A Visitor’s Guide to Chile

by Maria Malczyn

When traveling to South America, you must always remember the “hora latina,” which means that when making plans with Latinos, expect to start late.  Things end late in South America as well; nightlife festivities, which occur all days of the week except Sundays, do not end until some people are leaving for work in the morning.  Once getting used to the tardiness, a traveler is in the right state of mind to truly experience the South American continent, filled with vibrant peoples and cultures with interesting histories.

Dawn in the Andes Mountains.
Dawn in the Andes Mountains. Photo by Maria Malczyn

Chile is a very diverse country; in the north lies the driest desert in the world, and to the south, the polar regions of Patagonia, all surrounded by the Andes Mountains.  Travel through the country is made easy due to the high prevalence of public transportation, such as metros, buses, taxis, and colectivos, which are taxis that have select routes.  Many people do not drive or even own cars because of the transportation systems designed for public use. The buses, also known as micros, are always highly populated around seven in the evening because many people are returning home from work; most of the people are standing in the aisles as the drivers wind through curvy streets at top speed.  The faster the bus goes, the more people it can pick up, and the more money a bus driver can make.  At the busy times of day, many of the micro drivers do not stop at all of the bus stops because they do not want to have more people standing in the aisles as they drive.  It is not uncommon to see passengers flying into adjacent aisles as the bus driver spins around tight corners of the hilly region.

Since the country is cut off from its neighbors due to the Andean peaks, Chile has developed a unique culture that is growing under the maturing democracy.  Like most countries of the world, there are many Chilean citizens that are unhappy with their government.  Protests attacking any and all issues are common in city streets and the news.  Human rights concerns have created big problems in Chilean culture since a large portion of the population grew up under the Pinochet dictatorship that lasted from 1973 until 1990.  The lasting effects of the autocracy are seen through the carabineros, or police officers, actions against protesters, which often is the spark to violence.

In recent years, there have been many protests regarding educational reform since the cost of education in Chile is very high because the government does not provide any assistance to the school systems.  During many of these protests, students gather on the streets, march into educational buildings, and forcefully take over the establishments until negotiations are made between parties.  In order to avoid violence, the Chilean government has shut down schools, forcing all students drop their current classes, delaying their graduation schedules, and worsening the problems.

Signs of social unrest are prevalent in the city streets of Valparaíso, which have hundreds artistic murals, many of which contain social commentaries or exclamations of protest against governmental policies.  Politics in South America are considered very controversial, which is why all elections in Chile are held on Sundays, the day of rest and the only day that bars are not open, in an attempt to avoid any potential violence.  Divorce has been legalized in the last ten years, but abortion is still a very notorious issue in the country that has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates of the world.  Public displays of affection are very common on city streets and shock many travelers as to the portrayals of love that are exhibited in public.

Chileans enjoy social interactions and generally speak very fast with an interesting dialect.  Many chilenos drop the letter ‘S’ from words, which can be confusing for travelers for whom Spanish is a second-language.  Proper pronunciation is important in developing an ear for Spanish, but once going to Chile, you are able to decipher any Spanish dialect or regional accent.  There are many slang words in Chile that can throw off a non-native Spanish speaker, such as “Weón,” which can signify man or dude when spoken in a friendly manner.  In other situations, weón can implicate someone as being an ass or other inappropriate names.  Tone of voice is very important when communicating to others, especially when trying to speak a language other than your native tongue.

The people of Chile are generally very warm and accepting, but curious about travelers’ intentions in their country.  The popular culture in Chile is growing and evolving rapidly in the technology age, which has different wants than the more conservative elderly generation that grew up during the Pinochet regime.  As in all cultures, Chileans love to feed guests, but one should not expect dinner dates.  Lunch is the big meal of the day, occurring around two in the afternoon for most households.  Dinner is often replaced by “once” a custom taken from the English in which one drinks tea accompanied by bread and sometimes cheeses and meats.  While the English drink their tea at eleven in the morning, Chileans do not partake in once until the early evening, but have never changed the name of their stolen custom.  Hot tea is very common in Chile due to a lack of central heating systems, so hot beverages and foods are used to combat cold weather during the winters.

As the seasons change, Chileans see fluctuations in the number of foreign visitors, many of whom holiday during times of fairer weather in December and January.  During the warmer months, Chilean culture is widespread with public displays such as the annual International Song Festival in Viña del Mar.  At any time of year, Chile is bound to offer visitors with many treats, no matter the region in which they are vacationing.