Even if the purist snob in you hates even a hint of slang, it’s what literally defines an organic language. What’s slang today, will be standard tomorrow and this is how a real language evolves. Must you learn them? The answer is no. But should you? Hell yeah! Used wisely, slang words and colloquialisms go a long way helping you blend in. Now, if your itinerary follows the ever-familiar tourist trail you can easily do a country like Peru without a lick of Spanish, let alone Peruvian slang. However, if your plans involve more than Machu Picchu or Nazca lines, having a few most-used Peruvian slang words and expressions would be a brilliant idea.
Spanish is the lingua franca to 80% of all Peruvians which means there’s still a sizable portion of the population that speaks one of the several indigenous languages from the pre-Hispanic times. This is what gives Peruvian Spanish its unique character since languages mix over time and impact each others’ vocabulary if not grammar. Spanish has been spoken in this country since at least the mid-1500s. That means almost 500 years of evolution and a lot can, and does, happen in that timeframe. With influence from Quechua and other indigenous languages spoken there, Peruvian Spanish has quite predictably accumulated a wide range of dialectical words and argots unique to that region.
This is a supercool interjection for something you find, well, supercool. Terrific, awesome, cool, kickass – bacán covers them all, albeit with a little more enthusiasm. Although primarily an interjection, the word can also be used as an adjective should the need arise. When used as an adjective, bacán comes with a feminine form too – bacana. Interestingly, the interjection is also widely used in countries like Chile, Cuba, and Ecuador.
Bacán also enjoys currency in the River Plate area (parts of Argentina and Uruguay) where its used as an old-fashioned pejorative for a wealthy snob, much like moneybags or sugar-daddy in English. That’s not all, even the Colombians (especially the ones from Medellín) are in on this word, but they used it in a more positive manner for an awesome person. So you see, bacán is a widely popular colloquialism not only in Peru but all over Latin America.
This word also has a feminine form, brichera. Brichero is someone who goes out of his way to befriend a foreigner, ideally a rich gringa, with the intention of starting a relationship. Now before you go awww, let me assure you that the intention behind this stunt is less than noble and far from as innocent as it sounds. The idea is to take the subject for a ride! When you are in Peru and someone is showering you with visibly more attention that you deserve, congratulations, you’ve just attracted your first brichero! Of course, this is not something unique to Peru but it certainly seem to be one of the very few countries where it actually has a name! Now, one might argue that life ought to be much easier for a brichera than for her male counterpart – rich gringos fall cute Latinas all the time, no?
That being said, please don’t go around being cynical of every act of kindness in Peru. That’s because kindness is a universal Latin American trait and the Peruvians are no different. Almost everybody is going to be sweet to you even though not all of them are out to fleece you.
Chamba means work. The more standard term is trabajo. The word is also common in Mexico where, beside work, it can also refer to wages, business, dough, or bread. In some ways, all those things do seem have a common ground, after all – No work, no wages and no wages, no bread! The slang reference to dough and bread is also common in the Spanish-speaking parts of the Caribbean.
Coming back to Peru, chamba also refers to a pond or a ditch in and around the Andes. And lastly, chamba figures in one of my most favorite set-phrases: por chamba. It means by fluke. Here’s one more fun use of this word for you which is hard to translate literally:
¡Vaya chamba que has tenido! (You lucky thing!)
Don’t try translating it word-for-word, you’ll only make a mess of such a cool expression.
This verb is not unfamiliar to other countries. However, only in Peru does it mean to catch, to seize, or to spy on. You can use this verb in plenty of everyday situations, e.g. when trying to catch a bus or when trying to spy on your Peruvian girlfriend. Okay, never mind the second scenario.
In standard Spanish, chapar means to cover, to shut, to close, to veneer – you get the idea. Colloquially, you can also use chapar in the context of studying and when you do, it means to cram or to memorize. What a versatile verb!
Even if you’re never planning on getting wasted on what might as well be Latin America’s most popular elixir, this is not a word worth skipping. Cerveza is what classrooms and phrasebooks taught you but chela is the way to go if you want to blend in with the Peruvians. In case you’re still lost, chela is slang for beer. The word enjoys currency throughout Central America and even in Mexico but the Andes is where it originally belongs. Don’t get me wrong, cerveza is understood just fine even in the remotest of Peruvian boonies. But chela is what gets you into their “inner circle.”
By the way, in many Central American countries chela is also feminine gender of chelo. And in those places chelo is slang for blonde or someone with simply fair skin and blue eyes. But it still won’t be wise to ask for a cute chela with a glass of chela, just saying.
This is Peruvian for Chinese restaurant or cuisine. Wow, now that’s called specific. Who would’ve expected Chinese food to be commonplace enough to have a local slang name for itself – in Peru, no less! Well, it’s a no-brainer that Chinese food is ubiquitous all over the world; it’s just that they’re referred to as Chinese food in most places. It’s not common for it to have a local name.
Having said that, I still find it super-surprising that this cuisine is this popular in Peru. However, the “Chinese food” you find in Peru is not the same as the real deal from China. To be fair, Chinese food is rarely Chinese in most countries other than China. It’s almost always a blend of Chinese with local cuisine, and it’s no different in Peru. Unless you are a food snob to whom authenticity matters more than taste, you should absolutely try some massively appetizing chifa at a local chifa on your next trip to Peru.
Anyone from India in the house? If you happen to be one, you’re in for a massive intrigue. Chor is Hindi for a thief or a burglar. And guess what, choro is Peruvian slang for the same thing! What are the odds of a coincidence like this?
The word itself is not limited to Peru though. Folks in southern Spain use it too and for the same thing. In fact, that’s where this usage actually originated and came to Peru with the New-World conquests. Linguists agree that choro was brought into Spain by the gitanos (gypsies) who, some say, came from India roughly a millennia ago. That should explain the Hindi connection to a good extent.
In the Andes of Chile and Bolivia (and some parts of Peru too), choro has yet another usage and a completely separate etymology as well. In those regions, the word comes from Quechua and refers to mussels. That’s dialectical but not slang. As a slang term in those areas, choro can mean cunning or even vagina! Needless to say, be very very careful with this word around folks from those parts!
Chupar is a pretty legitimate verb in Spanish and means to suck. However, in Peru (as well as in many other Latin American countries), it is the preferred verb when speaking of booze. Ideally you would use beber or tomar when talking about drinking alcohol. But chupar sounds cooler and is what most Latinos prefer. Just be sure not to actually try sucking your beer at a bar. Drink it like you would anyplace else, that bit doesn’t change.
The verb can also be used reflexively and when it is, it means to waste way, get skinnier, or to put up with. This usage is not restricted to Peru and you could have it in your vocabulary even in Spain. But the slang usage discussed above is, by far, my favorite.
Oh and please don’t confuse chupar with chapar. They are as different and unrelated as you can imagine despite the uncanny similarity in their spelling.
If you are tacky, i.e. known to have a pathetic taste, congratulate yourself – you are a huachafo. Often, a tacky person is tacky on purpose. To them, that makes them look “cool,” even though others find it ridiculous and often make their opinions more than obvious. The reason a huachafo might feel this irresistible urge to be such a show-off could be to climb up the social ladder faster than those around them. This is why huachafo also refers to a middle-class snob or a social climber in most contexts. This word is Peru’s property and not much used elsewhere. Except the Caribbean.
In the Caribbean, huachafo is used just as much as it is in the Andes. However, in those places, the word doesn’t refer to a social climber or a snob. Instead, it refers to someone who is funny or has a great sense of humor. That’s a whole lot more positive, isn’t it?
Micro is heard virtually all over South America, especially in the Southern Cone and the Andes. This includes Peru as well. The word refers to a minibus that looks more like a slightly stretched van than a regular bus. Micros typically ferry passengers over short distances along designated routes but in other countries, they can even include long-distance buses. Although their size and physical attributes might differ from one country to another, one common thread that connects them all is their maniac drivers. To them, acceleration is God and this is not even hyperbole by any stretch!
Micro also happens to have a smaller cousin – combi (short for combivan). In Mexico, combi is the catch-all term for all minibuses of all sizes. A more formal term for a van, though, is furgoneta.
Goes without saying, Peruvian slang is way richer than this measly list. But covering all colloquial terms of any dialect would call for a big fat tome and not a blog post. However, these ten should still give you a good head-start. You could always explore the virtually infinite number of sites (such as this one) that discuss Peruvian Spanish and its various idiosyncrasies. This includes a super-rich entry on Wikipedia too!