The Essential Slang Words You Need to Know When Traveling in Latin America

by Monica Corredor Sanchez Mar 22, 2018

Although most Latin American countries share the mother tongue of Spanish, there are countless dialects and certain words that have completely different meanings from one place to another. The differences can be so extreme that you may find yourself completely lost even if Duolingo insists you’re “fluent”; Chileans chop words up, remix them, and use a completely different localized vocabulary, for example. If you’re traveling throughout the region, slang words play a large role in social interaction and culture. Here is a guide to the essential slang words you need to know when traveling in Latin America.

1. Pololear

Pololo/a” means boyfriend/girlfriend in Chilean. If you are in a lasting relationship with someone, you are “pololeando.”

2. ¿Cachai?

Another popular word in Chilean that is peppered into most sentences. It’s used to verify that another person understands what you are saying. It is similar to “do you get it?”

3. Listo!

You’ll hear this one a lot all over South America, especially Chile and Colombia. “Listo!” means something/someone is ready. That said, more than often it is used as a means of agreement.

For example:
Listo! Vamonos!”
“Ok, let’s go!”

4. Al toque / Al tiro

If you want to do something fast, almost instantly, then say “Al toque” in Peru, Argentina and Uruguay, and “Al tiro” in Chile.

For example:
Voy al tiro.”
“I’ll go immediately.”
Te lo envío al toque
“I’ll send it ASAP.”

5. Chévere

This is very popular in Colombia and Venezuela, it’s used to describe something as nice or cool. Ask a Venezuelan “How are you doing,” and they may say “Chévere.” In Colombia, you’ll hear “Qué chévere” to show excitement for good news or “Estuvo muy chévere” to refer to something as cool. No matter the context, you’ll hear this word in almost every sentence in Colombia and Venezuela.

6. Bacán / Bacano

This is a more common way to say something is nice or cool in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile. It’s a synonym for chévere.

7. Chido / Qué padre!

If you are traveling down to South America from Mexico, you’ll commonly hear this as their version for cool or nice.

8. Naguará

This is used in Venezuela to express excitement when something is extraordinary. It’s a more expressive version for “chévere”.

9. Habla pe causa

A common Peruvian slang for saying hello that basically translates to, “hello my friend!” but doesn’t make much literal sense if you’re only familiar with traditional Spanish.

10. Por si las moscas

In South America, we have an obsession with slang related to animals. This phrase translates literally to “in case of flies,” but culturally it means “just in case.” It’s broadly used in countries such as Venezuela, El Salvador, Chile, and Colombia.

11. Hacer una vaca

In Colombia “hacer una vaca” or “make a cow” has nothing to do with animal testing or cloning, it means to collect money from a group of people for a specific purpose, usually to purchase alcohol. You’ll also hear it in Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela, and Bolivia. In Perú they say “hagamos chancha” which means “let’s make a pig.”

12. Hacer el oso / Hacer la foca

Hacer el oso” or “make the bear” in Colombia means to do something embarrassing. “Hacer la foca” or “make the seal” is used in the same context in Ecuador. Commonly if someone feels ashamed, he/she will say “¡Qué oso/foca!”.

13. Camello

If someone says “vamos a camellar” he/she is not inviting you to ride a camel. It means something much less adventurous: “let’s go to work.” Camello is the word for a job in Colombia and Ecuador.

14. Echar / Lanzar / Tirar los perros or Tirar los galgos

Don’t start running if you hear someone say “te va a echar los perros,” which translates to someone throwing dogs on you. Rather than being concerned, you should feel proud and excited. It is used as a means of seduction when someone is flirting with you. It is commonly heard in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Puerto Rico.

In Argentina, the expression is a bit fancier, as they will throw the galgos, which is a fancy breed of dog.

15. No sea sapo

No sea sapo” means “Don’t be a toad” or “Mucho sapo!,” “What a toad!.” It is used in reference to someone who likes gossiping. Commonly heard in Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panamá, Perú, and Venezuela.

16. Arrecho

You need to be very careful with this word. In Colombia (except in Santander), Peru, and Panama, “estoy arrecho” means horny. But if said by someone from Honduras or Venezuela, they are pissed off.

17. Tirar / Coger / Cachar / Garchar

Now, you understand that if you are “arrecho” in Colombia, you are probably down for having sex. If someone is horny in Colombia, Venezuela or Chile you’ll hear “vas a tirar”. In Argentina “vas a garchar,” and in Central America, the South Cone, and Bolivia, “vas a coger.

18. En bola, en pelota/o

After declaring a desire to have sex, and believe me, that’s quite commonly heard, you might find yourself “en bola” or “en pelota/s.” Bolas and pelotas translates to balls. If you are in balls you are naked. Mainly used in Colombia and Venezuela.

19. Arruncharse

Arrunchémonos” or “hagamos plan arrunche” means to snuggle or spoon. You’ll hear this in Colombia.

20. Apapacharse

The verb “apapachar” is widely used in Mexico. It means to pamper or coddle. It’s also utilized in countries like Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Honduras.

21. Most countries in South America have a different word for friend, bro, or girlfriend.

  • Pata/Causa in Peru
  • Pana in Ecuador and Venezuela
  • Cumpa in Bolivia
  • Maje in El Salvador
  • Cuate or Wey/ Güey in Mexico
  • Fren in Panama
  • Parce in Colombia
  • Mae in Costa Rica and Honduras
  • Weon/Weona in Chile
  • Kape in Paraguay
  • Boludo in Argentina

22. Tono / Carrete / Rumba / Parranda / Arranque / Farra

Now, you need to learn how to invite your friends to a party — or I should say to a Tono in Peru, Carrete in Chile, Rumbaor Parranda in Colombia and Venezuela, Arranque in Panama, and Farra in Ecuador.

For example:
Esta noche vamos a rumbear/tonear/carretear/parrandear/arrancar/farrear!
“Tonight we are going to a party!”

23. Chupar

The direct translation of this word is to suck, but it is used more commonly as an informal way to say drink or chug alcohol. You’ll hear this chanted at parties in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, and Peru.

24. Guayabo / Ratón / Chuchaqui / Caña / Cruda / Goma

After chugging a few too many drinks you’ll need to know the word for hangover.

  • Guayabo in Colombia
  • Ratón in Venezuela
  • Chuchaqui in Ecuador
  • Caña or hachazo in Chile
  • Cruda in Mexico
  • Goma in Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras

25. Boludo

“¿Qué hacés boludo?” is a pretty standard phrase in Argentina. Boludo has two meanings: dumb or friend. Pay attention to the intonation and non-verbal cues. Your “new friend” might be insulting you.

26. Hablar paja

The direct translation of this is to “speak straw.” It is used in reference to the habit of talking too much or talking about something that is not true. Basically, it’s means “bullshit” and is used in Panama, Colombia, and Costa Rica.

27. Estar salado

Estar salado”, means to be salty and is used in Colombia, Ecuador, and Panamá to describe someone who is unlucky.

28. Poner los cachos / Montar los cachos

If someone “poner los cachos” which means to puts the horns on you. I am sorry to say that if you are in Colombia, Ecuador, or Venezuela it means the person is cheating on you.

29. Levantar

This means to lift up, but when used in this context, “levantarse a alguien” is referring to picking someone up. You’ll hear this in Colombia, Argentina, and Panama.

30. Pura vida

This is one of my favorite slang words, characteristic of Ticos (Costa Ricans). It means hello, goodbye, great, thank you, you’re welcome, nice to meet you. Ask a Tico, “how are you doing?” and they’ll answer “pura vida.” The expression fills you with energy and happiness.

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