“¿Puede darme un café, por favor?”
“May I have a coffee, please?”
A simple request, right?
When we walk into a coffee shop and order a jolt of joe, we have definite expectations concerning what we’re going to get, don’t we? When that steaming cup is passed from the barista’s hand to ours, we know what we want the first mouthful of rich goodness to taste like.
That’s all well and good if we’re in our own neighborhood, but out in the world, traveling… it’s a whole different can of (coffee) beans.
And since Latin America is so well known for producing fantastic coffee, it’s no shock that there are as many different ways to order café as there are coffee plantations.
Before you pack your bags and hop on a plane, let’s get you up to speed on how to order coffee in Spanish.
The Rundown of Coffee Culture in Spanish-speaking Countries
I’ve got to mention this, so let’s get it out there now: Starbucks has infiltrated most big cities around the globe, so if you’re set on your everyday venti frap, hit one up.
But if you want authentic coffee, follow the locals to a coffee shop.
Spanish-speaking countries are known for having a culture where tomar un café (to have a coffee) is a common expression, so getting your java the way you like isn’t going to be difficult.
Coffee drinking is a social event, a time for chatting with friends, family and colleagues. Don’t expect to stand shoulder to shoulder with caffeine guzzlers. Coffee drinking in Spanish-speaking countries is like so much else in many other spots on the globe: something to be enjoyed and savored.
As in, no gulping!
Even early in the day, most who stop for a morning cup don’t rush out of the café.
Many coffee shops have stand-up bars. I’ve seen well-dressed businesswomen in Madrid sipping espresso wearing four-inch heels and holding briefcases—but still savoring the morning ritual.
Not a bad start to any day, is it?
It’s not uncommon to see café bars filled during the pre-dinner hour, about 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. This pocket of time is sometimes called merienda. The early-evening cup is a bridge between work hours and relaxation. It’s a time to unwind—and anticipate the night ahead.
Always expect coffee to be served after a large cena (nightly meal). In most places, the meal isn’t officially over until the last drop is gone.
How to Place Your Perfect Coffee Order in Spanish
Essential Vocabulary for Placing Your Order
How best to order exactly what you want? Learn your coffee lingo!
With so many choices, it’s not hard to mix things up, so let’s hit the basics.
Café solo (only coffee) is pretty much what its name implies: coffee alone. A single shot of espresso served in a small cup. It’s served very hot, without milk. This is a very common way to order coffee.
If you need a bigger blast of caffeine, order a café doble (double coffee). This one is also exactly what the name implies: two shots of espresso. The cup is slightly bigger, but the coffee is still served almost scaldingly hot, so beware!
Café americano (American coffee) is popular with tourists. Central and Latin American countries typically don’t offer filtered coffee, which is what most Americans drink—so if that’s what you’re used to, be ready for a new experience. A café americano basically has extra water added to the espresso shot to make a weaker brew.
Cortado (cut coffee) is another option. The literal translation of cortado is “cut.” It’s espresso “cut” with a bit of milk, so it’s pretty close to what many Americans drink in the morning before heading out.
How about café con leche (coffee with milk)? This one is a bit tricky. It won’t just have a splash of milk—expect about half espresso, half milk in your cup. If you like lattes, this will make you smile.
Café con leche con canela (coffee with milk and cinnamon) is what I order when I’m in Guatemala. It’s divine! Guatemala’s cinnamon sticks are sweet and aromatic—an excellent addition to a hot cup!
Prefer your caffeine cold? Then order café con hielo (coffee with ice). Espresso served over ice is the perfect way to shake off the dust after a long day of exploring!
The Basic Coffee Sizes
Americans are accustomed to take-out cups and a lot of size options.
The rest of the world? Not so much—unless you find that Starbucks. But we’re not talking Starbucks, so let’s get the run-down on your options.
Café solo, that single shot of espresso? Expect it to be served in a very small cup—sometimes almost like a shot glass.
Because the other options are slightly larger, the glassware will also be a bit heftier—but not much. It’s okay to ask for another cup of anything, so don’t fret over the sizes.
Just accept that you’re someplace where coffee is expected to taste fresh and hot rather than tepid and stale—which, let’s face it, sometimes happens when we have a monstrously large cup of anything, right?
And while we’re talking about cups, in Spanish-speaking countries, coffee shops mostly serve in real (not disposable!) glassware.
You can definitely attempt to coax out a Styrofoam cup, but try to remember that learning about another culture does involve some blending in rather than standing out! Are you really sure you need the to-go cup?
Ordering the Finer Details
Would you like some leche for your latte? This part throws people because the question ¿Caliente o templada? (hot or warm?) can be tricky to answer the first time you encounter it.
You see, milk in most Spanish-speaking countries is warmed before being added to the coffee. And if requested, it can be served very hot, so be careful if you’ve asked for leche caliente. You don’t want to burn yourself!
Also, dealing with leche…
Not a fan of entera (whole) milk? Try asking for your leche semidesnatada (reduced fat) or desnatada (skim).
Don’t expect all types to be in the barista’s fridge, but you can request anything! Hey, you never know, right?
One more note about milk—if you’re looking for something other than leche de vaca (cow’s milk, which is the most widely available), ask for leche de almendra (almond milk), leche de cabra (goat’s milk) or leche de avellana (hazelnut milk).
Again, not all types will be available everywhere, but it never hurts to ask.
It’s also hit or miss with leche de soya (soy milk). It’s slowly catching on in Latin American countries, but for the most part, it’s just not a thing yet.
Looking for something to mix into that café? To sweeten, ask for azúcar (sugar), miel (honey) or canela (cinnamon).
There’s a lot to remember, isn’t there? Like we said, it’s not such a small request to get your coffee exactly the way you like it.
If you’ve given it a go, used the tips above and still missed the coffee boat the first time around, don’t despair! Just remember a smile goes a long way. Explain your preference politely with a few common phrases to get your point across and you’ll likely be accommodated.
Regional Varieties for Your Sweet Tooth
Coffee is produced in so many Spanish-speaking countries it’s not surprising that they have a couple of special brews up their brightly-patterned sleeves.
If you’re adventurous, order a café bombón. This drink is super sweet—a satisfying end to a perfect dinner. It originated in Valencia, Spain, where someone with a sweet tooth mixed half condensed milk and half espresso and came up with something spectacular!
When I was in Madrid I drank this every day! When I think of what I miss from that incredible city, café bombón is near the top of the list!
Hmm… might be a reason for a return trip, no?
Want a glimpse? Check out the YouTube video.
And if you want a café cubano but don’t have the funds to go to Havana, check this video out. It shows exactly how to make a simple cup in minutes. I make this a few times a week—it’s that easy!
So the next time you’re in a Spanish-speaking country and ask “¿Puede darme un café, por favor?” you’ll have some solid ideas on how to make sure the coffee in your tiny glass cup is perfecto (perfect)!
Now, if you’ll excuse me… I suddenly have a craving for espresso!
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