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. If you’re sitting at a cantina sipping a nice bargain-priced tequila from Mexico, you can start a page in a notebook with all the Spanish place names you can think of and turn it into a bar game.
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.
There 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. Such as:
Boca Grande (Big Mouth)
Boca Chica (Small Mouth)
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). Others include:
Buena Esperanza (Good Hope)
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)
Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters)
El Paso (The Pass)
Los Gatos (The Cats)
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.
One of the cheapest places to travel in South America isn’t that hard to figure out either: Buenos Aires is “good air(s).”