‘s dramatically elongated) when you burn your hand on the stove.
- sumak (good, great, excellent) — This isn’t spoken as much, but it’s often seen in the names of hotels, hostels, resorts and restaurants.
- chuchaki (hungover) — Self-explanatory.
- mashi (friend) — Current President Rafael Correa posts from the Twitter handle @mashirafael and—fun fact—he speaks great Kichwa.
- chakra (small family farm) — Many people in rural areas have small farms owned by their immediate family to supply food for household consumption.
- ñaño (brother) — Ñaña is sister. You can also say ñañito or ñañita.
- wawa (baby) — Isn’t that a cute onomatopoeia?
- chicha (a fermented drink made from yucca—cassava root) — This is drunk by members of rural communities at all hours of the day. It keeps you full and gives you energy for the work day, but stronger batches can be quite alcoholic. Be warned, the flavor is often quite unappealing to foreigners who haven’t developed a taste for it.
- cancha (field for sports) — You may have already learned this word, and now you know that it’s derived from Kichwa!
- morocho (type of corn) — This corn is made into a thick, hot, sweet and deliciously creamy drink that goes by the same name, morocho.
- runa (person, being fully alive) — Runa is a beautiful Kichwa word used, quite simply, to refer to a person or community of people. This was previously used as a racial slur years ago (and sometimes crops up nowadays), but the true meaning of the word is being reclaimed by indigenous communities strongly in this day and age.
We’ll end on a very easy note. Like many parts of the Spanish-speaking world, you’ll discover that you can whip out many English loan words and have people understand you. To name a few: cool, fresh, chill, relax and full. All of these words mean they same things they do in English, with one slight exception.
The word full will become your new favorite all-purpose Spanish speaking tool. It’s informal and fun, so you’ll sound extra chill. It does mean the same thing that it does in English, but it goes a bit beyond that to mean “many,” “tons” or “total.” Take a look at all the various uses of full:
A: “¿Había mucha gente en la fiesta anoche?” (Were there a lot of people at the party last night?)
B: “¡Sí! ¡Full gente!” (Yes! There were tons of people!)
A: “Wow, me imagino que esa casa pequeñita estaba full.” (Wow, I imagine that tiny house was full!)
B: “Sí, man. ¡Full farra!” (Yeah, man. It was a total rager!) Farra is what you’d call a wild party.
Armed with all this awesome Ecuadorian Spanish, you’ve got a way more colorful vocabulary to pack with you when you travel. Can you feel your Spanish horizons broadening yet?
Maureen Stimola is a Vermont native with her heart in Latin America. She has a lifelong passion for travel, science, languages and crazy things like snowboarding in Argentina and Chile.
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