A Few Tips for Speaking Spanish in Mexico

“I’m done.” I said in Spanish as I smiled and looked at our waitress, “Muchas gracias!”, I continued, beaming at my Spanish prowess. She smiled back — actually she looked like she was struggling to hold in laughter when I realized my error — I had just told her I was done like DEAD. Ack! The embarrassment of the situation got me, I smiled sheepishly and dragged Tom to the exit to make a quick escape.

When traveling in a foreign country it is important (and so much more fun!) to try speaking the language — even just the tiniest effort can make all the difference. So far the Mexicans seem to be pretty encouraging, they happily smile and nod while we stumble through our limited Spanish. They even are nice enough to pretend that we are making sense!

When you are learning a new language you are going to make a lot of mistakes, that it just the way it goes and, of course, the only way to learn is to make a few errors. However, there are some things that would be nice to know before you start chatting away in another language.

Here are a few tips for Mexican Spanish that you might want to keep in mind to prevent awkward speaking situations:


ME ME ME
This first person pronoun ( “Yo” which means “I”) is often over-used by beginners. If you end up “Yo-yo ing” too much it starts to sound very vain and self-centered. “I this and I that…” starts to sound like ” Me, me ME!” to Mexican ears. Since verbs, when conjugated correctly, implicitly hold who is speaking, try to drop pronouns as they are not necessary. Children are taught at a very young age to drop the “Yo” pronoun and travelers should too.

I want….
A verb that is picked up very quickly by travelers is “querer” which means to want. “Yo quiero” (or just “Quiero”) translates to “I want…”, a very useful phrase except for the that fact that when used it actually translates to quite a blunt request. A better and more polite term to use is “Quisiera….” (Kee-See-EH-Rah) which means “I would like…”. This term is extremely useful and is viewed by the Mexicans as a much more polite.

The dangers of asking for dairy products…who knew?

Mexico has a TON of sexual innuendos. A lot of them seem to focus on the male anatomy. “Leche”, milk in Spanish, is a slang term for semen. If you need to purchase milk do NOT say “Tiene leche?” ( Do you have milk?) or you are sure to hear giggles erupt around you. To prevent this type of embarrassment the best way to ask is to say, “Is there milk?” (Hay leche? which is pronounced Ahee Lay-Chay). There is the same type of situation for eggs, known as “huevos”, which can refer to testicles (ah…machismo culture at its finest). You’ll sometimes hear little old ladies ask for “blanquillos” (little white ones) instead of using this offensive term.

But it sounds the same!
Many Spanish words sound very similar to English words which makes it easy to improvise and try out a word that sounds like it should be correct in Spanish. It is great to get in there and try, in fact, that is what you should be doing — but a word of caution. Words that sound similar can have totally different meanings in Spanish than in English. For example in English we say “I’m embarrassed”. “Embarazada” in Spanish means that you are pregnant. A rather large difference there, right?

Fumbling and messing up are all part of the learning process but sometimes it is much nicer to have a heads up before you stick your foot in your mouth!

“No Wrong Turns” chronicles Kelsey and her husband’s road trip — in real time — from Canada to the southern tip of South America in their trusty red VW Golf named Marlin.

Try the Fish Taco: Baja’s Favorite Food

Maybe it’s just me, but the first time I heard the words “fish” and “taco” together I felt rather nauseous. But, the ol’ fish taco is definitely Baja’s favorite and most famous meal — be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. Just about everywhere you look there is a taco stand accompanied by a sign with a happy looking cartoon fish encouraging you to come over and try this local specialty.

The customs officer who helped us with our paperwork in Tijuana was the first person to mention the fish taco. In fact, he recommended that we eat as much fish as we could in the Baja. I don’t mind fish but it seems like a risky food to consume at an outdoor stand…really how long can shrimp sit in the sun before it becomes a hazard to someone’s health?

Rumored to be a creation of Japanese fishermen, this meal was the word on everyone’s lips by the time we reached Southern Baja. “Try the fish taco” was pretty much a daily occurrence. Usually, I am game to try most foods but for some reason I pictured this dish as a soggy taco with undercooked fish coated in a slimy sauce. I hadn’t even seen a fish taco in actuality but already this figment of my imagination had turned my stomach against it. Soon, though, curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to see whether the fish taco was any good — so I came up with a plan. This well-devised plan was to get my husband Tom to try one and let me know how it was.
I caved once I saw that the fish was deep-fried. We ordered and sat down to enjoy this famous Baja treat. I finally understood what the hype was all about — it was absolutely delicious. If you visit Baja California Sur, eating a fish taco should be on your list of things to do.

“Tacos de pescados” (fish tacos) consist of your choice of fish or shrimp deep friend then wrapped in a flour or corn tortilla. A dollop (or smothering, depends on what your prefer) of mayo is added and then it is up to you to choose from all the fixings. Your choices include: red onion, three or four types of salsa, coleslaw, cabbage, guacamole, and cucumber. Top it all off with the juice from a freshly squeezed lime and you are are ready to experience the best food in the Baja.

A few things to keep in mind:

Eat on the Street
The best “tacos de pescados” are found at the small stands located on the corners of busy streets or tucked away in the middle of town. It might be dusty with only one plastic table to sit at and no ambiance whatsoever but these little vendors can create a meal that will put any five star restaurant to shame.

Pile up your Plate and Save Your Pesos
You can load up your plate with as much of the fixings as you want — it’s not only allowed it’s expected! The first time we ate at a taco stand we tried a little of everything, then we looked around and noticed that everyone had their plates piled high. This is a great way to save money traveling since fish tacos cost around $1.25 US (12.5 pesos) each. Get two and create a great meal that will see you through most of the day.

Eat Right Away

You have to eat them right away while they are piping hot — deep-fried anything doesn’t taste very good even twenty minutes later.

The Spice Factor
The green salsa tends to be way hotter than red salsa.

Get Messy
And, finally, eating a fish taco is a messy process. The taco falls apart, juices will run down your arms–if you haven’t used at least four napkins during this meal you might have missed the beauty of the fish taco.

“No Wrong Turns” chronicles Kelsey and her husband’s road trip — in real time — from Canada to the southern tip of South America in their trusty red VW Golf named Marlin.

No Wrong Turns: Accommodations and Restaurants in Todos Santos

Todos Santos, the little town I mentioned in my last post, offers a quiet escape from the typical vacation destination of Cabo San Lucas. This small town is home to a mix of Mexicans, artists, surfers and ex-pats and offers some of the best surfing in the Baja. Pair that with great places to eat, interesting galleries, beautiful beaches and cheap beer and you have a pretty perfect vacation spot.

To get here you will need to fly into the San Jose Del Cabo Airport and either rent a car or hire a taxi. It is more cost efficient to rent a car and the SJD airport has numerous car rental agencies to choose from. The highway from Cabo San Lucas to Todos Santos is apparently the most dangerous road in Mexico, so make sure you are prepared to focus on the journey ahead. If you are tired after your flight, spend a night in Cabo San Lucas and head out the next day refreshed and ready to enter the madness that is Mexican driving.

Once you arrive in Todos Santos, you will find that there are numerous places to stay as well as some truly great places to eat. Be advised that most of Baja California Sur has been affected by the influx of foreign money, so prices are higher than those found in mainland Mexico but they are less expensive that Cabo. That being said, depending on the time of year you travel, here you might be able to negotiate lower room costs, especially if you are planning on a longer-term stay.

Where to Stay: Short -Term
Don’t be surprised to find the hotels in Todos Santos starting at about $45US a night for pretty basic accommodations. The Maria Bonita Hotel, located at the corner of Colegio Militar and Hidalgo, offers clean rooms with hot showers for around $50US per night. The couple who manage the hotel are very friendly and will happily encourage all of your Spanish speaking attempts. Be warned this hotel is located on a main street so it can be quite loud at night. There also happens to be a laundromat below the hotel which also contributes to the noise by running at all hours of the day and night.

Hotel California….nope it’s not the one from the Eagles song though the rumors about it have run rampant in the past few years. This hotel, found on Calle Juarez, was one of the first hotels in Todos Santos and is now, after upgrades, renovations and an ownership change, one of the busiest hotels here with a full restaurant, bar and its own souvenir shop. This hotel tends to be full of people just off of tourist buses and the staff expects to be tipped well.

Sole Caliente is located near La Pastora beach and provides a quiet and relaxing atmosphere for those looking to get away. Run by a very amicable Italian guy named Alberto, you can expect a warm welcome and a very peaceful stay. It is worth knowing that the beach this accommodation is located by is not safe to swim in, but it is the perfect spot to whale watch during the months of March and April. Getting here is a little bit tricky to explain as there are not too many road signs out this way — email the management for detailed instructions.

Where to Stay: Long -Term
If you are looking for a mellow place to spend anywhere from a few weeks to maybe even a few months, you should definitely look into the local vacation rentals. This little town is full of them! Fully-furnished homes complete with kitchens are a great way to save money when you are traveling. Cooking for yourself lets you try your hand at creating local dishes, and with all the cheap produce around you can’t go wrong. Alternatively, if you have a bit of time, it is worth coming into to town and asking around. There is usually someone looking to rent their place out while they go home for a visit. If you are reliable and trustworthy, you’ll most likely be able to negotiate a good price. Good places to start looking or asking around are El Tecolote bookstore or Cafe Felix which are both located on Calle Juarez, the main street.

Where to Eat
Main Street Taco Stand
Please tell me you love tacos! If you do, head to the main street to the large taco stand beside the El Tecolote bookstore and dig into tacos de carne asada, burritos and the cholesterol increaser papas rellenas (Mexican stuffed potatoes). This place can feed two people for less than $8US. Unfortunately of you want to drink you will have to pick up your own beer elsewhere as they don’t serve alcohol. Be careful what you say when you eat here, the owner is fluent in English though he chooses not to speak it.

Café Todos Santos
Delicious dishes, both American and Mexican, are served at this long-standing eating establishment. Meals are a bit pricier compared to other places but the large portions make up for this. Coffee aficionados will be more than pleased to walk into this café and find a strong espresso awaiting them. They also have an amazing selection of baked goods — the banana bread is my personal favorite. To get a good cup of coffee or stop in for a mea,l take a left on Topete and then a right onto Calle Centenario to find this cafe. One thing to note: the servers at this restaurant are notoriously bad. That’s just the way it is according to the locals — you get great food but poor service. To be honest the food at the Café Todos Santos is worth it, if you can deal with the lackluster service.

Il Giardino
Ok, so it is not Mexican cuisine but if you love pizza then you will love this little restaurant. Run by an Italian family, you can enjoy oven-fired pizzas, pastas, salads and other entrees all of which can be paired with a wine from their wine list. Pizzas cost about $12 US but they can easily feed two people or, if you are starving, add an appetizer and call it an even $25 US for the both of you. This Italian eatery is located on Calle Degollado about three blocks past the Pemex station.

There are many more great hotels and restaurants to experience in Todos Santos — this is a mere sampling of what this pueblo has to offer. It is pretty amazing when such a small town has so many great hotels and restaurants….maybe that is why some people come here and never ever leave.

Next Up: What to do in Todos Santos

“No Wrong Turns”
chronicl
es Kelsey and her husband’s road trip — in real time — from Canada to the southern tip of South America in their trusty red VW Golf named Marlin.

A Lesson in Mexican Gestures

We are slowly starting to feel relatively comfortable in Mexico: things don’t seem so unusual, and both of us are starting to notice subtle things. Well…if you can call gestures in Mexico subtle.

Chins tilting, cupped palms, and a version of the “OK” sign are only a handful of the gestures that I have noticed in Mexico. I wanted to find out what they mean, so we had our our friend, Iker (a Federali turned lawyer), help clarify the meanings. He was also nice enough to pose for photos.

Here are a few gestures you might come across in Mexico:

  • Hurry Up!
    This gesture, shown by rubbing the forefinger and thumb together, does not mean money in Mexico, it means you need to get moving!
  • Expensive
    Holding the thumb and forefinger up with the back of the hand to the viewer indicates that something is expensive. You’ll see husbands making this gesture to their wives in the markets or other shopping venues.
  • Cheapskate
    If you are haggling with someone and you notice someone else nearby tapping their bent elbow consider yourself insulted. Tapping on the elbow means “stingy” or “cheap” in Mexico.
  • Cunning
    You should watch out for someone who is “colmilludo”, which loosely translates to cunning or crafty. This is indicated by tapping one’s eyeteeth which are called “colmillos” in Spanish. This gesture refers to someone that is always looking out for himself. Iker told us that it is used both positively and negatively it just depends on the context — but I got the feeling that this is rarely used as a compliment.
  • Asshole
    Yup…the one gesture you need to know the most since it resembles the Western “OK” sign. It is formed by touching the thumb and forefinger together creating a very small circle. This is extremely rude and never used to someone’s face. See the gallery below to check out our friend Iker who kindly modeled all the gestures for us…even the rude ones.
  • OK
    As mentioned above the “OK” sign is the same here as at home. Just make sure that circle you make isn’t too small!
  • Lazy
    The gesture for lazy is a cupped palm facing upwards, like you are holding something heavy. One or both hands can be used in this gesture. This is highly inappropriate because it refers to lifting “huevos” (which is Mexican slang for testicles). Basically the meaning behind this gesture is that the owner’s “balls” are so big and heavy that he can’t get up!
  • What’s up?
    People will greet you with this gesture which is often just tilting the chin up or tilting the chin up with palms upturned and a shrug. It means “What’s happening?” but you will also see it used as a general greeting. I have found even the youngest kids know this gesture and use it in replace of a verbal greeting.

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It might take awhile at first to recognize these cultural cues but once you have an idea of what to look for you will see them used all over Mexico. Gestures tend to vary from place to place so it’s probably best to use them when you are absolutely certain you know what they mean…after all, calling someone an asshole when you meant to say “OK” might not go over so well.

“No Wrong Turns” chronicles Kelsey and her husband’s road trip — in real time — from Canada to the southern tip of South America in their trusty red VW Golf named Marlin.

Mexico’s Green Angels: Your Road Trip Saviors!

Imagine you are driving happily along in Mexico, taking in the view, bopping along to some tunes, and smiling at how perfect your road trip is going. Then you notice a small noise: it gets louder and, with panic setting in, you pull over, let the car cool down and then try to start it up again to no avail. One look around confirms that you are broken down in the middle of nowhere on a desolate Mexican highway. Now what?

This situation has played over in my head since we arrived with our own car in Mexico. Breaking down in a city or town is one thing, breaking down in the middle of a deserted Mexican highway is a completely different story. We had one close call a few weeks ago when we sputtered into town after spending a couple hours surfing. We pulled into the local supermarket, got out of the car and watched as the car’s fan belt promptly fell off. We were lucky that it happened in town and that a mechanic was located only three minutes away. What if it had happened on the highway hours from town? Fortunately the Mexican government provides a “heavenly” service for motorists in distress.

The “Los Angeles Verdes” (Green Angels) are a federally funded service that provides mobile mechanics on federal and toll roads.They are available to assist with car breakdowns and accidents . Back in the pre-cellphone period, you had to wait around in hopes of catching a glimpse of one of the easily recognizable green and white trucks that patrol the highways looking to lend a hand. Now you can call the dispatch center from your cellphone to alert an “angel” of your whereabouts.

The Green Angels are equipped with gasoline, motor oil and spare parts for basic repairs. If you end up requiring more than minor adjustments they can assist with towing your vehicle to a mechanic. The towing and labor are free but you will be expected to pay for any parts you need. The Green Angels patrol highways from 8am to 6pm daily (though this information varies depending on who you ask).

Not only are these guys on-the-spot mechanics but they are trained in CPR and first aid in case of emergencies or accidents. And probably the best part of all, especially if your Spanish is still very basic, they often have a good grasp of English, making it much easier to communicate exactly what happened to your car. They can also provide information on the roads you will be taking as well as tourist information.

To contact the Green Angles dial 087 or 060 (the nationwide emergency phone number) from any TELMEX booth or a cellphone. This will connect you to the main dispatch line in Mexico City who will then radio the agent in your area. Keep in mind that they do not patrol the small roads so you should plan to stay on the main roads on your trip through Mexico. Here is a map of the routes that the Green Angels patrol.

The service is free, but it is perfectly acceptable — and greatly appreciated — to tip the agent who helps you.

“No Wrong Turns” chronicles Kelsey and her husband’s road trip — in real time — from Canada to the southern tip of South America in their trusty red VW Golf named Marlin.