The number of telenovelas out there can be overwhelming. It is no wonder many ask themselves “Which are the best telenovelas to learn Spanish?”. While there probably is no satisfying answer to this, we have carefully selected 5 Spanish soap operas to get you started.
Betty La Fea
Known as “Ugly Betty” in the United States, Betty la Fea is likely one of the most popular telenovelas of all time.
Originally produced in Colombia and aired in 2000, the massive international appeal of this Spanish telenovela has generated dozens of remakes and reruns. It was remade in 2006, starring America Ferrera for American television.
The plot follows Betty and unattractive but brilliant economist working as a secretary in a fictional fashion empire. Despite her impressive credentials, she is often dismissed because of her looks. She falls hopelessly in love with her boss but keeps her feelings hidden because of her looks.
Thanks to her brilliant wit and financial acumen, she can save the company and her boss from ruin. Creating an elaborate financial scheme that saves the company, she proves her worth to her boss.
To assure Betty's loyalty to the company, her boss follows the advice of a friend and starts romancing her. The obvious ensues, the boss falls for Betty in the end.
Betty La Fea is hailed worldwide for the way the show subverts stereotypical “beautiful heroine” characters and focuses rather on the intelligence of the main protagonist.
Because of the lighthearted company setting, this telenovela is great for picking up work-related vocabulary without much of the cringe-worthy melodrama.
La Reina Del Sur
Produced by the American-based Telemundo and originally aired in 2011, La Reina del Sur had an impressive 10 million dollar budget, making it one of the most expensive telenovelas ever made.
Nominated for Novel of the Year, the show has received critical acclaim and an English remake called “Queen of the South” aired on USA Network in 2016.
The plot follows Teresa, who flees Mexico when her boyfriend is killed by the Mexican cartel. She ends up in southern Spain where she tries to make a living as a bartender. However, she soon becomes entangled in the drug trafficking world. When her new love interest loses his life, she decides to take matters into her own hands.
Thanks to her ability to make strategic alliances couples with her sharp business acumen, she quickly conquers the drug world and becomes a drug lord in her own right. Unfortunately, her success comes at the great personal expense and emotional trials.
La Reina del Sur is a gripping story, and the show is very well produced. A treat to watch.
While the show includes the necessary romantic trials, it centers on a strong and successful woman. Thanks to the multi-locational storyline, it is a great way to experience the linguistic differences between Mexican Spanish and Spanish from Spain.
Maria La Del Barrio
Originally produced in 1995, Maria La del Barrio is a Mexican soap opera that has been broadcast in 180 different countries. Finding a more well-known telenovela is hard.
The story revolves around Maria Hernandez (played by Thalia) in a rag to riches drama filled with telenovela tropes. Maria is a scavenger who is taken in by a wealthy family after the death of the godmother.
Her presence in the household unleashes a series of dramas entering around Maria and the wealthy son of the owner’s love and the jealous and scheming Soraya who tries to break them up.
In classic telenovela fashion, Maria la del Barrio is jammed packed with all sorts of plot twists, including faked deaths, staged pregnancies, mistaken identities, jealousy, prison, adoption, amnesia, revenge, hope and lots of star-crossed love.
Maria la del Barrio might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is certainly entertaining. You will burn through the episodes while picking up on an impossibly wide range of vocabulary.
If nothing else, you will understand how passion and Spanish go hand in hand. Moreover, you will be hard-pressed to find a native Spanish speaker who does not know about Maria la del Barrio; it is a fail-safe conversation starter.
Corazon Abierto is a Colombian telenovela produced by the Disney Media Networks Latin America. This Spanish telenovela aired in 2010 to one of the most impressive debuts in Colombian television regarding viewers.
The plot and characters are loosely based on Grey’s Anatomy, however, unlike its American counterpart, Corazon Abierto is only 80 episodes long.
Corazon Abierto follows surgical intern María Cavalier. She is the daughter of a renowned surgeon of excellent reputation.
Maris faces the weight of living up to her mother’s expectations and reputation. In the midst of all the medical occurrences you can expect from a hospital-based show, Maria also encounters emotional difficulties.
She falls in love with one of the doctors, and they start a relationship. Just when things seem to be going well, the doctors' ex-wife reappears intent on winning him back. To make matters worse, the ex-wife also starts working at the hospital.
What is interesting of this show for Spanish learners, aside from the medical vocabulary associated with hospital drama is the fact that the series was expressively adapted to show the reality of medical characteristics of Latin America, specifically in Colombia.
It is a great way to familiarize yourself with not only vocabulary but also the specifics of the culture.
Sin Senos No Hay Paraiso
This poignant Colombian telenovela, produced by RTI Colombia-Telemundo, is based on the debut novel of investigative journalist Gustavo Bolivar. Premiered in 2008, it has since been made available to American audiences on Netflix.
The story follows Catalina, a poor Colombian girl who believes that having larger breasts will make her more appealing to wealthy drug lords and thus allow her to escape her life of poverty.
To finance the operation, she meets Yésica, a pimp who provides "pre-paid" girls to powerful men in the drug trafficking world. Entwined in a world of prostitution, drug trafficking and ruined medical procedures Catalina tries to achieve her dream, the larger breasts that she believes will give her a better life.
This telenovela is not a classic telenovela as such, though there are elements of romantic love lost. It gives a glimpse into the world of low-income families, and specifically girls in Colombia who will go to great lengths to improve their life.
This telenovela will have you gripped in suspense from beginning to end and will provide you knowledge of specific slang and cultural issues affecting Colombian society.