As the girl from Michigan, navigating Ecuador and the Andes Mountains had me thinking that Chasquis, the messengers who ran for miles along the mountain chain during Inca times, were the real MVP’s of life.  Once my lungs finally adapted to the higher altitude and I started to settle into the ever-changing life that Ecuador boasts, my ears opened to the language around me.

In most universities in the States, you are taught Spanish grammar, a little about the culture, and how to *attempt* to not sound like a gringa.  However, once you’re in-country, there’s a steep learning curve that no university Spanish class can prepare you for.  Here are five keys to decoding life in Ecuador, that will (hopefully) make the transition a little easier:

1. Chao means see you later, adiós means never again

If you make it to the end of a conversation or meeting without losing your bearings, the final test is to say goodbye to your Ecuadorian comrades.  Based on my experience with my host family and university friends, this can become quite an ordeal.  Good byes involve addressing each member of the clan personally, ‘kissing’ them on the cheek one at a time.  This is usually followed by a ‘chao,’ as the ‘adios’ typically learned in school is seen as a very definitive sort of phrase. Essentially, the word adios implies you will never (or it’s very unlikely) see them again. Very extreme gesture if you’re expecting to see them in less than 12 hours for class.

2. Catch up on some Kichwa

Most people think that the indigenous populations that once dominated the Americas are just that, a chapter in a world history book.  However, when you walk down the streets of the pueblos of Ecuador, you quickly learn that that is not the case.  From the traditional dress to the indigenous slang words that slip into the otherwise castañallo vocabulary, indigenous culture and language is still a dominant and respected part of Ecuadorian culture.

Fun fact: it is compulsory for all schools to teach a class in Kichwa language and culture. Kichwa, over English, was prioritised by the Ecuadorian government and it’s fitting for a country so proud of their roots.

Here’s some of the most common Kichwa words that I heard tossed around during my time in Ecuador:
‘Achachai!’ – It’s cold!

Arrarrai – That’s hot!
Guaguas/Guambras - Kids
Ñaño – Brother (commonly used as ‘best mate’)
Taita - Father

3. Learn the local lingo - and don't be afraid to make mistakes

The first time that I went into a store without my host family to protect me from having to test out my skills, I nearly walked right back out the door, and for reasons you wouldn’t expect.

One of the more common phrases that nearly every Ecuadorian uses is ‘no mas,’ which does not mean ‘no more,’ like one would rookie gringa would assume.  In Ecuador, this phrase is used to say “go ahead” or “don’t hesitate”.  So, if you walk into a store and hear, “siga no mas” or “vea no mas,”, don’t do what I do, which is walk back out with an anxious and confused look on my face.

Other common phrases that you’ll hear tossed around are: ‘Chuta,’ which is the equivalent of ‘crap,’ or ‘goodness gracious’ and ‘Mande,’ which is another way of asking ‘what?,’ ‘repeat that again,’ and the like.

4. Latin American Spanish varies country-to-country!

Where I’m from, it makes more sense to learn more of a ‘Mexican Spanish.’  As I discovered, this consists of a totally different vocabulary set.  From day one, I faced this staggering discovery as a 4-year old girl looked at me like I was insane when I tried to compliment her earrings (Note: not ‘pendiente,’ but ‘arete’).  That being said, if you want to avoid being viewed as an escapee from an asylum, here’s a few words unique to Ecuador that will help you along:
Chompa - Jacket
Medias - Socks
Canguil - Popcorn
Frutilla - Strawberry

5. Play it cool

When you are the only international student in a classroom full of Ecuadorians, it can feel a little terrifying (Cue, my first day).  However, I soon realized that Ecuadorian, while quiet at first, were even nicer than most students back home - and I’m from the Midwest, if that tells you anything.  So, if you want to fit in quickly, here’s some student slang I heard every day:
Chévere - Cool, Sweet, Awesome
Pana - Best Bud
¡Qué bestia! - How crazy/wild!
Broder - Play on the word "brother"



Upcoming programs you'll love


SPANISH immersion         GALAPAGOS ECOTOUR          MACHU PICCHU ecotour