Why do people in Spain’s Canary Islands call the bus ‘la guagua’?

Everywhere else in Spain it’s called "bus" or "autobús" but there’s a very interesting theory as to why this type of transport came to have such a weird name in the Canaries.

Why do people in Spain's Canary Islands call the bus 'la guagua'?
They don't make "guaguas" like they did back in the day. Photo: Canarízame

One of the first things foreigners and mainland Spaniards notice when they’re in the Canary Islands is the bizarre word locals use to talk about a bus or coach: la guagua (usually pronounced wa-wa). 

It’s neither slang nor a trendy abbreviation young people prefer: everyone from regional politicians to pensioners will use it, and if you choose to utter bus or autobús instead, the locals will automatically know you don’t live in the archipelago.

So how did guagua come to be the quintessential Canary Spanish word?

One that together with other linguistic idiosyncrasies such as the absence of the past perfect tense and the pronunciation of “z/c” as an “s” make it instantly possible to recognise a person from the Canaries (if you speak Spanish that is).

Unbelievably, guagua – a noun which sounds like an onomatopoeia for a baby’s incessant crying – is believed by some to be derived from American English.

To be more exact it’s thought to be an abbreviation for Washington, Walton, and Company Incorporated, an American transport company which manufactured some of the first passenger carriers towards the mid and late 19th century.

Their longwinded company name was reportedly shortened on the side of their vehicles to Wa & Wa Co. Inc., which in turn become “gua-gua” as the “w” is rarely used in non-anglicised Spanish.

The word could have been exported from Cuba to the Canaries given the mass migration between the islands on either side of the Atlantic during the 19th and early 20th century.

Photo: Secret Tenerife/Flickr

However, historical records show its first usage in the Cuban press around 1850, before any American transport company started operating on the island.

Together with Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the Canaries and Cuba are the only four places in the Spanish-speaking world where buses are usually called guaguas.

The theory that guagua is somewhat a ‘bastardisation’ of English words certainly rings true when considering other laidback interpretations of other ‘English-Canary words’.

There’s “papas Kinegua” which refers to the King Edward potato variety, “bisne” for business, “bistec” for beef steak or “cambullonero”, used to refer to a merchants who “come buy on” ships that arrived at the docks in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

There are three other theories about the origins of the word “guagua”: that it’s derived from the English word “waggon”, that it originates from the Ngu languages of African slaves in Cuba (“awawa” meaning to ‘move quickly’) or that it’s simply an onomatopoeia derived from the sound the bus’s claxon makes. 

Whatever the real origin of the word guagua, all of the theories are truly fascinating (and somewhat comical) examples of linguistic evolution.

Did we mention that in Chilean Spanish guagua means baby? No? That’s a story for another day, then.


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Spanish Word of the Day: ‘Chiringuito’

Here’s one of the most summer-themed Spanish words out there, so you need to add it to your vocab. 

Spanish Word of the Day: 'Chiringuito'

When Spaniards think of summer, they often picture vacaciones (holidays), sol y playa (sun and beach) and tinto de verano (red wine mixed with soda/lemonade and ice – don’t diss it until you’ve tried it). 

And the place where they’re most likely to enjoy all these placeres del verano (summer pleasures) is at a chiringuito

Un chiringuito is essentially a beach bar. 

They’re usually small establishments that serve drinks and food to beachgoers during the sweltering summer months, meaning that many don’t open for the rest of the year. 

You’ll get the more rough and ready ones, wooden huts with dried out palm leaves providing shade as the radio blasts los éxitos del verano (the summer hits), to the more refined chiringuitos that are essentially like upmarket beachside gastrobars serving up plates of sardines as if they were haute cuisine. 

The word chiringuito (pronounced chee-reeng-gee-toh, the u in silent) was brought to Spain by los Indianos, the name given to Spaniards who emigrated to South and Central America in the 19th and 20th centuries and then returned to Spain, often with a lot more money under their belt. 

They would order a chiringuito when they wanted un café, a word used by Cubans who worked on sugar plantations to refer to how the coffee they made would filter through a stocking squirted out like a stream (chorro or chiringo).

The first beach kiosk to be dubbed a chiringuito was in 1949 in the coastal Catalan town of Sitges, where many wealthy Indianos settled. 

Then came the hippie movement in the sixties, the explosion of tourism in Spain and the hoards of beachgoers needing refreshing drinks to get some respite from the sun.

In 1983, chiringuito made it into the Spanish dictionary and in 1988 French pop singer Georgie Dann hit the charts with El Chiringuito.

These simple wooden beach huts were now officially part of Spanish culture.

But chiringuito has another meaning in Spain which pays heed to the informal nature of these establishments. 

Nowadays, chiringuito is often used to refer to a shady business, a government department born from cronyism, a bunch of cowboys basically.

Headline in Spanish right-wing news website OK Diario reads “Sánchez increased shady public enterprises (chiringuitos) by 10 percent as GDP plummeted due to the coronavirus”.

We certainly know what kind of chiringuito we prefer.

There’s also the expression “cerrar el chiringuito”, which means to finish a duty and leave.


Vamos a tomar unas cañas y un pescaito al chiringuito.

Let’s go and have some beers and some fish at the beach bar. 

Si quieres mantener tus inversiones a salvo has de alejarte todo lo lejos que puedas de lo que se conoce como chiringuito financiero.

If you want to keep your investments safe you have to get away as far as you can from shady companies.

Ya es tarde, habrá que pensar en cerrar el chiringuito e irse a casa.

It’s late, time to finish work and go home.