Let’s say you’re living in a Spanish-speaking country and somebody stops you in the middle of the street to ask you for directions:
—Perdone, ¿me puede decir dónde está la calle Maldonado?
La calle Maldonado. You know that street.
You could just say por allí and call it a day, but what this person really needs is to keep going straight, go to the other side of the park, make a right, and take the second one on the left.
How do you say that in Spanish without sounding awkward?
Asking for directions
Before we get into the giving part, let’s focus on the asking. Notice a couple of things about the way the question was phrased:
—Perdone1, ¿me puede decir2 dónde está la calle Maldonado?
“Excuse (me), can you tell me where is the Maldonado Street?”
1 Perdone is a good way to stop someone on the street. Usted is the recommended option when you’re talking to someone older than you; otherwise, feel free to use perdona or disculpa.
2 If you want to be extra formal, you can use the conditional (¿me podría decir…?), but using the present is much more common (at least in Spain). If you want to read more about the tú–usted present-conditional duality, check out the post about ordering food in Spanish.
Another option when asking for directions is to avoid all the wordiness and just say the name of the street:
—Perdone, ¿la calle Maldonado?3
“Excuse (me), the Maldonado Street?”
3 To make this work, remember to raise your voice when you get to this syllable. Otherwise, it won’t sound like a question.
Okay, now comes the fun part. What do you say when somebody else asks you for directions?
—Sí, mira1. Giras2 por aquí, sigues todo recto3 y vas a ver4 un parque. Lo cruzas. Cuando llegues5 al final, giras a la derecha y Maldonado es la segunda6 a la izquierda.
“Yes, look. You turn here, you continue all straight, and you’re going to see a park. You cross it. When you get to the end, you turn to the right and Maldonado is the second on the left.”
Let’s break all of that down:
1 Mira is basically a way to let the other person know that you’re going to show them something. It could be a map, your watch, or your lease agreement. This is totally optional but highly encouraged. Unlike in English, mira doesn’t have the annoyed connotation that look has in English. It’s perceived more like “check this out” or “take a look at this.” Natives wouldn’t use as much as they do if it sounded rude.
2 The imperative is a perfectly good choice when giving directions (that’s what we used in 1), but a very common alternative is switching to the present tense and going into second-person narration (tú giras, tú sigues, tú vas, tú cruzas). It makes requests sound nicer (¿me das…? instead of dame…) and advice seem less pushy (vas por aquí… instead of ve por aquí…).
3 Todo recto means straight. Recto also means straight, but it lacks Spanish emphasis. It may seem whimsical, but adding a few extra things like “Sí, mira. Sigues todo recto…” instead of “Sí. Recto” brings you a whole step closer to sounding native.
4 A good way to add variety when you’re giving directions is to talk about reference points. If you simply want to announce them, use vas a ver (or verás):
- Vas a ver una farmacia justo al lado. (You’re going to see a pharmacy right next to it.)
- Verás un buzón enfrente de la tienda. (You’ll see a mailbox in front of the shop.)
- Vas a ver un semáforo detrás de la farola. (You’re going to see a traffic light behind a lamp post.)
5 If you want your listener to do something at those reference points, use cuando + subjunctive to imply a change of course:
- Cuando veas la catedral, giras a la derecha. (When you see the cathedral, you turn to the right.)
- Cuando puedas, cruzas al otro lado. (When you can, you cross to the other side.)
- Cuando llegues al final de la calle, buscas un cartel rojo. (When you get to the end of the street, you look for a red sign.)
6 In Spain, we usually indicate distances using units (está a cien metros, it’s a hundred meters away) or an ordinal number for the street (es la segunda, it’s the second (street)). In American Spanish it’s more common to talk about cuadras (está a dos cuadras, it’s two blocks away).
—¿Y se tarda1 mucho? Porque voy un poco mal de tiempo2.
“And does one take a lot (to get there)? (I ask) because I’m (going / doing) a bit bad (of / on) time.”
—No, son diez minutos andando. Llegas enseguida3.
“No, it’s ten minutes (walking / on foot). You arrive in no time.”
1 We use the impersonal se to ask things like ¿cómo se llega a…? (how (does one / do I) get to…?) or ¿cuánto se tarda en ir a…? (“how long does (one / it) take to go to…?”).
I know that the last thing you need right now is another se usage, but the good news is that this one is pretty easy. You just have to remember one thing: always put the se right before the verb. That means that you can’t put anything between them (se no tarda mucho) and you can’t attach it at the end of the verb (tardarse mucho). If you want to explore the pronominal se, check out the verbs of change.
2 ir + adjective is super useful when giving directions because it lets you talk about timeframes as well as trajectories:
- For timeframes, add de tiempo: vamos muy bien de tiempo (we’re doing great on time), vas un poco mal de tiempo (you’re doing a bit badly on time)
- For trajectories, add por + approximate location: voy bien por ahí (I’m on the right way (through there)), vamos mal por aquí (we are on the wrong way (through here))
3 Enseguida wants to be your friend, but you’re always busy hanging out with ahora mismo. I’m telling you: give enseguida a chance. It also means right now, and you never know when it might come in handy.
You won’t always know
—¿Sabes1 si hay un supermercado de camino?
“Do you know if there is a supermarket (on the way)?”
—Pues2 no te sabría decir. Yo es que3 no soy de este barrio. Lo siento.
“Well, I wouldn’t know (what) to tell you. (The thing is) I’m not (of / from) this neighborhood. I’m sorry.”
—Bueno, gracias de todas formas.
“(Good / Alright), thanks anyway.”
—Pero, mira. Creo que a la vuelta de la esquina4 hay una tienda de alimentación.
“But, look. I think that around the corner there is a convenience store.”
—Ah, perfecto. Muchísimas gracias.
“Oh, perfect. Thank you very much.”
1 ¿Sabes…? is a useful expression when you’re asking directions to a place that not everybody might be familiar with. For very well known places, it’s better to stick with ¿me puedes decir…?.
2 Pues is just like mira: an optional word that adds a whole bunch of Spanish flavor. It has several usages, and some of them are region-specific but, in this case, the pues is softening the no that comes after it. It’s a subtle way of acknowledging that you’re not fully satisfied with your negative response. It’s similar to adding well in English (Well, not really.)
3 And whenever you need to give an excuse, keep es que handy:
- Es que no me dio tiempo. ((The truth) is that (it didn’t give me time / I didn’t have time).)
Es que me he quedado sin dinero. ((The problem) is that I no longer have any money.)
Lo que pasa es que no sabía que era tu novia. (The thing is that I didn’t know she was your girlfriend.)
4 A la vuelta de la esquina is another expression that deserves to be part of your direction-giving arsenal. Notice the parallels with a la izquierda/derecha (to the left/right) or al principio/final (at the beginning/end).
5 Is there anything more satisfying than giving directions like a boss?
The bare essentials for giving directions are sigue todo recto, gira a la izquierda and gira a la derecha. Once you master these, you can start adding some native magic like:
- Signaling that you’re going to show something: Mira, esta es la Avenida de las Américas.
Using second-person narration: Sigues por esta calle y luego giras.
Distinguishing between regular reference points (Vas a ver una farola) and those that imply a change of course (Cuando llegues a la plaza, la cruzas.)
Indicating distance (ordinals and units): Al cuarto semáforo, giras. Un kilómetro, más o menos.
Estimating duration: No se tarda mucho. Si vas en coche, enseguida llegas.
Giving excuses when you don’t know: Lo siento. Es que no vivo aquí.
Now go out into the world and give a hand to all those confused Spanish-speaking tourists.
Let me know how it goes in the comments.