Chile – conclusion
It’s not a cheap destination. Almost as expensive as Europe.
Do not talk politics, unless the Chileans start about it, and even then, tact and common sense applies. After the military coup the country was split in two, while one part of the population feared persecution and disappearance, the other celebrated in the streets with champagne. The division is still very much alive.
Earthquakes. Occurring practically daily. With the Andes and countless active volcanos making the entire eastern border, all of the country is seismically active. The last big earthquake happened in Concepcion in 2010 and killed 550 people, the biggest earthquake in modern times, moment magnitude of 9.4, was recorded close to Valdivia in 1960, taking a toll of estimated 7000 casualties. The next one can hit anytime, anywhere in Chile. The locals don’t get too excited about it, quakes around 5-6 magnitude happen on daily basis. One night in La Serena (my airbnb was the top floor of a high-rise building, so it was more noticeable than on the ground), I woke up to a shaking bedroom at 4 am and my first thought was that maybe my landlord came back with female company. When it was over in 15 seconds, I was hoping (for her sake) he didn’t, and went back to sleep. The following morning I discovered there had been a magnitude 6.7 earthquake. Imagine that in Italy. Hundreds of casualties, and the survivors living in tents for the following 5 years. When I asked the locals about it the next day, they had not even waken up.
Language. Even if you speak spanish, you will have no clue what they are saying. They speak with a very strong accent and very fast, cachai? However, not very many people speak good english, so even basic spanish, or italian in my case, will come in handy.
People. I decided to Airbnb my way through Chile to meet locals, and it was the best decision. They may not speak english perfectly, but they are extremely friendly and hospitable, they always made sure to show me things and places, gave me local tips, included me in their programmes, I could not have been treated any better.
Food is a hit or miss, but it’s always hearty and filling. It’s great close to the coast. You get loads of fresh fish and seafood. Try locos, giant molluscs, or pastel de jaiba (crab soup). The seafood soups normally come gratinated in the oven with bechamel and cheese, which is a bit of a rape of the poor fresh seafood, but you certainly will not be hungry after that for a while. In the Atacama it’s mostly overcooked meat with fries and an egg on top. Again, not a Michelin cuisine, but it does the trick. The Chileans live under impression that Bolivian food is terrible, but it’s not worse than northern Chile. Also, try the local late-at-night-shitfood, el completo, the hot dog. It’s not just a hot dog, it comes with fries, sauces of choice and literally a heap of avocado. For daytime shitfood, go for empanadas (ask to locals which shop sells good ones, the secret is a lot of filling and little dough).
Wine & Pisco. Due to the geographic disposition, they grow any kind of grape, from warm-loving varieties to cold climate ones. The Bordeaux blend is the most common, but I tried fantastic pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs (better than the New Zealand ones, the style is more european and they don’t have the strong scent of dishwasher detergent. I meant grapefruit). I talked about pisco elsewhere. Pisco Sour is the perfect aperitif and it may even replace my drink of choice (bone-dry gin martini) for the foreseeable future.
Safety. Chile is the safest of south american countries. I have not felt unsafe once. Valparaiso has a certain reputation, but it’s no dodgier than any european port. The Chilean police, the carabineros, take great honour in being unbribeable and honest, that is when they don’t participate in coups d’etat. They are very kind and helpful, should you need anything at all. If you have trouble with police for any reason, look sheepish and shut up. Never try to bribe them, it will just piss them off. Also, be careful with taking photographs around military buildings.
Public transport. Long distance buses go everywhere, they are very comfortable and come with blankets, on board entertainment (often subtitled in english) and snacks. For very long distances (such as Santiago – San Pedro) check internal flights. Sometimes the price difference is negligible compared to 24 hours on the bus. Local transport is very capillary and you can wave down a micra anywhere. If you are unsure where to go or how to get to your connecting transport, just talk to the driver, he’ll drop you off at the most convenient location. Where no public transport is available, there are always colectivos (shared taxis), that are most times as cheap as the micras. In remote areas hitchhiking is common. You don’t even need to hitchhike, if they see anyone walking along the road, they stop and ask if they need a lift.
Dogs. They are everywhere and they are friendly. I think restaurants leave their food waste in the evening for the dogs and I heard that people just buy big bags of dog crackers and leave them around for the strays. Wherever you go, you will be adopted by a dog for the day.
Obviously, the nature. There is everything in Chile. Beautiful beaches (though the water is freezing), mountains, lakes, deserts. The south is hiking paradise (I skipped it because it was too late in the year and I wasn’t equipped to face the winter).
For your convenience, my 6 weeks in Chile (north of Santiago). You can certainly do it quicker, but I was in no hurry.
Day 1-5: Rapa Nui
Day 6 – 9 : Santiago
Day 10 – 13: Valparaiso
Day 14 – 15: La Campana
Day 16 – 19: La Serena (no need to stay for 4 days, I just needed a break)
Day 20 – 23: Punta de Choros
Day 24 – 28: Valle Elqui, with the first night in La Serena again
Day 30 – 33: Bahia Inglesa