It goes without saying that knowing at least some words in a foreign country’s language will thoroughly enhance your travel experience and Latin America travels are made easier by the fact that almost the entire continent speaks just one language and, when it doesn’t (as in Brazil, the Guianas and Surinam) it is certainly understood. Spanish is a delightful language, so melodic and full of character not to mention passionate and infinitely romantic. How much Spanish should you know when travelling to and through Latin America? Well, that depends on a lot of things. Firstly, it depends on whether or not you’re planning to travel independently or an organised private tour. In the latter, some language is always preferred yet in the former it is just about essential.
Unless you have a tour guide who’ll help you with all the logistical stuff or are happy to either be overcharged or misunderstood, you’ll really need a muy bueno grasp of Spanish, most especially if planning to visit remote regions where English knowledge is almost non-existent. That’s not to say that it is impossible to travel to South America without knowing any Spanish at all yet your journey will be immensely more enjoyable and rewarding (not to mention easy) if you do.
There’s a ton of tips to help you communicate with locals, no matter where you go. A small pocket dictionary is super useful as is being quite adept at travel-sign language and, perhaps, have wicked drawing skills. Non-verbal communication can go a long way in getting your point across. Having said that and even if you’re planning a fully guided tour, there are some priceless benefits that come from being personally able to communicate with locals when travelling to Latin America.
Being able to ask for directions – No organised tour provides a personal guide, 24/7 and no discerning traveller would wish for that anyhow. Having time off to explore by yourself is just splendid and, even if you keep your hotel business card in your pocket (to show taxi drivers) and have offline google maps on your phone, this won’t actually help you much in Latin America. Shops and restaurants move, Goggle maps can be just plain incorrect and your phone can simply run out of battery. Getting from A to B – when neither one is the airport or your hotel – is much easier and safer when you can ask for directions and understand the answer.
Ordering from non-touristy menus – Everyone loves those translated menus that are found just about anywhere in Latin America’s most touristy places but what if your plan is to avoid them and only eat in local establishments? Sure, you can be super adventurous and pick blindly but then you’d have to be content if you’re served beef heart kebabs and grilled guinea pigs in Peru or bull penis soup in Bolivia. Yes. it’s totally a thing. Knowing enough Spanish to be able to ask what an ingredient is can help in all sorts of ways and is essential if you have food allergies or special dietary needs.
Question how something is used and what it’s for – From musical instruments to mysterious exotic fruits, a weird type of fish or a stunning craft piece, engaging with sellers and asking about the wares they sell can teach you more than any guidebook page ever will. But yes, you do need to understand their reply.
Medical emergencies – A medical emergency will not necessarily occur when you’re in your hotel or with your travelling group. Knowing some basic medical terms for symptoms like headaches, fever, rash, strong pain etc is critical, especially if you’re travelling to high altitudes (altitude sickness risks) or tropical areas.
Ensure you’re not overcharged – Latin Americans love it when you attempt to communicate in their language although their favourable disposition won’t stop them from trying to relieve you of a few extra dollars. Bargaining is part and parcel of visiting this eclectic and fun continent yet unless you know how to bargain in Spanish, they’ll feast on you. Not literally, of course.
Enjoy the culture much more – It is nearly impossible to learn a new language without gaining some perspective into the local culture and history as well. The more Spanish you know when travelling to Latin America the more ‘feeling’ you’ll have for the local culture, their sense of humour and their attitudes to various aspects of life. Moreover, being able to sit down at a café and engaging in a friendly chat with locals is fun, enlightening and very rewarding. Besides, making new friends when you travel can open up all sorts of incredible opportunities. From hiking trips to homestays, village visits and whatnot: being able to communicate is a beautiful way to bridge the cultural gap and promote mutual appreciation.
Get more out of sightseeing & cultural festivals – Sometimes it’s fun to be totally clueless about something and, other times, you just know you’d get a lot more out of an experience if you just knew what was going on. This is when it really pays to know some Spanish. From sensational religious festivals that go on for days to important archaeological sites that lack any kind of signage or, if they have them, only in Spanish. Understanding the history or reason for a particular event or site will deeply enhance your understanding.
Now that we have the most important points out of the way, we can move on to practical and rewarding ways to inject some new language skills into your travelling repertoire.
Here are some of the most popular ways to learn Spanish when travelling to Latin America:
Learn the absolute minimum and build from there – Greetings, numbers and directions are the most basic knowledge base you’ll want to have when visiting Latin America (Survival Spanish) and then, you can build your vocabulary cache. A firm base of any language means knowing about 300 pivotal words. If you’re planning to travel next year…why not start with a word a day today?
Don’t get stuck on nuances, verbs and conjunctives at first – Different Latin American countries pronounce words in a very distinct manner yet all will understand what you are trying to say even if you use the wrong tense, sex (Spanish has masculine and feminine) or conjunctive. Try anyway and don’t worry about perfection!
Pocket travel dictionaries – Dictionaries can be exceptionally useful, especially the very portable varieties yet do note that the best kind are travel dedicated, where you can practice entire questions and have an understanding of what the answer might be. Fabulous for menu translations!
Spanish classes – Seriously well-organised travellers will tend to invest in a comprehensive Spanish course back home, before they even travel while others will incorporate a Spanish-language course into their trip. Start your journey with a couple of weeks in a well-respected Spanish school (plenty to choose from in Peru, Ecuador, Mexico Argentina). We can certainly help you choose a suitable school according to where in Latin America you wish to travel.
Take a self-teaching course – There are loads of online courses to learn Spanish and many can be very good, as long as you’re a self-starter and don’t need much guidance to get things done. Heaven knows you can even learn some basic Spanish via YouTube nowadays! Check your local library for language learning material and your new skill won’t even have to be a colossal financial investment.
There are also lots of ways in which you can learn Spanish for free. Learn about them here!
You can certainly survive your Latin America journey without speaking any Spanish at all, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could turn a simple vacation into a multi-dimensional, soul-stirring and enriching cultural experience as well?
At Chimu Adventures, we organise fully-guided trips throughout Latin America, employ local knowledgeable guides to be your unfailing support and can organize immersive language courses, all over the continent. Visit our Chimu Adventures page and do contact us if you’d like to know more.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 13 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now in the midst of a 5-year motorbike odyssey from Germany to Australia.”