In early May, our family arrived in Santiago, Chile thinking we knew what to expect from this continent during the summer (or rather winter) we would be spending on it. We’d been in Spanish-speaking countries before and thought we had a pretty good handle on Latin culture. After all, our own country has a large Latin population so we thought we already knew about some of the holidays, traditions and ways of life. South America is surely pretty similar to what we’ve seen in the U.S., right?
Um….no. We were definitely wrong on that one.
Our time in just 3 of the 12 countries of South America showed us we had a lot to learn about their unique cultures and people. The places we visited were vastly different from one another, with accents we’d never heard, foods we’d never eaten and people following very different approaches to life. Everyone we met was welcoming, helpful and open, but always with a quiet, respectful demeanor. The boisterous and animated fiestas that always came to mind when I thought about the Latin culture was not what we encountered during our three months in Chile, Bolivia and Peru. There were a lot of surprises in store for us.
The indigenous cultures of South America aren’t just part of the tourist attractions. While the local history certainly becomes prevalent at the sites of ruins such as Machu Picchu, indigenous cultures were an important part of modern society in every country we visited. Many of the people we met had a deep sense of pride in their country and significant knowledge on the lives of their ancestors. As one Peruvian man said to us, “We might speak Spanish, but we are Inca in our blood.”
Parks and streets are named after the dates on which countries gained independence, such as Plaza 24 de Septiembre in Santa Cruz, Bolivia or the main thoroughfare named 18 de Septiembre in Temuco, Chile. The indigenous cultures are celebrated in festivals and holidays throughout the year. Many people dress in traditional clothing and strictly adhere to traditions dating back hundreds of years. South America’s history seems to have shaped its cultural personality. Having been conquered by the Spanish in the 1500s and then gaining independence three centuries later, South American countries exude an inherent pride, a strong connection to tight knit communities and a respect for the role of destiny.
Pedestrians Be Warned
Walking around in the South American cities we visited was rarely a leisurely activity. Much like our experience in Southeast Asia, pedestrians NEVER have the right of way. Compounding the problem is the fact that sidewalks are often crowded with vendors, parked cars and other obstacles, requiring walkers to step in and out of traffic. There seems to be a general animosity toward pedestrians once a person gets behind the wheel of a car. In fact, in South America the cars would sometimes honk as they came down the street to let pedestrians in the way know they need speed up those legs. One time I was sitting in a taxi in a busy intersection in Bolivia. As cars were creeping through it, a man walking wove his way carefully through the traffic. I watched as one car inched forward and purposefully bumped the guy in the leg (with a car!) while giving him a long, angry honk.
Don’t Flush The Toilet Paper…Again
I never knew toilet paper was a problem for toilets. I always thought it had been invented for the purpose of going through pipes. Evidently not. South America was our second continent where toilet paper apparently wreaks havoc on the sewage systems. Almost every bathroom would have signs asking patrons to deposit toilet paper in the bathroom trash can rather than the toilet. However, unlike Southeast Asia, South American establishments don’t install “bum guns”, the little sprayers used to freshen up. To put it mildly, the paper winds up having a job to do that goes beyond just drying things off. Taking out the bathroom trash was something we NEVER forgot to do, if you catch my drift. I know…bluh.
A Whole New World of Food
The industrial age delivers everything from chicken breasts to fish fillets in tidy little cellophane-wrapped packages. It slices our bread for us and takes the seeds out of our fruits. The result is that we North Americans generally tend to be very distanced from the origin of our food. South America taught me a lot about how to shop and cook. For instance, one night as I opened the whole chicken I’d purchased at the grocery store earlier that day I realized the claws and head came with it. Our friends coming for dinner that night wound up making an earlier than planned appearance in order to give me a lesson in chicken dissection. (Thanks Julie Kozel!) I then learned the head and claws make an incredibly rich broth and it wasn’t long before I was making the best chicken soup I’d ever made. Now I find myself really annoyed when I get stiffed on the chicken head and claws.
I realize that was kind of a gross example, but this food thing has been a huge learning experience for me throughout our travels, particularly here in South America. Everything from the way they shop to the things they eat is different. One time while walking through a crowded central market I felt something bump into my back. I kept walking and it bumped me again. Finally I turned around to see an entire dead pig staring back at me, its feet bumping into me as the small man carrying it over his shoulder was trying to make his way through the crowd. (That was another gross example, wasn’t it?)
While modernized grocery stores can be found in the major cities, the large open markets are where most food is sold. Quinoa, a big item in the recent “super food” craze in the U.S., has been part of the standard diet in Peru and Bolivia for centuries. It’s sold in bulk at the markets alongside rice, beans and other dry goods. South America has also opened us up to a whole new range of fruits we’d never had before. Our family favorite is the granadilla, which has a hard orange casing wrapped around slimy grey seeds. It sounds like it would be gross but it tastes so good! South America has definitely been a culinary revolution for us, chickens, granadillas and all.
Appearances Don’t Matter
The phrase, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” comes to mind a lot in South America. While there were certainly some beautiful buildings and well tended parks in the countries we visited, attention to detail when it comes to the appearance of things is not a high priority. Grass grows, or it doesn’t. Trash gets picked up, or it doesn’t. Paint chips off, facades crumble a bit, things get dirty and a little run-down. But they still work. Restaurants can serve great food without having a fancy menu. A house can be a happy home without a manicured yard and a nice paint job. In South America time spent not working is supposed to be dedicated to family, friends and enjoying life as much as possible. It’s very different from our American view of home ownership. In so many ways, this perspective is really refreshing. Things simply don’t have to be perfect! Letting go of appearances would free up a lot of time and money for the really important stuff, wouldn’t it?
Appearances Really Matter
On the flip side of the low-key attitude toward how things look is the sometimes bizarre obsession with how people look. Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone on the continent, but for the middle and upper classes there is definitely a large cultural subset of women with an enormous focus on fashion, hair and makeup. In the more modernized, developed areas of Bolivia, there is a general belief that if a woman doesn’t “keep herself up” then it’s not surprising if her husband goes looking for someone else. As a result, it’s not unusual for a woman to spend 4-6 hours at a salon before going out for the night. Or to drop huge sums of money on the numerous cosmetic procedures available – fat transfers, buttock implants, permanent makeup. The focus on this kind of thing was a little surprising. The upside to this focus on personal appearances is that it means there are many really good peluquarias to choose from in South America, and one of them in Bolivia gave me a great hair cut.
Spanish Is A Must
The language barrier is obvious in South America. Throughout most of our trip we’ve been able to get by pretty well with English. Not counting southern France, where finding a gas station much less an English-speaker is next to impossible, everywhere else we visited seemed to lack a true language barrier. In South America, we found it. If you make a trip to this continent and plan to tour around on your own like we did, you’ll need a few Spanish phrases in your repertoire and a good translation app.
These are just a few of the many things we discovered during our time in South America. If was a fun three months. We improved our language skills in Chile, made new friends in Bolivia, and checked some boxes off the bucket list with our experiences in Peru. On the morning of our flight out, we miraculously found a taxi big enough to hold us and all our bags right in front of our apartment building, and then we made two really tight flight connections in Lima and El Salvador. Every aspect of our departure from the continent fell into place just like our time there. So long South America! We were on to our final destination of our around-the-world journey.