A Guide to Mexican Street Speak

Today some Mexican street talk, or how to get around in Mexico.  Trust me from experience, look over this guide because you will need it one day if you are traveling through Mexico.

Spanish Pinpointed

Spanish offers a potpourri of different terms to describe paths, streets, roads, and highways, some of which provide practical assistance to the traveler and others which provide opportunities for flexibility in use of the language.

The most common term seen and used in Mexico is “calle” – street – with calle principal indicating a main route, usually crossing or connecting smaller streets adjacent. The fancier avenida, or avenue, and even bulevar may also be employed when the need for distinction arises.

Camino, the equivalent of ‘road’ or ‘way’ in English, is less commonly seen and used in Mexico, and is a word that can also serve to describe a person’s journey: va en camino, he’s on his way—or distinctly, va por su camino which translates to ‘he’s making his own way (in life)’.

Callejón indicates a narrow road or alley, and retorno stipulates a dead-end or cul-de-sac, with the Spanish in this case more practical in letting the wanderer know there’s no point going there without a specific reason.  Retorno can also indicate a loop or place to U-turn or double-back over a bridge or under a tunel to the other side of a road; on highways it could also be a wide space within a camellón reserved for that purpose.

Related to retorno is cerrada, which is oftentimes used to describe a private road with a dead-end; privada might also be used in this context.

Seaside resorts, and the roads or highways connecting them, have their costeras, or coast roads. These describe streets or roads which can vary in size and importance, but which invariably run along the seafront. Inside coastal towns alongside some costeras you may find el malecón—a pedestrian boardwalk or esplanade facing the waterfront, some of which might also include a lane for pedal-bikers, and those using skates and skateboards.

Moving onto main trunk roads, there are two ways of referring to a highway: carretera and autopista.  Carretera is akin to the U.S. freeway and most often refers to the federally-funded interstate roads which connect main towns and cities, but may also refer to a primary trunk road around a town or city. These are usually not tolled, although sometimes a tranche of carretera might be.  Autopista is a word reserved to describe tolled interstate highways in Mexico—some of which run alongside, or nearby, carreteras federales.

Some other terms you may encounter in road parlance here include lateral, which refers to a parallel side road that may be situated alongside any main urban road, carretera or autopista, and separated by a camellón—a central reservation/median strip.

Libramientos, which can sometimes be part of a carretera, refer to ‘relief roads’, built specifically to route passing traffic away from a town or city center. Periferico refers to a ring road around a town, city or place.

For those traveling on foot: footpaths, nature trails, and ancient pathways are commonly described as senderos, whereas formal pedestrian walkways, or shopping streets closed to traffic, are referred to as a paseo peatonal.

Paseo means a walk or a drive, and pasear means to go for a walk, or a ride, or a drive. The word pasear is somewhat more versatile than what the average dictionary can accommodate: it can also mean go out with no particular purpose or plan, maybe hang out at the mall, grab a coffee, browse the stores, watch a movie, or just wander about. It’s also used as a term to mean going away, being away, or having been away on vacation—voy/estoy/estuve de paseo.


Thanks for reading,

Stewart Rogers USA_South Carolina

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