How the Locals Talk: Spanish of the Riviera Maya

When traveling to Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Tulum or the Riviera Maya, it's always nice to speak a little spanish -- and in particular, the kind of Spanish they speak around these parts. Below are some local references, names and other common phrases you may come across during your travels. If you want to fit in, try to use these words with your waiters, cab drivers and hotel employees. It's sure to earn you a smile.

Cenote: A rare geological feature of the Yucatán, acenote is a freshwater sinkhole formed when the limestone ground caves in and fills with water from underground rivers.

Colectivo: A sort of taxi-bus combination, a colectivo is a van or similar vehicle used for local transportation. It has semi-fixed routes and is cheaper than a taxi.

Costa Maya: The coastline south of the Riviera Maya (which officially ends at Tulum).

Federal: Used when referring to Highway 307, a federal highway.

Playa del Carmen beach

Ha: Mayan for “water.” You’ll see it used everywhere.

Mole: A chocolate-based sauce made with dozens of herbs and spices, used in traditional Mexican cooking.

Muelle: Spanish for “dock,” it’s commonly used when referring to the ferry landing, which is also called the “embarcadero.”

Nopales: Sliced cactus from the nopal tree, it’s used locally in breakfast juice and can be served grilled or sautéed with any meal of the day.

Palapa: Thatched palm used to make roofing in the Riviera Maya. The tight weave keeps out rain and has to be replaced every couple of years. The word is also used generically to refer to any structure that has a thatched-palm roof.

Pan dulce: Literally “sweet bread,” it’s used to describe a variety of delicious locally made breakfast pastries. For a quick start to your day, order a café con pan dulce.

Parada: Spanish for “bus stop.”

Playa: Meaning “beach” in Spanish, this is the short name used locally when referring to Playa del Carmen.

Playacar: A name created in 1992 to refer to the tourist development located just south of First Street and the ferry dock.

Propina: Spanish for “tip.” Make sure you check your bill to see if tip has already been added: propina incluida.

Quinta: Spanish for “fifth,” it’s the name used for Fifth Avenue, the main tourist strip in Playa del Carmen.

Riviera Maya: The name used to refer to the area from just south of Cancún to Tulum. The actual boundaries tend to change a little bit, depending on whom you talk to. The phrase was coined in the early 1990s and is sometimes said in English, “Mayan Riviera.”

Tacos al pastor: Pork tacos cooked on a vertical spit, seared with licking flames and served with pineapple slices.

Tiempo compartido: Spanish for “time share.” If a deal is too good to be true, like a Jeep rental for $20 a day, chances are it’s part of a tiempo compartido offer.

For more information and tips about traveling to the Riviera Maya, check out the newly released guidebook by Joshua Hinsdale.


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