Language: it’s a big, big deal. There’s no way to overemphasize the importance of learning even the bare minimum before you travel to a foreign country -- a country where you can’t rely on your own language.
You won’t find many English speakers in Peru, especially away from the tourist hotspots. If you’re on a package tour, or if you stick with top-end hotels, you will have the luxury of English-speaking guides and staff. If you’re an independent traveler (especially of the budget variety) or if you just want to mix with the locals as much as possible, you should definitely try to learn the basics before you travel.
Getting started is the hardest part; the learning curve is steep and can seem overwhelming. If you can just learn the basics -- those key areas that will help you get by on a daily basis -- you might be surprised how much Spanish you pick up once you’re on the road...
Even if you’re a long way from coping with a Spanish conversation, it always feels good to at least say "hello" in a reasonably confident (and correct) manner. When my dad first came to Peru, he kept on saying hello to the locals with a friendly and well-intentioned “Buenos Aires!” If he had used buenos días (good day or good morning), buenas tardes (good afternoon or good evening) or buenas noches (good night), he would at least have been close, even if the greeting didn’t quite match the time of day. Heartily exclaiming the capital of Argentina only led to bemused looks.
For more words and phrases, read Peruvian Greetings and Introductions
For non-Spanish speakers, Peruvian social gatherings can be tough indeed. If no-one speaks English, you’ll at least want to cope with introductions and survive the most common opening question. First, the name game:
- What’s your name? -- ¿Cómo te llamas? (or the more formal cómo se llama?)
- My name is..... -- Me llamo...... (or you can use mi nombre es.....)
- Where are you from? -- ¿De dónde eres?
- I’m from...... -- Soy de......
When you are introduced to someone, it’s standard practice to say mucho gusto (“it’s a pleasure to meet you”).
Numbers are the epitome of essential. You’ll need them everywhere, from shops to buses and beyond. Rather than relying on the visual power of raised fingers, do yourself a huge favor and learn how to count in Spanish.
Time and Dates
Once you’re confident with numbers, you can move on to time and dates. If you wear a wristwatch, you can almost guarantee that a Peruvian will, at some point, ask you what time it is: ¿Qué hora es? It may just be an excuse for a chat, but staring blankly at your own watch is slightly embarrassing. You can learn all about time and dates with the following articles:
- How much is it? -- ¿Cuánto es? (or “how much does it cost” -- cuánto cuesta?)
- That's too expensive (for me) -- Es demasiado caro (para mí)
There’s a change shortage in Peru, so it’s a good idea to check if the salesperson has change for larger bills: ¿tiene cambio? (“do you have change”). If you just want to browse (salespeople can be overly attentive in Peru), say sólo estoy mirando ("I'm just looking").
In Restaurants and Bars
Eating out is another daily test of your Spanish skills, but the basics are easy to master. Some potential essentials include:
- The menu, please -- La carta, por favor
- The bill, please -- La cuenta, por favor
- What do you recommend? -- ¿Qué me recomiendas?
- Do you have vegetarian dishes -- ¿Tienes platos vegetarianos?
- A beer, please -- Una cerveza, por favor
Getting lost in a foreign country is an adventure... most of the time. When you feel it’s time to get back on track, however, you’ll need the local lingo:
- I’m lost -- Estoy perdido/a
- How can I get to.... -- ¿Cómo puedo llegar a ....
- Where is (the bus station)? -- ¿Dónde está (la estación de autobuses)?
- Is it far? -- ¿Está lejos?
For more useful words and phrases, read Asking for Directions.
Independent travelers, especially backpackers, often rely heavily on the various methods of public transport in Peru. Getting from A to B is a far more relaxing experience if you can ask a few key questions before you set off and once you’re on the road. Things to remember include:
- What time does the (plane) arrive? -- ¿A qué hora llega (el avión)?
- What time does the (bus) leave? -- ¿A qué hora sale (el autobus)?
- I want a ticket to ...... -- Quiero un boleto a .....
When Things Just Don’t Make Sense...
There will be days when the words don’t flow, the memory falters and things just don’t make sense (or maybe you just don’t want to talk to anyone...). At times like these, you’ll need to break out some true Spanish-language classics of communication breakdown:
- I don’t speak Spanish -- No hablo español
- Do you speak English? -- ¿Hablas inglés?
- I don’t understand -- No entiendo
- Can you speak more slowly, please? -- ¿Puede hablar más despacio, por favor?