One of my favorite things about traveling is being humored by things that seem strange or awkward to me.  I lived in South America for a year and spent 7 years in Mexico.  During that time, I also  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.

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 Changing is Rare & Precious
When using a cash machine, it usually dispenses large bills, however it is nearly impossible to pay with large bills.  This is a common theme in all of Central and South America (It isn’t as bad in Mexico.) While shopping, you will find yourself buying things you don’t really need in order to get smaller bills and change.  I would often end up with a magazine I didn’t want to read or some snacks I didn’t need just to get the change and then use it in a store that says they don’t change large bills. 

6. American School Buses Have a Second Life
American School busses are everywhere.  When I lived in Monterrey, I was surprised to see busses that had “Des Moines Public School District” scrubbed out on the sides.  Some of the public busses had come from where I am living at now.  They looked like they were at least 20 years old.  I saw other busses from various parts of the U.S.  Even some private busses were old school busses.  Perhaps the longest distance I saw a bus travel was a Bangor, Maine School bus that was now roaming the streets of Panama City, Panama.

And the old American school buses are usually decorated up with creative custom add-ons, religious artifacts, stereo systems and local soccer team colors.  These busses are the main mode of transport for the majority of people in Latin American Countries.  They get very crowded and extremely hot and uncomfortable, but they are a necessity. You also don’t need to buy tickets, you justh op on the bus as it passes by (Sometimes they slow but don’t stop) and then a guy sitting next to the driver will come and get your money.  And some of those bus rides are wilder than a roller coaster.  I honestly thought I was going to die numerous times while riding a bus.  They are not for the weak of heart! 

Hungry during a bus ride?  Street vendors will often jump on selling drinks, food and other weird knick knacks.  They stay on for a stop or two and then get off, hopping a bus that is going the other direction back to where they came from.  Some people actually make a living this way. 

7. Paying To Use Bathrooms
Public bathrooms are rarely free.  I usually had to pay a US quarter or 5 pesos to use them and sometimes you have to pay extra for toilet paper.  I remember in Bolivia, I paid for the bathroom and toilet paper and the lady outside the door gave me one square for toilet paper.  ONE SQUARE!!!  I ended up giving her about $1 US and she gave me a whole roll!

And a word of warning, the public toilets are far from clean.  Some of the worst toilets I have ever seen are in India and Latin America.  Disgusting.

8. Security Guards Carrying Shotguns
Security Guards are everywhere.  They stand guard outside banks, hotels, museums, clothing stores, gas stations, fancy restaurants and even some apartment buildings and private homes.  They always carry Huge Machine Guns or shotguns.  It is intimidating at first, but you soon learn they are there to protect you
Security Guard in Colombia

9. Dish Soap is a Paste
I know the majority of the world uses a pasty soap to wash their dishes, but it was weird for me.  I am used to liquid soap.  What you do in Latin America, you buy a powder, mix it with a little water to make it pasty and then use it to wash your dishes (There are very few Dish Washing Machines down there.) 

10. Tuk-Tuk’s and Motorbikes
Tuk-Tuk’s are a type of motorbike/taxi in Central America and parts of South America.  They are similar to the Auto-Rickshaws of India.  They are all over the place, especially in in the small towns and rural areas.  Motorbikes are also commonly used for deliveries, mail, and just getting around the many traffic jams in big cities. 


And many more!  Please add things that appear strange to you from Latin America in the comments below.

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