Spanish Language Guide for Travelers

Spanish Language Guide for Travelers

If you travel, especially if you do so on a budget, chances are that the following scenario has probably occurred to you in some form or another:

It is midnight. You were forced to take the last bus of the day because the one you were scheduled to be on was overbooked. As you look out the window, you remember how you tried to argue with the bus company representative and failed miserably in your attempt to receive any compensation. Suddenly, the city that until then was only a marker in your pocket map spreads before you. Then the bus stops. You have arrived. Quickly, you get off the bus, throw your bags on your shoulders, and proceed to look for a cab. You realize nothing could be open at that hour. A voice inside your head starts letting you have it for not making that reservation that you saw online a week before. With something of a personal death wish, you raise your hand and wait for the old Chevrolet down the street to pull up in front of you. Once the worn-out taxi sign parks itself at your side, a head from inside the car turns your way and the mouth on that head says: “¿A dónde va, mister?” You essay a dozen responses in your mind but say nothing. Maybe your parents had a point in forcing you to take Spanish in high school after all. Unfortunately, you didn’t know that then. The cab starts to move but you are not in it. The voice inside says something the likes of “Que gringo más raro.” And then it starts to rain.

Travelling is an experience that can be totally different if you know the language of the place you are visiting. And while not the most difficult language, Spanish can confuse new times users with its conjugation overload, rolled “R’s” and infinite sociolects. In Perú, about 80% of the total population speak it. And even though it may sound very different depending on where in Peru you are, the words and structure will be the same. Now, even though English is becoming more prevalent as more Peruvians are learning it. Its use is still relegated to certain areas where there tends to be a high concentration of tourists. In Lima, think of Miraflores, the Historic Center and about any artisan market you can think of. So, in the best of interests this small guide aims to provide the uninitiated with a substantial toolbox of words and phrases that they may throw from time to time. In the hopes of avoiding a situation like the one described above.

General places: While traveling it is indispensable to know the different establishments where you may procure services and goods necessary for your journey.

  • Bodega (Grocery Store): This is your all-around neighborhood grocery store.
  • Farmacia (Pharmarcy) / Botica (Drugstore): Whenever you need to acquire pharmaceuticals you go to one of these.
  • Servicios Higiénicos (Sanitary Facilities) / Baños (Bathroom): We all got to go. Some establishments even rent out their restrooms so be sure to ask if you need to do so.
  • Banco (Bank): Money troubles?
  • Cajero Automático (ATM Machine): Since you really liked that Alpaca plush doll maybe you should take out some more money. Always be careful at ATM machines though.
  • Restaurante (Restaurant): Fancy some fine dining?
  • Centro Comercial (Shopping Center) / Mall (Mall): To satisfy the mallrat inside you.
  • Comisaria / Estación de Policia (Police Station): Let´s hope you don’t have to visit one of these during your stay. But if you have troubles with the law you definitely visit one.
  • Serenazgo (Municipal police force): Unfortunately, Peruvian law enforcement is not very efficient. And these local police agents are organized by the different district governments to help in security efforts within their jurisdictions. Think of them as Peru´s “Watchmen.”
  • Aeropuerto (Airport): Feeling homesick?
  • Bar (Bar) / Licoreria (Liquor Store): Say you need a cold one in the middle of summer in Lima.
  • Cabina de Internet (Cybercafé): If you ever need to get your Facebook fix or maybe your hotel has no Wi-Fi you can look for one of these.
  • Museo (Museum) / Galeria (Art Gallery): You don´t have to consider yourself an art snob to visit one of these. Most public museums and archaeological sites have free entry the first Sunday of each month. Be sure to mark your calendars.
  • Cine (Movie Theater): Fun fact, the Fast and Furious movies are actually good in Spanish. Just kidding.
  • Casino (Casino): Feeling lucky?
  • Mercado (Market) / Supermercado (Supermarket): These two are different like day and night. If you want fresh produce or cheap menus go to the first one.

General need to know terms: Some words are too important not to know. Here are a few of them.

  • Enfermo(a) (Sick): Let´s hope it never gets to this during your travels. But if this is how you feel you better let someone know.
  • Gripe (“The flu”): If we aren´t used to harsh climate changes or the altitude in some part of Perú we may fall victim to this infectious disease.
  • “Soroche” / Mal de Altura (Altitude Sickness): It happens to the best of us. The word “soroche” comes from the Quechua word “suruchiq” which is a mineral used to extract silver from mines located high up in the Andes. This “mountain sickness” was common to the miners and so the word originates from there.
  • Peligroso (Dangerous): If you ever hear this word about a place you are planning to visit make sure to think it over twice. If you are not sure, you should always ask someone.
  • Rebaja / Descuento (Discount): It is fairly common to see people bargaining prices at markets, artisan fairs, and other places where it can be appropriate to do so. And you should do it too.
  • Barato (Cheap) / Caro (Expensive): Probably the most important words when purchasing anything. Try and get references as to whether a place is expensive or not using these words.
  • Gratis (Free): This is like getting that “Advance to GO, collect $200” in Monopoly. Basically, nothing bad can come out of it especially if it is a show, service or product that is added to another one.

Peruvian food terminology: If there is one thing you need to know about Peruvian food is that Peruvians love it. In fact, guess what you are going to talk about while eating at that place your Peruvian friends are taking you to for the weekend. That´s right. More food. But just like in the world of Hip-Hop you got to know the game. In this game though consequences are always in the realm of a bad case of traveler’s diarrhea and three days’ worth of Pepto-Bismol. So, know the game, playa’.


  • Menú: This is where it gets interesting. Because this is the meat and potatoes of Peruvian eating. These restaurants tend to be small, locally owned and cheap. You will find them packed during lunch time in Perú (12:00 P.M.-2:00 P.M.). So be sure to check one out. And make sure to come back the same day because the menu (hence the name) changes every day.
  • Chifa: Peruvian cuisine is regarded as one of the most diverse because of the many influences it takes from. Chinese migration to Peru began in the Nineteenth Century and has since then provided a myriad of cultural manifestations. Chifa, a fusion between Peruvian and Chinese cooking traditions, is probably the most important.
  • Cebicheria: If there is one plate you have to try in Perú is cebiche. This plate consisting of chunks of raw fish marinated in freshly squeezed lemon juice, with sliced onions, salt, and other accompaniments is the reason why you travelled all the way here in the first place. As an insider tip, be prepared to relive the humiliation of your high school days if for some reason you decide that you want don’t want your cebiche to be spicy. Don´t say you weren´t warned.
  • Pollería: Pollo a la brasa, a rotisserie style chicken dish, is the cornerstone of Peruvian cuisine. Nothing fancy here. Don´t try and order this at that gourmet place in Miraflores. This is the most honest Peruvian plate you´ll find. Just meat and potatoes. Appropriate for any occasion.
  • “Huarique”: All Peruvians have a “Huarique” for a specific plate or dish that they enjoy. They will swear by it. This slang word is basically used to denote a place where the food is highly recommended by the person taking you there. For the most part these places tend to be cheap and hard to find. So, it is kind of like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Only that “Huariques” actually exist.


Initiating a conversation: For those of you who want to mingle with the rest of us.

  • Buenos días / Buenas tardes / Buenas noches (Good morning / afternoon / night): You can´t talk to people if you don´t greet them first, right?
  • ¿Cómo te llamas? (What is your name?): It sure feels nice knowing who you are talking to.
  • ¿Cómo estás? (How are you?): You will be thanked for asking as it is rare these days.
  • ¿Cómo es el clima acá ahora? (How is the weather here now?): You know what is better than packing five extra jackets you might not use. Knowing the weather of the place you are going during that time of the year.
  • ¿Habla inglés? (Do you speak English): Sometimes this is all you need to say to start having a wonderful conversation.
  • ¿Me entiende? (Do you understand me?): Sometimes is not all the time.
  • ¿Cómo se dice […] en español? (How do you say […] in Spanish?): Improving your vocabulary is key to learning any language.
  • ¿Qué me recomienda? (What do you recommend?): Locals are bound to give you some insights.
  • Muchas gracias (Thank you): You will look smart and likeable when you say it.
  • Phrases for getting around: If you think you are ready to cruise your way through the big city of Lima or any other Peruvian town give these phrases a try.
  • ¿Podría ayudarme? (Could you help me?): Maybe the greatest conversation opener of all time.
  • ¿Dónde queda […]? / ¿Dónde está? (Where is the […]?): This is going to take a while it seems. Example: ¿Dónde está la biblioteca?
  • ¿Hay algún(a) […] cerca? (¿Is there a […] near?): Almost there. Example: ¿Hay alguna farmacia cerca?
  • ¿Tienen Wi-Fi? (Is there Wi-Fi?): Sometimes you just got to stay connected.
  • Phrases to use when purchasing: You made it to your favorite Alpaca themed souvenir store. Now what?
  • ¿Cuánto cuesta esto? (How much is this?): Get ready to shell out some Benjamins. Example: ¿Cuánto cuesta el cebiche?
  • ¿Hay algún descuento? (Is there a discount?): This is pretty self-explanatory. And even when there isn´t a discount there more likely is one. Example: ¿Hay algún descuento en estos productos?
  • ¿Cómo se llama esto? (What is this called?): Word of advice. Don´t ever try anything until you know what it is called. Example: ¿Cómo se llama este plato?
  • ¿Es gratis? (Is it free?): In the inside we all wish this could be asked anywhere when travelling. Example: ¿Es gratis la entrada al museo?
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