The Latin American Spanish Starter Guide: 50+ Phrases for Getting Around
“Don’t sit down to dinner without popping in your dentures,” says my granny.
“Don’t try to pound in a nail with your face,” is what I always say.
The bottom line is, you need tools to get things done.
So if you’re going on one of those classic tours of Latin America, you need the linguistic tools to make fast friends, flirt and have fun. Sure, it would be great if you’re fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and French.
But instead of (or in addition) to that, you should attempt to cavort with the locals using their own ultra-local words and phrases—those that make you sound less like a gringo and more like a parce (friend, but just in Colombia—we’ll discover other regions’ options later in this post).
It’s in this spirit that this blog has already provided in-depth coverage of informal Chilean, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Argentinean and Cuban Spanish, as well as outlined some of the continent’s grammatical contrasts with European Spanish.
The present post is intended to provide you with a lively tour of Spanish-speaking Latin America, and to give you just enough linguistic juice to sound very savvy wherever you roam. I also think it’s just plain fun to compare the great creative lexical outputs of this vast stretch of land.
I’ve tried to include phrases that you’re very likely to hear from younger people in each region/country. Some phrases, of course, overlap and will be understood and used in more than one place, however. And some will not necessarily be in use throughout the entire country in question, although I’ve attempted to include just very common and generally informal vocabulary.
Note that these are not generally phrases that you would use in formal settings.
Key Words and Phrases to Fit in Anywhere
cuate — This means “friend,” as in, tener cuates (to have friends). It’s also popular in Central America.
chupar — This verb for “to drink” (literally “to suck”) is also used in Argentina, Chile and Ecuador.
ch’aqui — This means “hangover,” and comes from the Quechua word for “foot.”
tombo — Everyone seems to have slang for “police,” as though the fuzz won’t know we’re talking about them. Tombo is also used in Peru.
opa — A delightfully percussive word for “idiot.”
ismilla — This is a disrespectful word for a young woman, from the Quechua word for “girl.”
llock’alla or yokh’alla— And here’s the corresponding disrespectful word for a young man, from the Quechua word for “boy.”
ta — A deformation of está (it is), and used in much the same way as in neighboring Brazilian Portuguese. It’s used to express that something is ready, or instead of “OK,” to show you’ve heard and understood someone. It’s also popular in the Caribbean.
adobado — This means the same as borracho (drunk), and literally it means pickled or marinated. Nice image, huh?
¿Qué onda, microonda? — One of the first phrases you’re likely to hear in Chile is ¿Qué onda? (how are you? or, literally, what wave?) ¿Qué onda, microonda? is a very cheesy and childish version that literally means: “What wave, microwave?” It’s kind of like our “See you later, alligator.”
The –ái and –í endings — In the informal second-person forms of the verbs you’ll often hear (but not see written, except possibly in text messages and the like) different endings than what you were taught in school. Verbs ending in –ar will often get –ái endings, as in bailar (to dance): Bailái (you dance).
Verbs ending in -er and -ir will get an –ís ending, as with poder (to be able to): Podís (you can). Notice how, even though it’s informal language, it follows a standard rule of Spanish; since these endings take the stress on the last syllable, the spelling changes that normally “corrupt” certain stressed vowels don’t happen here (it’s not puedís).
huevón — This is possibly the most common word in the informal Chilean vocabulary. It means guy or dude, but some Chileans insert it into most of their sentences as a meaningless interjection.
vos — This replaces tú as the informal “you” in Argentina, Uruguay, parts of Bolivia and Paraguay. (It’s also used some in places like Chile but is considered substandard there.) The many conjugations are region-dependent and more than we can go into on our jaunt through Latin America, but don’t hesitate to throw some vos into your sentences (tú and its conjugations will of course be understood as well). Con vos (with you) is used instead of contigo and para vos (for you) instead of para ti. The object pronoun te remains unchanged.
Pronunciation of Y and LL — Argentinians move their tongue up a bit and voice these letters, so that they sound like the middle consonant in “pleasure.” It’s sexy as hell. Scroll down to find Argentinians saying the words lluvia (rain), yo (I) and ellos (they) on these Forvo links to get a taste.
ché — This is used to add emphasis, as in: Pero ché, ¿qué pasa? — What the hell is going on here?
macana — This means something stupid; i.e., hablar macanas means to spout a bunch of bull.
chango — Use this word instead of chico (young guy) to sound more Argentinian.
pe — This meaningless interjection is used to end a sentence, like a piece of punctuation: Claro pe (of course), sí pe (yes), no pe (no). It comes from pues (well).
–azo — This superlative ending makes an adjective seem greater and bigger, as in eso es buenazo (this is really good, this is amazing).
pitri mitri — A delightfully rhyming way to say “awesome.”
pata — This means the same as amigo (friend), but it can also just mean a guy. Both uses, as well as the superlative above, are demonstrated in the sentence: ese pata es mi pataza (this is a really good friend).
pluto/a — This means “drunk.” As should be obvious by this point, I revel in the creativity that local dialects reveal when describing drinking and hangovers, particularly in Latin America.
pana — Use this to describe a good friend, as in es mi pana (he’s my friend).
caleta — This is where you live, or your casa (house, home).
You can find a more extensive list here.
sardina — This is a very Bogotá designation for a young woman.
estar enguayabado — This means “to have a hangover.”
parce — Colombians use this word informally instead of amigo (friend).
¡La verraquera! — “Awesome!” The phrase hacer algo con verraquera means to do something with spunk or pizzazz.
¡De pinga! — “Awesome!” Literally, pinga is an informal (not particularly vulgar) word for the penis.
¡Qué vaina! — “What a drag!” Vaina is, literally, a case for a sword (a scabbard) or a pea (a pod), but it’s used as a stand-in for cosa and used quite frequently here and in the Caribbean.
guayoyo — This is large, weak black coffee. Coffee is complicated here and there are many, many options to enjoy. For more, see this full and excellent guide to ordering coffee in Venezuela.
chivo — This is the Venezuelan version of jefe (boss).
Drop your S’s, and sometimes D’s — At the end of words, these consonants usually disappear in Central American pronunciation. The S’s can become just a puff of air, that is, pronounced like H’s.
chero — Everyone’s got their word for “friend.”
aborrecido/a — Use this to describe someone who’s a nuisance.
Chepe — This is a nickname for the city of San José.
¡Pura vida! — This ultra-Costa Rican exultation can mean: Cheers!, Hello!, Doing great!, etc. Employ it frequently, it’s part of the way of life as well.
mae — This means “dude” or “man,” and is now sometimes used for women too. It’s also just a meaningless interjection at the end of a word or phrase, like the Chilean huevón.
ir jalando — This means to get going; jalar is an informal verb for “to go.”
¡Upe! ¡Upe! — This is what you shout outside someone’s gate to get their attention if they don’t have a doorbell.
Mixing of R and L — Feel free to invert these consonants, as many Caribbeans do. Some say, for example, puelta instead of puerta (door). Japanese speakers who have trouble distinguishing these consonants when learning Spanish can make their lives easier by just moving here, and learning only Caribbean Spanish.
Disappearing S’s — As in many other parts (particularly coastal parts) of Latin America, the S’s for most speakers are replaced by aspirated H’s.
una fría — This is a more informal way to say a beer; literally it means “a cold one.”
tumba eso — This is a command to forget about it, or let the subject drop.
te pasaste de maquillaje — This phrase means “you’ve gone too far”; literally it’s a bit like “you’ve overused your makeup.”
acere, ¿qué bolá? — This is a very Cuban way to say “What’s up, buddy?” Acere is yet another word for “friend.”
jamar — This means “to eat.”
chido — A more Mexican version of the (already Latin American) lindo (beautiful). Chido can also just mean that something is “cool.”
lana — This is a term for “money,” literally it means “wool.”
wey/güey — This is like huevón, and means “dude,” “guy,” etc. It’s used in greetings and as a meaningless interjection.
chela — A very Mexican way to designate “beer.”
chones — This means “underwear.”
fuchi — This word for “disgusting” is also common in Ecuador and some other parts of Latin America.
carnal — This is a noun for a very good friend or lover, and literally it has the same meanings as in English.
compa — This is our very last word for “friend,” and it’s a shortened form of compadre, meaning the same.
pinchemil — This means too much of something, or a lot of something.
There are of course so many more fun and ultra-local words and phrases (not to mention languages!) to discover in Latin America.
This post is meant to get your foot in the door and spark some interesting conversations with your new panas/compas/parces/cheros/aceres…
Go meet them!