Tapas. Hand-sewn alpaca hair scarves.
A cold cerveza. Fresh ceviche. Refreshing agua de coco (coconut water).
What you want, baby, the Spanish-speaking world has got it.
But money won’t get you everything you’ve been dreaming of—you need the right words and phrases to get you to the right shops (and to get you the right prices).
Wouldn’t it be disappointing to spend an afternoon searching for handcrafted alpaca blankets and come back with a machine-made polyester blend? Well, this kind of mishap befalls even the most ambitious traveler.
Until you learn how to shop like the locals do, you won’t stop being a total gringo (foreigner). And besides, how else are you going to get the very best souvenirs? Don’t be the guy who just brings back corny T-shirts.
Why You Need to Shop Like a Boss
When you travel abroad to a Spanish-speaking country, you’re going to do some shopping—it’s that simple.
You’re going to need basic supplies (food, hygiene products, probably some medicine after that chintzy street food you ate yesterday), souvenirs and other odds and ends. At that point, you don’t want to stumble through shopping like an obvious extranjero (foreigner), you’re going to want to shop like it’s old hat.
Here are some important reasons why you need to know shopping vocabulary in Spanish:
- You’ll stay oriented. Knowing this vocabulary helps you locate things. You can ask locals for recommendations on where to buy certain quality items for cheap. Also, you won’t get lost along the way.
- Markets are awesome. Why even bother going abroad if you’re not going to explore the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the local markets?
- Keep your wits about you. Not so coincidentally, markets are one of the top places for foreigners to get robbed (both overcharged for products and literally robbed by a pickpocket). If you speak with confidence and sound like you know what you’re doing, the chances of this happening are definitely lower.
- Don’t get ripped off. When you’re at the market, you’ll get better deals if you assert your knowledge and don’t stutter or stammer over vocabulary and prices. When you sound foreign, people think you won’t know what’s up—and they’ll charge you more money.
- Bargaining is part of culture in Latin America. I don’t mean to say that people are cruel and taking advantage of you—they aren’t, really. Even with their own countrymen, they’ll try to get the best possible price. You should never expect your money to leave your hand without a small debate first. This is normal and natural, and people don’t take offense when you try to low-ball them. It’s just part of the process of buying anything. *Warning: Don’t try bargaining at more formal establishments like supermarkets and department stores, only at smaller marketplaces and with individual salespeople.
- Bargaining is a skill. After practicing with Spanish street vendors, you’ll probably find that you’re even better at negotiating with English-speaking vendors in places like New York City. Plus, bargaining in Spanish is excellent speaking practice. You’ll get good at thinking on your feet and sounding more fluent!
- Learn to sound casually cool like a local. All the vocabulary presented here is essential to your overall Spanish fluency. Break it out when chatting with friends and recounting your adventures buying souvenirs in the marketplace.
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Savvy Shopping in Spanish: 150+ Essential Words and Phrases
Going Shopping — Ir de compras
- entrance — entrada
- exit — salida
- business hours — horario de atención
- open — abierto
- closed — cerrado
You might notice a sign saying something like “cerrado al mediodía” (closed at noon). They may not mean exactly at noon, but the idea is that the store will be shut down for a lunch hour.
- long weekend/holiday — feriado
And just so you don’t make a fool of yourself by angrily forcing the doors in the wrong direction:
- push — empuje
- pull — jale (Latin America), tire (Latin America/Spain)
The Shops — Las tiendas
Need to know where to buy things? You’ll need to ask for the right type of store.
- storefront — local
- shop/store — tienda
- little shop (selling a variety of little things) — tiendita
- boutique — boutique
- storehouse, large shopping depot — grandes almacenes
- market — mercado
- supermarket — supermercado
- artesanal market — mercado o feria artesanal This is going to be THE place for souvenirs (recuerdos) that have been handcrafted (hechos a mano).
- hardware store — ferretería
- mall — centro comercial
- shopping center — centro de compras
- travel agency — agencia de viajes
- café, buffet, snack bar — cafetería
- butcher — carnicería
- liquor store — licorería
- bakery (bread) — panadería
- bakery (desserts) — pastelería
- fish stand — pescadería
- hair salon — peluquería
- pharmacy — farmacia
- flower shop — florería
- gas station — gasolinera Store this word in your brain while traveling Latin America, as this is often a good place to go for bathrooms, ATMs and making change for large bills.
- jewelry store — joyería
- toy store — juguetería
- book store — librería This false friend sounds like “library,” but a library is actually a biblioteca
- paper/office supply store — papelería
- clothing store — tienda de ropa
- sports store — tienda de deportes
- music store — tienda de música
- shore store — zapatería
Where to Buy? — ¿Dónde comprar?
If you only know what you want to buy, but you don’t know where it might be, ask either of the following questions:
¿Conoce un lugar donde realizan ____? (Do you know a place where they make/do/perform_____?)
¿Conoce un lugar donde venden _____? (Do you know where they sell ______?)
Now, if you want some local opinions to factor into your decision-making, strike up a conversation with somebody and ask:
¿Conoce algún_____ por aquí cerca? (Do you know of a ____ around here?)
You can even get more specific and explain what kinds of qualities you hope for this place to have, using a question like:
¿Dónde queda la tienda de ropa más (cercana/económica/chévere) (Where is the (closest/cheapest/coolest) clothing store?)
All you have to do to insert another kind of store aside from tienda de ropa and you’ll be ready to ask about anything.
When you’re faced with a couple of good options but don’t know which one might be best, ask somebody, “¿Cuál me recomienda?” (Which one do you recommend to me?)
Little Things — Cositas
You’re going to want to be able to say all kinds of things. If you’re looking for food and restaurant vocabulary, we’ve already got you covered. Soccer equipment? Covered. Here, we’ll explore artisanal and textile items, since this is a lot of what you’ll encounter at street markets.
- artisanal goods — artesanías
- craftsman — artesano(a)
- affectionate term for women manufacturers of artisanal goods — mamacitas
- community project — proyecto comunitario: Crafting artisanal goods is often a community endeavor, so you’ll want to ask about who’s behind the items you’re buying. Always support local endeavors when possible!
- cooperative — cooperativa: This is a good term to hear in the artisanal market, as goods crafted, distributed and sold by a cooperativa are benefiting a community group. Community cooperatives are required to receive Fair Trade certification.
- Fair Trade — Comercio Justo
- organic — orgánico
- from the forest / from the mountains — del monte (bosque) / De la montaña
- from the jungle — de la selva / jungla
- from the sea / from the beach — del mar / de la playa
- all natural — todo natural
- handmade — hecho/a a mano
- homemade — casero/a
- carved — tallado/a
- sewn — cosido/a
- knitted — tejido/a
- ceramic — cerámico/a
- porcelain — porcelana
- fibers — fibras
- (shark’s, tiger’s, large cat’s) tooth — diente de (tiburón, tigre, tigrillo)
- claw — uña, garra
- seashell — concha
- seed — semilla
- dye — tinte
Textiles — Textiles
Before you even start discussing prices, pin down what it is you’re buying. “¿Qué material es?” (What material is this?) or “¿Qué tipo de tela es?” (What type of fabric is this?) Always double-check the tags—I once bought a 100% llama scarf with a big ol’ tag that plainly stated “30% llama.” Boo, such easily-preventable disappointment. You could even ask directly, “¿Qué porcentaje de llama tiene?” (What percentage of llama wool is this?).
- fabric — tela
- cotton — algodón
- leather — cuero
- flannel — franela
- wool — lana
- lycra — licra
- velvet — terciopelo
- from alpaca — de alpaca
- from sheep — de oveja
How to Ask — Cómo pedir
Should you be super polite? I mean, that saleslady seems really, really nice. Asking for things can be a challenge for Spanish learners. With older people, you can always choose to err on the side of caution, use polite grammar (third person) and phrases. Check out the following polite phrases to use during interactions with vendors:
- I would like one of those, please — Quisiera uno de esos, por favor.
- Thank you very much, sir/ma’am — Muchas gracias, señor(a)
You can also use doña when speaking to elderly women, to show ever greater respect. In more casual encounters, you’re generally free to use less formal language. In fact, I’d encourage less formal language in the interest of sounding more local. Here are some typical informal phrases for shopping situations:
- Can you pass me that, please? — ¿Me pasas eso, por favor?
- Give me one, please — Dame uno, por favor
Now, here are some ways to explain to people what you like and dislike. This will help them figure out which items you do and don’t have an interest in.
- I want this/that — Quiero este(a)/Quiero ese(a)
- I don’t like this one so much — Este(a) no me gusta tanto
- I really like / love this one! — ¡Me encanta este(a)!
- I like those over there — Me gustan aquellos(as) de allá
You can’t always get what you want. Sometimes stores run out of what you’re looking for! Here’s what you might hear when you’re out of luck:
- We ran out of that — Se acabó
- We don’t have that anymore— Ya no tenemos
Quality — Calidad
My perfectionist Ecuadorian fiance has repeatedly taught me the most critical lesson in buying anything, anywhere. The goal is to find “Los Tres B’s” (The Three B’s): bueno, bonito y barato (good, nice and cheap). Repeat that to yourself—let it become your new mercado mantra.
Here are some words you’ll need to talk about the quality of an item:
- cheap — barato
- pretty — bonito
- affordable — económico
- elegant — elegante
- ugly — feo
- beautiful — hermoso
- luxury — lujoso
When you’re leaving it up to the shopkeeper to choose your items for you, you’ll want to make sure they know you’re paying attention:
Deme los más bonitos/maduros/jugositos, por favor. (Give me the prettiest/ripest/juiciest ones please.)
If you get a damaged or lower quality item (for example, one egg out of a dozen is broken), pass it to the shopkeeper and say “Cámbieme este, por favor” (Change this one for me, please).
Sizes — Tamaños y tallas
Have you figured out the different between a tamaño and a talla yet? They both mean size, but refer to different types of objects. This is a sneaky one. Basically, talla is for clothes and shoes while tamaño is for everything else.
- What’s your shirt size? — ¿Cuál es la talla de su camisa?
- What pants size do you wear? — ¿Qué talla de pantalón lleva usted?
- What shoe size do you wear? — ¿Qué número/talla de zapatos lleva usted?
While we’re on the topic of sizes, be sure to translate your sizes into European sizes before you start shopping, or you’ll have to go through some trial and error to figure out what fits. You’ll probably end up trying on a bunch of stuff anyway, because clothes and shoes are cut a bit differently in different parts of the world. In Latin America, shoes are often smaller and narrower, and pants are many times cut for shorter legs.
- small/medium/large size — talla (pequeña/mediana/grande)
- it fits me / suits me well — me queda bien
- it doesn’t fit me / suit me well — no me queda (bien)
- it’s too big on me — me queda muy grande
- loose — suelto/a
- tight — apretado/a
- it’s too tight here — me aprieta aquí
- Can I try it on? — ¿Puedo probármelo/a?
Talking About Prices — Hablar del precio
- How much is this? — ¿Cuánto cuesta/vale?
- How much are you asking for this? — ¿A cuánto está?
- What’s the lowest price you can give me? — ¿Cuál es el precio más bajo que me puedes dar?
Making the actual purchase can often become a bit of a fiasco in small shops and markets. Unless the place is well-equipped for a high volume of shoppers or tourists, chances are good that absolutely nobody will have change.
Once you have agreed on a fair price and are ready to pay, you can ask the shopkeeper, “¿Me puede cambiar un billete de 20?” (Can you give me change for a 20?) If you get a sigh or an exasperated head shake, then you know you’re about to go on a journey to acquire change.
The person making the sale usually assumes the responsibility of seeking out change from their friends and acquaintances nearby. They’ll be walking around asking “¿Tiene cambio/suelto?” (Do you have any change?) or “Présteme monedas” (Loan me some change!)
Bargaining Like a Shrewd Boss
Okay, now we’re finally arriving at how to bargain and get the best possible deals—it’s what you’ve all been waiting for. I’m not just going to give you nice negotiation phrases. Oh, no. I’ll do you one better. These phrases are ones that only true insiders at the marketplace tend to know. They’re the kinds of phrases you invent yourself or hear the locals saying persuasively after months of getting ripped off or unknowingly overpaying for things.
You want to sound like a true local as you shop? You want to take shopkeepers by surprise and see a gleam of respect (or perhaps amusement) in their eye? Then whip out these phrases to show that you really know what you’re doing and that you mean business.
First off, there’s one thing that any good shopkeeper will gladly do for you: Give you a package deal for buying more things. So whether you’re with your friends or alone buying multiple items, make sure as many purchases as possible happen in the same place. Don’t scatter your purchases across different vendors if you can help it.
Find the shopkeeper who’s selling most of what you need to buy, and then ask the seller, “¿Me puede hacer un descuento si compro________?” In the blank space, insert all the items that you want to buy. Make it sound casual, like you suddenly decided to buy two more things to save money. Once you get the inevitable, “sí,” then you can name your price.
Let’s say you and your two friends each want to buy a lovely alpaca scarf from this particular cart. The man has already told you that each one costs $10. Outrageous! You can do better than that. Look at him shrewdly and confidently say, “Dame 3 por 20.” Don’t frame this as a question. Don’t sound soft, unsure or apologetic. You’re still paying well—about $7 per scarf. This ain’t no robbery, it’s fair. He’ll probably agree to this price right away—it’s better for you, but he knows that somebody else might have tried for even lower.
This time you’re all on your own. You want to buy a gorgeous, handcrafted necklace. Another vendor had a similar necklace for $14 over there. But this joker is asking almost twice the usual price—$22! Are you just going to take that? No, you’re going to handle this like a local.
First, try out “Pero allá cuesta $12” (Over there it costs $12) or “La señora de allá me lo dejó en $12.” (The lady over there would give it to me for $12). Let him know that you’re asking around and comparing prices. You know the prices. You might either get a string of comments saying how much better this necklace is compared to the other one. Or you might get another price that’s in the ballpark. In this scenario, let’s say the guy says, “Okay, te lo dejo en $15.”
Here are a few phrases you could try out now to get him down to the absolute lowest possible price:
- ¿Cuál es el precio final final? (What’s your final final price?) — This one’s a little bit wheedley, but it can work.
- Bah, ¡déjamelo en $12 y me lo llevo! (Leave me at $12 an I’ll take it now!)
- ¿Cómo arreglamos? (How do we fix this?) — This one says: “I’m a nice guy who wants to find a solution together. We both know there are better prices for this out there, but I want to buy it from you.”
- ¡Ya para llevármelo ahorita! Para no volver… (Alright already, let me walk away with this now! So I don’t have to come back…) — This sounds more like, “C’mon, we both know we’re just playing the game here. Give me a good price and let’s be done with it.”
- ¿Cuánto es lo último para llevármelo ahorita? (What’s the lowest price if I buy it on the spot?)
- Tome, tome (C’mon, take my money already.)
- Aahh, porfaaa. (Awww, please…) Two routes for this phrase. You can either (1) make big puppy eyes and look sad or (2) look fed up with this price bickering and like you’re ready to walk away.
Buying souvenirs and decorations is one thing. They’re non essentials. Now let’s say you’re at the produce market just trying to buy some delectable tropical fruits. You’ve seen prices elsewhere, and you’re hearing the locals pay cheaper. Or perhaps you’ve been living in this town for months now and are annoyed that people still can’t give you good prices for your daily items. Here are a few of my favorite go-to phrases for handling this situation:
- ¡Vivo aquí y gano un sueldo ecuatoriano! (I live here and earn an Ecuadorian salary!) Of course, insert the country you’re bargaining in. When I was making a few hundred bucks a month (giving me about $100 for food monthly), I wasn’t ready to fork over an extra dollar for anything. If you feel that pain, you’ll come to love this phrase.
- Amigo, yo sé cómo son los precios. (Hey buddy, I know how the prices are.)
- Pero la semana pasada usted me lo dejó en________ (But last week you gave me __[price]___.) Sometimes prices of things in the markets do fluctuate when there’s a poor crop or when the seasons change. Don’t assume people are lying. By using this phrase, you’re saying that you know the price (even insinuating that this person gave you the right price once before) and you’re wondering what happened. You might get a real answer, or you might get the appropriately lowered price.
Don’t forget to end every transaction with a “Muchas gracias,” (thanks so much) or a “muy amable” (thanks / you’re very kind).
Soon, you’ll be negotiating with the best of ’em!
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