Those little cultural things…

Anytime I visit a new place, I notice little cultural things. Some of these go for all of Argentina, but others I think are more specific to Salta. Anyway, here’s my list of 25 cultural things that make me confused/make me laugh/annoy me/make me love it here/make me hate it here. 

  1. Greetings and goodbyes.  If you are a girl, anytime you greet someone (boy or girl) that you know, you have to do a little cheek kiss thing. Between two boys, they just shake hands. These norms start when the kids are super little and continues into adulthood. If you walk up to a group of people, you have to greet every single person individually — go around and kiss them all. You can’t just walk up and say “Hey” like you would in America. In my Master’s program, the students all also kiss the teacher when they enter (even if they come super late, more on that later) and when they leave.
  2. Oh no! I didn’t say goodbye! The formality of greetings and goodbyes causes a lot of stress for Salteños. After a Rotary meeting one week I got in the car with some Rotarians who were taking me home. Just then, one of them exclaimed, “Oh no! I forgot to say goodbye to Luciano’s girlfriend!” and she was clearly upset about forgetting to say goodbye. In America, at least I would never think twice about forgetting to say bye to everyone. A simple, “See you guys later” would suffice.
  3. Bottled water/juice/soda/drinks… only with a straw. When you get a bottled drink here from a little kiosk or something, they ALWAYS give you a straw. This was extremely perplexing to me the first time and I just left the straw on the counter and walked away. Then I started to notice that everyone drinks bottled drinks with a straw. For me, the most perplexing thing is… how do they reach the juice/water at the bottom? The straw doesn’t reach all the way down. What a waste.
  4. Everybody loves mate. Mate is a hot (hot!) drink made with yerba mate. You steep the dry leaves and twigs in super hot water and drink it with a special straw (la bombilla) in a special container. You don’t actually drink the little leaves, you just drink the water that takes on the leafy flavor. I personally don’t really like it, but here it’s a big thing and people take it to-go like we do coffee in America. People drive past drinking it in their cars, people drink it while they make copies at work, etc.

  5. No coffee to-go. Waaaaaah. Self-explanatory. It’s really, really hard to get coffee to-go here. My friend Dafna knows of a place (woo hoo!, need to check that out!) and McDonalds will do it too. But you get weird looks if you walk around with it.
  6. Driving/traffic… the bigger car wins. The intersections here boggle my mind. I’ve been in Salta well over 2 months now and I have only seen 2 accidents. This is so shocking to me. Salta decided it would be a great idea to install very, very few stoplights (maybe like 25 total) and almost no stop-signs. In a city of 600,000. Basically how it works is this: If there’s a line of cars, everyone just follows closely behind and continues through the intersection without even looking. So how does the first car in the line get to go? Well, either they wait for traffic to pass, or the bigger car wins. If it’s an oncoming bus, the other driver will almost always stop. Truck? Same. Motorcycles think they’re big, so they tend to just go through intersections anyway. Not surprisingly, both accidents I’ve seen involved motorcycles. Not a good scene.

  7. Take a number. I feel like in America, the only place where I’ve really had to “take a number” was at the DMV. Maybe I have a bad memory. But here I feel like everywhere I go I have to take a number. School supply shopping, at the photocopy shop, so on and so forth.
  8. Want a better price? Pay in cash. In the US I keep maybe $5 on me in cash. Here, I always have at least 200-300 pesos ($40-$60), if not more. No one uses credit cards here! In fact, at the mall, there are almost two prices listed for clothing and especially shoes: one for a payment in cash, another for a payment with a credit card. The credit card price is usually like 5%-10% higher. The one place it is good to use a credit card is at the grocery store, because they will run specials with certain banks on certain days of the week — so if you have Banco Macro and you use your card on Thursdays, you get 10% off or something like that.
  9. Carbonated water. If you’ve been abroad you can probably relate to this… you always have to specifically order agua sin gas (uncarbonated water). And sometimes if you don’t actually read the ingredients on the back of a bottled beverage, it ends up being carbonated. Nothing like being super thirsty on a hot day, buying some lemonade, and chugging it down only to start gagging on all the unsuspected carbonation.
  10. Why are the beers so big? You would think that being a Wisconsin girl, the size/amount of beer here wouldn’t make me think twice. But it’s kind of hard to find a normal sized beer… everything is sold in liters. It was the same way in Ecuador so I’m not totally surprised by this, but I still think it’s weird. 

  11. Milk in a box. Yogurt in a bag. I can’t wait to get back to America and buy a gallon of cold Wisconsin milk. 1. The milk here is sold at room temperature. 2. It’s sold in a box. Or sometimes a bag. No, you don’t get sick from it. But the room temperature thing still really bothers me. As soon as I buy milk it gets put right in the fridge.
  12. But where are the berries? I don’t know if they are all out-of-season or what, but I cannot find strawberries, raspberries, or blueberries to save my soul. Yet they have strawberry milkshakes, smoothies, and ice cream everywhere… But where are the berries from?!
  13. Platform knockoff Birkenstocks. Enough said. Whaaat? Not cute at all. But soooo “de moda” here.


  14. Internet on your phone for 1 peso a day! (Like 20 cents). Granted, it usually runs slow as molasses on my cell phone. But it’s still pretty cool that you can get data on your phone for that cheap!
  15. How to work with the waiters.  I still don’t really know how to do this successfully. The one thing that interests me is that after you get your food, they don’t check back in with you unless you call them over. I think it’s so that you can enjoy your meal and your time with your friends/family, but it’s also hard to track them down if you need something else or something is wrong with your food!
  16. To tip or not to tip, that is the question. Here tipping is not exactly mandatory. Usually at a restaurant you leave 10% but there are many times where the waiter has been terrible and I’ve left without leaving a tip. I don’t even feel bad about it here. Oh, and you never tip taxis!
  17. Siesta. This is different in other parts of Argentina, but here in Salta and in Jujuy, siesta is definitely observed. Here most things close around 1:30 or so and don’t re-open until 5 PM! This includes all small stores around town. Banks are only open until 1:30 and don’t re-open at all! And on Sundays it’s pretty much a ghost town around here.
  18. Lines and more lines. I really wonder how salteños are able to be productive at all because everywhere you go, there is a line. It isn’t uncommon for me to wait in line for 30 minutes at the grocery store just to check out. Sometimes lines at banks can go out the door and along the whole block (usually if it’s right after a holiday). There’s lines at ATMs. Lines at the electric company where you pay your bill. Lines everywhere!

  19. ¡PARADA! On all of the busses there are signs posted that passengers should exit through the door in the back of the bus. However if you are near the front and just tell the driver “Parada!” (stop), he will. Which makes me think the signs are useless.
  20. Never before have I thought about toilet paper so much. There are two important components here to toilet paper. The first: Most places in Salta you can’t flush it, you have to throw it out. I still am bad at this and throw it in the toilet a lot just as a reflex. The second: No one has toilet paper! At my university they don’t even have it… sigh.
  21. Compráte la cartilla. One of the BEST things I guess about my university is that there are NO TEXTBOOKS. You just have to buy a “cartilla,” a spiral bound booklet that has copies of all the readings for the course. This is CLEARLY copyright infringement and I am amazed that no one seems to care. But they only cost like $6 or so for each course I’m taking, vs. spending $500 on textbooks for the semester!
  22. Class starts at 9 AM 9:30 AM 10:00 AM. I still can’t seem to turn of my internal “Oh my god I’m going to be late” thing. I hate HATE HATE being late to things. The bus is also sometimes really slow and I have to wait like 15 minutes. So I still leave earlier than I need to for class. But yesterday I decided to play it salteña and showed up for my 9 AM class at 9:30. As I was walking up the stairs in the building I passed my professor and Hugo, this guy who is kind of a custodian/friend/butler/chef for the master’s program. They were going to find a projector for her to use. So of course we didn’t get going until 10 AM. And then people continue showing up until around 11:30… As one of my Rotarians said, “¡Apuráte!” (hurry up) is a bad word in Salta.
  23. Let’s take a 10-minute 15-minute 25-minute 30-minute break for coffee. Going back to Hugo, the  custodian/friend/butler/chef for the master’s program… Hugo prepares snack for us in the morning and afternoon when we have class all day. He makes alfajores (a delicious typical Argentinian cookie) and little tarts and coffee. He also cleans up after us. Sometimes I feel like I’m in preschool BUT I love it. Anyway, we always say “Okay we’re going to take a 10 minute break” which turns into 30 minutes by the time everyone comes back into the classroom.
  24. Your evaluation for this class is due in 3 months. One of the moments when I felt the least salteña was when my professor told us, on March 9th, that the course evaluation would be due at the beginning of June… in 3 months. I literally started cracking up. Whoops. But seriously… why in the world would you give us 3 months to do something that takes no more than a total of like 10 hours of work. Lazy, lazy, lazy. I asked my classmates if they started working on it and I am the only person in my master’s program who has started it, even though it was assigned a month ago.
  25. Never put your purse on the floor. It took me awhile to realize this about salteños. But one of the strangest things to me is that when they go to class, they never ever put their purse/bag/backpack/briefcase on the floor. Either they find a spot with 2 open chairs together (a purse chair and a regular chair), or they hold it on their laps. I always just throw my backpack on the ground underneath my chair, as do most people in American classrooms (I think?). But I started getting weird looks from my classmates and after like 3 weeks of class I realized why.


  1. You know, when I was in Buenos Aires men also greeted and said goodbye to other men that they knew with kisses. It seemed pretty standard there.

    What is the “evaluation” exactly? Is it like a take home test? I was actually thinking, recently, that it would make sense for professors to assign our research papers for after the class is done, and give us a good bit of time to do it. I feel like here, we have to get started on these research papers halfway through a class, but we’re supposed to apply what we’ve learned in the class. Right now, my time writing papers conflicts with my time reading and studying the class material. I’m sure most people would just procrastinate all the time away, but as someone in crunch time with four research papers to write, a June due date sounds awesome!

    • Hmmmm I’m going to pay closer attention to men greeting men now. I’ve noticed mostly handshakes but maybe they do the kisses here too! And the evaluation is, for example:
      I have to analyze three different compositions done by elementary school kids who heard a legend from Patagonia and then had to re-tell it in their own words. One kid was 8, one 11, and one 12. I have to analyze it using… whatever. So basically I’ve gone off the readings in the cartilla. That’s one of two evaluations for the course. The other is reading an interview between a pre-service teacher and a little girl Zoe who is reading a kids book and we have to analyze how she decodes and understands letters and sounds it out and makes meaning from it, again going off of readings and research from the cartilla. And that’s the only thing that your grade is based on.

  2. Oh my gosh this is hilarious. So many things remind me when I lived in Chile and Argentina. The toilet paper thing, the driving thing, and the NO COFFEE thing still boggle my mind too. And I totally agree- yerba mate is YUCKY (and I’m a tea drinker in general). Keep posting!

  3. I loved reading these! Hilarious 🙂 So many are so so so identical to life here in Chile. I so often forget that these things are not “norm” to life back at home. I might steal this idea as well, it’s fun for people at home…. but also good because it helps people understand other parts of this world!

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