Quick Spanish for Travelers


by Stephen Pirsch





The purpose of this booklet is to introduce a quick method to learn the least Spanish needed to get by when traveling in Latin America.  This guide targets only the minimum  basic phrases  needed.  Tips are added  to lessen your problems. Emphasis will be on  trying to politely limit the other persons responses to yes or no etc. 


Most of the following material will be in phrases. In English, in Spanish, and in an easy to read pronunciation system (this is the common pronunciation for Mexico and Central America - not proper Castilian).    For example: 


English:  How many pesos please?  How many?
Spanish:  Cuantos pesos por favor? Cuantos?
Pronunciation:  KWAN-tohs PEH-sohs  por fa-VOR? KWAN-tohs?


Please make sure you  very strongly accent the capitals and speak very forcefully compared to English.     If not you will likely get confused looks.  Remember you can copy this guide and simply point to the Spanish request. If you are not understood initially, try the simplest question, such as; Cuantos?, instead of, Cuantos pesos por favor?


Consider that, while fun, creating a back and forth language exchange will most likely be confusing for both parties in Latin America.  When you really need something keep it simple.  If you can not understand their reply slowly repeat your request or try the I DON'T UNDERSTAND section.  Everything in here is set up so only a simple reply or no reply will be needed.  Be aware that Latin Americans are very friendly, have a more relaxed attitude towards buisness, and are sometimes mesmerized by the different looks and mannerisms of foreign travelers, such as blond hair, blue eyes, and strange accents - being politely patient will be worthwhile.  Please consider heeding the tips...it is a foreign country.  At the end there will be a small dictionary with words you can choose to add to the examples as you need. 




You have probably been told repeatedly that you simply have to learn the numbers.  Not true.   After you ask them , "Cuantos pesos por favor"  and you can not understand their very rapid reply, hand them a pen a paper and, simply say:


Write it please.

Escribalo por favor.

 ess-KREE-ba-lo  por fa-VOR




Please always negotiate the fare in advance (before you get in the taxi), repeat it, have him repeat it or, have him write it.  If you agree to the first amount he says, you are almost certainly paying too much.  Show the driver the bill you are going to pay with and say "cambio - KAHM-b`yo?" (change)?  If he says no, consider getting another taxi.   It  is often much easier to hire a taxi  than figure out directions, even if you are driving (we have hired taxis to let us follow them). Taxis are much cheaper and more abundant in Latin America than in the United States.  It is often a better deal to hire a taxi to take you (and your surfboards), watch your stuff, and bring you back than to rent a car - tightly fold your money into your surfboard leash pocket and pay at the end of your return trip.  Renting a car is more expensive in Latin America and they tend to price gouge if there is any problem.  See the dictionary at back for words to add after;  how many pesos for.


How many pesos to Senor Frogs?   

Cuantos Pesos a  Senor Frogs?

KWAN-tohs  PEH-sohs  ah  sen-YOR frogs?






How much to the beach and back in four hours?

Cuantos Pesos para llevarnos a playa y regreso in cuatro horas

KWAN-tohs PEH-sohs PA-ra l'yeh-VAR-nohs ah PLA-ya EE reh-greh-SOH en KWA-tro OH-ras?




(see dictionary for choice of words to put after; where is the)


Where is the restroom?  (or just say, ba`no?)

Donde esta el ba`no?

DOHN-deh  ess-TA  el  BAHN-yo?




Note that sometimes you may have to point at something on the menu and say "Quiero este por favor " (I want this please), not knowing exactly what it is.  Try to make sure it is all cooked (todo bien cocido) and drink directly out of sealed containers.  It is risky to eat fruits, uncooked vegetables, or drink tap water or ice water anywhere in Latin America.  This is mostly because they wash almost everything in contaminated tap water.  We usually  buy most of our food at grocery stores  when in Latin America.  We soak the fruits and vegetables in disinfectant for 10 minutes ( bleach -1 teaspoon per quart of purified water).  See dictionary for words to add after I want.


I want one bottled water, no glass, no ice please (Latin Americans will often pour it in an ice filled glass)

Quiero una agua en botella, no vaso, no hielo por favor.

KEY-EH-ro   OO-na AH-gwa, en bot-TE-ya  no VA-so  no YEH-lo


The menu please.

El menu por favor.

ehl meh-NOO por fa-VOR


I want this please, no salad, no fruit (pointing at menu item).

Quiero este por favor, no ensalada, no frutas

KEY-EH-ro  ESS-teh  por fa-VOR , no en-sa-LA-da , no FROO-tahs

Sometimes they will bring it with the fruit or salad anyway.  If this happens, either pay for it and leave, or keep the plate, and say "carne y tortillas, no mas.  Repeta por favor."  If you let them take the plate it will likely get scraped off and returned with the new item on the old plate.


Meat and tortillas, no more.  Repeat please.

Carne y tortillas, no mas.  Repeta por favor.

KAR-neh ee tohr-TEA-ya. no mahs.  reh-PEE-ta por-fa-VOR

Note: The request to; repeat please is because Latin Americans simply cannot believe anyone would want to pay for fruit and salad they are not getting.


The check please (Latin Americans generally do not give you the bill until you ask for it).

La cuenta por favor

la-KWEN-ta por fa-VOR




Do not give the ticket agent your money until you are sure you are leaving on the soonest bus.  If you ask them for a first class ticket to your final destination and there is no direct bus that day, they will politely tell you no, or give you a time when the direct bus leaves tomorrow etc.  It is very likely there will be another first class bus leaving much sooner along the same route. If there is no direct bus leaving within a few hours, look at a map and ask the agent when the bus leaves for the largest cities along the route starting with the next to farthest city.  Often, it is faster to make a few transfers at different cities than to wait for a direct bus. Also consider second class buses which are much more frequent.  There may be another bus station (or another company within the same station) nearby with a bus leaving sooner. From 6a to 10p along main routes there is usually some kind of bus going by hourly.


What hour does it leave to Monterrey?  Note that if you request they write it and you see 2300 that means 11 PM (24 hour system).

Que hora sale a Monterrey?

keh OH-ra sa-LEY ah mon-te-REY


One ticket to Sayulita please.  First class. At eight.  One way.  Take first class or executive class when possible.  Second class is ok for about half a day.

Un bolleto a Sayulita por favor.  Primera clase. A la ocho.  Ida.

oon boh-LEH-toh ah sigh-you-LEE-tah por fa-VOR.  pree-MEH-rah KLA-seh. ah lah Oh-cho.  EE-dah.

Note:  If you cannot remember anything else, and you are being asked questions you cannot understand, simply keep repeating your destination and show them some money - eventually they will give you a ticket for the next bus to your destination.  When possible, choose a seat near the front of the bus - less bumpy and less toilet smell (they will likely show you a seating diagram). Most buses are crowded Friday, Saturday and Sunday but Monday through Thursday you can probably stretch out on two seats for the price of one, plus, have the baggage compartment mostly empty for your surfboard etc. (8'5" maximum board size, put in diagonally, only possible with half empty compartment. 8' straight across with full compartment).  If they tell you they cannot put the surfboard in the compartment, quickly show them some money ($5 - $20.) and say, OK? - they will do it.

Executive class. Second class.
Ejecutivo classe. Segunda classe.
ee-HECK-you-TEA-voh KLA-seh. seh-GOON-da KLA-seh

Please tell me where to get off for Santa Cruz?

Digame, por favor, donde debo bajar para Santa Cruz?

DEE-ga-meh, por fa-VOR , DOHN-deh DEH-bo ba-HAR PA ra SAHN ta CRUZ?




I do not understand

No comprendo.

No kom-PREN-doh.


Do you understand?












I speak very little Spanish.

Hablo espanol.muy pocito

Ah-blo ess-pahn-YOHL mwee po-KEE-toh.


Do you speak English?

Habla Ingles?

Ah-bla een-GLEHSS?


I need an interpreter please.

Necessito un interprete por favor.

neh-seh-see-TOH oon een-TEHR-preh-teh por fa-VOR.


Thank you.




I'm sorry.

Lo siento

lo S`YEN-toh.


How do you say this in Spanish? (pointing at object-children love this game)

Como se dice in espanol?

KO-mo say DEE-say en ess-pahn-YOHL?




Being lost in Latin America is almost inevitable, and finding your way is much more difficult than in the U.S. - so much more so, the common response is disbelief.   Remember if you are lost or do not know how to find something it is probably easiest to hire a taxi to take you there, or let you follow them.   Be aware that Latin Americans think it is rude to not give help to someone who is asking for help.  They will give directions when they do not do not know exactly where something is.  This is not done out of meanness. Although sentences for getting directions are below, the best course is to be prepared for things such as roads with no signs and highways taking illogical detours - consider not driving.  Avoid asking directions in Latin America.  Try to have detailed maps of all areas you will travel.  Sanborn's are the best.  Do not show a map to a local so they can point out directions.  Locals mostly navigate by landmarks, and will point politely, and  uselessly at what seems to them a likely spot on the map. When driving, another trick is to hire a taxi to let you follow him to the central bus station, wait for a bus with the name of your destination, and follow it.


Point the direction to Ixtapa.

Punte la direccion a Ixtapa.

PUN-teh la dee-rek-S`YOHN ah IK-stopa.


Is this the road to Manzanillo?

Es este el camino a Manzanillo?

ess ESS-teh el ka-MEE-no ah MON-zan-eeyoh?


How many streets (kilometers)

Cuantos calles (kilometros)?

KWAN-tohs KAHL-yeh (kee-LOO-meh-tros?
















Do you have a room?

Tiene una habitacione?

T`YEH-neh OO-na ah-bee- ta-S`YOHN?


With two beds, hot water, and airconditioning?

Con dos camas,agua caliente, y aire acondicionado

kohn dohs KA-mahs, Ah-gwa kahl-YEN-teh, EE I-reh ah-kohn-dee-s`yo-NA-doh?


I should like to see it.

Me gustaria verla.

meh goo-sta-REE-ya VEHR-la

Note: At Latin American hotels, what you see is what you get - this is almost always much cheaper and more basic than the most basic hotel in America.  Do not expect they will fix or add anything even if they say they will, especially if you pay them first.  Flush the toilet, turn on the light, check for hot water, lay on the bed etc. They are used to people wanting to see the room first.  Pay only after it is the way you require.


Cheaper please.

Mas barato por favor.

mahs ba-RA-toh por fa-VOR


Note that bargaining is a respected practice in Latin America.  Suggest or write another amount and say O.K?   If they will not bargain walk away.  If they still do not bargain consider going back and paying the first amount.  They will not be insulted.




Most Latin Americans are honest but beware at the gas station.  Please make sure they zero the pump before they put the nozzel in your vehicle, and do not leave the vehicle unattended (especailly if there are kids around the pump).  If the pump is not zeroed they will try to charge you for the last person's gas and your's.  As he is putting gas in your car, try to stand in front of the pump numbers (he may try to block your view) until he takes out the hose.  Write down the amount.  Make sure you are paying for the amount shown on the pump, and try to prevent him from zeroing the pump until you have paid.  Mexican gas is in liters.  If they zero the pump and demand a different amount, pay them the correct number and drive away (they will not do anything but yell at you).  This scam has been a problem for years in Latin America.  Once again, consider not driving in Latin America.


Fill with this please (point to the most expensive gasoline-the cheaper gas is much lower octane than cheap gas in the U.S.).

Llene con este por favor.

yeh-nay kohn EES-teh por fa-VOR




When exchanging money simply put your dollars etc. in the slot and say "pesos por favor" or say what ever other currency such as colones for Costa Rica.  Remember that Latin American buisness' are terrible about keeping change so try to not get bills larger than the equivalent of ten American dollars (one hundred Mexican pesos). Often, the best way to get Mexican pesos is to use the teller machines located at most banks (not at casa de cambio's) - they work similarly to the U.S. teller machines, use the same bank cards, give a good rate of exchange, and relieve you of the stress of carrying large sums of money.


(When going by taxi);

How many dollars to the money exchange (bank).

Cuantos pesos a casa de cambio (banco).

KWAN-tos  peh-sohs ah KA-sa day KAHM-b`yo (BAHN-ko).


All one hundred pesos, nothing larger please.

Todo cien pesos, no mas grande por favor.

TOH-doh S`YEN  peh-sohs, no mahs GRAHN-deh por fa-VOR.




black coffee cafe negro ka-FE NEH-gro
with cream con creama kohn KREH-ma
with sugar con azucar kohn ah-SOO-kahr
milk leche LEY-chay
eggs huevos WEH-vohs
scrambled revueltos rev-WEL-tohs
with ham con jamon kohn ha-MOHN
fish pescado pess-KA-do
tortilla tortilla tohr-TEA-ya
rice arroz ah-RROHS
chicken pollo POY-yo
steak bistek bees-TEK
well done bien cocido  b`yen ko-SEE-doh
beer cerveza sehr-VEH-sa
more please   mas por favor mahs por fa-VOR
central bus station autobus estacion central ow-toh-BOOSS ess-ta-S'YOHN cen-TRAH L
airport aeropuerto  ah-eh-ro-PWER-toh
beach playa PLI-ya
waves  olas OH-las
surfboard  tabla por surfiando TAH-blah por surfy-ON-doh
surfing surfiar surfy-AR
hotel hotel oh-TEL
do you have...? tiene? T'YEH-neh
pillow almohada  ahl-mo-AH-da
blanket  frazada fra-SA-da
key  llave  YA-veh
paper papel pa-PEL
open ? abierto ?  ah-B'YEHR-toh?
now  ahora ah-OH-ra
later mas tarde mahs TAR-deh
luggage equipaje eh-kee-PA-heh
what time is it? que hora es? keh OH-ra ess?


In conclusion, this guide contains the crude, workable basics of Spanish for travelers. Copy this guide and go where tourists fear to tread!