Chile has emerged as one of the most exciting destinations in South America for adventurous travelers. Nestled snugly between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains, Chile is a fascinating place to explore, but it’s geographic isolation makes it a bit complicated for outsiders. Our insider guide to Chile will help you navigate the culture of this unique country without looking like a tourist.
Chile is a long, thin country in the western part of South America. It stretches 2,600 miles from the Atacama Desert to Cape Horn where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans crash together. Chile’s population is roughly 17 million, and the majority of residents (12 million) live in the “Zona Central” region where the capital of Santiago is located.
Since Chile is located south of the equator, the seasons are opposite of those in America. Winter occurs June through August. It’s an inexpensive time to visit, but you may find it difficult to traverse mountain passes or access services in remote areas. The high season occurs November through February. Tourist areas become crowded and prices increase. Spring (September through October) and fall (March through May) offer great temperatures, fall foliage in the southern region and grape harvests in wine-producing areas.
The national currency is the peso. You’ll get the best exchange rate in Santiago and it may be impossible to find a currency exchange in more rural areas of the country. Be sure to carry small bills as it can be difficult to change larger denominations in rural areas. Liquor store or gas station are the best options to ask for change.
When you dine in restaurants, tip the server 10 percent. Some establishments may include a tip listed under “servicio” on the receipt. Parking and gas stations attendants also expect a 10 percent tip. Most Chileans don’t tip taxi drivers, but they may round up the fare to the next whole denomination.
Spanish is the official language of Chile, but even if you’re a fluent speaker, you may have difficulty understanding locals. Chileans call their version of Spanish “Castellano” after the early Castillian colonizers. Structurally and grammatically, it’s the same Spanish used elsewhere in Latin America, but Chileans includes lots of local slang that can be hard to decipher. For example, instead of a simple “hola” or “si,” you might hear “hola po” or “si po.” Adding “po” doesn’t change the meaning of the expression; it’s merely a Chilenismo, or localized slang similar to how Americans include “like” or “so” in everyday speech.
Chileans also speak fast, often slurring words, dropping consonants and the final “s” on words. And despite receiving English language classes in school, most Chileans don’t speak much English, especially in rural areas. To blend in among locals, brush up on your Spanish and get a primer on Chilean slang.
You’ll find indigenous languages spoken more frequently in some regions. Locals in the south may speak Mapudungun or Rapa Nui on Easter Island, a special territory that’s located more than 2,000 miles off the coast.
Culture and etiquette
Chile is a true melting pot with people of myriad backgrounds. About half the country’s population is of Western European ancestry, with 40 percent a blend of native and European. Regardless, people view themselves as Chileans and are fiercely proud of their country. Most Chileans are Catholic, and many are quite conservative when it comes to social issues. The dress sophisticated European style.
Chileans are very welcoming to outsiders. Expect to be greeted with a warm handshake or possibly a kiss on the right cheek, especially from women. Greet the senior individual in the group or family first, and understand that Chileans stand closer to others than most Americans. It’s rude to back away or to beckon someone using your index finger. Chileans are passionate about soccer, rodeo, skiing and surfing.
Four meals a day are eaten. Breakfast is light, consisting of instant coffee and toast. With two main courses and vegetables, lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and it’s usually served between 1-2 p.m. Afternoon tea, along with bread, jam, cheeses and avocados, comes at 5 p.m. It’s called “once,” the Spanish word for eleven. Dinner is served around 9 p.m. and includes a single dish along with Chilean wine.
Chile is one of the safest countries in Latin America for tourists. The violent crime rate is low, but pick-pocketing in crowded areas can occur. You should schedule a transfer for your transportation to and from the airport. Many unlicensed drivers flock to the arrivals area, at the airport, and try to swindle tourists. Respond with a firm “no Gracias” to anyone who’s pushy or tries to take your luggage.
Adventures and Exploration
Chile is divided into five geographic regions. For the purpose of this insider’s guide to Chile, we’ll highlight unique places to explore in each region.
Norte Grande (The Far North)
Norte Grande is dominated by the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world. The skies above Norte Grande are considered some of the best in the world for stargazing. Many observatories are located here but most aren’t opened to the public. A variety of tour operators offer specialty astronomical packages. And since the Moon Valley San Pedro de Atacama looks much like the surface of Mars, you’ll find other out-of-this-world experiences in Norte Grande.
Norte Grande is also home to the oldest mummies in the world. Find them at the Archaeological Museum of San Miguel de Azapa in Arica. You’ll also discover beautiful beaches and some of the best surfing in the world near Arica. Elsewhere in Norte Grande, explore the Pan de Azúcar National Park, where the desert meets the sea. You can take a boat from the mainland to an island where Humbolt penguins breed.
Norte Chico (The Near North)
A little further to the south in the Norte Chico, find the Andes Mountains and some of the highest volcanoes in the world including Ojos del Salado, the highest volcano in the world. You’ll also discover the El Tatio Geyser Field where 80 active geysers show off for visitors. Go at sunrise for the best experience. Along the coast are exclusive beach resorts including La Serena, the second oldest town in Chile.
Zona Central (Central Chile)
The Zona Central is a popular destination for tourists. The area is filled with ski resorts, wineries, beaches and festivals that draw people from all over South America. Santiago, the largest and oldest city in Chile, is located here. There are plenty of cultural and historic sites to see in Santiago, but look outside of town to find true treasures. For example, Sewell is an abandoned copper mining town that’s called the “City of Staircases” as it was built on the side of a hill. It’s a great place to explore Chile’s mining heritage.
Zona Sur (The South)
Find the earliest human settlement in the Americas at Monte Verde, the deepest lake in the Americas at Lake O’Higgins and a lovely lake district where towns and villages sit waiting to be explored. Be sure to visit Villarrica, a town that’s off many tourists’ radar but offers better prices and a beautiful black sand beach. Plus, it’s nearby a volcano of the same name that has a lava lake in its crater.
Zona Austral (The Far South)
Adventure and ecotourism await in the Zona Austral. Glaciers, ice fields, rivers, islands and inlets offer hiking, kayaking, whitewater rafting and fly fishing. The Chiloé Archipelago is known as the “Ireland of Chile” and is known for its unusual architecture, friendly people and unique culture. Start at Castro, the main town on the island that connects you to 100 more unique villages.
Chile offers adventurers the chance to explore unspoiled landscapes, meet friendly people and create lasting memories. Use the tips from our insider’s guide to Chile to familiarize yourself with the county’s customs and traditions before you head to this fascinating land.