What All Those Spanish Place Names Mean

San Cristobal de las Casas Spanish place name

Saint Christopher of the Houses

You probably rattle off Spanish place names many times a year, especially if you live in the western USA. But do you know what all those names mean?

I’m writing this from Baja (Low), California, where I’m visiting The Capes, The Peace, and All the Saints. Last time I was here I kayaked around Holy Spirit Island.

None of those places are called that though, because the names are in Spanish. Since what’s now Mexico was a Spanish colony and so was a big chunk of area from Texas to northern California, many of the cities have retained un nombre en Español. The same is true in Florida, where the Spanish had a foothold for hundreds of years, and in the Caribbean. So you’ll find plenty of Spanish place names in Texas and points west of there.

I have relatives who live in the “rat mouth” of a state whose name means “flowery.” Do most of the people in Boca Raton, Florida even know? How many of the people living in Amarillo, Santa Fe, San Antonio, or Palo Alto know that their town name came from south of the border?

I didn’t know what half of them were myself before I really started learning Spanish. So if you’re in the same boat, here’s a cheat sheet you can follow next time you’re traveling through the American Southwest or heading off to Latin America.

Land of the Saints

When you see San or Santa in a city name, that usually means a saint name, as in San Francisco (St. Francis), San Marcos (Saint Mark) or San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence). Sometimes it can just mean holy, as in Santa Fe (Holy Faith). In Baja you get Todos Santos–All the Saints.

Spanish place names santa rio laguna bocaThere are thousands of these in Mexico alone, plus in California where you get everything from San Diego to Santa Monica. One of Mexico’s most famous lucha libre wrestlers was simply Santo.

Sometimes you get a “from” part added to the name (de) or some odd mix of the holy and the famous, such as San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. It was originally just the village of San Miguel, but then revolutionary leader Ignacio Allende hailed from there and helped kick out the Spanish in the early 1800s, so the revolutionary’s name got tagged on in honor. Or you end up with Saint Christopher of the Houses: San Cristobal de las Casas.

Coasts, Ports, Rivers and Mountains

If you see Costa in a name, it’s going to be on the coast, as in Costa Rica (Rich Coast, sorta), or Costa Mesa (Table Coast, sorta). Costa Brava is the brave coast, costa verde is the green one, costa palma is lined with palm trees…you get the idea.

Puerto means port, as in Puerto Escondido (Hidden Port), Puerto Viejo (Old Port), or Puerto Paraiso (Paradise Port).

If you see Rio in a name, it is or was named after a river. Rio Bravo (Brave River), Rio Perdido (Lost River), or Rio Verde (Green River). Or in the case of Del Rio, Texas, “Of the River.”

Laguna is a lagoon, Bahia is a bay.

Monte and Montaña refer to a mountain, as in Monteverde (Green Mountain) or the state of Montana. Often you get “Mount” and then a person’s name, such as the Monte Albán archaeological site or Monte Carlo.

Boca is a mouth, so geographically this usually means the mouth of a river or, on a map, something that looks like a mouth. Boca Grande (Big Mouth) Boca Chica (Small Mouth) or Boca Raton (Rat Mouth).

Colors and What’s Good

Just as in other languages, many Spanish place names have colors in them. Sometimes these refer to nature, rock colors, or even the people that invaders found. Amarillo is simply Yellow, Colorado is a shade of Red. Many places have Azul (blue) in the name, Negra/Negro (black), Verde (green), or Dorado (gold). Piedra Blanca is White Rock.

If you see Buena in a name, that’s something good. The most common one is Buena Vista (Good View) and there are some that are Buena Esperanza (Good Hope) or Yerba Buena (Good Herb). That’s also the Spanish term for spearmint.

One-off Spanish Place Names

Some words you don’t see nearly as often. Palo can be a stick or stump, as in Palo Alto (High Stick). Alamo is a poplar tree, while Las Cruces are The Crosses.

Of course there are many others that don’t take much effort to figure out: Los Angeles (The Angels), Sacramento (Sacrament), Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters), El Paso (The Pass), Los Gatos (The Cats), and Coronado (Coronated).

Nevada means Snowfall, Las Vegas was apparently “The Meadows,” though you won’t find many of those around that desert now…

Last, many city names in Latin America are simply repeats of the home towns of Conquistadors. So all over the place you’ll find names of Spanish cities such as Granada, Cordoba, Salamanca, and Merida.

Comments
  1. Tom

    Good article!
    Unique and interesting read.
    I began to learn those too but I forgot to reflect on Boca Raton! That’s a funny one.
    I wonder about others like Miami for example. Some are just proper names though. Maybe that one too.

    Thanks for all of your work! I keep checking the blog here and there when contemplating low cost (but safe and ok enough) places to live as money becomes more and more tight.
    I like how you stay up to date and are actually living the lifestyle to include frequent travel which of course is important for this subject.

    By the way – what about your 5th edition book? No pressure! I know you’re researching. But soon enough is just about the right timing for the release – since 2013 for the last one.
    Thanks again Tim! All the best!

    • Tim Leffel

      5th edition is in final edits now. Travel keeps getting in the way, but should be out by May!

  2. Dev

    Amazing information and great content. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Robert Jordan

    I am in SMA now and sorry I won’t be able run up to Guanajuato to meet you. Spent some time on the outskirts of SMA to get a feel for what SMA used to be. Some gringos here say SMA has as much culture to offer as any major city in the world for a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the cost, although yesterday was the celebration of Benito Juarez. Wondering what I might do here. Although 75, I am not ready to retire. I do wonder about the availability of water and might look into rainwater harvesting.
    Best of luck. I recently finished “Better Living” and being here in SMA causes me to reflect on what would be better and what I would leave behind.
    A proposito, the organizer of the tango festival fell and broke her hip the first day of the festival. She went to Queretaro that night,1 they found the part and performed the operation at 6:00 the next morning. Two days later she made a brief appearance at the tango festival to receive a lot of well wishes. I was told the procedure was more advanced than typical in the United States. A great testimonial for the quality of treatment available here.

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