Are you going to Cuba soon but concerned that you don’t know any Spanish? Don’t panic! You don’t have time to become fluent, but you can still prepare yourself with the basics.
Here are a few pointers or skip to the end for a skeleton vocab complete with pronunciation!
Let’s start with a few headings, very basic instructions, then end with a vocab that you can print out on one page (both sides) or have on your phone.
Hola is the Spanish word for hello. This is perfect for saying hello to someone in Cuba, since it’s a fairly informal society. If you want to be more specific, you can impress by using Buenos días (Good morning), Buenas tardes (Good afternoon/evening) and Buenas noches (Good night).
If you want to introduce yourself, say Me llamo… followed by your name. The double “l” in llamo is pronounced as a “y” (“Me Yamo”).
2. Please and thank you
In English we say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ quite a bit – the Spanish less so. But there’s no need to lose your English identity – use them as much as you like! Por favor = Please and Gracias = Thank you.
Don’t be surprised by the upside-down question mark (¿) you see at the beginning of a question written in Spanish. Similarly, an upside-down exclamation mark (¡)
This is just the correct way to write down a query or an exclamation in Spanish.
To ask, ‘How are you’, you can say ¿Cómo estás?, or the even easier, more general, ¿Que tal?, meaning ‘How are things?’
Don’t forget Lo siento (Sorry) and ¡Perdóname! (Excuse me!). All very English, very useful, and very ‘say-able’!
3. Where is….?!
We recommend learning two key phrases:
Necesito ir a… means “I need to go to…”. It’s easy for us to say because it’s like saying ‘necessity’ with an ‘o’ on the end. So Necesito ir al baño means “I need to go to the loo”.
‘Toilets’ can also be called los servicios. This sounds a bit like ‘services’. Remember: Caballeros (Gentlemen), Señoras (Ladies).
¿Dónde está…? Is useful when you are asking where something is. ¿Dónde está el baño? means “Where is the toilet?”
You can use the same two phrases with anything you need to find: restaurant (el restaurante), bar (el bar), doctor (el médico), supermarket (el supermercado), cash machine (el cajero automático), etc.
You can do a lot of shopping without actually needing to ask questions. The two main phrases are: ¿Cuánto cuesta? = “How much does it cost?” and ¿Tiene…? = “Do you have ……?”. Then you might say ¡Es demasiado caro! – “It’s too expensive!
So a conversation might go like this:
¿Tiene un plano de la ciudad? Do you have a map of the town?
¿Cuánto cuesta? “How much does it cost?”
Cinco pesos. “Five pesos”
¡Es demasiado caro! “It’s too expensive!”
Try to learn numbers 1 – 10 and multiples of 10 for shopping and eating out: Skip to the vocabulary at the end for these.
One thing is a must: ‘a table for two’ = una mesa para dos.
Tourist areas of Cuba have menus in English which can be helpful. You could simply say ¿Puedo ver un menú, por favor?, which means “Can I see a menu please?”. Or drop the puedo ver and just say un menu, por favor.
There are too many different foods to list but here are the basics to keep you from starving:
- Breakfast – Desayuno
- Lunch – Almuerzo
- Dinner – Cena
- Bread – Pan
- Steak – Bistec or Bistec de Palomillo (Butterflied steak) is a Cuban speciality.
- Hamburger – Hamburgesa
- Chicken – Pollo
- Prawns – Gambas
- Fish – Pescado
- Lobster – Langosta or Langosta a la Cubana (Cuban style Lobster) is to die for
- Vegetables – vegetales – Cubans eat a lot of rice (arroz) and black beans (moros)
- Cheese – queso
- Salad – ensalada
- Chips – patatas fritas
- Crisps – papas fritas
- Eggs – huevos
- Ham – jamón
- Tomatoes – tomates
Here are some more Cuban specialities – be sure to look out for them!
- Empanadas (empanadillas) and Pastelitos – meat-stuffed, fried or baked turnovers similar to Italian calzones.
- Arroz con pollo – chicken with rice
- Boliche – stuffed pot roast
- Boniato con mojo – sweet potatoes in a garlic citrus sauce
- Cocido de garbanzos – chickpea stew
- Congri – red beans and rice
- Dulce de leche – caramel sauce from sweet milk used to flavour biscuits, cakes and sweets
- Flan – a pie or tart, often with a custard base, used as both a sweet and savoury dish
- Huevos habaneros – eggs Havana-style with tomatoes, peppers and cumin
- Caldosa – chicken soup
- Maduros – fried sweet plantains
- Moros y cristianos – black beans and rice
- Pan con bistec – a steak sandwich on pressed Cuban bread
- Pan con lechón – a roasted pork sandwich on pressed Cuban bread
- Pulpeta– Cuban meatloaf
- Rabo encendido – oxtail stew
At the bar, you just say Me gustaría un/a… por favor (“I would like a … please). If you want a beer, try Me gustaría una cerveza por favor (“I would like a beer please”). Most alcoholic drinks sound much the same in Spanish, so just ask for what you want (Me gustaría un whisky por favor).
You can even be less formal and simply say the name of the drink you want, followed by por favor (Una cerveza, por favor). And “mojito” is mojito in Spanish and any other language.
Other drinks you may need are:
- Vino tinto – red wine
- Vino blanco -white wine
- Agua sin gas – still water
- Agua con gas – sparkling water
- Té – tea
- Café con leche – coffee with milk
- Ginebra y tónica – gin and tonic
- Cuba libre – rum and coke
When you want to leave the bar or restaurant don’t forget la cuenta por favor (the bill please) and leave them a tip (10% is a good guide).
7. I need a doctor
Hopefully your Cuban holiday will be free from medical problems. But if you’re unlucky enough to need them, here are two useful phrases: Necesito un médico means “I need a doctor.” You can then say Me duele aquí which means “It hurts here,” then point to the part of your body that has gone wrong.
This will help in the chemist shop (farmacía) and will allow people to understand the nature of your problem while an English speaking person can be found, as is usually the case at hospitals and medical centres.
Cuba uses two official currencies: The CUP (Cuban Peso) and the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). As a tourist, you’ll use the CUC a lot more frequently.
The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the more valuable of the two. It’s value is pinned to the U.S. dollar so that 1 CUC will always equal 1 U.S. dollar.
The CUC is available in bills of 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100. You should always have the lower denomination bills to hand.
The Cuban Peso (CUP) (also locally known as moneda nacional) is used by residents of Cuba. As a tourist, you probably won’t use this one very often, but it may benefit you to carry a small amount of CUP for small expenses like street food, bus fare, flea market finds. For comparison, 1 CUP is only worth about 4 U.S. cents.
The CUP has the same bill denominations that the CUC has, but you can find larger bills of 200, 500 and 1000 pesos.
Tip: the CUC bills don’t have faces. If you expect to receive CUC in a transaction and see a face on the note, you will be getting CUP instead! Also, look for the words “pesos convertibles” right at the centre of the note.
9. Getting a taxi
The most common taxis are the yellow cabs of Cubataxi. These official cabs charge around CUC$1 as the starting fare, then CUC$0.50 per kilometre. Other taxis might be Ladas, old American cars or modern Toyotas. Always agree a fare before you get in. Say ¿Cuánto cuesta para ir a ….? (“How much does it cost to go to…?”)
10. Saying goodbye
Adiós is the most common way to say goodbye in Spanish. You can also say Hasta luego which means “See you later.” There is also Hasta pronto which is “See you soon,” and this is probably something you will want to say when you are saying goodbye to Cuba.
It can be fun to try a bit of Spanish, but if you’re really unsure, you can just say, ¿Habla inglés? which means “Do you speak English?” If you feel all at sea, just gasp ¡no entiendo! (I don’t understand)!
There will still be plenty of other chances to practise your Spanish on your amazing Cuban holiday.
Basic Spanish vocabulary
Hola (ola) – Hello
Buenas días (boo-wen-as dee-as) – Good morning/Good day
Buenas tardes (boo-wen-as tar-des) – Good afternoon/Good evening
Buenas noches (boo-wen-as notches) – Goodnight
Me llamo… (may yamo) – My name is…
¿Cómo te llamas? (¿como tay yamas?) – What’s your name?
¿Como estás? (como es-tarss) – How are you?
¿Qué tal? (kay tal) – How’s it going?
Por favor (por favor) – Please
Gracias (gras-e-as) – Thank you
Sí (see) – Yes
No (noh) – No
Lo siento (low see-en-toe) – Sorry
Perdóname (pair-donna-may) – I beg your pardon
Hasta luego (asta loo-eggo) – See you later
Me gusta (may goos-ta) – I like it
Vale (val-ay) – Ok
Adios (A-dee-os) – Goodbye
Necesito ir al baño (Nes-es-eeto eer al banyo) – I need to go to the bathroom
Necesito los servicios (Nes-es-eeto los sair-viss-ee-os) – I need the loo
Necesito ayuda (Nes-es-eeto eye-yooda) – I need help
¿Dónde está el banco? (Donday estar el banco) – Where is the bank?
¿Dónde está la estación? (Donday estar la es-tas-ee-on) – Where is the station?
¿Dónde está el bar? (¿Donday estar el bar?) – Where is the bar?
¿Dónde está la restaurante? (Donday estar la rest-ow-rant-ay) – Where is the restaurant?
¿Dónde está la caja automática? (Donday estar la caha ow-toe-matic-a) – Where is the cash machine?
¿Dónde está la playa? (Donday estar la ply-a) – Where is the beach?
¿Cuánto cuesta? (Kwunto kwesta) – How much does it cost?
¿Hay algo más barato? (Eye algo mas bar-a-to) – Do you have anything cheaper?
¿Tiene pan? (¿Tee-en-ay pan?) – Do you have any bread?
¿Tiene leche fresca? (Tee-en-ay letch-ay fresca) – Do you have fresh milk?
¿Tiene sellos? (Tee-en-ay sel-yos) – Do you have stamps?
Uno dos tres cuatro cinco seis siete ocho nueve diez (Oono, dos, tres, kwutro, sinko, sais, see-et-ay, otcho, noo-wev-ay, diez) – 12345678910
Una mesa para dos (Oona maysa para dos) – A table for two
¿Puedo ver un menú? (¿Poo-ed-o ver un menoo) – May I see a menu?
¿Se puede comer? (Say poo-ed-ay comair) – Can we eat?
¿Tiene desayuno? (Tee-en-ay des-eye-oo-no) – Are you serving breakfast?
Café con leche (café con letch-ay) – Coffee with milk
Pan tostado (pan tost-addo) – Toast
Huevos revueltos/fritos (oo-wev-os revoo-el-tas/freetos) – Scrambled/fried eggs
Mantequilla (man-te-kee-la) – Butter
Zumo de naranja (sumo day naran-ha) – Orange Juice
Quería una cerveza (Ker-ee-a oona sair-vay-sa) – I would like a beer
íDame una botella de vino blanco/tinto! (Dar-me oona bot-elya day veeno blanco/tinto) – Give me a bottle of white/red wine!
Sin hielo por favor (sin yelo por favor) – Without ice please
Agua con gas (ag-wa con gas) – Sparkling water
Agua sin gas (ag-wa sin gas) – Still water
Agua del grifo (ag-wa del greefo) – Tap water
Una cerveza (oona sair-vay-sa) – A beer
Una caña (oona canya) – A small draught beer
Un quinto (oon kin-to) – A bottle of beer
Una jarra (oona harra) – A pint of beer (half litre jug)
Necesito un médico (nes-es-ito oon medico)- I need a doctor
Me duele aquí (May doo-el-ay akee) – It hurts here
¿Donde está la clínica? (Don-day estar la cli-ni-ca) – Where is the hospital?
Tengo mal al estómago (tengo mal a la est-om-ago) – I have a tummy ache
Me marea (May mar-ay-a) – I feel sick
Una medusa me picó (oona med-oo-sa may pee-ko) – I’ve been stung by a jellyfish
Tengo una resaca (Tengo oona res-ack-a) – I have a hangover
Queríamos ir a…. (Ker-ee-am-os eer a…) – We want to go to….
¿Cuánto cuesta para ir a? (Kwunto koo-es-ta para eer a…) – How much to go to…
Una propina (Oona prop-ee-na) – A tip
¿Vive usted en Havana? (Vee-vay oos-ted en Havana) – Do you live in Havana?
Me gusta su coche (May goos-ta soo cotch-ay) – I like your car
¿Puedo abrir la ventana? (poo-ed-o abrir la vent-ana) – May I open a window?
Una habitación con baño (Oona abi-tas-eon con banyo) – A room with a bathroom
Esta noche (Esta notch-ay) – Tonight
Para cuatro noches (Para kwatro notches) – For four nights
Con ducha (Con doo-cha) – With a shower
Dos camas sencillas (Dos camas sen-sil-yas) – Two single beds
Una habitación doble (Oon abi-tas-eon doblay) – A double room
Cama de matrimonio (Cama day matri-moni-o) – Double bed
Un billete sencillo a Habana (Oon bil-yet-ay sen-sil-yo a Havana) – A single ticket to Havana
Un billete de ida y vuelta (Oon bil-yet-ay day eeda ee voo-el-ta) – A return ticket
Habla inglés? (Abla ingles) – Do you speak English?
No hablo español (Abla es-pan-yol) – I don’t speak Spanish
Hablo un poco español (Ablo oon pocko es-pan-yol) – I speak a Little Spanish
No entiendo (No en-tee-end-o) – I don’t understand