Toilet guide: Latin America

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If you’ve travelled through Asia or Africa, you’ll most likely be pleasantly surprised by the toilet quality in Latin America. Western style sit-down toilets are most definitely the norm in this part of the world, unless you get properly off the beaten track. I travelled across 10 countries in Latin America, and along the way I encountered exactly 1 squat toilet, compared to hundreds of white throne toilets.

Quick guide:

  • Western style, flushing sit down toilets are very common pretty much everywhere.
  • Few of these toilets can flush toilet paper – you’ll need to throw used toilet paper in the bin.
  • You’ll also need to provide your own toilet paper basically everywhere; have a roll in your day pack.
  • Buses in South America have toilets on board. Wonderful, sit down flushing toilets.
  • Buses in Central America do not have toilets, but they’re super interesting.
  • Minivans link common traveller destinations in Central America and they make regular toilet stops.

Accommodation

Honestly, you don’t have a lot to worry about here. If you plan to stay in budget places, you’ll need to bring your own toilet paper and soap, but all the guest houses and hostels I stayed at had respectable western style toilet facilities (except for one homestay – more on that later!) Whether I was in a village in the Andes or a lodge in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, the toilets were honestly fine. Okay, I did find a bat in the shower of my rainforest bathroom, but he was totally friendly. The more you pay, the better the facilities will be.


On the road – South America

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I found western toilets to be very common whilst out and about whilst in Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil.  They might not always be clean, but good toilet facilities can be found pretty much everywhere in urban cities and in the main travel destinations. I would definitely consider Chile, Argentina and Brazil to be first world, developed countries, and their toilet facilities as good as anything in Europe. Even in the less-developed countries of Peru and Bolivia I found sit down toilets pretty much everywhere (okay, the toilet at a local school I volunteered at had a shower curtain instead of door, but it was still a sit-down toilet!)

Passenger trains aren’t really a thing in Latin America, which means unless you have the money and the inclination to fly, you’ll be spending a lot of time on buses. South America in particular is a big continent, and when you’re backpacking in Argentina and Brazil it can feel like everywhere is a 20-hour bus ride from everywhere else.

Despite the distances, South American buses are amongst the most comfortable in the world. There are usually different price options, but if you go for the slightly more expensive coaches the facilities are excellent, much better than on many buses I’ve taken in Europe and North America. Reclining seats are standard, as are comfy headrests and supportive foot and leg rests. One overnight bus in Chile even had a conductor who gave every passenger a juice box and a biscuit in the morning.

The best thing is, all coaches have toilets on board! Now some of these toilets do have signs on them advising you not to poop on the bus; liquids only. But you do get a flushing toilet and sink which you can access whenever you need during the journey.


On the road – Central America

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Bus journeys are also long in Central America, even though the actual distances are much shorter. Most places are linked by narrow windy roads, precariously clinging to the side of mountains. I was there during “landslide season” in Guatemala, and boulders in the road were a common sight. Overtaking on blind bends half way up a mountain was standard driving practice. So, it makes sense that night buses aren’t really a thing in Central America.

I didn’t find any good quality coaches in Central America. The locals tended to take chicken buses, which are old American school buses shipped down through Mexico into Guatemala, where they’re painted bright colours and used as public transport:

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Backpacker minivans are also common. Organised through travel agents, these minivans run between big traveller destinations in Central America. Neither option had a toilet on board, but the backpacker minivans made regular toilet breaks, and they actually stopped at toilets.


Toilets on the death road, Bolivia

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Bolivia is one of the least developed countries in South America, and contains some of the more sketchy toilets the continent has to offer. Due to poor planning, I only spent a few days in Bolivia so I can’t claim to be an expert on their toilets (although it’s somewhere I’d love to go back to!) In those few days, I did find a public toilet with no doors. It was a row of standard looking toilet cubicles, all containing sit down flushing toilets. There were walls between the toilets… but no doors! I was on a tour, cycling down death road at the time, and compared to what we were doing, using a toilet without a door didn’t seem like that big a deal. Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised we could be in the middle of nowhere in Bolivia and could still access sit-down toilets every few hours. So all the women on the tour used the cubicles, politely averting our gazes before heading back out on the road.

As to why the toilets had no doors, I still have no idea. Maybe they ran out of money? Or maybe, like my own trip to Bolivia, they were just poorly planned. It remains a delightful mystery.


The first time I ever encountered a squat toilet; Peru

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The first time I ever came face to face with a squat toilet was on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, Peru, 3800 metres above sea level. This was problematic for several reasons.

  1. We were on a small, very rural island. On an island, you can’t just go in search of another toilet like you could in a town.
  2. We were staying there for 24 hours. A lot of toilet needs can arise in 24 hours.

The island itself was stunning. The toilet was was, as far as I could tell, absent. Instead, there was a hole in the ground, covered by a small congregated iron shack. A bucket of water for flushing sat nearby. The shack was a good few metres from the main house, which was enough of a challenge in the pitch black night. As night fell, I gathered around this hut with 2 fellow backpackers, and we stared in dismay at the so-called facilities.

My fellow travellers were seriously debating whether they should take their Imodium instants to block themselves up, thus guaranteeing they would not have to go number 2 in the hole. (Side note – this is a terrible idea. Don’t take Imodium unless you have diarrhoea, or it could be LONG time before things get moving again.) I was just as intimidated by the hole as they were, but I’d gone just before we left the mainland, so was in a prime position to wait until we returned to “civilisation” the following morning.

When it came to doing a wee, I was very glad to have a head torch with me. This gave me both hands free as I squatted with my roll of toilet paper in one hand, and afterwards when I poured water down the hole to flush the toilet.

In hindsight, the main reason we found this squat toilet so intimidating was because it was literally the only one we’d seen. Toilets are so good in Latin America, we hadn’t had any practice with using squat toilets. Check out our guide to using a squat toilet, have a head torch, toilet paper, and antibacterial hand gel with you and you’ll be ready for anything.

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