10 Weird Things From Latin America

| by Jason | 68 Comments » | Central America, Photo Essays, Reflections, South America

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.

No Toilet Paper in the Toilet

Throw Toilet Paper in Waste Bin

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.

Liquids Sold in Plastic Bags in South America

Milk (Leche) Sold in a Plastic Bag

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.

Dates as Street Names

Calle 9 de Octubre in Quito, Ecuador

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.

Buildings in South America

What Appears To Be An Unfinished Building in Quito, Ecuador

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 Chicken Bus video, if not take a look.  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.

Chicken Buses of Central America

Chicken Bus from Antigua, Guatemala

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.

Shotguns in Central America South America

Security Guard in Colombia

Soap Latin America

Axion Dish Soap

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.

Tuk-tuk in Central America

Tuk-tuk Taxi in Panajachel, Guatemala

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

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!


Tags: Central America, funny, lists, Photo Essays, South America

Written by Jason

Co-founder of TwoBackpackers.com. Jason has been traveling, writing, taking photos and creating adventure videos since 2009, when he departed on his first year long travel backpacking journey. Jason is a full-time blogger and social marketing guru trying to find the way. Visit my website

68 Responses to “10 Weird Things From Latin America”

  1. Audrey says:

    This is hilarious - both the observations and the accompanying photos. One thing we heard in Guatemala about the unfinished houses was that the taxes were lower if the house was “in construction” so people just kept it like that forever as a tax break.

    Change as a precious commodity also holds in the Czech Republic - giving exact change for a purchase is the sure way to make a surly cashier smile.

    • Jason says:

      Makes a lot of sense. I guess the government has gotten around to tracking how long a house is under construction yet. They may want to consider closing that loop hole. The change thing is difficult isn’t it?

  2. B says:

    Hilarious! So much like the Philippines. Except the streets-after-dates, and milk in plastic, but we’ve recently been working on the latter, unfortunately.

    I had a bunch of Europeans over in the province and there were massive toilet problems because they kept putting toilet paper in the hole. We do it too, but I think Western people use more because they don’t wash their asses after wiping.

  3. Michael Tyson says:

    I can relate to quite a few of these but I’ve never been to South America. Tunisia looked like one big construction site because of unfinished building. As you say, people build as much as they can afford to at the time then add on rooms or levels when they have the money.

  4. Neale says:

    These are all true in SE Asia also.. the thing that keeps coming to my mind and I need to write about is the “wet bathroom floors” on arriving here I went ass over tip 3 times in the first few weeks luckily nothing broken just bruises… for westerners who have never encountered a wet bathroom floor I’d say it is about the most dangerous thing I have come across…

  5. B says:

    Neale, wet bathrooms are common, as I like to say the mode of cleanliness in lowland tropical bathrooms is “constant wetness” rather than attempting to keep it dry like it drier and higher places. After they are used, water is splashed on the floor to clear out any mud/dirt for the next user. This was no problem when we were using wooden clogs, but now it’s just gross.

  6. Thomas Power says:

    Yes, the iron rods (point 4). Ever been to Juliaca in Peru? City of a million people and I don’t think there’s a single completed building there.

    It’s true that they are left ‘open’ in order to keep building upwards as new generations arrive, construct a new floor and live upstairs. At least that’s the plan.

    As Audrey says, in truth it’s down to taxation. If a building isn’t finished, you just pay land tax. If it’s finished, you pay property tax.

    Guess which is lower.

    • Franco Vera says:

      The “unfinished” constructions in Perú, it’s because they pay less taxes, when they haven’t finished it… that’s the reason. I think it’s the same in other countries in Latin America, except in Chile or Argentina.

  7. Ana O'Reilly says:

    Nice post!
    They sell milk in plastic bags in Canada too . That was new to me!
    Shotguns are intimidating, I agree, but unfortunately the “intimidating factor” is necessary.
    It’s funny you should mention streets named after dates as a weird thing. Being South American, I’m so used to it that I’ve never given it a second thought. I don’t think I’ve seen it anywhere else except in the south west of France.
    Nice website, by the way :)

    • Jason says:

      Thanks Ana and glad you found us. Plastic bag milk in Canada too, huh? I will have to check that out. It doesn’t sit well in the fridge. And we did witness a few spills when someone moved the fragile bags.

  8. Millie S says:

    I definitely agree with everything in this post! After spending a good amount of time in Guatemala - experienced everything on this post. So funny!

  9. Cam says:

    Great observations. We found it odd that yoghurt and milk were not refridgerated and sold off a display in the hot sun.

    We also found it very odd that almost all of the brick buildings in Quito were unfinished - too funny

    • Jason says:

      And that unfinished building picture is from Quito. I forgot to mention that, about the warm yogurt. Yogurt is our favorite and we were always hesitant to buy it at a tienda where it was baking in the sun. Seemed so foreign to us. We eventually tried it and survived.

  10. Mat says:

    As an argentinian, i’m totally agree with the money change. We use a lot of public transportation, and most of them uses coins on their ticket-selling machines. We usually have to go to banks to get some change, somethings we just buy something at a store.

  11. Marta Rodriguez says:

    Hahaha.
    Latin America has more and more than 10 ” weird” things.
    Next time in here, if you take a look around, then you’ll see it.
    Enjoy!

  12. travvvelller says:

    You are not just 2 backpackers.
    You have an excellent sense of observing other countries.
    Happy trails.

    • Jason says:

      Thanks a lot, that’s very kind of you. And you take some interesting photos too! Now we have to visit Austria to take photos of street signs. That’s just too funny.

  13. E says:

    Yes, number 1 brings back a lot of memories! I lived in Mendoza for a semester, and once I almost laughed out loud in a bathroom in the university after seeing a handwritten sign that said: “Por favor no tire yerba al inodoro ni al lavabo, porque se tapa” (Please don’t throw mate in the toilet or the sink because it makes them clog). I found this hilarious, because it makes perfect sense here but seems really weird anywhere else in the world.

  14. Ohad Boxerman says:

    Loved the Article, and enjoy following your website (ever sence I met you in Torres del Paine, Chile).
    I`m currently in Ecuador now, and I witnessed another strange thing - the drivers always `honk` before passing through a junction (with/without a traffic-light), I figured it`s to be on the safe side (because they never put sit-belts on :) )

    • Jason says:

      You are absolutely right, they do honk their horns going through intersections. So where did we meet you exactly? Was it at the towers before sunset?

  15. Bessie says:

    Great list - makes me miss Latin America so much!!

    I miss water from bags & the dish soap in the tubs - you could just rub with a sponge and get just the right about of soap! With the bags, I at least felt like they were better for the environment than bottles, my fav was in Colombia you could get like 3 liter bags of water. Super chevere!

  16. LeslieTravel says:

    Great observations! I’ve lived in S America and spent 4 months there last year traveling. After coming from SE Asia, I noticed many similarities- e.g., the liquids in bags, having to throw toilet tissue in the waste can, the unfinished buildings and apparently tuk tuks too!

  17. Nomadic Matt says:

    They do the liquid in bags in asia too. Actually, i see a lot of overlap with s.e. asia.

    • Jason says:

      Everybody is saying that SE Asia has some very similar customs / products etc. That’s interesting and hopefully we can observe them soon someday in SE Asia!

  18. Bella L. says:

    What wonderful memories you incite!!!!! I’ve never been to S. Am., but traveled alot between 1954 and 1969 in the Far East. I remember public “bathrooms” that were for everyone, not segregated by sex. Most were just holes in the “floor” (some tile, some dirt, some wood), some with water flowing thru. You just squatted and went. “Toilet paper” was either like waxed paper or crepe paper; it was in a stack, usually on the floor. Neither did much of anything about making you feel cleaner or drier. And all paper went into the bucket. Most people were very friendly and helpful, even though some of the places were very much affected by Americans during WW II. What memories!! Thank you and great journeys in the future!!!

    • Jason says:

      The wax paper, yes, they had that! Never as toilet paper though, that would be tough. We had to bring our own toilet paper everywhere. The wax paper was used as napkins a lot. Didn’t really accomplish much.

      Glad we can bring back memories.

  19. April says:

    When I was in high school in rural Michigan (in the 90s) the school lunches had the option of white or chocolate milk - in bags. First time I’d ever seen that and most kids thought it was weird. :)

    Thanks for the great article! I’d never heard most of these!

    • Jason says:

      I had never heard of the bags in the US before. Very interesting. Although it was mentioned above that they had them in Canada. Michigan isn’t so far from there. The closest thing I have ever seen is a Capri Sun juice, lol.

  20. Peter says:

    Great post…have been living in northern coastal ecuador for the past 8 months and agree with all things on the list…and have some add-ons:

    -Loud, blasting, blaring music everywhere you turn, from shops, street corners, buses, houses, cars, you name it, at all hours of the day. Not seen as impolite at all to blast music from speakers at 3 am, for example. Generally speaking, we’re talking about the same 10 songs on repeat all the time. Personally, quite corny music, but that’s just me!!

    -Shirts rolled up over big bellies, in the heat. No shame about it. If you’re hot, roll that shirt up and let the belly get some air, male or female, young or old. If you really want to be classy, its perfectly acceptable to stick your finger in the ol’ belly button and give it a twist. Not kidding, must see this ten times a day in rural coastal ecuador.

    -Toilets with the seats just ripped off. For no apparent reason, you encounter toilets in public bathrooms (sometimes in really low-end hostals) with a perfectly normal and functioning toilet but with the foldable seat mysterioulsy missing.

    I could probably think of more good ones but I’ll leave it at that, for now. I’d love to hear if anyone concurs.

  21. Michael Hodson says:

    Really love this list. Took me right back to being there. And I totally agree that the “oddities” of the world make travel that much more exciting. Great post.

  22. Shane says:

    On leaving Latin America did you spend 15 minutes playing with the toilet flush and making the sort of sounds usually heard at firework displays? Or was just us being children?

  23. Jasmine says:

    LOL I love this list… as far as the change goes, I always use my biggest bills at the grocery store.

    One thing I think is weird is all the males-only pool halls that seem to exist in almost every single Latin American town I’ve been to. And those bars in which all the seats face outwards, so you walk by and there’s 30 men staring at you.

  24. Linda says:

    Great list. I am currently backpacking in South America and keep finding more weird and wonderful things about this place every day. I posted a link to this on my facebook page “When I went travelling to South America”. Hope you don`t mind but it deserves sharing!

  25. Alyssa Meier says:

    The first time I heard that people outside South America DO NOT throw toilet paper in the rubbish bin, I was really surprised. I have always considered it natural that paper should go in the bin to be with the rubbish, be recycled maybe (I know, that’s odd) and everything else goes down the sewer…
    It’s maybe because, at least where I live, we have septic tanks, and we don’t throw paper because the bio-digestor or whatever it’s called in english, can’t process it, and it isn’t filtered to the ground either.
    When I went to the US and found no rubbish bin in the bathroom, I looked around bewildered for a few moments then flushed it down feeling guilty.
    Anyway sorry that wasn’t a very pleasant comment

    Love the article, though. I’ve never had water in a bag (me being from Lima) but frozen chicha “marcianos” in the long narrow bags were my specialty when I was little.
    We call the tuk-tuks “mototaxis” here, or “anconetas” in ancón.

    • Jason says:

      Thanks for the comment Alyssa. In the United States the systems are built to handle paper waste, but that is not very common elsewhere. It’s not just South America, it’s also much of Europe and Southeast Asia. It’s one of those things that becomes habit and difficult to break, similar to the way you felt when you found no toilet paper in the waste basket.

  26. Kelly says:

    Hahhaha this is classic! I remember the toilet paper thing all too well! I remember as I was preparing to leave S. America, all I wanted was a free, clean toilet that could flush paper! Such a hard transition to make coming from the States.. but then, once I returned, I had to remind myself where I was because I caught myself throwing paper in the trash again!
    Hahaha. The building comment is too true as well.. you see this everywhere, esp in Brazil! Classic!

    • Jason says:

      Kelly, the same thing happened to us. I kept going in our bathroom at home and seeing it filled with toilet paper. I kept saying, “Aracely! We are in the United States now, you can flush your toilet paper!”

  27. Brookfire says:

    I’m currently in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and I was surprised when I first got here that most (though not all) of the toilets I’ve used in this city can handle toilet paper. Traveling outside Bs. As. is another story though, and even in the city I always check before I use new toilets.
    As far as liquids sold in bags go, I was more surprised to realize that actually seems weird to a lot of people from the USA. I’m from Wisconsin, and I remember, probably 15 years ago (I was pretty young at the time), when milk in bags started to become known. My family has been using it ever since, and milk in a jug frankly weirds me out a little. I think the only place I know that sells it though are the Kwik Trip gas stations. They have white & chocolate milk, as well as orange juice and occasionally other types of juice. It was certainly strange though, the first time that a shop keeper in Ecuador poured a bottle of soda into a plastic bag so that I could take it with me and she could keep the glass bottle. Later I found out that people did the same with alcohol to sneak it past the pat-downs to get it into a concert.
    And I always wondered what was up with the buildings that looked half-built.

    • Jason says:

      When they offered us drinks on the bus from the vendors off the street, it was always in a little plastic baggy with a straw sticking out. Definitely interesting.

  28. Jason says:

    Great list!
    The toilet paper in the trash basket is a tough habit to break for a while even after you’ve come back home.
    Jason

  29. Hal Amen says:

    You nailed it. This is awesome.

  30. Carolina says:

    HI, I’M FROM COLOMBIA AND I WOULD JUST LIKE TO SAY THAT WE NEVER HAVE ARMED GUARDS OUTSIDE CLOTHING STORES OR RESTAURANTS, I AM AWARE OF WHAT PEOPLE THINK MY COUNTRY IS LIKE (DANGEROUS, MENACING, ETC.) BUT IT IS NOT ALL TRUE AND BY DOING SUCH GENERALIZATIONS YOU LEAVE OUT EXTRAORDINARY THINGS ABOUT US! ALTHOUGH MOST OF THE THINGS YOU SAY AR TRUE, THIS IS MAINLY IN VILLAGES AND SMALL TOWNS, SOME OF US DO FLUSH TOILET PAPER DOWN THE TOILET… JUST SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT!

    • Sunny says:

      I agree that travelling in Colombia is not as dangerous as all the hype and it is one of my favourite countries in Latin America - particularly owing to the warmthy and friendliness of the people. But tourist magnet Cartagena IS crawling with armed police and security guards whilst other countries like Bolivia do have armed guards outside banks and some businesses, including supermarkets. Sorry, but its just a fact!

    • Jason says:

      If you continue to read our blog you will find many articles about our time in Colombia and how much we loved it. These are not criticisms of Latin America, these are simply things that are different to somebody like us, who is from the United States. I am not criticizing the fact that toilet paper is put in a waste bin, I am saying it’s a different behavior than one we practice in the USA. Many security guards do carry shotguns, and again it’s just simply different to us. The article is meant to be light-hearted.

  31. anca a says:

    Nice article. But I assure you that with two or three exceptions (especially the shotguns :) ) you can find the same things all over Europe especially in Eastern Europe but not only. In Vienna you pay for bathrooms about one euro but…at least they are very clean.

    • Jason says:

      Thanks for sharing Anca. We hope to visit Eastern Europe someday.

      • anca a says:

        Well, I know Romania is a little remote and the information might be scarce and not very accurate, there are a lot of things you mihjt want to see - for backpackers there are perfect destinations. I intend to starting writing on my blog (my dog’s blog in fact :) ) a few articles to promote some exceptional things to be seen here. And if you ever wish to come here, please contact me - I’d be glad to receive you in my house and guide you.

  32. JB says:

    Here are some things (not necessarily weird) I have noticed traveling in Latin America:

    1. People honk their horns for any and every reason, not just passing through intersections as noted above. Most of the time I have no idea why they are honking but it is so prevalent there must be a secret pattern to it…

    2. Just like honking, people whistle all the time. I think this might be a step above (or below) the communication patterns of dolphins.

    3. The concept of a line or queue is completely alien to people in these countries.

    4. Related to #3, most people have no situational awareness or perhaps just don’t give a rat’s bottom, especially when walking on the way too narrow sidewalks.

    5. Related to the comment about lifting shirts to air the bellies, no matter how hot it might be, shorts don’t seem to exist in the wardrobes of most people in these countries. Jeans are the rule.

    6. You may have to throw the toilet paper in the wastebasket, but outside of the home, the entirety of mother nature becomes a garbage disposal.

  33. anca a says:

    JB, the first 3 items are absolutely valid for all latin countries in Europe as well. It must be something in the blood :)

  34. EU says:

    Funny article! I got a bit scared in one of those chicken buses from Guatemala City to Antigua, and I am a Southamerican myself!!! hehehe…

    Regarding toilet paper and public bathrooms, throwing the toilet paper in the bin is common practice in public places but not at homes. Be glad you pay for the public bathroom. If you find it not too clean when you pay for it, imagine if you can use them for free!!!! (I’ve experienced many public bathrooms in Argentina many years ago, disgusting!).

    Oh, one more thing! Plastic bags for milk and yoghurt are ok but buy them at the stores, where they have fridges to store them!!! :)

    Enjoy your travels!

    • Jason says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Throwing toilet paper in the bin doesn’t bother me at all, it is just different than what I am used to living in the United States. We bought lots of food in plastic bags while riding on the Chicken Buses. And as you stated, it probably isn’t the most sanitized container.

  35. Lisa E @chickybus says:

    This is one of the best lists of its kind that I’ve ever seen! I lived in Ecuador for 1.5 years and must say that all of it is true. The dish soap paste was really weird and sort of drove me crazy. Same for the liquids in bags! :)

  36. Cornelius Aesop says:

    I hated the money exchange bit I couldn’t do a thing with a $100 brazillian bill yet that is what the ATM gave me. I wasn’t too surprised by the pay toilets, her in Japan I’ve come across a few pay for toilet paper places.

  37. Andrea says:

    Love this post! We are heading to South America for the first time in March and I had no idea about most of these things. I feel more prepared already!

  38. Bill says:

    I’ve seen all of these in Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Honduras. I’ve also seen squat toilets in Paris (in marble, no less). And pay toilets almost everywhere, with varying degrees of cleanliness. Some even have attendants (which you tip) - I like those. Armed guards are a common thing in many places in the US and Europe, though they are often not visible. That’s what I love about travel - it shows me that some things aren’t good or bad - just different. And as much as we think our way is the best way (no matter where we’re from), there’s another way of doing things. A different way. Viva la difference.

  39. Bill says:

    One more thing. Where does the (money) change go? Does everyone have a jar at home they refuse to part with? I’ve found that to be one of the most frustrating things about travel. We’ve even had people refuse to sell us things because they didn’t want to give change (which we didn’t have and couldn’t seem to get).

Leave a Reply