So… what is South America really like? (Part 1 – Local Customs)

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Food and Drinks 

There’s food here for everyone, if you’re in a big enough city.  You can find Italian, Mexican, lots of Chinese, and of course, the local cuisine.  However, most restaurants have menus that include every meal under the sun, in hope of attracting more customers.  However, it is likely that they will not actually have the ingredients to make at least 1/4 of the items, so be prepared with a back-up choice.  The same goes for drinks!  Seafood is very common, especially by the Pacific Ocean or Lake Titikaka, and is often very fresh.  You can also try new foods like Llama, Alpaca, and Guinea Pig!

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In Peru you must try a Pisco Sour (Pisco, egg white, lemon juice). Pisco is made from grapes, but is clear and much stronger than wine (there is also a Bolivian equivalent)  You can find drinks with these liquors mixed with anything, including coffee, fresh-squeezed fruit juice, or soda.  Apparently some of the beer is decent also (like Cusquena in Peru – which is also the name they call the women who live in Cusco).  They grow a lot of fruit here, so it’s easy to find tons of fresh produce or fresh-squeezed juices at the local markets.  They also have about a million varieties of potato, including dehydrated ones that will last up to 30 years!

 If you just want to snack there are tons of small corner-stores or kiosks on the street that sell candy, chips, drinks and water.  If you’re a picky eater like me (or just want something small) every place sells sandwiches, and soups.  WARNING: if you just reached a high altitude and aren’t used to it, you likely will have trouble digesting, so don’t eat anything too big or rich.  I would recommend bringing a dictionary or knowing words for some basic foods in Spanish before coming, otherwise you might end up with something strange on your plate.  Also, it’s customary to tip about 10% at restaurants, though it’s not compulsory.

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Celebrations

The people here love to celebrate!  It seems that in every city we’ve been in there has been a different celebration going on.  Some relate to the time of year (June 21 is their winter solstice), religion (predominantly Catholic), or their history (such as the day their city was founded),  These celebrations can last for day or weeks, and often involved public singing performances set up in the main square, traditional dancing, and fireworks at all times of the day.  Their beautiful traditional costumes come in many colours and shapes… and although impromptu parades are a bit inconvenient, they make up for it with lots of great music and dancing, quite the spectacle to be seen.

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Children

The women here are responsible for the children (like most places), and carry them in a large piece of very colourful fabric on their back.  It’s totally acceptable to bring kids to work, whether it’s a small shop (where you’ll find them sleeping in a corner or playing with a bottle cap on the stairs), a factory, or bringing them to work on the farm.  The cloth can also be swung around (mid-stride!) to feed the baby.  As you can see from what the kids are wearing, lots of toques, sweaters, and layers for cold nights.

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Clothing

Many young people in the cities wear western clothes.  However, in the more remote locations most people dress traditionally.  The men wear hats (the colour and shape vary based on where they lived and their marital status), pants, and often a west or jacket.  The traditional woman (who can also be found in the local city markets) wear many layers of skirts, a blouse, a big cloth belt, a few cardigans, sometimes a scarf/headpiece, and a bowler hat.  They also usually have long, dark hair, tied into a braid (in some places they cut this off when they get married, and sew the hair into a belt for their husband!).  They are quite a sight to be seen, and they show off their individuality with fun colour combinations.  If they don’t have a baby, they use a cloth on their back (knotted in the front, resting on their shoulders) to carry various goods.

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Animals

You can find lots of fun animals here you wouldn’t see in other places, especially a lot of Llama and Alpaca, which are used to carry things, for meat, and for tourism as well.  They’re also kind of like goats and can live in the high-altitudes (and can be seen eating the grass around Machu Picchu).  In the jungle you can also find lots of monkeys, which are awesome!  The livestock here is almost never behind fences, and usually is left to be free around the house.  Sometimes the bigger animals are tied with a rope to a stake in the ground (presumably so they don’t wander away).  There’s also a lot of stray dogs, which is sad.  The dogs who have owners usually have little outfit or a scarf/collar so that you know they have a home, and they’re well taken care of.  The strays come from all breeds (big and small) and are pretty good to avoid begging, but like to play with each other and will sometimes follow you like a little shadow down the street.  In Argentina there are a lot of cow farms, with cowboys (or Guachos) to go with them.

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The People

The people vary a great deal based on where they live and work.  However, I found that generally they are pretty aloof.  When getting on buses they will push past you to get a good seat, and they have no problem walking really slow on the sidewalks… it’s something you have to get used to.  The sales people are usually pretty good at not being pushy, except in very touristy cities (like Cusco) where they are very in-your-face.  It’s definitely useful to speak Spanish, as even in big cities and even in the tourism industry most people are not fluent in English (though some signs and menus are in multiple languages).  It’s totally okay for young couples to make out on the street, but you’ll often find older women hanging with women, and older men with the other men.  As in most places, the older generation is very specific about their gender roles, with women cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids and making handicrafts.  Even one of our tour guides told us that females could not be Incas because their delicate internal organs would collapse.  I found that the men in Bolivia are a bit more overt about girls they want to look at and they will talk to you and stare (so don’t go anywhere alone at night).  The guys in Peru however are more likely to look away.  In general, most people will try to understand your awful Spanish/English, and will help you to find what you are looking for.

 There is also a long history of wars and land disagreements between the countries we visited, and therefore some like each other more than others.  For example, Bolivians are not fond of Chileans because they took some of their territory including their access to the sea, making them the only land-locked country with a navy.

*For the most part this guide is about Peru and Bolivia.  Although I’m sure Chile and Argentina have distinct cultures, we were mostly in big cities (with the exception to the north of Chile, which is similar the the countries above it).  In the big cities I found that you can do everything the same as North America or Europe (including find all the same foods, check out the same sort of entertainment, and get around easily on the subway).  The only strange thing I found was that things tend to close pretty early.  Even in Santiago the restaurant refused to serve us on Friday night at 8pm because dinner was finished for the night.

Up Next: South America Guide for Tourists

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About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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