¿Cómo, Um, Llegas...I Mean Yo Llego Aquí?: Mastering Santiago’s Subway System

by Ben Chung

What do Seoul, Paris, and New York all have in common? A sophisticated art culture, exquisite cuisine, or a diverse populace? Possibly all of them, but how does one get to these alleged fancy art museums, find these local food carts, or meet this diverse populace? Taxis are expensive, and hitchhiking is only for the most naïve/brave travelers, so why not take a ride on the scenic subway? No great city is without it, and this doesn’t exclude one of South America’s most famous capitals: Santiago, Chile.

Subway in Santiago, Chile

Why opt for a ride on the subway?

The metro system is supreme and the go-to method of travel for residents as well as those completing internships in Santigao. Though the ownership of un carro is not uncommon in this capital, unlike other bustling cities, el metro as it is known locally, is cheaper, doesn’t have Santiago’s famous traffic, and is just as effective in getting one from Point A to B.

To traverse the metro, one needs a card purchased at a service booth in any of the stations. The card needs to be charged every so often as each ride costs a few pesos. This can be done at the ticket booths where they were purchased. These cards can be used for the buses as well, which makes them even more valuable. Keep your bip, a local nickname for the cards, charged! It can be very embarrassing to desperately plead to the driver to stay on the bus (this works sometimes) or walk back from the turnstiles with a large crowd accumulating behind oneself.

How can you navigate the subway? 

Santiago has “six” metro lines, including a line 4 and 4A. They are color coded, but don’t try to ask directions using these. The locals know the line numbers not their respective colors. For a quick reference: Line 1 is red, Line 2 is yellow, Line 3 is a “attractive” brown, Line 4 is navy, Line 4A is a bright blue, Line 5 is green, and Line 6 is purple. The many metro lines become less tangled in time and after frequent use. With enough transfers, anyone can get from the north most station, Huechuraba, to the most southern, Plaza de Puente Alto. Nevertheless, it can still be a challenge. 

Stops can be a multi-level catacomb depending on the station. Though signs clearly mark exits and transfers, it can be quite overwhelming as everyone else rushes past to get to their next train. Certain stations are known to be crowded, and caution should be taken to avoid them during business transit hours. These stations may have more metro cars coming in and out than others, but they are packed like sardine cans, and can be extremely uncomfortable. Cram-packed stations include Baquedano, Tobalaba, Puente Cal y Canto, Santa Ana, and Los Héroes. They are good to avoid if one’s in a rush or when people are heading home at about 7 p.m.

What is the subway actually like?

The Chilean subway is extremely clean, amazingly safe, and a ride of a lifetime. The Chileans describe the New York subways as disgusting and dangerous; they aren’t that far off. The subway expectations for Chileans are very high, and should be. The Chilean subway is virtually litter-less, well lit, and possibly the best in all of South America. Additionally armed robbery is almost non-existent, but do keep a close eye on personal belongings: Pick pocketing does occur. Common sense and a certain level of confidence can keep the pickpockets at bay. A simple rule this writer follows is to only get off at populous stations like Los Dominicos when it gets late at night (12 a.m. or later). 

Proper subway etiquette is also reinforced. When an older person, handicapped individual, or pregnant woman boards, someone has to give up a seat. Tourists take heed: No one likes a selfish gringo who doesn’t stand up for their elders or the disabled. 

That begs the question though; what happens if there are no seats? Standing is always an option and this author definitely encourages awkwardly leaning on other people, but the ground is fair game as well. On the subway, nothing is too unusual. Overworked college students take naps on the floor during their commutes, couples cuddle and kiss, and people sing and play traditional instruments.

The Chilean subway is super manageable and a must ride for anyone in Santiago. For most interns, looking like a tourist is an embarrassing death sentence, but if you take el metro to los todos lugares: You’ll fit right in. When you make plans with locals and whip out your bip card, they glow with excitement that you know how to get around. Correct transportation is a major factor in anyone’s cultural immersion. ¡Buena suerte!

Now that you know basic subway etiquette, check out internships in Santiago to put your knowledge to the test.