Updated: 30 words to know before going to Chile

*Note: I’ve revisited this post from 2016 and given it a bit of an update in 2020, adding 20 new words!

In 2014 I studied abroad in Chile for a full year. With a full load of courses in Spanish, understanding the language was essential. I was pretty confident in my Spanish abilities acquired in class and trips to Mexico, however, when I arrived to Chile I discovered that I was quite ill-prepared to converse with Chileans in their vastly unique dialect. After a rough first few weeks, I caught on pretty fast and began adding these new Chilean words to my arsenal.

Evan Quarnstrom in Cerro Alegre of Valparaiso, Chile.
Anyone who has been to Chile’s port city Valparaíso has taken this photo.

For those of you who speak Spanish, as a first or second language, going to Chile for the first time will take you on a wild ride of vocabulary and pronunciation.

I’ve compiled a list of words that will be useful in every day conversation in Chile. Even after spending a year there and amassing a fairly good knowledge of the dialect/slang, I still feel like I have only touched the tip of the iceberg. The learning never stops. That said, here are 30 words to get you started before going to Chile:

1. Aperrao

Aperrao is probably my favorite word in Chilean. It’s an adjective that refers to a go-for-it or fearless person. The root of the word is ‘perro’ or dog, in other words, someone who is like a dog. It’s a word that I heard a lot from the surfers/skimboarders, describing someone who was not afraid to go for the big waves.

2. Caleta

A lot. Many. Mucho. Hella, for you Bay Area folks.

3. Cuico

Used to described rich, stuck-up people.

4. Pololo/a

Boyfriend / girlfriend. In most of the Spanish speaking world, ‘novio’ means boyfriend, but not in Chile! This word is also used as a verb. ‘Pololear’ = to date someone.

5. Cuático / brígido

I like using these words because they mirror a word that is frequently used in English — gnarly. While most other dialects of Spanish are lacking such a word, Chilean Spanish pretty much hits the nail on the head with a direct translation.

6. Taco

You already know what a taco is, right? Not in Chile. Taco refers to a traffic jam. If you wanted to refer to the Mexican food, you would have to more clearly specify that that’s what you are talking about. Context will always help as well, of course.

7. Chelear

One of my favorite parts of Chilean Spanish is verbs that describe an action for which English is lacking a verb. ‘Chelear’ is the act of drinking beer. Whereas in English you would have to say “Let’s drink beer!,” in Chile you can simply say ‘¡Cheleemos!’. Less is more.

8. Que lata

Common Chilean way of saying ‘bummer’ or ‘that sucks.’ Oddly enough, it literally means ‘What a can.’

9. La micro

The small, rickety town buses in most Chilean cities. The best part is that they give you change, which really irks me about buses in the US.

Riding a bus in Chile.
Riding the micro.

10. Luca

In English we have slang words for amounts of money. Example: a grand = $1,000. Chile is no different. ‘Luca’, the most common slang word for a denomination of money, means 1,000 pesos (about one dollar and 25 cents). Other denominations are ‘gamba’ (100 pesos or about 15 cents) and ‘palo’ (literally meaning ‘stick’), which is one million pesos or about $1,300 dollars.

11. Mechón

A college freshman.

‘Mechones’ have to go through a hazing ritual called the ‘mechoneo’ that involves an array of acts that make the students disgustingly filthy (eggs, flour, tomatoes, you name it), then requiring them to beg for money on the street to purchase their belongings back. Bizarre, I know.

Chilean freshmen are hazed in Viña del Mar.
Freshmen line up for their hazing as I watch, half horrified, half entertained. Someone suggested the exchange students should be considered freshmen, to which I quickly replied, hell no, I am a super-senior.

12. Weón / weona

This is perhaps the most commonly used word in ‘Chilensis’ (Chilean Spanish). It can be a noun, an adjective, or a verb. It can be used as a friendly way to address a friend like ‘dude’ or ‘man’, or an aggressive way to call someone an idiot. Context and tone is everything. As a verb it can mean ‘to mess around’, ‘to joke’, or ‘to complain’. Whole sentences can be formed just using iterations of this word, as I remember one of my college professors doing to get a laugh out of the Chileans while the exchange students didn’t understand a thing. The list goes on, but understanding this word in its hundreds of meanings and forms is key to becoming a true Chilean.

13. Hueá

‘Hueá’ is a word that stems from the pervious word, ‘weón’, and it simply is a word used to replace any noun. It’s like ‘thing’. It’s actually nice to have such a word at your disposal because if there is ever a vocab word you don’t know you can just call it a ‘hueá’ and no one will bat an eye at you.

A few things to note: 1) The location of the accent on the ‘a’ is crucial. Moving it it can change the meaning of the word. 2) You might see this word spelt many different ways because there is no official way to spell such informal slang.

14. Po

Another great word that will instantly give away a Chilean in a crowd of Spanish speakers. ‘Po’ literally has no meaning. It’s just a word used to add emphasis to the end of a sentence. You will commonly hear Chileans say ‘sí-po’ or ‘no-po’ to exaggeratedly agree or disagree with a statement.

15. A pata

Most of the Spanish speaking word uses the phrase ‘a pie’ (by foot) to describe walking somewhere. It Chile you can walk somewhere by your ‘paws’, which is what this phrase literally means.

16. Que fome

Something or someone that is boring or lame.

17. Caxai

Pronounced “catch-eye”, caxai means, ‘you know?’ or ‘do you understand?’

Its root is in the verb ‘cachar’, which if I am not mistaken, comes from the English verb ‘to catch’. ‘Caxai’ is the most common conjugation that you will hear of this verb in the informal ‘you’ form. (You are probably not ready to learn how to conjugate verbs in Chile if you are reading this post.)

18. Bacán, pulento, filete, la raja

These are all different ways to call something ‘cool’. Which one someone uses probably depends on where they are from and their social circles. ‘Bacán’, often written as ‘bkn’, is the most common. ‘Filete’, literally a ‘filet’ is my favorite. That one will drive non-Chileans crazy.

Summit of Cerro La Campana, Chile.
Of course, I found a few peaks to bag that could be accessed via public transportation. This peak would be bkn.

19. Carrete

A party. It can also become a verb ‘carretear’.

20. Piola

This word pretty seamlessly translate to ‘chill’ in English, in the sense of relaxed or cool, not referring to temperature. This word is not exclusively Chilean, as it spans the southern reaches of South America.

21. Caña

A hangover. Literally, a ‘cane’.

22. Curao / curá

Drunk. Literally, it means ‘cured’ — an interesting way to think about being drunk.

Note: In Spanish adjectives that stem from ‘ar’ verbs end in ‘-ado’ or ‘-ada’. Chileans often do not pronounce the ‘d’ in these endings, hence why you get ‘curao’ for males and ‘curá’ (one ‘a’ to not repeat the sound twice) for females.

23. Al toque, al tiro

Right now.

24. Flaite

A negative term use to describe ‘troublesome’ lower class Chileans. Translations in English would probably be ‘thug’, ‘gangster’ or ‘low-life’. Definitely don’t ever call anyone this word, as I don’t think anyone identifies as a flaite.

25. Once

This is a great word that has no translation in any language as far as I am concerned, because it describes a part of the culture that is uniquely Chilean.

‘Once’ is a small snack that is eaten usually in the late evening, typically accompanied by bread (Chileans LOVE bread). Note that dinner is not really a meal in Chile. You eat a big lunch in the afternoon and then ‘once’ at night.

Literally, ‘once’ means eleven. There are multiple theories online as to how this got its name that I won’t go into. After spending a good amount of time in Chile, eating ‘once’ will naturally start to become part of your routine.

26. Pega

Work.

27. Tuto

This can mean ‘tired’ or ‘nap’ depending on how you use it. ‘Tengo tuto’ means I’m tired, while ‘voy a hacer tuto’ means I am going to take a nap.

28. Pito

If you ask someone in Mexico if they want to smoke a ‘pito’, things might not end well for you. ‘Pito’ means penis in Mexican Spanish.

In Chile, if someone ask if you want to smoke a ‘pito’, they are asking if you want to smoke a joint.

29. Copete

Alcohol.

30. Cabros

A word used for your close friends, literally your ‘goats’.

Friends drinking beer in viña del mar, Chile.
Copete with the cabros.

This list could go on forever, but there are some of my favorites! To those of you going to Chile, best of luck!


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