Don’t let a lack of Spanish stop you from going to Peru. You can travel in Peru without speaking the local language; you can see all the sites you want to see; and you can normally find an English-speaking guide for most major attractions.
…if you want to get the most out of your trip — and travel in a far more relaxed manner — then having the ability to speak Spanish in Peru goes a long, long way. Even if you just learn some basics, you’ll have a far easier time getting around, ordering in restaurants, and dealing with simple day-to-day interactions.
How Many People Speak English in Peru?
According to the Education ‘First English Proficiency Index’, the Peruvian population has a low proficiency in English. Out of 72 countries, it ranks at 45. That puts Peru slightly ahead of Ecuador and Colombia, and significantly ahead of Venezuela (Bolivia isn’t included in the rankings). Chile, Brazil and Uruguay are all ahead of Peru but sit in the same category; Argentina sits way up in 19th place with a high proficiency.
A 2015 study by the market research company GfK Perú found that only 8% of people surveyed said they spoke English. Half of those English speakers lived in Lima and almost a third were under 25 years of age.
From my experience living and traveling in Peru, the GfK Perú survey sounds about right. Young Peruvians (18 to 25) certainly speak more English than their elders. You’ll also come across far more English-speaking Peruvians in the capital, especially in upscale or tourist-oriented districts of Lima.
As a tourist, you’re more likely to meet English-speaking Peruvians, especially if you’re traveling along the popular Gringo Trail. Tour operators, guides, hotel and hostel staff, and other people working in the tourism industry in cities like Cusco, Puno and Arequipa are far more likely to have some basic level of conversational English, with many speaking excellent English.
Head off the beaten path, however, and your chances of meeting English-speaking Peruvians drop off significantly — well below the 8% mentioned by GfK Perú.
The Benefits of Speaking Spanish in Peru
In case you need some motivation to learn Spanish for Peru, here are just a few reasons to start studying before you travel.
- You’ll be able to save money every day by negotiating fares, haggling for prices and spotting rip offs, among other things.
- You’ll find it far easier to travel around Peru if you can ask for basic information like arrival times and travel durations. Also, being able to ask a bus driver or passenger where exactly the hell you are and when you should get off is a huge bonus.
- You’ll be able to communicate with the locals. Even if it’s only a very basic conversation, it will go a long to forming bonds and positive memories with the local population. And that’s a pretty fundamental part of traveling.
- You’ll be more comfortable traveling off the tourist trail in places where English speakers are rare.
- You won’t feel so lost when it’s time to order in restaurants, cafes and bars.
- You’ll have fun when you speak Spanish in Peru. Well, not always: sometimes trying to speak Spanish is a migraine-inducing nightmare, especially if you’re just starting to learn and you’re on a long trip. But it can be fun. You know, trading curse words and all that — makes everyone happy.
Traveling in Peru Without Knowing Any Spanish
As mentioned in the intro, don’t avoid going to Peru just because you don’t speak Spanish. You can travel in Peru without knowing any Spanish at all and still have a fantastic trip.
It’s easier with a tour package as you’ll have a guide for most of the time, but you can also travel completely independently, including as a backpacker, with no Spanish. You’ll struggle at times, but keep a smile on your face and you’ll do just fine.
It’s probably worth downloading a language app for you smartphone (if you travel with one). At least then you can type out the English, receive a translation, and then try to speak it out loud — or just show the translation on the screen.
Areas of Focus for Learning Spanish for Peru
If you do want to speak Spanish in Peru — even just some useful travel basics — then it’s worth focusing on the following practical areas:
Explaining your level of Spanish — If you really don’t know much (or any) Spanish when you arrive in Peru, it makes sense to be able to explain your position (rather than just stare blankly). If you don’t speak Spanish, explain as much with a simple “No hablo español.” If you need to ask someone if she speaks English, ask “¿Hablas inglés?” If you’re still learning and struggling to understand, politely ask if she can speak a little slower: “¿Puedes hablar más despacio, por favor?”
Basic social interactions — You should at least be able to say hello, please, thanks and goodbye. And you’ll almost certainly find yourself using this popular tourists phrase: “No, gracias” (“No, thanks”).
Simple introductions — Learn how to say your name and ask someone else’s name. These are the most fundamental ice-breakers, so they go a long way socially even if the conversation stops there. Learning to say where you’re from is also important, as you’ll be asked that a lot (“¿De dónde eres?” — “Soy de Inglaterra” / “Where are you from?” — “I’m from England.”)
Directions — Most importantly, perhaps, is “Where is….?” For “Where is (the bus station)?” you’d ask “¿Dónde está (la estación de autobuses)?”
Numbers — One to ten, at the very least.
Times, days of the week, dates etc. — As an independent traveler, understanding departure and arrival times is pretty damn important.
Shopping — Many shops in Peru don’t put prices on their wares. So you’ll be needing “¿Cuánto es?” / “¿Cuánto cuesta?” (How much is it?” / “How much does it cost”).
Ordering in Bars and Restaurants — You’ll probably be eating out most days (and maybe drinking most nights). To ask for the menu, say “La carta, por favor” (use la carta rather than “menu” to avoid confusion with the Peruvian menú). For the bill: “La cuenta, por favor.” And, of course, you’ll need to order a beer: “Una cerveza, por favor” (substitute cerveza for a pisco cocktail or any other drink you’d like).