A Guide to Mexican Street Speak

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.

Common terms for streets in Mexico

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 opportunity to U-turn or double-back over a bridge or under a tunnel to cross-over to the other side of a road; on some roads it could also be a wide space within a camellón (median strip) 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.

Another term you’ll come across when driving in Mexico the word crucero which means junction.  Related to crucero is the word entronque, which means to connect, or merge.  Junctions are most often signed when they require additional precautions to be exercised, —for example, Entronque Peligroso— where a road merges with another on the left hand side of the adjoining highway (overtaking lane) instead of the (more-usual) merge lane on the right.

Freeways and tolled highways

Moving onto trunk roads, there are two ways of referring to a highway: carretera and autopista; and these are sometimes referred to (or signed on highways) as ‘Libre‘ (freeway) or ‘Cuota‘ (tollway), respectively.

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, and most are two-lane highways; some have stretches for overtaking slow vehicles.  You might see these signed as ‘Libre‘ on highways.

Autopista (and its related term, ‘cuota’) are words reserved to describe tolled interstate highways in Mexico—some of which run alongside, or nearby, carreteras federales. You might see these signed as ‘Cuota‘ on highways.

The toll fee is called peaje although tolled highways in Mexico are rarely if ever referred to using that word.

Streets alongside ocean scenes

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.

Miscellaneous street terms in Mexico

Some other related terms you may encounter in journey parlance here include:

  • lateral, which refers to a parallel side road that may be situated alongside any main urban road, or carretera, or autopista, and separated by a camellón—a central reservation or median strip;
  • libramientos, which can sometimes be part of a carretera or autopista refer to ‘relief roads,’ built specifically to route passing traffic away from, or around, a town or city center;
  • periférico refers to a ring road (or beltway) around a town, city, or place;
  • in Mexico City, the stretches of tolled elevated beltway raised primarily above the capital’s original beltway (anillo periferico) is colloquially referred to as El Segundo Piso.  You need a ‘Tag’ on your vehicle’s dashboard or windshield to use the electronically controlled gates which give drivers access to the tolled level of roadway;
  • 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; and
  • paseo that 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.

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