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Photo: Marysol*

Matador editor Eileen Smith pulls together vocabulary from years of Latin American haircuts.

THE LONGER YOU TRAVEL, the longer your hair grows. Bangs in eyes, hair creeping dangerously close to a mullet. Now you’re south of the border, and things are bad. You need a corte de pelo. Below is some essential vocab to keeping your hair-related tragedies to a minimum.

Getting into the salon

Many peluquerías charge different prices, varying depending on if it’s a corte varon/hombre (men’s haircut) or corte dama/mujer (women’s haircut). A woman’s hair length will also change the price, with long hair costing the most. Corto/mediano/largo is short/medium/long.

I’m assuming you’re just going to walk in and ask to get your hair cut right then and there, and not ask to make an appointment. You’ve gotten up your nerve to cut your hair in a language you don’t speak. Any further obstacle will slow you down. But if you must make an appointment, ask for an hora or a cita.

I’m also assuming you know the difference between cuanto (how much, how many) and cuando (when). So just go on in, wait for someone to look at you, and say: Quiero cortarme el pelo. I want a haircut.

Want it washed? You want a lavado. Or do you want it sin lavar (without washing)? If you want your hair cut wet you’ll tell them you want a corte de pelo con el pelo mojado/humedo.

Then the fun begins. Your hair is washed (or not), and you’re wearing that silly polyester cape. You’ve sat down in the chair and gotten pumped up or let down to the right height so the peluquero (hair stylist) can take out his tijeras (scissors) and have at you.

Showing how much

The first thing to remember is that generally, in Latin America, we don’t show the amount of hair we’d like cut by holding our thumb and forefinger a certain distance apart. Instead, hold your hand in front of you, with your palm facing in, and show the number of “fingers” (measure of length) you want to cut. Bonus: If it’s one or two fingers, you now have an imaginary gun. Careful with that.

Here are some more core terms you’ll need to make sure you come out of the shop with a peinado (hairstyle) vaguely like you’d intended.

General terms:

I want: quiero
more: mas
menos: menos
short hair: pelo/cabello corto
long hair: pelo/cabello largo
just a trim: solo las puntas
a little (more): un poco (mas)
a lot: mucho

How to cut it:

with bangs: con chasquilla/flequillo
without bangs: sin chasquilla/flequillo
layers: escalonado/con capas
long layers: capas largas
jagged/razor cut: desflecado/desplumado
teased: escarmenado
thinned: entresacado
straightened: alisado
curled/curly: rizado
with a lot of body: con mucho volumen

And many of the descriptors that have to do with getting your hair cut refer to where on your face/body you want it to be level with. Here are some haircut-relevant parts.

the back of my hair: la parte de atras
ears: orejas
chin: barbilla
shoulders: hombros
collarbones: clavículas
scalp: cuero cabelludo
neck: cuello
nape of neck: nuca
part (where you part your hair): partidura, raya


wash: lavar
dry: secar
conditioner: acondicionador/balsamo
gloss/shine: abrillantador
mousse: mousse/espuma
hairspray: fijador
highlights: reflejos
streaks: mechas
dye: teñir

Fixing problems:

even it out: dejarlo parejo
cowlick: remolino
dry hair: pelo seco/resecado
greasy hair: pelo graso
split ends: puntas florecidas/abiertas
dandruff: caspa

For men:

sideburns: patillas
beard: barba
mustache: bigote

And if you’ve decided that it’s all just too much to bear, and you’d rather DIY it, here’s what you’ll need, at a minimum.

brush: cepillo
comb: peineta
scissors: tijeras

And a whole lot of suerte (luck).

If it all turns tragic, and you’d like a song to sing (in Spanish) for the occasion, may I suggest this one from the Chilean television program 31 Minutos. It’s called “Me Cortaron Mal El Pelo” (I got a bad haircut).

Expat LifeFashion


About The Author

Eileen Smith

Eileen Smith is the editor of Matador Abroad. She's an ex-Brooklynite who's made a life in Santiago, Chile. She's a fluent Spanish speaker who can be found biking, hiking, writing, photographing and/or seeking good coffee and nibbles at most hours of the day. She blogs here.

  • Wendell Glenn DrWends Cagape

    this is a great post and I find it useful The last time I had mine in China, I was scared to have a haircut to finish since no english as uttered and I am not understood and I cant understand them. Turn out, I paid for more than just a haircut. I love this and as a travel blogger, this is what I need.

  • Amit Sonawane

    Heading to the barber at lunch. Let’s see how those go.

  • Kelly du Soleil

    This is fantastic.

  • 1TorpeTejano

    thanks for this article. I’ve studied Spanish for years but there are certain things I just don’t know how to translate in Spanish. My mother speaks ‘Spanglish’ having grown up in California. I’ll never forget when I heard her say, ‘Si, pero ahora voy a ‘set my hair’ to my aunt. How do you say ‘i’m going to ‘set my hair’ in Spanish?

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