We’ve been in Santiago over a month now and I have to admit, I haven’t explored much of the city yet.

That’s perhaps the difference between tourists and expats. We expats have a mission, we have stuff to be getting on with, mobile phone contracts to be setting up, identity cards to be processed and as we’re here for a while, we’re less stressed about seeing the whole city in a week.

It takes time to figure out the way of life in any new city.

To save you new arrival expats the trouble, I’ve compiled a check list of need to know essentials. Here’s to spending more time seeing the city, and less figuring out the boring (but vital) stuff.

  1. Drinking water. The tap water is safe to drink, but contains higher levels of minerals than you might be used to. It’s recommended you drink mineral to start with. Tap water is safe for washing fruit, brushing your teeth and so forth. In fact it’s a good idea to add a little tap water into your diet, for example in ice cubes, in order to adjust.
  2. Vaccines. The UK’s national health services doesn’t recommend any special vaccinations for tourists coming to Chile, other than refreshing all standard immunizations including tetanus, diphtheria and hepatitis A and B. If you’re moving here for a while, you might like to consider some extras. Stray dogs are a popular sight throughout the city and if you have dog loving children like mine, rabies shots are a must. If you plan to visit Easter Island, you’ll need yellow fever vaccinations also.
  3. Groceries. Supermarket shopping is, compared to lots of other countries I’ve lived, very expensive. Most items can be found within the city but forget going to a store for everything at once and embrace a city wide scavenger hunt. Markets often sell better quality, local fruit and vegetables at a much better price than the supermarkets. If you’re prepared to haggle hard and choose wisely, then buying on the street while you wait at the traffic lights is also great for in season veggies if you’re in a rush. Bear in mind though that for any vegetables purchased outside of the larger stores such as Jumbo and Tottus you’ll need to disinfect them. A special, concentrated  disinfectant for vegetables can be found at most supermarkets and is safe and simple to use. Most of the larger supermarkets offer online shopping, but you’ll need a local bank card. If you pay by card in a store you’ll be asked for your RUT (identity number) and until you get this you can use your passport number.
  4. Allergies. My son has a dairy intolerance and it’s tough shopping for him. It seems that definition of ‘trace’ varies from the UK to Chile – he can support trace elements of dairy in the UK, but in Chile it’s potluck and he often comes out in a rash from supposedly dairy free foods. Allergens are not highlighted on ingredients lists (although gluten is often labelled more clearly) so you’ll need a beady eye to read the labels. It’s hard to find some allergen free produce and I’m still on the hunt for sugar free fortified oat milk.
  5. Spanish. While the highly educated speak great English, you’ll need a basic level of Spanish to get by on a day to day level. If you plan to work, even within an English speaking company, you’ll still need some Spanish to get by. The Chilean accent is rather unique and takes a while to get used to. I personally find it easier less hard to understand than Spain Spanish. Perhaps it’s because people are more used to gringos like me here and speak slower. Nevertheless the slurring together of words and dropping of s’s at random is quite a headache.
  6. Safety. There are increasing reports of crime across the city, even in affluent areas such as Vitacura. Be alert in the day, and more cautious at night. Reports of violent crime in the day time are rare, but a more common occurrence after dark. In some areas, such as the central market, you’ll be advised to leave any valuables at home. The basic rule, however, is: don’t walk at night. If you’re going out by taxi, order your car from home and stay indoors until it arrives. Most crimes I’ve heard about involve handbag and phone snatching by day, but more violent or threatening behavior by night. If you get caught out, offer up your goodies immediately and don’t put up a fight. A wallet shaped hole in your pocket is not as bad as a knife shaped hole in your belly. 
  7. Private v state. Santiago does not benefit from an all encompassing state welfare system as in other countries. Make sure you have a good health care plan before you leave.
  8. Customs. Chile won’t allow you to take any fresh fruit, vegetables, plants or seeds into the country. Your bags will be scanned upon entry, sniffer dogs will be doing the rounds and you can expect a hefty fine if you’re busted. If you have young children, it’s worth taking two photocopies of their birth certificates too. While the rules are a bit confusing, some state that if you have children born outside of Chile, you’ll need to prove you are the legal guardians (apparently a passport and shared surname are not enough).
  9. Electricity. The electricity current operates on 220V, 50Hz. Electrical sockets have two or three holes, and our current apartment has three hole sockets throughout. These don’t accept European two prong plugs and you’ll need adapters (available in large supermarkets). If you’re travelling from further afield, such as Japan, you may need a power converter.
  10. Tipping. Income inequalities are huge in the country, with many just about surviving on the base line. My relocation agent recommended tipping 500 pesos to grocery packers in the supermarket and at least 300 to attendants watching your car while it’s parked. Service is generally included on restaurant bills and clearly marked (10%).
  11. Driving. Word on the block is that a UK driving license will be eligible for up to a year in Chile, however to avoid complications it’s best to get an international one sorted. The traffic system takes some getting used to, with the direction of traffic switching according to the time of day, in order to ease congestion. It can take a while to navigate the city’s roads, with one false turn taking you straight onto a multi lane highway. I’m still plucking up the courage to give it a go…
  12. Mosquitoes. Insect bites are not such an issue in the more central parts of Santiago. If you’re hanging out in more rural, suburban areas like Lo Barnechea or La Dehesa I reckon you might get a couple of bites if you’re unlucky, but so far our repellent spray which I brought over from the UK remains intact. Most reports of bites I’ve heard of here in Santiago have been from (eek) spiders or other creepy crawlies.

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