Destinos Review: How I’m Learning Spanish With Cheesy Dialogue, Big Hair and Shoulder Pads

There are lots of shiny, spangly, new resources out there, but I’m not going to start with them. No, instead I’m going to start with a decidedly low-tech Spanish language learning tool that’s over 20 years old: Destinos.

Why? Because it’s great, that’s why.

What is Destinos?

destinosDestinos – by Annenberg Media – is an entire language program built around a ridiculously cheesy telenovela from the early 1990s. While the original program included a textbook, workbooks and tapes (hey, it was the early 90s!), what really matters is the soap opera itself: 52 30-minute episodes that help you build vocabulary and train your ear to understand spoken Spanish. And you can watch all of them online for free!

Don Fernando (he’s the guy in the picture – see how sad and serious he looks?) reveals his deepest, darkest secret to his family: he was married once before and he may have another child. The family hires Raquel Rodriguez, a Spanish-speaking lawyer from California, to find them before the ailing Don Fernando dies. She travels the world, seeking answers:

  • What’s in the letter?
  • Where is Rosario?
  • What happened to the child?
  • Should she buy the red shirt or the blue one?
  • How does one fit so many shoulder pads into one suitcase? (Actually, this is one mystery that will never be solved.)

¡Corre, Raquel!

Add in pregnant pauses, overdramatic facial expressions, cheesy romantic subplots and clothes that would have made even the 80s cringe, and you’ve got Destinos.

Why I love Destinos

OK, so the story is a bit silly – but isn’t that true for all soap operas?

What matters is that it works.

It introduces vocabulary in context. Rather than studying disconnected vocabulary lists, watching Destinos allows you to learn food vocab while people are eating, colours while Raquel is shopping for new clothes, and numbers in the context of phone numbers, addresses and room numbers. Yes, sometimes the context is a bit forced – for example, when Raquel ends up in a pet market so that we can learn the words for “dog”, “cat” and “bird” – but it’s never completely unrelated. Because words are used in context, they’re much easier to learn and retain.

It uses very little English. One of the things that disappoints me the most with resources for beginner learners is just how much English they tend to include. Some of them have more English than Spanish! This is not true for Destinos. The vast majority of each 30-minute program is fully in Spanish. Because it’s a telenovela, it’s a very visual medium. If you don’t understand something, you can use picture cues to help you figure it out.

It uses different speeds of speech to help develop listening skills. The narrator speaks in slow, clearly enunciated Spanish. Raquel also speaks slowly and clearly at the end of each episode, when she’s thinking back on what happened. In between, though, there’s lots of conversation at a “normal” pace. OK, it’s probably a bit slower and definitely with less slang than a truly normal conversation, but it’s still a challenge!

It introduces different Spanish accents. Throughout the story, Raquel visits Spain, Argentina, Puerto Rico and Mexico. Each region has its own accent and speech patterns. I was starting to feel a bit smug after nine episodes in Spain. This is easy. I’m good. Then we went to Argentina, and I felt like I was starting all over again for the first few episodes. I love having the opportunity to train my ear using a variety of accents. The show also includes snapshots of history and culture for each region.

It includes closed captioning – in Spanish. You can turn the subtitles on and off by clicking on the CC button at the bottom of the screen. While I try not to use the closed captions, I do switch them on now and then, especially if someone is speaking with an accent that’s new to me. In addition to Spanish subtitles, the show also sometimes includes Spanish words and sentences written on the screen, especially when going over new learning at the end of each episode.

It’s fun. Let’s not forget the most important part of language learning: you have to want to do it. And – despite the drawn-out storyline and the ridiculous overacting – I like Destinos. It’s fun. It’s funny – even when it isn’t trying to be. It makes me feel like I’m actually getting better at Spanish.

How I use Destinos to learn Spanish

At first, I watched an episode every day, but that became a bit tiresome. Now, I generally watch four episodes per week, which is often enough to stay immersed in the story – but not so often that I stop listening during the recaps.

When I first began, I tried to write down all of the vocabulary that I was learning, but that quickly headed down the road of “not fun”. Since I already use other methods and resources to learn vocabulary, I decided to simply watch Destinos without madly scribbling down every new word. My main goal here is to develop my ear so that I can understand spoken Spanish, and the best way to do that is to listen. I do write down some of the vocabulary when Raquel is doing her recaps at the end of each episode.

If I get really stuck during a conversation, I’ll watch it with the Spanish captions turned on, and then go back and watch it again without the subtitles.

The site also includes a few language, grammar and vocabulary activities to help practice what you’re learning. These include fill-in-the-blanks, multiple choice, drag-and-drop, reading comprehension and other worksheet-type activities. I do some of these, but only if I feel like it. I don’t think that they’re all that helpful overall, but they’re quick to do and some of them are worthwhile.


a drag and drop vocabulary activity from Destinos

Do I think that Destinos is worth watching?

Yes, absolutely! For people new to Spanish, it’s a great way to learn in context. The story – while a bit silly and slow-moving – is engaging. While you will spend a lot of time laughing and rolling your eyes, you’ll be surprised to find that you actually do care what happens next! And it’s very motivating to see how quickly your listening skills improve.

Destinos definitely wouldn’t stand on its own as a true telenovela. I think of it more as a kind of kindergarten for Spanish-language television. I plan on sticking with it until the end, and then I’ll graduate to a real telenovela.

While it won’t make a person fluent in Spanish on its own, Destinos is fun, and it’s a great tool for developing listening skills. In fact, I think I’ll go watch an episode right now!


To Destinos!

You can access all 52 episodes of Destinos for free here.

27 thoughts on “Destinos Review: How I’m Learning Spanish With Cheesy Dialogue, Big Hair and Shoulder Pads

  1. Pingback: How I Self Study Spanish: Don’t Overcomplicate Things | to be fluent

  2. Maya Radoczy

    Thanks for this page! I’m on episode 35 right now! I never get tired of this story, because it really helps my Spanish. I studied in Madrid for a school year, hace muchos anos—and this series always give my Spanish a boost. I’m glad there are other fans!

    1. Stephanie Post author

      I’m a HUGE fan. I highly recommend it to everyone who tells me that they’re learning Spanish – with the caveat that the story really is a bit cheesy, and doesn’t seem to actually go anywhere. Ha! I’m glad you’re enjoying it as much as I did!

      1. Jishanth

        I see there is a workbook and tutorial text along with the orignial course. Is there a way i can get the pdfs of those?

        1. Stephanie Post author

          I’m sure they exist somewhere! I’ve never used them, though. I just watched the videos and used other resources for grammar/reading/writing study.

  3. Señor Collin

    I’ve been watching Destinos for years, and it’s great, so I was pleased to find this blog.

    You watch Destinos because you like the show, not to learn spanish. If there’s a good way to learn spanish, I’m not aware of it and I’ve been looking for 30 years. I’ve spent thousands on books and software and all of it went to the trash.

    I’ve watched the first six episodes of Destinos more than 10 times each. It’s good until you meet Señora Suarez. She’s hard to understand and I even have the transcript. After that it moves away from present tense. And there’s more than three tenses in Spanish! What??? How could there be more than past, present, and future? Is there some kind of time machine they invented that needed an algorithm to go back to a general past vs a specific past? That’s nuts!

    Destinos gets more complicated as the series goes and I’ve often wondered if real, native speakers even know or use the thousands of verb conjugations. Wait. I think I just saw a dog run by the window. ¡Osito! ¡Osito!

    1. Stephanie Post author

      Ha! Thanks for the great comment! Books and software is all very well – but your best resource for learning Spanish is definitely people. 😉 As for verb tenses, I hear you. My French helps me a lot! But, as I tell my French students, English verbs are much more complicated that you realize! It’s just that it’s all so natural and you don’t have to think about it. Consider the verb to walk:

      I walk
      I am walking
      I walked
      I was walking
      I had walked
      I would walk (can be either a conditional – I would walk if I could – OR a past tense habitual action – When I was a kid, I would walk to school)
      I would have walked
      If I were walking
      If I were going to walk
      I will walk
      I will have walked
      I will be walking

      Now go catch that dog! 😉

      1. Nrk

        De acuerdo. He enseñado dos idiomas, español y griego. Para mi es muy interesante como gente no sabe que tanto complicado es ingles hasta que ellos han aprendido un otro idioma. Tenemos muchos diferentes tiempos pero cuando has crecido usando estos es como caminar y no tienes que pensar en como se dice algo solo tienes que decir lo. Pero puede ser lo mismo con un otro idiom lo mismo de jugar un deporte si practicas algo suficiente una cosa que era muy difícil estará un reacción como respirar.

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  5. Pingback: Learning Spanish from Scratch – a Self-Study Guide | to be fluent

  6. Mike

    Hi Stephanie, thanks for introducing me to Destinos!

    I wanted to recommend another “novela” that perhaps will appeal to both sexes:
    STNHP, Sin Tetas No Hay Paraiso. A ridiculous / incredible story about a Colombian girl who wants to become rich by being one of the Narcotraficante’s girls. I couldn’t believe this show existed when I first saw it. Most of the episodes are on youtube.

    Keep posting Spanish Resources!

  7. milly bal

    I took Spanish and French in high school. French was more intensive. I visited Spain and PR but I lived in French-speaking countries for12 years. Am now studying Spanish again 50 years later–this time in my local community college using Destinos.. I love, love, love it, shoulder pads and all 🙂 ha, ha. I also love all the characters through episodio 42 except for 2 whose smirks and general demeanor are not to my liking. Your point about English-speakers not knowing how rich and complicated English grammar, syntax, voccabulary can be is true. However, in my class are students from PR, DR, Colombia, Mexico. and Salvador. They are just as clueless about the nuts and bolts of the Spanish language as the English speakers are about English.. Yes, their vocabulary and conversational skills are impressive, but they stumble when reading Spanish texts aloud and they have to learn why they automatically switch to different verb tenses when speaking and all about direct and indirect objects. the different persons (1st person plural) etc.. and a whole lot of grammatically correct usages versus colloquial speech. Thank you for initiating a Destinos blog . Re Osito, someone could also WALK! (English imperative mood) to find him, n’est-ce pas? Got to sign off now. My granddaughter is stopping by with some new guy who is Puertoricano and shares her interest in theater…

    1. Stephanie Post author

      Thanks for your comment! So interesting that you’re taking a Spanish class with Spanish-speaking students. How did you enjoy taking a class that used Destinos as a resource?

  8. Da

    I started Destinos, just finished the 2nd episode. I found cheap books and workbooks on Amazon to go with the series.
    There is a free Spanish lesson on that lasts 16 weeks. You can go at your own pace. It started 9/15/2015. I think that will keep the link on the site for a while so anyone can start anytime.
    Extr@ on youtube seems like an interesting Spanish program.

  9. Aluchi

    I am hooked to Destinos. But let me introduce myself briefly here. I am a middle age-educated adult who has a strong passion to learn and advance his Spanish knowledge. I am considered to be in the upper intermediate level, but I am a self-taught now, so no more university classes, etc… I found that Destinos is wonderful educational telenovela (tv series, or soap) because of the various accents people speak in every country and also the classes of society Raquel Rodriguez happen to visit. This may be a bit of a challenge for beginners. So, for me I can understand why someone in the comments above mentioned that they found Señora Suarez is hard to understand.
    I would like to know if there is any other video material similar to Destinos for me to tap into?
    thank you for your help
    All the best to you all in your journey to learn, and I wish you all the success in 2016

  10. Karen

    I just discovered Destinos and am really enjoying it. Does anyone know a free source for the transcripts? I found a site that had a monthly fee, but I am hoping it is available somewhere for free.

    1. Stephanie Post author

      Hi Karen! I’m not sure about transcripts, since all I used were the videos. But you can turn on Spanish subtitles if you want, by clicking on “CC” on the video. ¡Buena suerte!

  11. glori

    Really enjoy this show. am going through it once and then I want to go back and try to turn off the Spanish subtitles, I tend to need them to help me understand what is said since I am better at reading than understand the spoken speech only.

  12. Pingback: Other Info About Destinos | destinostelenovela

  13. Arlene Gardopee

    Hi All! I am a Community College Spanish Instructor and am in the process of developing an Online Spanish 101, 102, or 201 course. Thoughts on how Destinos could be integrated or used as a basis for the class? Or, in light of the age and experience of my students (mostly age 18-24, some with no language experience), is Destinos too dated and/or would it require too much “independence” for them to have a successful experience? I find that my students need a lot of guidance. Thank you for your comments.

  14. Linda Leavitt

    I am so happy to find your blog. I think watching this series is the best thing out there in helping learn the language. I watched it on PBS years ago and wasn’t able to see all the episodes. Watching it again is really helping my Spanish. Plus, I love Arturo and their sweet romance. I think they do a great job of exposing the listener to different Spanish speaking countries. It’s cheesy but makes the learning process much easier.


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