One of my favorite things about traveling is being humored by things that seem strange or awkward to me. We’ve traveled extensively through Central and South America and noticed many different customs, products and behaviors that don’t exist in the United States. Each individual country does have distinct cultural norms when compared to their neighbors, however, we were still able to observe some common weird things across them all.
List of 10 Weird Things in Latin America
1. Don’t Throw Toilet Paper in the Toilet
No matter where you are in Central or South America, toilet paper is thrown in the trash can or waste bin. This is a challenge initially for those traveling from the United States. Sometimes, subconsciously you inevitably throw it in the toilet, but be aware it can cause a toilet to blow up. It’s not their practice to dispose of toilet paper this way and their plumbing is not built to handle it. Every hostel you visit will kindly remind you on the stall door.
2. Liquids are Sold in Plastic Bags
The first time I saw someone with a plastic bag full of water hanging from their mouth I did a double take. Bottled water is available, but it’s cheaper to buy your fluids in plastic bags. Street vendors will sell all different types of juices and even full meals of chicken and rice in clear plastic bags. These bags are similar to those your Mom used to put your lunch sandwiches in. Yogurt is also usually a liquid and sold in plastic bags.
3. Streets are Named After Dates
This can be very confusing when following a map and conversing about it to your travel partner. “Where do we turn?” “9th of October.” “I asked where do we turn at?” The dates are usually significant to the region, such as independence day and other holidays.
4. Unfinished Buildings
Iron rods stick out of the flat roofs of many buildings. To a foreigner it looks like they just never finished the next floor up, however they are planning for the future. We are more concerned with the appearance of buildings. They are more concerned with the cost of the building. It may look ugly, but if they decide to build another story, the cement floor is already complete and the vertical iron rods are ready for cement.
5. Money Change is Rare & Precious
When using a cash machine, it usually dispenses large bills, however it is nearly impossible to pay with large bills. This has been a common theme throughout all of Central and South America. You will find yourself making purchases in order to obtain smaller bills and exact change, but be aware, the retailer usually has a secret stash of change.
6. American School Buses Have a Second Life
You have probably seen our crazy custom Chicken Bus video. Old American school buses, usually tricked out with creative custom add-ons, are the main mode of transportation in many Central American countries. It gets very crowded and you won’t be buying any tickets to get on these buses. Hop on when it passes by and you will most likely have a two hour experience that you will remember for a lifetime. Don’t worry about not having any snacks or drinks with you, street vendors will jump on selling the strangest things.
7. Paying To Use Bathrooms
Public bathrooms are never free. We usually have to pay a US quarter to use them and sometimes you have to pay extra for toilet paper. The worst part is that they are far from clean or hygienic.
8. Security Guards Carrying Shotguns
Security Guards stand outside banks, museums, clothing stores, gas stations and sometimes even restaurants and they carry big menacing shotguns. This can be a bit intimidating at first, but it’s a safety precaution and quite normal.
9. Dish Soap is a Paste
To some this may not seem so different, but when all you’re life you’ve only seen liquid dish soap from a Palmolive bottle, seeing a tub of paste with a sponge lying in it catches your attention.
10. Tuk-Tuk and Motorbikes
Many taxis in the small towns and villages drive tuk-tuks or motorbikes with carts. It was quite exciting for us to catch our first ride in Guatemala. Tuk-tuks are cheap and quick, moving in and out of traffic. Negotiate you price ahead of time, as would with any taxi.
And many more! Please add things that appear strange to you from Latin America in the comments below.