Discover 11 words in Spanish for common things, from fruit to gas stations, that are different in Mexico and Peru.
Be careful using some Spanish words in different countries -- the words may be very different depending on what country you’re in.
Trust me, it’s from personal experience that I’m sharing this with you. You’ll have a confusing, but hopefully, funny conversation with a native speaker if you use the wrong word.
One waiter in Mexico even told me I didn’t know how to speak Spanish just because I used a Peruvian word for something instead of the Mexican word. 🤦♀️
So here are 11 words for common things that are different words in Spanish whether you're in Mexico or Peru.
aguacate (Mexico 🇲🇽) | palta (Peru 🇵🇪)
The Mexican word for avocado, aguacate, comes from the Nahuatl word āhuacatl. We in turn get avocado in English from this.
In Peru and most, if not all, South American countries, avocado is called palta.
The word palta is what the Quechua people from the Andes called the avocado they got from Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America) via trade centuries before the Spanish conquistadors ever arrived.
In Mexico, you'll usually find the Hass avocado that's well known with the bumpy skin and relatively firm flesh that makes delicious guac.
But in Peru, the avocado variety fuerte is bigger with smoother and thinner skin with buttery flesh. But they also grow and export the Hass variety, too.
There are a lot of other varieties than just those two, though. Most if not all avocados were domesticated from a variety called criollo found in Oaxaca, Mexico that has a smooth dark skin and a small size like the Haas.
If you get a chance, definitely try all the kinds you can find on your travels through Latin America.
2. Chili pepper
chile (Mexico 🇲🇽) |ají (Peru 🇵🇪)
Like the Mexican and Peruvian words for avocado, the words for chili pepper in Mexico and Peru were originally native words.
Chile is derived from the Nahuatl chīlli and ají from Quechua. The pepper plant, genus Capsicum, originates from the Andes but was cultivated in Mexico some 6000 years ago. However, recent studies show that the chili pepper may have been independently cultivated in the Bolivian Andes, central Mexico, and the Amazon.
Peru has the most varieties of cultivated chili peppers but Bolivia has the greatest variety of wild chili peppers. Be sure to pull out that trivia the next time you meet up with friends.
3. Drinking straw
popote (Mexico 🇲🇽) | sorbete (Peru 🇵🇪)
If you can believe it, there are at least 11 different words for drinking straw across Latin America and the Caribbean.
But start with memorizing only two. The word for straw in Mexico is popote. It comes from the Nahuatl word popotl, which means straw, as in the straw, dried wheat, you find on a farm.
In Peru, they call a straw sorbete. It can also be called a cañita, which means a little cane, like a sugarcane. But at least in my experience in Lima, they tend to use sobete more.
betabel (Mexico 🇲🇽) | betarraga (Peru 🇵🇪)
In Mexico the word for beet is betabel. In Peru, it's betarraga. So now you know what country that gif above sharing the benefits of betabel is geared to.
Both words come from the Latin name for the species Beta vulgaris. Betabel is masculine but betaragga is feminine.
Trying to ask for a beet is where I had trouble in Mexico. I was ordering a juice and said betarraga instead of betabel. The waiter looked at me and sneered.
When I explained that betarraga was what Peruvians say, he rolled his eyes. In the end, I did get what I wanted in my juice at least. And I got a language lesson I'll always remember.
5. Bus stop
parade (Mexico 🇲🇽) |paradero (Peru 🇵🇪)
At least the words for a bus stop, parada in Mexico and paradero in Peru, are similar, making them easier to remember.
They both derive from the verb to stop, parar. Parada is feminine and paradero is masculine.
lana (Mexico 🇲🇽) | plata (Peru 🇵🇪)
Just like we use the slang bucks for dollars in English, both Mexicans and Peruvians have their own slang for money.
Mexicans say lana, which means wool. There is a very complicated history behind why wool is associated with coin money in Mexico. It goes back to colonial times and you can read more about it.
Peruvians say plata, which means silver. That has a much more straightforward history. Money in Peru used to be in the form of silver coins until 1863.
You can always say the default word for Spanish, dinero, instead. But try it in slang to sound more like a natural Spanish speaker.
7. Gas station
gasolinera (Mexico 🇲🇽) | grifo (Peru 🇵🇪)
This is one of those words that if you say the wrong word in one country, they won't know what the heck you're talking about.
You just have to memorize that in Mexico, a gas station is a gasolinera. And in Peru, it's a grifo.
A grifo is a faucet or tap, so when in Peru, think of a gas station like a water faucet but with gasoline.
Don't use grifo in relation to gas for the car in Mexico. Grifo has a totally different meaning. It's slang for pothead.
And now on four kinds of fruit (banana, plantain, lemon, and lime) that confuse the heck out of people. It doesn't matter if you're a native Spanish speaker or a Spanish learner, everyone makes the same mistake getting these words mixed up.
Limón (Mexico 🇲🇽) | Limón (Peru 🇵🇪)
Okay, so I threw in one that actually doesn't have different words in Mexico and Peru. But it's confusing for us English speakers.
In both Mexico and Peru, a lime is called a limón. So guess what a lemon is called?
You guessed it. It's a lima.
It has to do with a complicated history of citric fruits in the Americas. The words are actually interchanged in other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
This is even super confusing for native Spanish speakers who travel around.
Pastel (Mexico 🇲🇽) | Torta (Peru 🇵🇪)
A cake in Mexico is called a pastel. But in Peru, it's a torta.
In Mexico, you'll find pastel de tres leches is popular, as it is in most of Latin America and the Caribbean. The rosca is popular for Three Kings' Day on January 6.
In Peru, cakes with lucuma (a fruit from the jungle) or manjar blanco (aka dulce de leche) are popular.
Torta (Mexico 🇲🇽) | Sangüiche (Peru 🇵🇪)
Now we have to switch up how torta is used. In Mexico, a big sandwich with nice thick bread that's stuffed with meat and veggies in the middle is called a torta.
But in Peru, they use Spanglish. Sangüiche is spelled how the word sandwich sounds like in Spanish.
In Peru, most sandwiches are with a thick crusty French bread and often filled with slices of meat (not deli meat, but roasted meat) and some veggies and cheese.
11. High heels
Tacones (Mexico 🇲🇽) | Tacos (Peru 🇵🇪)
This one is funny. In Peru, you'll hear people talking about tacos. At first, you'll think they're talking about the tacos you eat in Mexico and the U.S.
Then you realize they're talking about high heels. The full name in Spanish for high heels is zapatos de tacón alto.
Take it from me, it's just easier to communicate using the words that the country you're traveling in use. Think of it like going to England but only using American words for things. While generally, people know what you're talking about, it usually is easier just to speak like a local.
And while it's impossible to learn every single word that's distinct in each Spanish-speaking country, at least this list will get you started.
Join my private Facebook group Conversando en español to practice with fellow Spanish learners and native Spanish speakers.
Jackie Donaldson is the founder and director of Amidon Studios Language Studies. She started Amidon Studios in 2017 after managing a language institute in Lima, Peru for six years. She's taught students from all over the world while living in Peru, Mexico, and the U.S. When she's not working or studying, you'll find her gardening, playing with her cat Frankie, swimming, baking, and exploring the globe.