I know I am in Latin America when

I know I am in Latin America when…

A couple of years ago we traveled around Latin America for about a year. During that time, this side of the world started to feel like home. Right now, making Santiago de Chile our base, we’ve taken that homely feeling to a whole new level. Coming back feels familiar, and that feels good!

Latin America is welcoming. And when you spend some time around here you realize that there are a bunch of things so peculiar from this side of the world.

[Disclaimer: I don't mean to label all Latin countries as being the same - please read on with a sense of humor.]

I know I am in Latin America when…


After half an hour I landed here, I had already seen more cleavage than during the previous past month spent in India

It’s not that every country is hot all year long (well, at least not temperature wise) but Latin women sure carry their assets in a sexy and proud way!


Everybody gives money to beggars

Even in Cuba, when some people may have little money themselves, they always share. I believe this might be a side effect of how religious people tend to be. Whatever the reason is, you can feel a strong sense of community.


Religion is everywhere

Even inside a flight on South America, you’re reminded of this when you see a man queue up to use the in-flight bathroom with a bible in hand!..


My tightest pair of jeans looks baggy compared to any other lady’s pants around

Colombians set the trend when it comes to trousers for ladies in this side of the world. Their particularity? They are the pant equivalent to the wonderbra, that is, they push up the butt and they are called levanta cola. It’s an indirect way of saying “in your face!”

Colombian push-up jeans

Colombian push-up jeans


When the only vegetarian items on a restaurant menu are a Mojito or Margarita…

I know things are changing and many countries around here are opening up to international foods and even vegetarian options – particularly in big cities, of course. But in general, it is still very difficult to walk into a regular restaurant and choose a vegetarian item off the menu. The other day I was explaining to a girl in Colombia what veganism was. Her face was priceless: whAaAAaaat?! She couldn’t believe some people not only don’t eat meat or fish, but they don’t take milk, eggs or things like honey either.


When you see a hot babe in her early 30s and then you see her kids who have already hit puberty a while ago

This is starting to look normal to me by now. Girls my age have kids who are probably in high school already and, who knows, they might even become grandmas soon.


When the song “Hasta Siempre, Comandante” can start playing anytime, anywhere

This song about Che Guevara is used in all sorts of occasions in many Latin American (Spanish-speaking) countries. We’ve listened to it with great pleasure in restaurants and cafes, during political demonstrations (like this one in Ecuador) or simply performed by street artists. Any time, anywhere, and it does tend to be quite touching.

Che Guevara (artwork by purposemaker)

Che Guevara (artwork by purposemaker)


Any venue is a great to listen to or even dance salsa

You’ve gotta love the spontaneity and lack of shyness of most Latin people. They sing out loud when a song they like plays on the radio and they may start dancing salsa on any corner as long as there is a speaker somewhere sharing some contagious rhythms. There is nothing to be shy about – you must enjoy life everyday! Even while walking around in the supermarket.


Family is still a priority

This is obviously a very generic statement and things vary from case to case. As someone from Europe who’s spent solid time both in Asia and Latin America, I always say that this part of the world tends to be the best when it comes to family values. Not as asphyxiating as some Asian cultures, not as individualistic as some other Western countries: somewhere in between, offering the best of both worlds.


Football is like a second religion

I know this applies to other countries around the world too (I would know, I am from Portugal!) but in most countries around Latin America people go wild with football. The World Cup just took place and this was beyond OBVIOUS all around us!

World Cup fever in Colombia

World Cup fever in Colombia


When you see a basketball court but everyone on it is playing football

You will come across many football fields. The smallest towns may have only a handful of houses, but there has to be a pretty decent football field somewhere nearby. Sometimes, you may see basketball courts too, but those will inevitably be used to play football. What to do, it’s in the blood!


Locals refer to Indians as “Hindus” or “Turks”

Indian restaurants serve “comida hindu” and anyone who’s brown skinned, Arab or Northern African is simply referred to as “turco”. Similarly, anyone from Asia is “Chino”. Yes, very politically correct indeed!

New Horizon Comida Hindu: one of our usual restaurants in Santiago de Chile

New Horizon Comida Hindu: one of our usual restaurants in Santiago de Chile


When toilet paper goes in the dustbin

“Why do they use toilet paper if their sewage can’t handle it?”, says Ashray. The local sewage systems don’t often manage to swallow used tissue. So you’ve got to roll it up and dispose it on the garbage bin, please.


When every country has a different word for “avocado”

In Chile, Uruguay or Argentina avocados are paltas (there’s palta in EVERYTHING here in Chile, by the way!). But in Colombia or Mexico they are aguacates. In some other countries, they even call… well, “avocados”, just like in English.

Actually, many food related words vary from country to country, even though they might be sharing Spanish as common language:

- fresas / frutillas (strawberries)

- frijolles / porotos / habichuelas (beans)

- zapallo / calabaza (pumpkin)

- platano / banana / banano (banana, that was obvious!)

- cacahuate / mani (peanuts)

- maiz / choclo / elote (corn)

The list goes on and on…


Everybody is addressed respectfully

I learnt Spanish in Spain. Over there, young people and those who are close to you are referred to as “tu”. “Usted” is a respectful form reserved for older people or formal situations. But in Latin America, usted is the most common form to address people. It sounds very polite, but it’s just the standard way.

Learning Spanish: TU vs USTED

Learning Spanish: TU vs USTED


Manjar is the food of the gods

Also known as dulce de leche or arequipe, it is everywhere in South America! It is a thick milk-based sweet used to spread on bread just like jam, or as a very common filling on pastries and cakes.

Manjar has 1001 uses in South America!

Manjar has 1001 uses in South America!


Everyone is “bonita, preciosa, maravillosa!”

A plain hello doesn’t cut it around here. As a lady, you shall be referred to as amor (love), bonita (beautiful), preciosa (even more beautiful), maravillosa (wonderful) or even divine! Quite often, several of these adjectives will be combined in one sole sentence. You’ll feel like a star!


When you can’t have an abortion, even if the mother’s life is in danger

Abortion is illegal is most Latin American countries, and in many cases even without exceptions. This means that if the mother’s life is in danger, for example, no exceptions shall be made. Neither if you were raped, for example. This bothers me a lot and I think religious thinking is responsible for this. This is one of the things I dislike about Chile. A lot of people who support the legalization of abortion here in Chile complain regarding the current “moral dictatorship” that doesn’t allow individuals to decide for themselves. Mega kudos to Uruguay for being ahead of the curve in this and other matters here in South America!

Cartoon regarding the possible legalization of abortion in Chile

Cartoon regarding the possible legalization of abortion in Chile


People don’t know what Air Conditioned means

Asians have no doubts about this! But in Latin America, we have sweated our souls out in places that have ACs installed but just don’t bother to turn them on even if the temperature is well over 30C. Is there an alternative method to beat the heat? YES! Drinking cold beer seems to be the answer!


10 year old’s making out (with tongue!) in the subway are not a rare sight

First time we saw this was in Mexico. Both of us looked like this:



Since then, we have come to terms that kids start making out (adult style) really young around here.


Plain yogurt is nowhere to be found

It’s there, yes, but it’s just that it is so well hidden.. Common yogurt is fruit flavored and it tends to be very sweet.


Papaya is served everyday for breakfast in hotels

E-v-e-r-y  s-i-n-g-l-e  d-a-y! Comes rain, hail, storm, snow, tsunami, earthquakes or avalanches… papaya has got to be there!


Also, I know I am in Chile when…

Checking in for a flight you are asked: “What side would you like your sit on? Sea or Cordillera [Andes mountain range]?” Landscapes in Chile are something else… taking a regular flight is like taking a wonderfully picturesque aerial tour!

Now it’s your turn!

You know you’re in Latin America when?!…

Leave a comment below!


Subscribe to the Backpack ME Newsletter

Tips, fun stuff, and TONS of inspiration! Straight to your inbox!


  • pallav Says

    you see an amazing band perform with all kinds of instruments, on the streets :)

    • Zara Says

      So true! I am often amazed at the quality (and display!) of street musicians in this part of the world!

  • I’ve never been to South America, so for a lot of these I was like “whaaaaat” – especially regarding the ten-year-olds making out! After living in Dubai for so long I’m sure I’ll get a culture shock when we visit :-)
    Dulce de leche looks delicious, though! What does it taste like?

    • Zara Says

      As someone who also lived in Dubai for several years I can assure you that the contrast when you come to this side of the world is going to be felt. But in a good way! :)

  • People swim in the ocean and pools with their clothes on… I don’t know why but in Nicaragua nobody wears just their bathing suit. They even wear their bathing suit underneath their clothes but jump in fully dressed! I didn’t know about the different names for avocado since I learned my Spanish in Costa Rica and haven’t been to South America yet. So interesting to learn about the differences in cultures!

    • Zara Says

      People swimming with their clothes on is a very Asian thing as well. In India it’s even more complicated as ladies often go into the sea with a full saree on… obviously then can’t swim with all that cloth around them!

  • Brigid Says

    Haha, loved reading this! I’ve been traveling through Latin America for over a year and a half now, and have observed most of the same things!

    Have just reached Chile, where I can now flush the toilet paper and drink the tap water…first world problem I know, but man it’s a little bit of luxury :)

    • Zara Says

      Hahaa… I know the feeling you’re talking about! 2 years ago we reached Chile after traveling for almost 2 months in Ecuador. It felt almost futuristic! :P Enjoy the little pleasures of life in Chile!!

  • Nora Says

    In Venezuela, beans are caraotas and passion fruit is parchita. It usted to be that wearing shorts was considered pretty unacceptable except while exercising and flip flops were the cheap shoes you wore at the beach and only the help or lower classes would wear daily. I know there is still a big have/have not division, but I don’t know what that looks like day to day anymore.

    • Zara Says

      Hi Nora. We haven’t been to Venezuela yet. Thanks for the quick Spanish lesson before we make it there! ;)

  • Such a lovely post! I really enjoyed reading through and then realized I am already at the last sentence of the post. Look forward to read more. Beautiful photographs.

    South America by all accounts is mesmerizing and their sponteinty is so high. Few months back, my wife and I were in Mexico and that’s how we realized it. So, now our next target is South America :)

  • Wow some of that is a real eye-opener simply for reading it!! Thank you!

  • Try a hot babe in her mid-thirties with a grandchild!

    I know I’m in Latin America when

    - everybody speaks Spanish (too obvious, of course, unless you’re in Brazil)
    - the noon sun is in the north
    - a long-distance bus ride comes with a comfy, reclining seat, and dinner
    - Che Guevara is not just a product (though there are plenty carrying his likeness in tourist shops) but a real hero with real historic impact
    - some variation of corn or potato is seemingly in every dish


    • Zara Says

      “a hot babe in her mid-thirties with a grandchild!” – true story!! :P

      You are right about Che Guevara too. I have seen people wearing Che caps and t-shirts elsewhere in the world and I sometimes doubt if they know who he was and what he did. At least here you know people know it and appreciate it!

  • I know I am in Latin America when:
    - Almuerzo is the main meal of the day and it invariably involves quinoa soup!
    - A polite no gracias suffices to get rid of hawkers (mostly)
    - There are snogging couples everywhere (not just the 10 yr olds!)

    • Zara Says

      Gotta love the snogging couples everywhere… I love that people do love openly in Latin America! Well.. for the most part, at least! :)

  • “After half an hour I landed here, I had already seen more cleavage than during the previous past month spent in India” – Hahaha! Currently traveling in Central America, and this is so true. Kinda makes me feel insecure as I do not have a contribution whatsoever in this regard, if you know what I mean, LOL. Enjoyed this post.

    • Zara Says

      If there’s one thing I’ve learned in Latin America is that you should parade your body proudly, no matter what size or shape. There’s always a contribution you can make!! ;) Enjoy your time in CA!

  • Kaira Says

    -When everybody has dinner after 9 or 10 pm
    -when you find empanadas everywhere!
    -when people must carry a white sheet in their car to cover bodies in an accident (this is mandatory in Argentina)

    By the way, platano and banana are different. Platano is plantain.

Comments are closed for this post.

Subscribe to Backpack ME