Cuban Slang: My Cuban Spanish Travel Guide

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I’ve traveled all throughout Latin America and each country has its own way to speak. However, Cuban Spanish and especially Cuban slang has been one of the most challenging.

I often joke that Cuban Spanish is like English in Scotland – although I speak English, it is so different in Scotland even I need subtitles to watch Scottish movies.

The same is true for the Cuban language.

It’s so different some Spanish speakers call it Cubañol. 

But it’s not simply that Cubans, speak quickly or with a Cuban accent.

It’s the Cuban slang, and there’s so much of it. And Google Translate doesn’t understand it either.

 

How is Cuban Spanish Different?

Cuban slang travel guide. Cuban Spanish is different, here's what you need to know when traveling Cuba.
Vinales Valley is 3 hours west of Havana.

What I have loved about learning Spanish is that every letter is pronounced. I studied French in school and university so it has helped with Spanish.

And I found Spanish easier because I learned I need to pronounce every letter in a word.

Except in Cuba.

The Spanish language of Cubans defies all rules I previously learned. It was time to start over.

Is Cuban Spanish Different From Mexican?

Cuban Spanish is different because it was influenced by the immigrants from the Canary Islands and Andalusia in Spain in the 19th and 20th centuries.

If you visit these regions you’ll notice the way they speak is very different from Madrid and other cities in Spain.

In Cuba Spanish isn’t from one region, but a reflection of its history of immigration and slavery.

In many ways Cuban Spanish cannot be compared to Mexico or Spain and is most similar to the nearby islands of Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

And the accents are different throughout the island: Santa Clara, Havana, Holguin, Trinidad, you’ll find some more cities appear to speak clearly than others. 

 
A Cuban slang travel guide, Cuban Spanish is different than other countries. Here's what you need to know.
Paseo del Prado in Old Havana

Why is Cuban Spanish So Hard to Understand?

Cubans often drop letters or replace them with others. They don’t always fully pronounce consonants so it can sound like they are talking with something in their mouth.

For me, sometimes words sound familiar but not completely recognizable.

How Does Cuban Spanish Sound?

  • Cubans sometimes pronounce Rs as Ls if it’s at the end of words.
  • Vs become Bs so viene is biene
  • Often the S in a word isn’t pronounced, like in fresco which becomes freco
  • If a word ends in ado or ada sometimes the d sound is skipped, cansado becomes cansao.

Many people think Cuba is a small Caribbean country but it’s the largest island in the Caribbean.

Remember it comes to Cuban Spanish there are tons of regionalisms so how people speak in Viñales is different from Camagüey.

People say vosotros, which I’ve only heard in Spain, is used on some parts of the island. I personally haven’t heard it.

But it makes sense because the history of immigration and slavery has brought people from many cultures that each influenced what Cuban Spanish is today.

Particularly in the East such as Santiago de Cuba or Baracoa, as there were so many plantations, it has the heaviest concentration of Cubans from African decent as Cuba was a hub for slavery.

Here Spanish is more similar to the Dominican Republic than Havana. In western Cuba there was more immigration from Spain and other European countries.

So there is no one Cuban dialect.

And as my experience is almost entirely limited to living in Havana I can only speak to what Cuban slang I’ve learned over the last year.

 
Cuban slang travel guide. Cuban Spanish is different, here's what you need to know when traveling Cuba.
Plaza de la Revolucion in Vedado, Havana

Essential Cuban Slang for Travelers

  • Absorvente: Cuban Spanish for straw, also known as popote in the rest of Latin America and papillo in Spain.
  • Aché: have good luck, someone would tiene un aché.
  • Ahorita vs Ahora: Ahora means now, and usually putting the diminutive “ita” on a word means smaller or less. So you’d think ahorita means right now. And it does in other Spanish speak countries. Not true in Cuba or Puerto Rico. I had a few arguments in Cuba because I thought when someone said they’d be over ahorita it meant right away. My friend Rease also experienced this with Puerto Rican Spanish and she explained “It generally means within the same day, and no more specific than that.”  I usually wait 5 hours when someone says they’ll be over ahorita so she’s right on this one.
  • Almendrón: The only cars that run as collectivo taxis. The word literally means almond, the shape of these big old American cars.
  • Oye: (o-yay) It simply means hey. It’s often used to get someone’s attention.
 

ALSO READ: The Story Behind the Famous Cuba Libre Cocktail

  • Candela: To be in trouble. The first time I heard estas en candela it was not a good thing because someone had an issue with me. It’s also used as te vas a meter en candela to say you will have a problem.
  • Chucho: to tease someone or to mess with someone in a friendly way by joking around.
  • Cojones: it literally means balls, but more often refers to strength or bravery.
  • Coño: (cone-yo) means, wow or damn. It’s often used to respond to a person who is telling you a crazy story, and the syllables are usually dragged out the more unbelievable the story.
  • Chevere: cool, it’s common to hear que chevere. This is also used in Colombian slang.
  • Cola: Although it means tail, in Cuban slang it means a line or a queue, so haciendo cola is to form a line. Cubans are one of the few countries in Latin America that actually respect the rules of a line, perhaps because they are always waiting in one.
  • Dale: Used in many other countries, no one says dale more than Pitbull. It’s used at the end of a conversation “dale, dale, chao” or it can mean “let’s go” or hurry. It seems always to be used In a rushed conversation and said more than once.
  • Gao: home
  • Guagua: (wa-wa) the public bus, in Cuban Spanish, comes from the Canary Islands. The buses in Cuba are almost always packed to the brim with people busting out.I haven’t taken them often as my friends refuse to use them. Beware there are many pickpockets and women need to be wary of fellow travelers with wandering hands.
  • Jamar:  the verb to eat, it replaces comer.

Learn more about Cuban food

  • Fosforera: everyone smokes in Cuba yet no one ever seems to have a lighter. In other countries it’s more common to say encendedor.
  • Ratico/Momentico: In a little while, or in a moment. My Cuban friends laugh when I say “momentito,” which is the more common diminutive in other Latin America countries. Cubans understand the “ito” ending but “ico” is more commonly used in Cuba.Like ahorita, ratico basically means something will happen today but who knows whether it’s in an hour or eight.
  • Menudo: you may know menudo as a Mexican tripe soup or Ricky Martin’s boyband. But in Cuba, menudo means “small change” and usually moneda nacional. For example a cafecito only costs 1 CUP and when heading to a cafeteria in Havana my friend asked me if I had any menudo. I was confused as to why he was asking if I had soup.
CHECK OUT: 21 Cuban Drinks
  • Pelota: Cuban Spanish for baseball but Cuban Spanish also uses beisbol.
  • Pinchar: to work, and la pincha is the job. Far more commonly used than trabajar.
  • Por izquierda: to the left, but in Cuban slang it means under the table, specifically referring to the black market, which thrives in Cuba. If you can’t get something in a store a local may be able to get it for you in la calle por izquerida.
  • Pulover or ticher – it means t-shirt. Both words influenced by English, the first time I heard ticher I wondered why I needed a teacher. Fortunately my friend Rease, who has spent time in Puerto Rico, knew it was t-shirt not teacher. I also learned chor were shorts, although I thought Cuban Spanish was spelled chorts and they were just not pronouncing the final T and S.
  • Que vuelta: how are you.
 

ALSO READ: What Makes Cuban Coffee Special

  • Que bolá: While you may say que tal or como estas with friends in other countries, it’s common for friends to ask que bolá, or how are you in Cuba. You’re sure to get a few laughs if you drop this with people you know.
  • Tareco: This is used when something is broken and cannot be used. If a car is broken down it’s tareco… because it cannot be used and is not good for anything.
  • Ultimo: This isn’t really a Cuban slang word but it’s important if you wait in line. And Cuba is all about waiting in line. For everything.  Lining up for something in most Latin American countries is chaos.Most locals cutting in front of whomever they can – most often the quiet Canadian girl. However, Cuba has the most civilized process of any country in the world.When you walk toward the back of the line ask who is el ultimo? or the last person. You then become the last. You must remember that person as they may walk away or step aside to talk to friends. But they are still in line. So you go after them. Cubans do not allow cutting in line. You must go to the end.
 

Cuban slang travel guide. Cuban Spanish is different, here's what you need to know when traveling Cuba.

Cuban Spanish Terms of Endearment

The Cuban language tends to be quite affectionate speaking to people even if they don’t know them well.

For example, I go to a nearby hotel to work as it has the best (I think) wifi in Cuba, and one of the servers often refers to me as mi corazon. 

She’s not the only one.

I’ve noticed other terms like mi vida when with my friends too. ‘The Cuban culture is a fascinating mix of being quite formal and respectful when it comes to elders, and quite endearing when speaking to strangers.

  • Pipo: (pee-po) it’s similar to guy, or che in Argentinean slang. Ironically they don’t use che here even though his face is everywhere.
  • Tata/Titi: Similar to honey or sweetie. I was initially concerned when someone I was dating who often called me tata, also called the restaurant waitress tata. What did that mean? Were we as close at this waitress we just met? But as I mentioned above Cubans use these words with everyone, strangers or girlfriend.
  • Acere: Only used in Cuba, it comes from Nigerian influence and it’s the equivalent of dude/bro. You could say “Acere, que bola?” when meeting up with friends.
  • Amigo mio/amiga mia: Cubans can be very precise in how they explain their relationships with other. They may have acquaintances or friends and both are amigos. But if someone is an amigo mio it is someone they trust.
  • Mami: although it technically means mother, in Cuban slang it is more similar to babe. A man only says this to a woman he’s in a relationship with – unless he’s catcalling her on the street.
  • Papi: similar to mami, but women say this to men. I just can’t do this, it feels far too weird.
 
Cuban slang travel guide. Cuban Spanish is different, here's what you need to know when traveling Cuba.
Shop at Playa del Este beach, 30 minutes from Havana.

Cuban Spanish Words That Aren’t So Nice

 

  • Yuma: the Cuban equivalent of gringo. The name comes from the movie 3:10 to Yuma, which was shown in Cuba in the late 50s when almost all movies were coming from the USSR.  About a fictional town in Arizona, it was so popular that many Cubans refer to the United States as La Yuma. However, Yuma applies to any foreigner or tourist. People argue its origin (this is one of my favourite Cuban movies where they argue about it) and whether it is a derogatory word or not – all I know is my friends tell me not to call myself yuma because it’s negative.
  • Tacaño: a person who doesn’t pay. There’s always one of them in a group. They like to come out while everyone is buying rounds but suddenly disappear when it’s their turn.
  • Jinetero or Jinetera: It literally means jockey, and refers to a hustler. It’s often a Cuban looking to scam a tourist, either by getting them to pay for drinks or taking a commission on sending them somewhere such as a restaurant, bar or casa particular. It also refers to Cubans who pretend to fall in love with tourists in pursuit of money or immigration to their country. A pinguero is a male who dates male tourists. At it’s most extreme all of these Cuban slang words can mean prostitute so be wise and don’t call someone this unless you are trying to insult them. 
  • Fula: To describe someone as troublesome, crazy or messed up as esta fula. But, fula also means money so you need to pay attention to the context.
  • Monga: Cuban slang for an idiot.
  • Papaya: Unlike other Latin American countries, this does not mean the tropical fruit. Instead papaya means vagina. I heard there is a restaurant in Havana that offers a “papaya pie” on a tourist menu and servers snicker when yumas order it. If you want the fruit make sure you ask for fruta bomba and in restaurants stick to Cuban flan.
  • Bollo: also means vagina
  • Joder: to fuck. The verb coger replaces it in other countries and regions in Mexico. But, similar to Spain, in Cuba coger simply means to grab or take everything from a bus to money out of the ATM. You would not say this in Mexico.
  • Singar: the same as joder. It is primarily used in Spanish speaking countries in the Caribbean. If you want to call someone a motherfucker use singao.
  • Follar: the same as joder and singar. There are many verbs in Cuba to talk about sex. Pichi and Yowa have a popular song about going to Follankele – a mythical place, basically propositioning a woman for sex, but she’s not obligated, only if she wants to go.
 
Cuban slang travel guide. Cuban Spanish is different, here's what you need to know when traveling Cuba.
Russian Lada

How to Curse in Cuban Spanish

These words should be used only amongst friends as they are Cuban swear words. In Cuba you may hear men use these words but it’s not as common for women.

Friends didn’t want to teach me these words as women can be looked down upon for using them.

Coming from Canada I found this a bit unfair, so I made the compromise of first only using them in my apartment in Havana with friends.

They all laughed when I texted “que pinga hay una cucaracha in mi renta.”

And I find I actually need these words more often as I learn how to live in Havana because nothing is easy.

  • Pinga: (ping-a) The single most common Cuban slang? I think so. Although it literally means dick. I find people use it more to replace fuck or shit. You could say pinga if you burn your finger or drop a plate.You can also use pinga as a verb, so you may hear Empingado. Esta de pinga means it’s shit. Or que pinga eso. If you’re not paying attention someone may say you are comiendo pinga. Or que pinga de pasa, which means what the fuck is wrong with you? Pinga is my favourite Cuban slang word, I do use it outside my house now but only with friends.
  • Despingar: The same message that told me I was en candela, followed up with te voy a despingar. It means I’m going to kick your ass. But don’t worry nothing happened. It was an empty threat and I knew that as there are still penalties for assaulting tourists.
 
Cuban slang travel guide. Cuban Spanish is different, here's what you need to know when traveling Cuba.
Hemingway outside the biggest mojito tourist trap in Old Havana.

Piropo – The Cuban Spanish Art of Catcalling

As in many Latin countries, Cuban men have no problem gawking or commenting on women’s looks or offering “helpful” suggestions.

It’s called piropo (peer-oh-poh) and whether you like it or not it’s a fact of life. It happens everywhere from the small neighbourhood streets to Havana beaches.

If you’re walking without a man, it’s a free for all to talk to you.

I have been very lucky in that most men simply call me beautiful or something similar as I walk by.

Maybe it’s my age or the fact that this type of Cuban slang is so specific I don’t understand.

But I have heard stories from Cuban women and Spanish speaking female tourists that is pretty terrible.

Odd Phrases in the Cuban Language

These are Cuban sayings that can be translated to English but still don’t make sense!

  • Me importa tres pepinos – I care three cucumbers or I don’t care.

I hope I didn’t overwhelm you with too much Cuban slang. But if there’s anything I’ve missed I’d love to hear it in the comments below.

Pin It For Later: Cuban Slang

Join the Conversation

  1. I SO wish I’d had this guide when I went to Cuba!! My husband and I were living in Argentina when we visited Cuba, so we thought we were okay at Spanish – haha, not so in Cuba! Before we left, a friend had described the way Cubans spoke as similar to Portuguese (that sound of dropping the “d” at the end of words) and I think she was spot on! We got by, but man was it hard to understand Spanish there!!

  2. The description of some slang words is nor accurate and there is also some misspelled words. Cola is not a slang term. In standard Spanish cola also means queue. So it is a best term to describe a line of persons waiting for something and its rules. Fila only means row or line it doesn’t describe all the features of a queue.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Agreed not everything here is slang, some words are those used in Cuba but not common elsewhere like momentico vs momentito.

      But I’d love to know what words are misspelled so I can correct them. My Cuban friends spelled the words for me so it’s entirely possible they aren’t right.

    2. Ayngelina Author says:

      I think it depends on what country you’re in. In some cases fila does mean waiting in line. But the beauty of Latin America is that every country has its own nuances and Spanish is a bit different everywhere you go.

    3. Karla Estephania Fajardo Garcia says:

      Good summary! I’ve been there and I heard all the words you mentioned before. Just a little correction here:
      CANDELA not only means trouble, it’s FIRE as well.
      JINETERO Y JINETERA* you lost an “E” in the middle. It can be used as a verb, Jinetear = Prostitute
      “Oye, atiéndeme cuando te hablo” – means, pay attention, listen to me.

      1. Ayngelina Author says:

        Thanks SO much for your comment, I knew jinetero had an E I’m not sure how I missed it all this time.

        The longer I’m in Cuba the more I see uses for candela, it’s probably the second most useful word 🙂

        1. Alina G Laguna says:

          La candela means you are the master at something!

  3. I’m Cuban and very sadly see your opinion about cuban people. I would like you to know that most of the words that you are referring to, are only used by low class people with no education or no respect for others and they are mainly used in marginal places by marginal people.

    Unfortunately it looks funny to you and some other people but for Cubans like me this is a disgrace. Most of the popular poblation that interact with foreign tourists in Cuba are like that and unfortunately this language is increasing in the last few years due to the lack of ethical and moral principles.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I don’t think the use of words reflects lack of ethics or morals. In every country in the world people use slang and profanity.
      There are some words that I use here with friends in Havana that I would never use in more formal settings. Just as in Canada I may swear with my friends but I wouldn’t do so in many other situations.

      But Spanish in Cuba, even the slang and curse words are different than other countries so it’s important for people to understand what is being said.

    2. Sad to see the very small minority of Cubans on here, the ones that are shameful of their country and their people. We ALL speak like this. The rich, the hard working, the poor, ‘los frikis,’ even people of power.
      Do not write off our language and our form of expression due to ‘being poor class.’ I’ve heard the kind of shameful insults you made before and sounds like you come from a communist family and I feel sorry for you. If you lived like the other 99%, you would be as agitated and fed up with the system and people like you who support it. Stay true to your roots and get off your USA high horse.

      To the original poster of the article: Thank you for giving me many laughs throughout the read, I’m glad you enjoyed my wonderful country and I hope that the people treated you well! Much love from Miami xo

      1. Ayngelina Author says:

        Thanks so much Brian. I really do love Cuba and hope to return again soon once it is possible. And I haven’t been to Miami yet (well only the airport) but I am so interested to go now.

  4. Yuma in Arizona is not a fictitious town. Its a real city. Just an FYI. 😉
    Been going to Cuba (specifically La Habana) for over 10 years. I feel you did a great job explaining Habanerisms bc as someone else noted, not all cubans speak like this. But It’s definitely Havana slang. No where else in Cuba have I heard someone refer to their house as their Gao – only in Havana. 🙂

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Thanks so much Letty, I really do try to share as much as I can. First with Havana as it’s the most popular city outside Varadero.
      Next month I’m heading east to explore a bit so I’ll have more to share from that side of the island.

    2. Ayngelina Author says:

      Letty I checked with some others and they confirmed that Gao is used in Holguin, Trinidad, Matzanas and Santa Clara.

  5. Ruben Hidalgo says:

    Wow, this is a blast from the past, I immigrated from Cuba, over 50 years ago, I had forgotten most of the slangs you posted on this page. Some of them must be less than 50 years old, because I just don’t remember them. The fact that the eastern part of the country has a completely different accent from the western section hit me like a ton of bricks, because as a youngster whenever we traveled to Havana, people would ask me what part of Oriente province I was from? I think the name was changed to Holguín province.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Yes! I visited Holguin in March, it is a beautiful province and actually a very popular spot for Canadians to visit.

      You are right they renamed the province to Holguin but I find at least half the locals still call it El Oriente.

      1. Que volá
        Needs an accent mark

        1. Ayngelina Author says:

          You are right!

  6. Hi ..I’m communicating with a cubano ive known for some time
    ..he mentiond LOKI at the end of a message…i asked what it meant…i have not seen an english translation for this word as its a cuban word,i understand….what is its real meaning?

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Hmm did he spell it that way or is it pronounced that way.

  7. Marc Luc Carrier says:

    Vosotros is also used in Argentina, probably because of its vicinity with Portuguese speaking Brazil.

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