Do I Need to Know Spanish in Cartagena?

Costenas Cartagena

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So you are preparing for your trip to South America. Starting your journey in the furthest north region of the continent, you suddenly ask yourself, do I need to speak Spanish in Cartagena? Should I brush up on my high school Spanish skills before taking off?

The truth is, you can get by and have a good time in Cartagena without Spanish, but the more you can learn before visiting or moving there, the better your experience will be.

What if I can’t or won’t learn Spanish?

If you are visiting Cartagena for a short trip, you may be able to get by without Spanish. 

Cartagena is a city centered around tourism, and, as such, locals are used to being around foreigners who do not speak Spanish; but just because they are used to foreigners doesn’t mean they are helpful towards them. 

The inability to communicate in the language often signifies to locals that they can take advantage of you as a tourist, and you will not protest or notice. 

Costeños are not the friendliest of people, especially in the service industry. 

Customer service employees are standoffish and not gracious in trying to communicate with foreigners. 

Even if you make an attempt to explain yourself using basic Spanish, hand gestures, etc., they will usually stare at you instead of working with you to try to understand; sometimes, they will ignore you, hoping “the problem” (aka. you) will go away. 

For this reason, the more Spanish you can speak while you are in Cartagena, the better experience you will have.

A word of caution

If you are coming for a short trip and don’t want the hassle of learning Spanish beforehand, use a reputable tour agency, travel concierge, or local translator. 

Having someone that is fluent in Spanish on your side is a very helpful resource during your trip. 

Not only will they help you find the best attractions and plans, but they can ensure that you don’t get scammed or overcharged. 

If you choose to forego this help, at least avoid dangerous situations by staying within the tourist areas. 

Do not venture out beyond the walled city and beachfront areas of town. 

If you are driving around and run into trouble, chances that the tourism police or regular force will speak English are slim to none.

And to reduce altercations and getting scammed, it’s probably a good idea to use InDrive or Uber rather than taxis…here’s why.

The average Cartagenero is not particularly well educated, and they don’t usually speak English.

If you are researching online about this topic, you, like me, prefer to plan your own travels. 

If finding your own path without professional help is your jam, I highly suggest you pick up at least some basic Spanish before or during your travels.

One other word of caution when exploring Cartagena is to understand not all of the tap water is drinkable (potable). Please read the article Can I Drink Tap Water in Cartagena? to see what I’m talking about.

Cartagena Beach

Where will I find English in Cartagena?

If you can afford higher-end tourism, you will find English everywhere you go. 

Fine dining restaurants, high-end stores, nice hotels, private transport services, and private boat tours, all these places will have service in English because they cater primarily to foreigners. 

If you are traveling on a budget, you can usually find English spoken in hostels, but other than that, you will be hard-pressed to find consistent English services.

Most street vendors will memorize a few words in English to help you identify what they are selling; You will hear “beer,” “ice cream,” “water,” “apartment,” “island tours,” etc., all over the place. 

But once you engage with them to buy a product or service, it is best to have basic Spanish skills to negotiate a price. 

Learning numbers in the thousands to negotiate in the local currency is vital.

Unlike bigger cities, most of the museums in Cartagena are exclusively in Spanish. 

This means you have to hire an English guide to take you through the museum if you are to understand anything. 

My family was recently in the Palace of Inquisition Museum in Cartagena. The text on the displays was only in Spanish, and it did not have enough contrast with the background to use the Google Translate scanner. 

It was pretty disappointing for them to look around but not understand. 

When you are at museums, make sure you pay for the guided English tours so you can get the most out of your visit. 

This is another important topic before venturing into my adopted city: FASHION. Are you packing the right stuff? Not sure what to pack? Check out my Ultimate Guide for What To Wear In Cartagena.

Why should I know Spanish before visiting Cartagena?

The culture in Cartagena is a bit hostile towards tourists. While we depend on tourism to keep the city’s economy afloat, we are also notoriously bad at caring for tourists as our primary industry. 

While not all people involved in tourism are crooks, the norm in the industry is to wring out the tourists for all they can get.

I even go into more detail on how taxi drivers take advantage of both locals and travelers here.

Knowing some Spanish will help you avoid tourist traps because you can ask around for yourself and get the down low on more authentic experiences. 

From ordering food, finding the best beaches, and asking for directions in the confusing old city, any Spanish can help.

Can I use translator apps in Cartagena?

Translator apps help you get around in a pinch but are not always practical. 

Before going to Cartagena, you must understand that the Costeño (coastal) accent is quite intense. 

Different from other parts of Colombia, such as Bogota or Medellin, Cartageneros speak very fast, skip certain letters in a word, and often use colloquialisms; this thick accent will sometimes trip up the translators and render them useless on the coast. 

I would say that translator apps are helpful when you are trying to say something because you can type it out and show or read it to the other person. 

They are less helpful in helping you understand what locals are trying to say to you. 

Cartagena Colombia

How to learn Spanish quickly? 

Traveling and being immersed in a language is the best way to learn it. Why not take your upcoming trip to Cartagena as an opportunity to learn Spanish?

First and foremost, don’t be self-conscious about your language skills

Any word you know in another language is already a huge accomplishment, and you should be proud to use it. 

It matters not whether your pronunciation is imperfect, you don’t remember the proper conjugation, or you use the wrong tense. 

The important thing when learning a new language is to just try it, make mistakes, and learn from the process. 

Make conversation with everyone

From the taxi driver to the hotel clerk to the waiter at your restaurant, any opportunity to make yourself understood in another language forces your brain to develop those conversation skills further.

Take a class

Multiple language schools in Cartagena offer classes in person, both individually and in group settings. 

Aside from the obvious learning of the language, these schools are a great way to meet people and create connections that will enrich your travel experience and help you make friends. 

Join an ex-pat group

If you do not have the time or finances to take a full class, I suggest you join ex-pat groups in Cartagena. 

Not all ex-pat groups are indeed friendly, especially toward short-term travelers, but most groups host regular meetups. 

The people attending these events want to make connections, meet friends, practice language, and share travel experiences. 

Locals will often attend ex-pat events in hopes of practicing their English skills, thus creating a suitable environment for language exchange.

Setup Spanish-only time

If you are traveling with a spouse, friends, or family, try to set up Spanish-only time before your trip. 

We usually do this at the dinner table with my family. 

We set up a 15min timer and fumble through our Spanish conversations. 

If anyone gets lazy and speaks in English, we add an extra minute to the timer. It has been an interesting exercise to develop our skills together.

Listen to Spanish podcasts or audiobooks

There is a plethora of free Spanish resources online that can help you fine-tune your ear so you can understand easily. 

Post-it everywhere

Set up post-its around your house with the names of things in Spanish to memorize vocabulary for everyday items.

Use the Duolingo app 

Before you set out on your trip, try using the Duoling app in your spare time. 

Duolingo teaches you language in simple, practical sentences that can be very helpful during your travels. 

Their game-like interface is fun and easy to use.

Basic vocabulary that will come in handy in Cartagena

If you are looking for a place to start, save this list of essential words and phrases that will come in handy in Cartagena specifically:

Currency

Because of how devalued the Colombian peso is, their currency has multiple zeroes attached. Learn the numbers in the hundreds and thousands so you can understand what things cost:

  • doscientos ($200)
  • quinientos ($500)
  • mil ($1,000)
  • dos-mil ($2,000)
  • cinco-mil ($5,000)
  • cincuenta-mil ($50,000)
  • un millon ($1,000,000)

Basic phrases:

  • Cuanto cuesta? (How much is it?)
  • Donde esta _____? (Where is _____?)
  • No, Gracias (No, thank you.)
  • Agua fria (cold water)
  • Donde esta el baño (Where is the bathroom?)

Vocabulary pertaining to Cartagena:

  • la playa (beach)
  • el Centro (old city)
  • la bahía (bay)
  • las murallas (old city wall)
  • la lancha (speed boat)
  • el muelle (dock)
  • el castillo (castle)
  • el portero (doorman)
  • la palenquera (ladies that sell sweets/fruit)
  • el edificio (building)
  • la torre del reloj (the main clock tower in the old city)
Cartagena Streets

Closing Thoughts

While Spanish is not a necessity to get by in the beautiful city of Cartagena, it is strongly recommended to learn the basic words. It’s also a good idea to get yourself an English-speaking guide if you can afford it.

Because Cartagena is a tourist destination in a developing country, there are plenty of less-than-honest civilians that are ready to take advantage of a non-Spanish-speaking foreigner. In fact, this is one of the major cons of living in Colombia.

That being said, my city is beautiful and is even more beautiful when you can communicate in our local language.

More free Colombian Content:

  1. The Different Colombian Dances Explained

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