Izamal. The Pyramid of Kinich Kak Moo

Communicating In The Yucatan With Locals

Communicating in the Yucatan with locals is always fun, no matter how well you know Spanish. Easier than in other parts of Mexico – at least for me -, it is also an adventure and learning opportunity.

“The Yucatan” refers to the Yucatan Peninsula, an area mostly known for the Maya Riviera, but one that includes three Mexican states: Quintana Roo, Yucatan, and Campeche. It is also home to a huge number of Ancient Maya Archaeological sites, pristine cenotes, gorgeous beaches (though overcrowded and lately filled with unsightly seaweed), and a large Indigenous Maya population.

The People of The Yucatan

People of the Yucatan are warm and friendly, and you can communicate with them through smiles and gestures, even without words. And if you have a smartphone, you can find a translation app that helps you translate complete sentences. Occasionally, the translation comes out wrong, and you may say something you didn’t intend to, which in most cases leads to a fun interaction, while locals try to guess what you really wanted to say, and teach you the difference.

I’ve been traveling through the Yucatan for about thirty years now, and had many interactions with locals. I even learned some Mayan words and phrases from them. If we interacted with the same person for several days (in Coba), we even got to a point where, using our common foreign language, Spanish, we taught them English phrases, while they taught us Mayan ones.

And communicating in the Yucatan in Spanish is easier than it would be in other parts of Mexico. Since most of the population of the Yucatan is indigenous Maya, Spanish is a second language for them. So, they speak it slower and use the correct forms of the words, making communication easier.

Below, I’ll share a few words and phrases that will help communicate with locals without pulling out the translation app (though it definitely helps to use one for more in-depth conversations). Here are a few words and phrases to know that make communication easier in the Yucatan.


Holá = hello.

While you can use it in any situation, locals will often answer with other phrases. They may say:

Buenas dias = good morning, or

Buenas tardes = good afternoon.

Although buenas dias sounds like it should be used all day, since dia means day, in Yucatan they only use the expression before noon. After 12pm noon they will use “buenas tardes”. I learned this from a Maya lady in Coba, who not answered “buenas tardes” to my “buenas dias”, but showing me the time on her watch, explained that after 12 noon it is “tardes”.

¿Como estas? = how are you? or

¿Como está (usted)?, the more formal form

To answer this, you might say:

Bien = I’m doing alright (good, well) or, more often

Muy bien = very well, I’m great.

You coul also add,

Y tu? = and you? Or

Y Usted? = same, formal.

Of course, bien and muy bien are also used as good, or well, in other situations, even as ok.

You might also hear

¿Que tal?, or ¿Que pasa? = how is it going? What’s going on?,

as a greeting, a more informal one.

To answer this, you would say:

Todo bien = all good or,

Todo va bien

Adios = goodbye

Hasta luego = see you later, goodbye

Por favor = please

Gracias = thank you

Muchas gracias = thank you very much (you’ll hear this more often in the Yucatan).

De nada = you’re welcome, no problem (literally, the phrase means “for nothing”).

Common Phrases in Spanish You Might Need To Use – Or Understand

Momentito, por favor = just a moment, please.

You’ll hear this often, in restaurants, or anywhere you might ask for something and you need to wait for it. You should use this phrase if you need to use a dictionary to answer a question.

Perdone me = excuse me

Lo siento = I’m sorry

¿Me comprende? = do you understand me?

No comprendo = I don’t understand

No se = I don’t know

¿Como se dice… en espanol? = how do you say … in Spanish?

Esta bueno = this is good

Esta malo = this is bad

Si = yes

No = no

¿Cuanto questa? = ho wmuch does it cost?

¿Que hora es? = what time is it?

Getting Around

Donde esta… ? = where is …?

El camino = the road

Por donde? = which way?

A la derecha = to the right

A la izguerda = to the left

Derecho = straight ahead

Hasta donde? = how far?

El sitio = taxi stand

El taxi = taxi

La parada de camiones (or just la parada) = bus stop

Me voy a… = I’m going to …

Quero un boleto a … = I’d like a ticket to…

Topes = speed bumps.

You’ll find them at the entrance and exit of every town and village in the Yucatan, before crosswalks, and near stores and schools. They mey be annoying when you drive, but you’ll get used to them, as long as you know to expect them.

Alto = stop

Velocidad = speed

Reducir la velocidad = slow down

Una gasolinera = gas station

Gasolina = gas

Nova = regular

Lleno, por favor = fill it up, please

Vulcanizador = tire repair shop.

You’ll see many of them along the road, they are different from a mechanic shop, since they only repair tires. Which they do at the speed of light. Driving through the Yucatan for decades, we had to use their services a few times; they work fast, and they are relatively cheap (or very cheap, depending on the location

Un mecanico = mechanic.

¿Dónde está un vulcanizador/mecanico? = where can I find a tire repair shop/mechanic?

Services And Accomodations

El banco = the bank

Cajero automatico = ATM machine

We use them more often instead of exchanging money, since the exchange rate is always the best through the ATM machines. You’l find them in any bank, or in the streets.

Casa de cambio = money exchange office

Un hotel = hotel

Un habitatión = a room

Con vista = with a view

El baño = bathroom

¿Dónde está el baño? = where is the bathroom?

If you need to ask for extra towels, soap, or toilet paper:

Papel sanitario = toilet paper

Jabon = soap

Toalla = towel

Always add por favor, so they know you need one.


El restaurante = restaurant

Una mesa = a table

La carta = the menu

Desayuno = breakfast

Comida = meal (may be used for lunch or dinner)

Especialidad de la casa = house specialty

Pescado = fish

Camarones = shrimp

Pollo = chicken

Pavo = turkey

Ajo = garlic

Con … = with …

Sin … = without …

Mantequilla = butter

Frito – fried

Empanazada = breaded

Pechuga = chicken breast

Postres = desert

Cerveza = beer

La cuenta, por favor = the bill, please.

Specialty Maya meals you will find in the Yucatan:

Cochinita pibil is one of the quintessential Yucatecan Maya dishes. It consists of slowly roasted pork in banana leaves, traditionally made in an underground oven. Achiote and bitter oranges are the main seasonings that give this dish its distinct flavor.

It is one of my all-time favorite Yucatecan dishes, along with

Pollo pibil, the same meal, but using chicken instead of pork.

Poc chuc consists of thin, marinated pork slices, quick-grilled on open coals.

They have always been a favorite with my kids, even in their most picky phases.

Salbutes and panuchos are some of the most common snacks you’ll find anywhere in the Yucatan. The base of a salbut is basically a deep-fried tortilla, while a panucho is the corn dough stuffed with refried black beans. Both may be topped with different ingredients, like cochinita, carne asada, or seafood.

Sopa de lima, literally translated as “lime soup”, is a Yucatecan specialty soup made with shredded chicken or turkey, and shredded tortilla strips. Its specific citrusy flavor (and its name) comes from limes added to it.

You’ll find these meals in any restaurant throughout the Yucatan peninsula, but you won’t always find their translation, since their names are in Mayan.

Understanding some Spanish and a few words of Mayan made our interaction with a local guide more enjoyable at Rio Bec.

In Conclusion

Communicating in the Yucatan is relatively easy, regardless of how much you understand or speak Spanish (or Mayan). Of course, most people speak English, especially in the larger towns or in the tourist zones. Even in the most remote villages you’ll find a few high-school age children whose English is good enough to communicate with.

Still, most people in small villages off the main tourist track don’t speak much English, if at all. You can wait until their kids get home from school, or try smiles and gestures, combined with a few words in Spanish.

Understanding a few words and phrases always helps. Of course, you can always use a translation app on your phone. Learn to say

No hablo espanol, pero tengo un diccionario= I don’t speak Spanish, but I have a dictionary.


Momentito, por favor,

Then use the dictionary to type what you want to say or ask in English and show them the Spanish translation if you don’t feel comfortable reading it.

Sometimes they may laugh at it, which means the app translated it funny, but they still understand it. They may repeat the phrase or sentence correctly, if they can guess what the app says. (most likely they will). Or, they may say

No comprendo.

If that happens, try forming a different sentence in English or type in the words separately. Most apps will get it. And one great thing you’ll notice about the people of the Yucatan, they are patient, they will wait for you to figure out what you want to say, and have fun teaching you the correct way to say it in Spanish.

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