While you certainly don’t have to be fluent in Spanish to have an amazing Cuban experience, it can’t hurt to have some phrases at your disposal beyond “hola” and “gracias.” Cubans are incredibly friendly and with very few exceptions will be more than happy to try to understand your Spanish, even if it’s a bit less than fluent. Here are a few phrases and words that will come in helpful:
When ordering something at a restaurant, it is nice to respectfully say “I would like” and then say what you’d like. Por favor at the end helps, too!
Rice and beans: arroz con frijoles
*in Cuba this is also commonly referred to as moros y cristianos
Fork: un tenedor
Knife: un cuchillo
Spoon: una cuchara
Vegetarian food: comida sin carne
*vegetarianism is not the norm in Cuba, so you may have to specify what exactly you can and cannot eat; this phrase literally means “food without meat”
Bottled water: una botella de agua
Drink without ice: una bebida sin hielo
A notable feature of Cuba is that it’s a very safe country, however it’s always helpful to know what to say if you do find yourself in a situation where you need some help. In Spanish there are a few ways to say it-- shouting ayuda, socorro, or auxilio will all suffice. Not only is Cuba very safe, Cubans are very caring and helpful, so if you say “help,” people will come to your aid!
If you need to know where something is, just ask ¿dónde está…?
Hotel: el hotel (note: in Spanish, the h at the beginning of a word is always silent)
My room: mi habitación (again, the h here is not pronounced)
Bathroom: el baño
Telephone: el teléfono
Toilet paper: el papel higiénico
Waiting in line in Cuba is most likely unlike any line you’ve ever experienced before. The Cubans are quite used to waiting on long lines for basic services and therefore have developed an efficient way to make the waiting process as painless as possible. Instead of waiting in a long line, when someone approaches the bank to take out money (for example), they shout “quién es de último?” which means “who’s last?” and someone says “yo” (me), that way they know who’s in front of them in the “line.” With this method, you can go grab a snack, take a seat somewhere, do whatever you like, really, and not have to stand in an actual line. Just make sure you’re in the vicinity and pay attention to when the person in front of you has his or her turn and you’ll be golden!
When you’re out and about, you may need to ask how much something costs, be it a painting of a dazzling sunset draping the Malecón or an ice cold beer after a long day. When the need strikes, ask ¿cúanto cuesta…
To go by taxi to… ir en taxi a ______ (ex: el Hotel Nacional)
Beer: una cerveza
Artwork: la obra de arte
Cigar: el puro
Ticket (to museum, club, etc.): la entrada
CD: el disco or c.d. (pronounced say day)
In the Spanish-speaking world there are many ways to refer to someone from the US. In Mexico and most of Central America it’s gringo, in Argentina it’s yanqui, and in Cuba it’s yuma. The jury is still out as to the phrase’s origins, but when you’re out and about and someone asks where you’re from (de dónde es?) and you say you’re yuma (soy yuma or alternatively, soy norteamericano/a), you’re bound to get an excited response as American visitors are still quite rare in Cuba.
In order to further brush up on your Spanish, I would also highly recommend downloading beginner Spanish podcasts or using comprehensive programs offered by Berlitz and Rosetta Stone.
¡Buena suerte (good luck)!
written by Tes Cohen