When traveling throughout both Cuba and Costa Rica, you will meet a lot of Spanish-speaking residents. While some of them may speak English, I find it’s not only part of the adventure to try their language, but also incredibly respectful as a traveler. Whether it’s to find a room or the direction you need to be going, these are the phrases that helped us the most.

  1. Cuánto cuesta? How much? This is by far THE MOST IMPORTANT phrase you need to remember. Especially in Cuba, they charge for everything including public bathrooms, internet, water, museums, pictures (no, people are not just kindly asking to take your pic for you), taxi rides, etc. Knowing how much something costs should be the very first question you ask. You will find that prices change considerably from shop to shop, or town to town. Usually in Cuba, you can barter things like taxi rides, so it’s important to ask and decide on a price beforehand. And if you are traveling as a couple, make sure to ask how much for two people, for sometimes this can affect the price.
  2. Tiene una habitación para (# inserted here)? Do you have a room for ___? In order to find a room for the night, you have to be able to ask for one. If you fly by the seat of your pants like Tim and I, you wait to book a place when you arrive at your destination. The advantage to this is that you can actually scope out the area to see where you’d like to be and see if the room suits your needs. If this is the case with you, you need to ask around and often times you are asking people who may not speak a lot of English. Knowing how to ask will save you time and frustration.
  3. Dónde está (insert place here)? Where is ____? Places include el baño (bathroom), el banco (bank), el museo (museum), or la playa (the beach). When we took the advice of Lonely Planet and rented bikes from Trinidad to Playa Ancon, we had to ask every 500 metres, “where is the beach?” simply to ensure we were headed the right way. Even so, we ended up taking a couple massive detours, and despite Lonely Planet saying the ride would take just 30 minutes, it took us over 3 hours. ‘Twas an exciting (and exhausting!) adventure! However, it could’ve been even worse had we not asked this simple question.
  4. La cuenta, por favor. The bill, please. This is Tim’s favourite. Unlike in North America, where waitresses are quick to bring the bill, we have found in places like Costa Rica and Cuba that you have to ask for one. If you don’t, you could be sitting there all day.
  5. Numbers. Uno, dos, tres. 1, 2, 3. Diez, vente, treinta. 10, 20, 30. This is directly related to how much things cost. If you don’t understand numbers, asking them how much will not help you in the least bit. Do yourself a favour and memorize the numbers!
  6. No entiendo. I don’t understand. Sometimes, despite the blank look on your face and the fact that you have already communicated that you can’t speak fluent Spanish, you will find yourself in a full-blown conversation with a Spanish-speaking resident. Letting them know you don’t understand allows them to slow down or use hand gestures to help you, or they will simply just back off completely.
  7. No quiero. I don’t want. In any country around the world and in tourist spots especially, you will be targeted to buy anything and everything that the vendors throw your way. Knowing this very simple phrase might just get those sales sharks off your back. You’re welcome.
  8. Soy/Somos de (insert home country here). I/we are from Canada. Being asked where you are from is probably the most common question you will hear. The people asking are either genuinely interested OR simply trying to open the floodgates to sell you something. Be on guard! Either way though, it’s nice to be able to represent your home country.

We also recommend carrying around a phrase book or spanish/english dictionary for times when you need a little bit extra (and trust us, you will!) Worst case scenario, if you forget these at home, try to screenshot a few Google searches of common words and phrases. We have had to do this, and it was very helpful.

Now after memorizing these simple phrases, if anyone asks you if you speak spanish, you can say, “un poquito” (a little bit) with a smile on your face!