More Than Words - Colombia's Useful to Know Sign Language

by Brendan Corrigan

It’s not just Spanish you need to have a decent grasp of to be in a position to truly get by in Colombia. Okay, there are lots of things outside of the language that are necessary to understand before you can attempt to ‘get it’ in this Latino world – some of those, such as relationships, you might never figure out – but on a quirkier note learning Colombia’s ‘speechless language’ (use of gestures, hand signals and facial expressions that all have special meanings) is something that is less taxing on the brain and in some circumstances more beneficial. Here’s a list of some of the most popular ones:

Beware, a local is signaling ladron or ratero. Photo by Brendan Corrigan

Tacaño (a) – Mr. Scrooge

This signal is done by raising one of your elbows and slapping the underside of it with your other hand. It basically describes a person who is tight-fisted with money. Of course you can argue there is often a big difference between being mean and being wise with your cash. Getting the locals to agree with you might be another thing however.

Paila – Something’s wrong

The open hand cutting to the neck gesture signifies that something’s wrong or not going to happen. Well, in practice, you’ll see this used in many circumstances, but always in a negative sense, such as some place is closed so you can’t go. If it’s used for your ‘delectation’, then you need to revise your plans.

Llena/tetiado – ‘No space in here tonight buddy’

For those who follow Italian hand gestures, this means something completely different – that is something (usually food) is really good. In Colombia, holding your hand out with your palm facing you while putting your fingertips together means a place is packed full of people. No more, no less.

Ladron/ratero – ‘Beware, there’s a thief about’

Don’t misread/ignore this one; it could save you a peso or two. When you’re on an overcrowded public transport system and you see a guy staring at you lightly scratching his cheek, it isn’t just that he has an itch. It’s more than likely a warning that there’s a thief about, so hold on tightly to your stuff. This is not the time – as if there ever is one – to ‘dar papaya’ as the locals say; that is to leave yourself naively exposed to being robbed.


Why point directions when you can use your lips? It works for many Colombians anyway. They’re not being rude, they’re telling you the way to go (just don’t take their gestures at, ahem, face value; the directions they give aren’t always spot on – it’s the thought that counts though, right?).

‘My child is not a dog’

It’s safe to state that most Westerners never give much thought to demonstrating the height of somebody. Colombia will change that. Etiquette exists here and if you get it wrong you might upset somebody. To show the height of a person, you put your hand out vertically; for an animal, horizontally. It’s best not to confuse the two. Regardless of the behaviour of someone’s child, you don’t want to give the impression that you think they’re not human – well then again...

Tonto/idiota/gueva/marica – “You Fool”

Two can work for this. The first is a dumb facial expression with hands out like you’re holding a ball under your chin, slightly shaking them. The second is just one of your hands, palm side up, again waving it a little directly under your chin. It’s best to stop talking if this one is aimed at you.

Que cagada – ‘What a b****cks!’

When you notice somebody behaving insincerely to another person – being two-faced for one – you can express your displeasure (or approval as the case may be) by loosely shaking your floppily held hand at the side of your head. 

Montada – Scissor fingers

If a person is in your face a bit too much or giving you hassle, use your index and middle fingers as scissors ‘cutting’ the wrist of your other hand to let them know you want them to back off and cut you some slack. If that doesn’t work, make a fist shape out of your strongest hand and aim it with force at the person’s face (or perhaps not).


A floppy shake of the hand in front of your body is used when something happens that surprises or shocks you. You might find that after a while you’ll hardly ever feel the need to use this – unless of course somebody turned up on time for an event.

Marica – Queer/gay

Covering your nose with your hand and gently rubbing it with your thumb and index finger signifies that you think somebody is gay or ‘marica’ as they say in Colombia. Do note that the word marica is used in an affectionate way too; you’ll hear people addressing good friends with it. It’s also used in contexts that may surprise you or for something daft as listed above. Basically it’s used for practically all situations you’ll find (sure we’re all gay at heart) – so it seems if you really want to point out somebody is gay, use the gesture.