Leave One America Behind for Another

by Rosanna Giorlandino

Lining the rocky cliffs of the western Latin American coast is a country that embraces much of what its name entails.  If you were to point to this nation on a world map, its width would match your pointer finger. Its length would extend beyond your forearm, possibly past your elbow (depending on the mapmaker’s inclination to compose a grander map that day). While its geography may suggest a feeble country, falling away off the map and into a deep Pacific Ocean, its collective resilience keeps it held fast, and any held misconceptions fade in favor of a more vibrant reality.

Mouth-watering Chile Rellenos.
Mouth-watering Chile Rellenos. Photo by Nicholas Lundgaard

Chile’s geography suggests an existence based on contradicting stereotypes. While many may travel to this country with expectations in mind (most Americans believe that the country is a secondary Mexico), there are several ideas about Chile that can be left at home.   To better your experience, below are the top five expectations that you should discard when traveling to Chile; if followed, you will find a country that defies norms and fulfills your curiosity (or something along those lines)

1. The Expectation for Spicy Food

If you’re expecting to find chilies in Chile, you will be massively disappointed. Estadounidenses who travel to Chile tend to have this viewpoint in mind but unlike other Latin American nations who pepper their foods with copious amounts of spices to a point where your mouth is in flames, Chile prefers the simpler, more coercive approach to the palate. Chilean cuisine is simple, thriving off the combinations of crisply fried dough sopaipillas, steaming caramelized onions, fried eggs, and rich beef that are layered to perfection into the ideal chorillana, and of course, the classic churripan, a chorizo sausage in a bun heaped with pebre, a mild spread that most Chileans describe as “guacamole without the avocado” (also known as “salsa” to the mere American).  Chileans abhor garlicky foods and, instead, indulge in sweetness, mainly through the hearty consumption of hallullas, flatbreads served with avocado, ham, and sweet teas around dinner.  Additionally, Chile’s famous empanadas, or doughy pastries filled with meat, hardboiled egg, and an olive, can be found in nearly every eatery in Santiago. Take care, however, as empanadas are dangerously addicting and can contribute enthusiastically to the growth of your backside.  Although many can be surprised, even shocked, by Chile’s palatial preferences and its aversion to spicy cuisine, many more will be enamored by its endearing simplicity.

2. The Expectation for Coffee

The United States’ coffee culture does not translate to the culture of Chile, and more specifically, Santiago. However, if one is open to swapping his or her daily coffee for juice, he or she will be pleasantly surprised. Chileans prefer to indulge in sweetness rather than what they consider the rancid bitterness of coffee. On almost every sidewalk in Santiago, there are vendors selling pumping devices to provide freshly squeezed juices, ranging from traditional orange and apple juices, to more unique flavors of the fruit rainbow, such as pear, apricot, and strawberry.  Unlike the processed concoctions sold in the United States, the juices in Santiago are brimming with fresh pulp, exhibiting more pizazz and vivaciousness.  So while the coffee establishments are few and far, the open-minded coffee addict should try to trade the cravings for a venture into a new habit.

3.  The Expectation for Political Correctness

Every country requires social adjustment, and Chile is no exception.  From the northern desert of San Pedro to the southern regions of Patagonia, every Chilean has a tendency to express overt political incorrectness. It is common for Chileans to comment on physical appearance, from the fragile subjects of race to the changes in hair color.  For example, if he or she knows you exceptionally well, a Chilean will have no issue in informing you that you have gained weight.  For those who are concerned to receive harsh feedback, worry not.  Commentary on physical appearance is one of the many ways that Chileans express affection, and the majority of cases reflect their genuine compassion. Any Chilean who you have met will go out of his or her way to say hello on the street, to give a kiss on the cheek, and to ask how your day has been.  The caring is never-ending in Chile, as its regard for political incorrectness.  Learning to take all commentary with stride and grace is a lesson in patience and good humor.

4. The Expectation for “American” Sports

While most people in the United States envision one form of “football,” their idea doesn’t match the reality in Chile.  Discussions of baseball, basketball, and hockey are met with confused glances and the shrugging of shoulders. In Chile, fútbol is the king reigning over a sovereignty of deranged fanatics.  This complex system of teams features a network enthusiastic fans wearing teams’ names proudly, playing musical instruments outside the windows of buses and taxis late at night, and waving enormous flags that sweep the size of a street block.  Chile’s pride for its teams, which range from the prideful and victorious Colo Colo, to intense (and verbally profane) rivalry between Universidad Católica and Universidad de Chile and many others.  Every Sunday, the streets of Santiago roar with songs that pound the buildings with a love and vigor that is unmatched in the United States.  When in Chile, shed all former sports alliances, choose a team, and breathe fútbol culture.  

5. The Expectation for a Hectic Work Schedule

The line between work and play in the United States tends to be blurred. Americans tend to bring their work home and free time is scarce among family members.  However, Chile is devoted to a divide that keeps work in the office.  While Chileans are determined and efficient in their places of work, they are glued to relaxation.  Therefore, following the conclusion of a workday, Chileans revert to a state of tranquility.  Dinner is always spent with family where (often inappropriate) jokes and (often scandalous) stories are exchanged. Chileans also choose to enjoy the resources at their fingertips, traveling to the coasts of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar to lie on the beach, or hike the foothills of the mountainside cordillera.  They also are flexible about time, often sleeping in past eleven o’clock in the morning, arriving later than the suggested time, and staying awake all night merely to enjoy one another’s company.  By shedding the work obligations, you will be finally embrace this distinct culture and become fully “Chilean.”