The Mole Diaries: Santiago de Chile
Chloe Harrison is studying Linguistics and Spanish at the University of Leeds. She has just returned from her year abroad in Santiago de Chile working as a British Council Language Assistant. She says, "I chose Santiago as it is one of South America’s safest and most vibrant capital cities, with something going on 24/7".
1. First Impressions
Having never lived in a capital city, the first thing that struck me about Santiago was the sheer amount of traffic and people. Almost half of Chile’s population live there, meaning there is never a quiet moment! The constant chaos of commuters, street sellers, beeping horns and stray dogs is something you’ll soon learn to embrace… The people, however, are incredibly warm and friendly, always helping you out when you need it.
2. What To Pack
Santiago is the capital from where you can ski in the Andes in the morning and surf the coastline in the afternoon... Its crazy climate takes some getting used to. Temperature varies dramatically both throughout each day, and over the year. In the coldest months of the year (July & August), you will need your winter coat and hat. Chile certainly does get chilly. Most houses and apartments don’t have central heating so it can get cold at night too. Be sure to pack your swimsuit for the summer though; many apartments have swimming pools and Santiago is just 2 hours from some of Chile’s beautiful beaches!
Girls - don’t take anything too short or revealing. Chile is a more conservative country than the UK, and you may get unwanted attention or feel uncomfortable. Even conservatively dressed, I attracted far more attention as a pale, blonde girl than I was comfortable with, but I soon got used to it and learned to ignore the wolf-whistles, stares and inappropriate comments in the street.
There are a few things you can’t get hold of in Santiago. For example if you think you can’t go a year without Marmite, dry shampoo or decent tea then stock up before you go! Electronics can be expensive, so think about bringing your own hairdryer etc. Another incredibly useful item was a British extension lead; minimising the need for adaptors and creating more space to charge things when you may only have one electrical socket in your room.
Also, bring any medicines and prescription drugs you use on a daily basis. Healthcare is relatively expensive in Santiago and you’ll find yourself paying a lot more for things like asthma inhalers, paracetamol and other medicines than you would in the UK.
In reality, you can buy most things you’ll need in Santiago, it is a capital city after all. Clothes are generally cheaper in Chile too, so if you can’t fit everything you want to bring in your suitcase then don’t worry, it’s an excuse to go shopping! You might not find the height of fashion in the cheap market stalls, so if you’re craving a Topshop or Forever 21 fix, the Costanera centre is the place to head.
3. The City: The Top Ten Things To Do
Santiago is full of exciting places to explore; whatever your thing, you’ll find something you’ll enjoy and you’ll never have a dull moment. Here are my top 10 must-dos:
- Check out the latest exhibition in MAC Quinta Normal, Santiago’s biggest contemporary art museum.
- Eat at a cafe or restaurant offering ‘Menu del Día’ in Barrio Italia - you’ll often get a huge four course meal for less than a fiver!
- Do a tour of the Cementerio General – the cemetery offers both daytime and night- time tours… full of fun and surprises. Not your average boring history lesson!
- Climb Cerro San Cristobal – the best panoramic views of Santiago… unless it’s a smoggy winters day of course.
- Shop in St Lucia market – all the alpaca knitwear and handicrafts you could ever wish for.
- Go trekking in Cajon del Maipo – just a short bus ride from the centre, the peaceful ‘Maipo Canyon’ is a great place to escape for a day.
- See a film in El Biógrafo – a wonderful little independent cinema in Barrio Lastarria.
- Try out some English/ Spanish language exchanges - great (often free) opportunities to meet new people and practice your Spanish! Look up Spanglish Party and events organised through Couchsurfing.
- Visit a winery – if you fancy learning about how the wonderful Chilean wine is made, and want to taste some for yourself. Concha y Toro, Santa Rita and Aquitania are just a few vineyards easily reachable from Santiago.
- Look round The Museum of Memory and Human Rights – a thought-provoking and sometimes harrowing account of the dictatorship and life in Chile under the Pinochet regime.
If you still find yourself with time on your hands, there are plenty of other activities in Santiago to try out. My friends and I enjoyed a range of things such as art classes, pole dancing, Japanese lessons, yoga, mandala making, guitar lessons and salsa dancing.
An easy way to pay for all this fun is by offering private English conversation classes. It’s surprising how much interest you’ll get simply by being a native English speaker. Many people will pay 10.000 pesos (~£10) for an hour conversing in English with you! Yapo and Tus Clases Particulares are good places to advertise yourself.
4. Finding Accommodation
There are tons of opportunities to rent in Santiago, whether you are looking to live in an apartment or a house, rent a room or the whole place, you’ll be sure to find something. Facebook’s ‘Room Mate and Flat Finder’ page, compartodepto and Yapo are all good bets.
I would advise living with Spanish speakers – it will really improve your language as you’ll be forced to speak Spanish every day. The best area of Santiago to live in (in my opinion) is in the centre. Another nice area to live in is Providencia, a little quieter than the centre but still with lots going on. If you want a quieter place to live, Ñuñoa is a very safe, residential, peaceful neighbourhood.
I would say that paying between 160.000 – 210.000 pesos (~ £160 - £210), including bills, a month is reasonable, depending on the area you choose to live in. Living in the centre tends to be cheaper than living in Providencia or Ñuñoa. It’s probably best to avoid living too far North, West or South of the centre, as these areas do not have the best reputation.
5. Getting Around Town
Santiago has an efficient network of public transport. The metro is frequent and reliable and there are plenty of local buses (called ‘micros’), making it easy to get around the city. I relied on public transport every day; Santiago is so big and you are likely to need to use it to get to work or study. You will need to buy a ‘Bip!’ card (available from the ticket offices in the metro stations). These cost 1.500 pesos (~£1.50) and you can top them up in the metro stations and some shops. Journeys cost around 700 pesos (~70p) (depending on the time of day); for this you are able to take up to two micros and one metro in the space of two hours. Students pay 200 pesos (~20p). This website (also an app) is useful for finding information about buses.
Public transport gets pretty packed during rush hour, but you’ll soon learn to lose those British inhibitions and cram yourself onto the already bursting buses when you need to get somewhere!
And for those days when you’re running late or simply feeling lazy, taxis are very cheap and safe on the whole. The app ‘safer taxi’ is great for booking cabs. It’s also a great idea to do lots of exploring on foot. The centre itself is actually pretty small, and you’ll discover many hidden gems if you let yourself get lost in the city once in a while.
Santiago isn’t a classic gourmet destination, but it’s certainly easy to eat cheaply and well, with many interesting and eclectic dishes that the UK hasn’t caught on to yet…. but if English breakfasts, pub meals and fish & chips are your thing, get your fix before you head out as there’s no classic British grub over there!
If you are a vegetarian (like me), there may be a few difficult moments as Chileans do not seem to understand the concept of a meat-free diet. A number of times I was asked things such as ‘but you still eat chicken, right?’. Here is my verdict of what is good and bad about food in Santiago, to give you a bit of an idea of what you can and can’t get hold of out there.
Things you can’t easily get hold of in Santiago:
- Fresh milk
- Baked beans
There were a few other things that I missed such as bagels and hummus, but I’m told most people aren’t as obsessed with these particular food items as I am…
Things Chile does badly:
Things Chile do well:
Top ten things to try:
- Empanadas (similar to Cornish pasties)
- Sopaipillas (a fried pastry typically made from pumpkin)
- Humitas (mashed corn, basil and milk)
- Chorrillana (chips, meat, cheese, onion, fried egg)
- Manjar (a sweet toffee spread similar to dulche de leche)
- Porotos Granados (a hearty soup made with beans and butternut squash)
- Pastel de Choclo (meat and corn pie)
- Terremoto (a drink made from white wine and pineapple ice cream)
- Pisco Sour (a delicious cocktail made from the popular spirit Pisco, lemon juice and sugar)
- Piscola (Pisco + cola = piscola! I will be surprised if this is not your pre-drink of choice by the end of the year…)
Supermarkets tend to have all the essentials, but head to the market ‘La Vega’ for all your fruit and veg; 600 pesos (60p) for a kilogram of strawberries and 4 avocados for 1.000 pesos (£1) is a lot less than you’d pay in the shops!
Top 5 Places To Eat:
- For ice-cream: Emporio de la Tia Rosa – named as one of the world’s top ten ice cream places, you’ll find yourself here on many a summer afternoon.
- For curry: New Horizons – not the most incredible curry, but if you’re having a craving, they do a neat little lunch menu for 4.000 pesos (£4).
- For sushi: Black Roll Sushi in Ñuñoa or Wasabi Resto Sushibar in Providencia – sushi like you’ve never seen before. Forget supermarket sushi boxes and overpriced ‘Yo! Sushi’, this is the real thing. For
- pizza: Tiramisu – some of the best Italian food in Santiago.
- For coffee and cake: Colmado – one of the few places that does REAL coffee, and decent cakes.
- Roadhouse blues – offering Pisco sours at 1.500 pesos (£1.50) during happy hour and a great atmosphere, this is one of my favourites of the many bars in Bellavista.
- Barbudo – with their lethal half-litre mojitos and spacious comfy seating area, if you find yourself in Plaza Ñuñoa then you should check this bar out.
- Blondie – An indie club with something different going on every night. Never fails as a fun night out in Santiago.
- Tunel – A fun little bar that turns into a popular club at the weekends.
- Miércoles Po – Santiago’s biggest international student night, every Wednesday.
7. A Note About Phones
I bought a cheap phone and a pay-as-you-go SIM when I arrived in Chile, thinking I would feel too nervous to take my iPhone out and about with me. In reality, it would have been fine. If you do get a SIM, go with the company Movistar or Entel, many people told me that Claro was very unreliable. A situation I found myself in way too often was desperately needing to call someone having run out of credit and not being near a pharmacy (where you have to go to top up your phone credit). Entel and Movistar offer a ‘presta luca’ (borrow 1.000 pesos) service. By simply calling a number on your phone (Entel: *301#, Movistar: *303#), you will be instantly topped up, having to repay the 1.000 pesos (£1) the next time you top up your phone.
8. Language Tips
I’ll tell you now, there is a big difference between ‘Spanish’ and ‘Chilean’. When I told people that I spoke Spanish, they chuckled and asked me ‘yes, but do you speak Chilean?’. When I arrived in Santiago, I had been learning Spanish for seven years and been studying it at University for two. I was therefore a little shocked and panicked that I understood very little of what was said to me during the first week. Chileans speak very fast and it took me a while to get used to the accent, grammar and dialect.
Chilean slang is some of the funniest around. Here are some of my favourite and most-used words.
Weon – either means ‘dude’ or ‘idiot’, depending on the context in which it is used. Pololo/ polola – boyfriend/ girlfriend. ‘Pololear’ meaning ‘to date’, how adorable. Palta – avocado. If you don’t end up eating this on a daily basis you have not truly embraced Chile. Po – coming from the word ‘pues’, ‘po’ is often added to the end of sentences. Why? Who knows. Nanai – meaning something along the lines of ‘there there’, a comforting word used in many situations. Carretear – party. You will do a lot of this in Santiago. Caña – hangover. You will also have lots of these in Santiago. ¿Cachay? – meaning ‘geddit?’, you will hear this more often than the traditional ‘¿entiendes?’
All in all, Santiago is a very safe and pleasant city to live in. Your year abroad there is sure to be one of the best years of your life.
As well as making the most of everything the capital city has to offer, be sure to visit Valparaíso and the other coastal towns. If you get a chance, head to the South of Chile, to the beautiful Lake District and to explore Patagonia; Torres del Paine is hands down the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. The North of Chile is incredible as well; visit San Pedro de Atacama if you can: where you can stargaze, go horse-riding, sandboarding, float in salt lakes, and begin a tour of the Bolivian salt flats.
The 4,300 km long country really does have a lot to offer!