You’re headed to Panama?
¡Qué emoción! (How exciting!)
Are you going to see that engineering marvel, the Panama Canal?
Or maybe you’re an ornithologist? Avid birdwatchers flock (pun intended!) from all over to catch a glimpse of Panama’s amazing birds.
Or maybe you have more educational intentions. Panama is exceptionally accessible and its official language is Spanish, both of which make it an obvious choice if you’re looking to learn some Spanish while on vacation.
Panama also has a well-developed yet not over-developed tourism infrastructure, so there are many ways and places to learn Spanish, whether you’re a millionaire staying at a beach resort, a thrifty backpacker wanting to stay off the beaten path, or anything else in between.
To enhance your experience, you should learn some Panamanian slang before the plane touches down on the tropical soil. It’ll make your whole experience much more satisfying.
So when getting ready for your trip, don’t forget to pack your guidebook, some warm-weather clothes and these Panamanian slang phrases!
Why You Should Choose Panama as Your Spanish Learning Destination
In addition to beautiful nature and a cosmopolitan capital city, Panama has a lot to offer visitors, especially those who are learning Spanish.
Panama is at the southeastern end of Central America, on the isthmus (say that five times fast!) that connects Central and South America.
The country is literally sliced through the middle by the Panama Canal. The canal is a wonder of human engineering, the source of approximately a third of the Panama’s GDP, the inspiration for an impressive English palindrome and one of the country’s most popular tourist spots—after all, who doesn’t like watching boats?!
The Panama Canal Zone was controlled by the United States from 1903-1979 so the local dialect has some English influence. The country is also a popular destination for expatriates so there’s a global flavor in the lingo as well.
My recommendation for visiting this amazing country: go ahead and see the canal and the capital, but be sure to make time to stray from the beaten path as well. Explore places like Boquete, an area known for its coffee production. Check out Bocas del Toro, a cluster of islands some say is one of the most beautiful places on the globe.
And don’t forget to eat your fill of patacones, a fried green plantain specialty served in nearly all of Panama’s restaurants.
Whatever the reason for your trip, you’re sure to have a rockin’ good time in this beautiful country.
Why It Helps to Add Slang to Your Vocabulary
Over 400 million people worldwide speak Spanish in over 31 countries. As can be expected, each of these countries has its own particular slang phrases and expressions.
In las calles (the streets), in las tiendas (the shops), on las playas (the beaches) and in los clubes (the clubs), you’ll need some street talk. It’s not a must-have, but it’s a sure-would-be-nice-to-have item because you’re likely to hear locals using slang expressions and popular idioms.
Consider the Panamanian proverb that shows a prevalent view on life:
“La mitad de una naranja sabe tan dulce como un todo.” (“Half an orange is just as sweet as the whole.”)
In our quests to do, get or see everything, we sometimes forget that even enjoying part of something is better than never experiencing any of it at all. Panamanians, however, know that even a little bit of something wonderful is better than nothing at all.
Apply this philosophy to your conversations with those you meet and you’ll get a clearer view of the Panamanian attitude toward—well, almost everything. Improved understanding and communication with those you meet does make the whole adventure sweeter!
10 Key Panamanian Slang Words to Impress Everyone on the Isthmus!
Remember, slang isn’t always spoken in just one place or another. You may hear some of the words on this list in other countries—because that’s basically true about all slang—but these are especially prevalent in Panama and some other parts of Central America.
This list is a starting point—you’re sure to add to it as you wander around during your visit. You can use these words and phrases to start conversations and ratchet up your skills. Soon enough, you’ll have your new Panamanian friends wondering if you’re a local!
This is one to learn quickly—you’ll use it often and hear it non-stop. It’s an informal way of saying está bien (it’s good) and can also stand in for “okay” and “sure.” It’s just one of those all-purpose words that says you’re fine with something.
¿Quieres ir al cine? (Do you want to go to the movies?) Offi. (Okay.)
¿Está bien si nos encontramos en la playa? (Is it okay if we meet at the beach?) Offi. (Sure.)
2. ¿Qué sopá?
“What is it?” is the translation, but this expression is basic slang for “What’s up?”
This is another one to grasp from the get-go, if only to lighten the mood when you go into tiendas (shops).
Very simple and almost silly, it’s an easy greeting that will show you’re attempting to communicate in an informal manner.
So walk through the door, smile and say, “¿Qué sopá?”
If you’re invited to a chupata, be advised there will be mucha cerveza y vino (lots of beer and wine) as well as stronger alcohol because chupata is slang for a party where the music is loud and the alcohol is plentiful.
Hay una chupata en la calle. ¿Quieres ir? (There’s a party up the street. Want to go?)
4. Tener goma
The expression literally means “to have glue,” but it’s the slang term for having a hangover.
¿Te quedaste demasiado tiempo en la chupata? (Did you stay too long at the alcohol-heavy party?)
¡Sí, tengo goma! (Yeah, I have a hangover!)
Expect to hear this a lot—not only on the street but also in stores, restaurants, clubs and parties. This is a term that’s applied to Panamanian reggaeton music.
“Oye. Es plena.” (“Listen. It’s Panamanian music.”)
If you ask a waitress what’s coming through the speakers, it’s pretty safe to say this will be her answer.
YouTube has some Panamanian plena so you can get a feel for the sound.
It seems as if every country has a slang term for “dude”—pelao is Panama’s. It probably derives from or is at least related to pelado, a word that means “boy” in several South American countries.
“¿Conoces a ese pelao?” (“Do you know that dude?”)
Doubly useful, ¡Chuleta! means “Damn!” but it also can mean “Wow!” It just depends on how and when you use it.
The funny thing about this is that it can also refer to a pork chop—“chop” being chuleta.
I asked a Panamanian friend if he knows how this expression started but he had no idea. It’s just something they say, along with coño, which is also another way of saying “damn” in Spanish.
Apparently kids also use ¡Chuleta! when they’re excited about something, so there’s the “wow” side of it.
So when you drop your patacón (fried plantain) on the sidewalk, this is the perfect exclamation to use.
This is the term for the brightly-painted “chicken bus” you’re likely to ride to get from one place to the next. Those buses are the backbone of so many Central and South American countries, and they transport anything and everything.
Don’t expect to see chickens painted on the buses. You might, however, be seated next to someone holding a chicken (or two) on their lap.
One time, on a chicken bus, I was offered a chicken for purchase from a young mother juggling a child on her hip, a basket atop her head and a purse over one shoulder. “¿Quieres comprar un pollo?” (Would you like to buy a chicken?) she asked me. I must’ve looked confused because she smiled, opened her purse and motioned for me to take a peek. I’m glad I didn’t lean down too far because just below the edge of her purse there was a plump chicken inside!
By the way, I declined the offer to purchase the feathered passenger although I did hold the baby for a while as we bounced through the hillside.
They’re typically very crowded and noisy but riding la trambilla (the chicken bus) is one of the best authentic experiences!
Literally meaning “turkey,” this is the term for the bus-driver’s assistant, a guy who often hangs out the open door on a trambilla while the bus is moving.
The job of the pavo (assistant) is to tell people already aboard to move back in the bus. At the door, he collects money and decides if there’s room for travelers to come aboard. Many times people are de pie en el pasillo (standing in the aisle) but el pavo (the assistant) will still say “hay espacio” (there’s room).
Literally meaning “silver,” this is a slang term for money. This word is used not only in Panama but in some other Central American countries.
Try to integrate these expressions into to your Spanish language. Of course, slang is great, but you should still rely on your previous Spanish knowledge for getting by.
If you find you can’t get enough Spanish slang, check out the program from Gritty Spanish. It can amp up the reality factor, sometimes even to the point of being a tad offensive to those with delicate ears, but these clips give a glimpse into using dialogue in everyday situations and are perfect examples of pronunciation and nuance. Many are pretty amusing!
Sounding like a local, or at least attempting to communicate on a friendly, casual basis, will open doors.
Learn these colorful slang words and soon you’ll be seeing two oceans—Atlantic and Pacific—and watching the sun rise and set from the same spot, like a boss.
¡Buena suerte! (Good luck!)
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