10 Phrases of Cuban Slang You Should Know Before Visiting Cuba
Are you planning a visit to Cuba, and don’t you want to feel like a completely lost foreigner? In Cuban Spanish, there is a lot of slang and special expression. So, even if you understand some basic Spanish, it can be very hard to make sense of Cuban Spanish.
These 10 expressions of Cuban slang might be useful for you to understand a bit more about Cuban Spanish.
However, only take this as guidelines to help you understand. There is a delicate balance between when it is and isn’t appropriate to use most of the Cuban slang. Sometimes the expression mentioned here can become a lot stronger when a foreigner uses them than when a Cuban does. As foreigners, we might not get the right emphasis on the word or use them in an incorrect context.
So, just a word of caution to be careful before you jump out in using the Cuban slang yourself.
If you want to dig even further into Cuban Spanish and Cuban culture, the University of Havana offers Spanish courses for foreigners. It’s a perfect way to learn even more about Cuba while exploring the country from within.
Let’s get started!
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#1 ¿Qué vola? is a bit like “What’s up?” or “how is it going?”
An extremely popular and common greeting in Cuba is to say ¿Qué vola?. It is though very informal, and mostly used among friends. When walking the streets of any Cuban city, you can be certain to hear this phrase many times. ¿Qué vola, hermano?
Nobody is completely sure where it comes from. Thus, several times I heard the explanation that it is a baseball term that somehow got transferred into the colloquial Cuban language. The explanation is that at baseball matches when the ball is flying through the air, the crowd should apparently shout: que voolaa (“how it flies” from the Spanish verb volar).
As most Hispanics don’t have a pronounceable difference between how v and b, you might as well see it spelled like qué bola
#2 Yuma is a foreigner
If you are just half as white as me, you will most likely hear the phrase yuma used about you. For Cubans, yuma is another and more common way of saying yankee – or white foreigner.
It doesn’t directly mean anything bad. However, most Cubans are not used to foreigners knowing this slang. So, they might be saying unpleasant things about you using yuma to refer to you.
If you come about revealing for them that you actually did understand that they were talking about you, they will most likely be very surprised – and possibly a bit ashamed as well.
#3 Asere/Acere is friend
Asere is a Cuban way of saying amigo – or friend. It can be spelled both with s or with c.
Oye, asere, ¿qué hacemos hoy?
Are you looking for inspiration on what to do while in Cuba? Check out these great tips from my blogging-asere on top places to visit in Cuba.
#4 Pinga is… Well, a multifunctional word (keep on reading)
Well, well this is a word with mutual usages and meanings. Literally translated it refers to the male genital organ.
However, conjugated in a wide variety of ways and placed into all sorts of different contexts, it can mean anything from “it is horrible” (está de Pinga), “amazing” (empinagado), “what the hell is up with you” (qué Pinga te pasa a tí)… And, well, the list just continues.
If you have a bit more Spanish background knowledge, this video explains almost all the different usages I have heard of while in Cuba:
However, a word of warning: This is a very informal way of expressing oneself and is mainly used among friends. You should therefore not use it among people that you don’t know as it will be taken as rude.
Generally, for a Scandinavian like me, Cubans tend to shout and swear a lot more when they are making fun of each other than I’m used to. But when they are serious and talking quietly there are usually big problems.
#5 Candela is to be on fire
Candela basically means candle but it is mostly used as “fire”, “on fire” or “flame”. When used about persons it can either mean that the person is super-hot or a troublemaker (ella está candela).
You can also hear it in the exclamations: ¡Qué candela! which depending on the context can be either a positive or negative meaning of “how great” or “how awful”.
#6 Papaya versus fruta bomba
The fruit that in most other countries is known as papaya, is in Cuba called fruta bomba (the bomb fruit).
Why is that? Well, because in Cuba papaya means… vagina… Now you know, so watch out what you are asking for at the market!
#7 Agua is not water – at least not only
True, true, in plain Spanish agua means water. However, in Cuba it is also used as a type of exclamation for something incredible good. ¡Agua!
#8 Coger botellas is the Cuban term for hitchhiking
The closest you get to a Cuban term for hitchhiking is coger botellas. It means going to the stoplights to stop cars and asking for a free ride.
In Havana, it is not so common anymore due to the many competing taxis whose method of picking people up is basically the same.
Want to experience Havana like a local? Check out this guide authentic of Havana!
#9 Ser un mango is to be a mango… No, okay?
To be a mango (ser un mango) is in Cuba used to express that a person is very good-looking or hot: la chica es una mango e.g. the girl is hot.
#10 Pincha is to work
Pincha means work, and can be used both as a subjective: no hay pincha (e.g. there is no work) and as verb: estoy pinchando (I’m working).
So, ¿Qué vola, asere? (do you remember what that means? 🙂 ) Did you learn some new words of Cuban slang for your Cuba trip? Or have you maybe already been to Cuba? Is there any Cuban slang you I missed out on? Please share your thoughts and knowledge below!
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OMG I enjoyed this post so much! those phrases are really catchy 🙂 🙂
Hi Anete! Thank you so much for your comment! I’m so happy to hear that you enjoyed the post – then my mission is completed! 😉
Everyone here are white like full on white people wanting to talk like cubans
Thank you for dropping by! Haha, I could imagine that there are a lot of white people trying to speak like Cubans.
“Mamey,” a fruit, (pronounce all Spanish vowels loud and clear) is also associated with a very very very good looking young male or female. ” Es un mamey.”
Thank you so much for dropping by and for your input!
Mamey can also mean something is great (the mamey is a tasty fruit for many). Or it can also be used sarcastically to express disappointment (depends on intonation).
Thank you for dropping by and taking the time to share, Hugo!
What a fun read! I love that mango is a compliment, sorta, in a way. That was unexpected!
Thanks Kim! So glad to hear that you found it funny! Then my mission is completed! Yes, watch out who you say mango to ?
Hey Amy mamame la picha
Thanks for dropping by! Haha, true, that’s a good one too!
Amy Poulton - Page Traveller
Ah! I’m hearing such great things about Cuba at the minute and I feel like I’m missing out! I’m so close at the moment (Mexico), but need to work online, so Cuba isn’t exactly ideal for me right now. Next time?
Hi Amy, thanks for dropping by! Yes, Cuba is super interesting buut it is still an issue to visit if you are depending on working online! Better safe it for a time where you have time to be offline 😉
Loved this! So many useful phrases, I did hear them all the time when I was in Cuba haha
Thanks for dropping by Greta! So happy to hear that you enjoyed the read 😉 Yeah, you can be more than sure to hear these phrases at least a couple of times while in Cuba!
Brilliant Rebecca! Even though i also speak Spanish, of course i wouldn’t jnow slang words used in Spanish speaking countries! Very grateful for this!
Thanks for dropping by, Sylvia! Exactly, that’s what’s so amazing about Spanish; it changes according to the country. And Cuba surely is no exception 😉
I saw your tweet about animals and thought I will check your website. I like it!
I love pets. I have two beautiful thai cats called Tammy(female) and Yommo(male). Yommo is 1 year older than Tommy. He acts like a bigger brother for her. 🙂
I have even created an Instagram account for them ( https://www.instagram.com/tayo_home/ ) and probably soon they will have more followers than me (kinda funny).
I wanted to subscribe to your newsletter, but I couldn’t find it. Do you have it?
Keep up the good work on your blog.
Thanks for dropping by! I’m so happy to hear that you enjoyed your visit! Oh! They are so sweet your cats! And what a good idea to create an Instagram for them!
Thank you for your kind request. Unfortunately, I have still not created a newsletter. Sorry for that! Thus, you can follow me on twitter (https://twitter.com/becciabroad) where I post regularly with things from the blog.
Ah this takes me back to my trip…. I have one you missed – vamo echando asere! Or let’s go buddy! The locals loved it when we said this as we were leaving ?
Thanks for dropping by, Katie! Oh, yeah! That’s a good one! Thanks for reminding me of that, asere 🙂
You nailed it! Haha, I wish I had read this 3 years ago before I went to Cuba for the first time and was like”huh?!!” Pinga is my favorite one! LOL. Especially when something bad happens.
Thanks for dropping by Isabelle! So happy to hear that you enjoyed the post! Haha, yeah, pinga is by far also my favorite – and the one you will hear the most! Eso está de pinga! Jajaja. Besitos
Ma’am, asere does not mean friend…. at all. It’s more like a street talk for “brother”/”bro”. It’s kind of rude to say that phrase to anyone but your close friends, even then its a bit thug-y and quite vulgar. It’s not a bad thing to say but do watch out who you say that to.
Thank you for your comment! I completely agree with you that it shouldn’t be used to other than your closest Cuban friends. That’s why I put a reminder at the beginning of the post for everyone not-Cubano to watch out with the use of the slang in the post. This post is more meant as informative for foreigners travelling to Cuba and wanting to know and understand a bit more about the Spanish used in Cuba.
You forgot tirame un cabo wich literally means throw me an anchor but its really like saying help me out in english.
Thanks for dropping by! Oh yes! “Tirame un cabo” a good one too! Thank you for adding that one! 🙂 Hope you enjoyed the read!
Hi Adam! Oh yeah, that’s right! Thank you so much for reminding me of that!
I’m Cuban and Its funny the way you explained everything..some things are not correct though like #2…yuma…means the USA…example “ellos son de la yuma”. They are from USA so “que bola la yuma esta?” that you wrote for #3 means nothing…dont ever say that to anyone they will laugh at you…and wont know what you’re traying to mean.. #9 is Mango when refering to someone hot you say “esa jeba(girl) es un mango”…#4 is well you know..i read a few of the comments saying that this word was your favorite but believe me only the lowest form of expression…it sounds extremely dirty in Cuban and if used infront of the locals they will view you as trashy…..it sounds funny in English but extremely low class in Spanish….
Hi! Thanks for dropping by! I’m honored to have a Cuban reading along!
Regarding #2 “yuma” it is a term which I discussed a lot with my Cuban friends. Some say that it refers to the US (as you mention) while others say it refers to “abroad” or “people from abroad” in more general terms. And Cubans I met along the way did call me “yuma” despite knowing that I wasn’t from the US. Could it be that there exists a difference within Cuba of how to understand/use “yuma”
#3 – cool, thanks for clarifying! I will change the phrase.
#9 – your point is exactly my point in the text 😉
#4 – one clarification; it is my “favorite” in the way that “me llama la atención” how much Cubans use it! I am aware that is super low and not nice to say; and especially, if it comes from a foreigner (if you check out the beginning of the post, I also warn about use some of these words as a foreigner in Cuba. However, it is useful for us who aren’t Cubans understand a bit better the slang to know what people are talking about – that’s the point of the post). Thus, admit that Cubans use that word/phrasing a LOOOOOOT, right?
Rebecca, here is another Cuban agreeing with the Cuban correcting you about how US(nosotros) Cubans talk. Lmao and you go and correct them like you know more from your tourist trip. Clase de come pinguera que tu tienes mamatranca <3.
Hi there! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your Cuban expression!
As mentioned previously, the point of this post is not to correct anybody. Rather it is to inform non-Cubans about slang that they might hear when traveling to Cuba. So, it’s simply a way to share my curiosity over the variety in the Spanish language – not to correct!
This was such a fun read. I learnt a lot! So happy I stumbled upon your site.
Thank you so much for dropping by my blog! I’m so happy to hear that you enjoyed the read and learned something new 🙂
Hello, I am Cuban and I would like to inform you that Fruta Bomba is only used in La Habana and surrounding areas the rest of the island uses papaya as the fruit
Oh, thank you so much for clarifying that! I was not aware that Fruta Bomba is only in La Habana. Thanks!
The Spanish “b” (be larga) and “v” (be corta) are pronounced exactly alike. … At the beginning of a word and after “m” or “n”, the hard Spanish “b/v” closely resembles the “b” in the word “boy,” except that the lips are held tense. THAT HAS BEEN STANDARD SPANISH FOR SEVERAL CENTURIES, AND IT WAS CARRIED FROM SPAIN TO THE AMERICAS.
Yes, you are completely right, Omar! I was pointing out that in the spelling of “que vola”/”que bola” might change, exactly because there is no different in the pronunciation of “be corta” and “b larga” in Spanish.
Thank you so much for your comment!
The comments about white people are ignorant. Over two thirds of Cuba’s population is white. The rest are either, mixed, black, or East Asian. There are members of all these groups that use this type of slang and/or vulgarities. Just like there are those who don’t, no matter their genetic characteristics.
Thank you for dropping by my blog and taking the time to leave some comments 🙂
Yes, you are right, Cuba is a very mixed population and slang can come across as very ignorant and not every Cuban will use this kind of speaking.
The point of this post was to help foreigners travelling to Cuba to better understand some of the slang used on the island. And as I wrote at the beginning of the post, as foreigners in Cuba we should be very careful if we start to use the slang/vulgarities as the Cuban use them, since it might not come across nicely.
I picked up on cuban slang whilst there ..my cuban fiends taught me to say “que bola”..it made them laugh?…the papya one and pjnga waz discreetly put to me…
Thanks for dropping by, Claire! I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed the post!
Yes, Cubans really enjoy making fun and fool around by learning foreigners Cuban slang. I’m happy to hear that you had a good time in Cuba! 🙂
Hello, I just wanted to comment on ‘Mango’. It’s used as a term for a guy, usually spoken from a woman’s point of view. Men usually use ‘Tremenda Jeva’, or ‘Tremendo Bon Bon’ to refer to a good looking woman. Also, YUMA is not Yankee, it’s the land of the Yankees, the United States. Also, watch the slang…. many of them are vulgar and you could offend someone who is more formal.
Thank you so much for dropping by, Miguel, and taking the time to comment and share your knowledge! I completely agree with you that as a foreigner you should really watch out how and when you use the Cuban slang (which is also why I put a note about that in the beginning of the post).
Once again thank you so much for sharing!
In my humble opinion you shouldn’t say “mi favorita es la pinga” without you explaining that you mean the word “pinga” the other way may get u in an awkward situation if u know what I mean (wink), by the way “tu eres un mango mami”.
Thank you so much for dropping by, Tarkus, and taking the time to comment on my post. OMG! You are so very right! Haha, thank you so much for drawing my attention to this little “issue” (even though, your comment made me laugh big time).
Papaya is also known as fruta bomba in Puerto Rico, papaya in Mexico means vagina, I would say that ” Que bola” means ” What a ball ” Good effort but, not an accurate picture.
Thank you for dropping by and taking your time to leave a comment!
The post was meant as a list of slang words I heard in Cuba which I hadn’t heard elsewhere – not meaning at all that they could not be used elsewhere. Once again, thank you for your contribution.
cubans are a bunch f opportunistic devil worshippers
Damn right they are! Actually most Latinos are but Cubanos most definitely push the envelope – qué pena.
I feel really embarrassed and it is shameful that when foreigners visit my land (I’m a very proud Cuban, born and raised) that the contact they have if with people speaking or talking in those terms. We have a saying “dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres” [tell me who you hang out with and I will tell who you are]. These slangs are used for the lowest of the society, unfortunately, looks like just the lowest is left…
Thank you so much for dropping by and taking the time to leave your comment!
The post was by no means meant to embarrass you! 🙂 I find the differences in Spanish fascinating, and wanted to share them with other (non-Spanish speakers) that might have it the same way. My experience was that most of the slang I mention here was widely used between most Cubans – and not just lower classes in the society. But I might be wrong. I’m not Cuban after all 🙂
I left Cuba in 1960 and I’ve had to learn the slang they use today. TEMBA is used by men describing a middle-aged woman. The younger generations use words that are very vulgar and insulting to us the older generations. It depends if you grew up on the island and what strata of society you come from. We would NEVER use those words with strangers, though it’s much more common in today’s society. It helps knowing what they’re saying. I worked with recent arrivals in Hialieah, Fl. and I needed someone to translate!
Thank you for dropping by, Nilia! Yes, it depends a lot on the generations in Cuba and what you are taught growing up. However, I found most of these words very common when I visited Cuba. At least in the day-to-day conversations between Cubans. I highly appreciate your input and I wish you a great day!
I agree the language has changed/devolved a bit over time. But “temba or veterana” are usually used in crude or derogatory fashion amongst men. Like the American version of a “veteran woman”. And is used not so publicly. And most Cuban women these days see it as almost a compliment. O understand that’s not correct but it’s sadly what’s current. You yourself say you don’t use it with strangers, which is the right thing. But you DO use it and know it. Usually the older Cuban women that’ve been here for a long time see it as an insult, whereas the middle(ish) aged women that are referred to as such see it as a crude(ish) compliment. TEMBA is actually the almost EXACT Cuban version of a “MILF”. While obviously not eloquent it’s looked at more favorably than say Jinetera vieja! (Old wh0r3) That’d be my comparison of temba (which BTW only “viejos verde” aka older men trying to act young or cool use) I was born there in the 70’s and came in the mid 80’s. So I’m in an in-between age group that sees both sides of that coin as being here is the majority of my life gives me one perspective and seeing those coming now gives me another. Sadly, I (like MOST) prefer to deal with the older generations as I was raised as such. But even more sadly, much of the people coming now or over the last 15 years or so are a VASTLY different breed!
Just saying: when I was working as a court interpreter and I was assigned a client who was a professor of Spanish at a University in Havana I was nervous but once he started speaking I was relieved to find I was fully at ease as his voice, because he didn’t use much slang!
Thank you for dropping by and reading my blog, Israel! I think in most countries and in most languages, people will never use slang in courtroom situations. Slang is mostly something that you will experience in more informal settings. But I’m happy to hear that you had no problem understanding your Cuban client 🙂
Very very Kool…I hang around a lot of cubanos so I knew all these terms…but was searching for some other slangs I asked about and the Cubans don’t know so they may be haitian Puerto Rican Dominican…I don’t know but none the less very well put together and very smoothly understandable
Hi JunYa! Thank you so much for your kind words! I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed the read even though you knew all of the words already 🙂 Happy New Year!
Thanks for the laughs, the article IS entertaining! (And ALMOST accurate!) As a Cuban born and raised American who’s lived in the US the majority of my life I can attest that we have a very… “unique” speech pathology that’s as colorful as it is expressive. A few tweaks and it’d be more accurate though! Eg: Yuma. It IS referring to a bastardized version of a Yankee but used for almost exclusively Americans or even Cubans coming to visit from America. Other foreigners are usually referred to as a slang version of where they’re from. (Europeo, Africano, Canadense etc)
Que vola is VERY common as a greeting but it’s BOLA with a B, not vola with a V. Candela is a word for fire. It does not refer to being on fire or hot but is used that way depending on context. (I know, we’re overly complicated but the nuances are what set us apart from other Spanish dialects!) Coger botellas directly translates to “catching/getting bottles” it does NOT refer to getting a ride or hitchhiking… EXACTLY. That’s something we’ll say to a foreigner if asked and is used as such but in a VERY different manner. It usually refers to offering a “particular” barter offer for a ride. (Think in a carnal nature, so DON’T use it) THREE important points to note: 1) inflection, context and familiarity can COMPLETELY change the nature or meaning of a conversation! You can have 3 different groups side by side, using the same EXACT words and all 3 will be having totally DIFFERENT conversations! 2) You will hear what strikes you (as a foreigner) many seemingly discriminatory references to color or race. Eg: Ramon el Negro, Yanaisi la mulatta, Manny el chino etc… They are commonly (and non racially motivated indicators) they’re used as descriptors and are not meant in a derogatory manner. But refrain as a tourist unless invited to and or with friends. (Cubans can be some of the most colorfully, animated and expressive people on the planet but inflection, tone, familiarity and many other factors come into play in ways that you’d never expect)
3) I’ve saved the best/most important for last… The word COÑO or it’s even more pervasive slang, ÑO! This is the most widely used and complicated word in the Cuban language. It can be an expression of surprise, anger, astonishment, dread, hilarity, seriousness and almost ANY other possible linguistic endeavor! There are actually entire comedy albums, books and is even a common trope in business as it is in personal usage. It’s the most “catch all” word and phrase in the language! (Think “whoa” and “what” to the ⁵ power and add inflection changes to get a vague grasp) Look into it if you wish to be thoroughly confused and entertained! In summary, we’re a vibrant and expressive culture with as many variations in our speech pathology as we have in genetic origins all mixed together on one tiny island! We may not be many but we ARE unique! And due to our lack of restraint those few if us there are, will always stand out! (If nothing else because of our over usage of physical gesturing/animation paired with an inherent lack of volume control! The phrase “turn it up to 10” doesn’t apply to us because we’re naturally at a 15 anyway! 🤷♂️) Enjoy your visit and remember… So long as it’s loud and animated, it’s usually all good! It’s when we’re hushed and stiff that you should be concerned! 😉
Hi Andy! Thank you for your wonderful and detailed comment – and apologies for taking should a long time to get back to you! I’m truly happy to hear that you enjoyed the post even though I might not have caught aaaaall the details in the Cuban accent!
Once again thank you! All the best, Rebecca