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South America has its fair share of unique foods, traditions and more — making this a fascinating part of the world to visit. Are you intrigued to find out more about the continent’s cultural heritage and natural wonders? Here are seven things you’ll only find in South America.
Authentic Panama Hats
Contrary to what you might expect, Panama hats are not actually made in Panama. They originated in Ecuador and their name derives from the country they became popular in rather than the country that produced them. Over a century ago, Panama hats were in high demand in Panama in order to shield workers on the canal from working under intense sunlight. The best Panama hats, which are known as Montecristis, take up to eight months to weave. They’re made by hand in Pile, a village not far from the town of Montecristi. Creating such hats made from the toquilla palm earned Ecuadorean artisans a place on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2012.
Ask a Peruvian what his or her favorite ice cream flavor is and chances are, he or she will tell you it’s lúcuma. This delicious tropical fruit looks a little like a cross between a mango and an avocado, but tastes a lot like butterscotch. The fruit is rich in antioxidants, beta carotene, iron, zinc, vitamin B3, and calcium, so it’s no surprise that it used to be nicknamed the "Gold of the Incas." Grown in Peru, Chile, and Ecuador, you won’t find lúcuma fresh outside South America since it ripens very quickly, which makes it difficult to transport over long distances. Outside the continent, you might be able to buy bags of lúcuma pulp in your local food market or powdered lúcuma in health food stores.
An Opera House in a Rainforest
In the heart of the Amazon in the city of Manaus, Brazil, you’ll find a most unusual building. The city’s opera house was built at a time when the rubber trade was booming. After a period of construction spanning almost 20 years, the opera house finally opened on January 7, 1897, boasting lavish décor and electric lighting. However, undercutting by Brazil’s competitors destroyed the rubber market and the city’s wealth. The opera house closed in 1924. Eventually, Manaus bounced back and this reversal in economic fortune led to a refurbishment. In the 1990s, the opera house opened its doors once more and has been entertaining ever since.
Dancers Performing the Marinera
Folk dance is a popular tradition across South America. In Peru, one of the most prominent dances is the graceful marinera. The dance even has its own festival in Trujillo and a commemorative day held each October to mark the importance of the tradition. It’s a courtship dance that dates from the colonial era, though it didn’t get its name until the War of the Pacific in 1879. Women typically dance the marinera barefoot and the men wear shoes. Each dancer carries a handkerchief and the movements of the man’s hat and the woman’s dress mimic a flirtatious routine in which the man ends up lying at the woman’s feet.
Herds of Grazing Vicuñas
Shy vicuñas roam freely across the Andean highlands of South America — the only place where they live in the wild. They are relatives of the llama but are also thought to be the wild ancestors of the alpaca with whom they share DNA. Vicuñas were previously endangered and successful conservation efforts have resulted in a sizable population once more. This graceful animal is highly prized for its fine wool. The wool was once reserved for only nobility, but these days it's more common among locals. In Ayacucho, Peru at the annual Chaccu (round-up), only vicuñas with long fur are shorn.
Cholitas Wearing Bowler Hats
The cholitas of Bolivia are instantly recognizable from their braided hair, wide skirts bolstered by numerous petticoats, embroidered shawls, and tiny bowler hats. These indigenous women were once the victims of prejudice and discrimination, but lately their place in society and cultural traditions have been recognized. The distinctive hat is called a borsalino. It’s believed that roughly a century ago, a large shipment of hats arrived to be worn by the country’s railway workers, but they were too small. A local hat merchant who saw a business opportunity bought them and convinced local women that they were the height of fashion. Whether the story’s true or not, you’ll see them worn across Bolivia.
Guinea Pig (Cuy) on the Menu
In most places around the world, guinea pigs are merely pets. In the Andes, however, it’s common to find these furry creatures on the menu instead. The Incas ate guinea pigs and the animal has been kept for this purpose since the 16th century. Today, farmers maintain this long-standing tradition. Guinea pigs breed quickly, take up little space, and cost relatively little to feed and care for, so some argue this is a sustainable and low-impact protein source. It’s not hard to find restaurants serving up roast cuy in city restaurants across the region. In fact, there has even been a boom in exports of this tasty meat, which is helping peasant farmers work their way out of poverty.