Tasty ‘big-ass ants’, llamas wearing woolly hats, and tiny enclaves of Welsh culture make South America a fascinating, if at times, mind boggling continent to explore. Here’s our foray into some of the more eclectic cultural treats to be found upon these shores.
1. Patagonia's Welsh teahouses
Debuted to the world in Bruce Chatwin’s pivotal account of his travels, In Patagonia, the Welsh region of Argentina is a thoroughly un-South American segment of this continent. The tiny town of Gaiman draws many a visitor with its nostalgia-inducing scents of freshly baked scones and pots of perfectly brewed tea.
Sample these delicious delights in the numerous casas de té which line the streets and where you’ll find the cottages bearing testament to their heritage: tea towels sporting red dragons, expertly knitted tea cosies and china-laden Welsh dressers.
2. Cusco's llamas
Having acquired fame as the historic capital of the doomed Inca Empire, Cusco has since gained notoriety for other, loftier reasons. Now it claims the title of “Lamb and Llama Capital of South America”.
Wildest travel dreams are fulfilled by photo opportunities with these posing local, woolly celebrities, each sporting equally woolly hats; all for a handful of soles, of course.
Catch an even more poignant picture by snapping one of the ladies taking a taxi home with her two llamas at the end of the working day.
3. The unusual regional delicacies
South American cuisine can be a potent assault on the taste buds and stomach. Ecuador and Colombia have a tradition of combining queso with almost everything: banana splits with cheese sprinkles and hot chocolate with floating, yellow lumps.
Further south in Peru and Bolivia, find herb-stuffed, oven-roasted guinea pig washed down with chicha (an alcoholic maize drink which traditionally uses saliva to instigate fermentation).
For more intrepid tastes there are steaming bowls of caldo de cardán (soup made from a bull’s penis) in Bolivia, platters of buchada (goat’s stomach stuffed with offal) in Brazil, and the salted and lightly toasted treat that is hormigas culonas (literally “big-ass ants”) proudly served in Santander, Colombia.
Queso © Alexander Prokopenko/Shutterstock
4. The hamster-cheek habit
South America’s love of the coca leaf persists, all despite global controversy surrounding its consumption (yes – it is derived from the same plant that produces cocaine). But this natural stimulant is a traditional feature of life in the mountains and coca leaf chewers are instantly recognisable for the peculiar bulge protruding from their cheeks.
Used for overcoming fatigue or altitude sickness, it can be drunk as mate (coca tea) or chewed with a sprinkle of bicarbonate of soda to activate the chemicals. Be warned: it takes little time to realise it’s an acquired taste.
© Fabio Lamanna/Shutterstock
5. The linguistic assault of Chilean Spanish, cachai?
Those who’ve studied Spanish in any other country will feel at an immediate loss upon hearing the baffling jumble of jerga (slang) that is the Chilean dialect.
Indecipherable words are mashed together to form even more indecipherable sentences, and every ten seconds of speech will involve a complex combination of weónes, po and cachai (“mate”, “well” and “get it?”). Travelling through this linguistically challenging country is a test for even the most competent Spanish speaker.
6. The concept of punctuality...
South Americans are infamous for their distinct approach to punctuality: schedule an appointment with a local friend and you might be surprised if they turn up within the hour (or even two or three in Brazil).
This attitude towards timekeeping has even become part of the language used here. Hora inglésa (English time) stands for being on time, and if they want to say “now,” al tiro or ahorita will do. Although bear in mind that both carry undertones of at-some-point-in-the-not-so-distant-future, so don’t be disappointed if you still have to wait.
As frustrating as it can be, you can’t deny that their time-keeping approach at least forces you to relax and take things slow.
Pixabay / CC0
7. The mysterious architecture
The stoic, bulbous stone heads on Easter Island are not the only examples of laborious human vocation to have emerged from this continent. Further along the coast, the inexplicable accuracy of the geometric geoglyphs of the Nazca Lines in Peru continues to perplex archaeologists.
And, although relatively unknown in comparison with its sister-site, Machu Picchu, nearby Choquequirao remains a mysterious, barely discovered complex. Experts believe that only 30 percent of these ruins have been reclaimed from the surrounding undergrowth, and it remains to be seen what other enthralling secrets the rest of South America has yet to disclose.
© Tomaz Kunst/Shutterstock
8. Babies in backpacks
Intricately weaved textiles are some of the most visually striking features of life in the traditional Andean regions of South America. The ubiquitous aguayo ranks as one of the most useful: these rectangular pieces of cloth, striped in colours ranging from flamingo pink to coca leaf green, can transform into a sling-like backpack for women.
The contents? Anything from potatoes to babies.
Explore more of South America with the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.
Top image: Escadaria Selaron, or Lapa Steps, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil © Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock