Santiago, Chile – weighing up a potential expat move

I recently got a lovely email from a lady contemplating a move from London to Santiago.

I started replying to her in person, but then I figured the advice would be very useful to many others, so here goes…

  1. Healthcare. If you’re debating a move to Chile, I’d check your employer offers a good healthcare plan for you and all members of your family. The insurance system can be rather confusing, with providers offering partnerships with specific clinics or doctors, and you have to choose according to the list. You may also have to pay a top up fee, depending on the treatment or consultation and your plan. Before moving I was adamant I wanted fully comprehensive cover, which allows a lot more flexibility. We can see any doctor or professional at the Clinica Alemena, a hospital which is light years ahead many others I’ve seen in other parts of the world. There is a dedicated, English speaking reception for expats, and clients are allocated a nurse who can be emailed directly in order to make an appointment. There are also dedicated emergency units for adults, children and pregnant women.
  2. Schooling. Like healthcare, most schools are private, so be sure this is accounted for in your financial planning. All international schools are private and more expensive than many other countries I’ve visited. Most schools also charge a one off initiation fee, which can be as much as (*gulp*) $11,500 USD per child. The complications don’t end there. Schools are notoriously over subscribed, with places going first to former alumni’s children, to brothers and sisters of current pupils and people with very, very good connections. With the exception of a couple of schools, admissions start in March and it can be even harder to secure a place later in the year. All children applying are generally interviewed, some over a three day period and for some schools, parents should be prepared to answer some rather personal questions. Most want to see active, participatory parents who will really get involved. A lot of the schools are Catholic, or at least follow Catholic values and guidelines, so if this is something you are uncomfortable with, you will have to hunt around for a fully secular school. Personally, I’ve visited a few international schools and I have to say I’ve been rather disappointed. Many of the teachers at the schools were not native speakers. Now, I appreciate this may seem harsh and I know a lot of people from outside the Anglophone world who make fantastic teachers, but I want my kids to learn languages from native speakers wherever possible. Finally, bear in mind that many schools start very early, around 7.30am and finish around midday or the early afternoon.
  3. Childcare. We have yet to immerse ourselves fully in the nursery hunt, but from what we have heard, finding a good nursery is nowhere near as complicated as finding a school. Watch this space…. As for nannies, we were originally looking for a live in nanny, but we have dropped lucky with a wonderful live out nanny with whom we are extremely happy with. Nannies are called nanas in Chile, and get it right and you’ll be devoted to your nana for as long as you stay in Chile. Our nana works Monday to Friday, but others are employed just once a week or according to the home owner’s needs. Our lovely nana cleans, cooks, tidies and above all else, our children love her. But she is not like all nanas. I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories and many homes install cameras throughout to check up on dubious staff. I would recommend looking for someone through a personal recommendation, and interviewing in depth with a Chilean local present, if possible.
  4. Safety. As I’ve said before, Chile is like lots of Latin America, still a place to be cautious. Walking in the affluent expat areas of Las Condes, El Golf, Vitacura has never been a problem for me in the daytime and I feel safe walking most places. At night, it’s different and you’d be foolish to walk almost anywhere. I pushed to lived in an apartment as I felt safer on an upper floor, with a dedicated security and concierge. Others prefer roomier houses outside of the city. A good home will generally include some form of gated security, electronic fences, and / or cameras. Don’t be paranoid though, I personally feel happy living here with my two preschool age children.
  5. Transport. Is a company car allocated in your expat deal? I’m still getting used to the traffic system here, and while I’ve heard that the metro is good, I prefer to walk wherever possible, or else take a taxi (which are cheap). Nevertheless, even if you’re living centrally, a car is really essential for grocery shopping, weekend trips and generally getting out and about. Also, does your plan allow for international flights to return to family once or twice per year? Chile is fabulous and I’m looking forward to discovering the rest of the country, but I do want to keep in touch with friends and family back home and I will need to return at some stage to sort out admin issues.
  6. Removals. We have just experienced a move from hell. The company outsourced for the work were initially great, but it turns out that someone tried to cut corners. Whosever’s fault it was, it meant my husband and I were left to unpack approximately 100 boxes and shift heavy furniture, all with two tired, hungry children in tow. Next time, if we do move again, I’ll be doing more thorough background checks on both the removal company and the contract.
  7. House hunting. We moved into our apartment having been assured all issues would be fixed before we moved in. Sure. When we did, nothing had been done. The catalogue of problems included a leaking tap connection which was spurting out close to electrics and could have resulted in a very sinister accident. Be cautious of realtors giving you their word that things will be done. Check, check and double check. For more tips on house hunting, see my post here.
  8. Relocation. A good, well connected relocation agency is a must. We’ve used a variety of different firms in all the places we’ve lived and we’ve never been so happy as we have with our current help. We have been assisted by a lady called Perla at Premium Relocation Services. (Don’t judge by the website…) She has gone out of her way to help us, right from day one, even on weekends and in emergencies. She understands the local culture like no other, she seems to know everyone in Santaigo and I would highly recommend her services (and I am not being sponsored to say this). As her service is so personalised, there may well be a waiting list, but it’s worth the wait. In any case it pays to contract a good relocation company who really understands the way of life in Chile, the language, the little tricks that set the country apart from others.
  9. Shopping. Chile is slightly more expensive than many countries for most goods, but not horrendously so. Depending where you’re coming from, supermarket shopping can be rather depressing at first, with many items unavailable, out of stock, poor quality or overpriced. But all in all, it’s not so bad. If you have the time and the energy to go on a scavenger hunt of the city, most things can be found. In fact, the upper end malls such as Parque Arauco and shops around Vitacura offer most luxury brands, including clothing and cosmetics. Amazon hasn’t hit Chile yet (although it is rumoured to be soon…) and some goods are a little tricky to come by. 
  10. Lifestyle. For the good and the bad, the pace of life is much, much slower in Santiago than other cities in which I’ve lived. While it is generalising, Chileans love children and are really accommodating, both on a practical and emotional level. People whom you might not expect offering help with my kids as they run out into busy streets (business men, repair workers, city bankers…), there are pushchairs for use in malls, breastfeeding rooms run abundant… I really appreciate the way people go out of their way to help with children here. In terms of your personal lifestyle, it will very much depend on your employer, or your spouse’s employer. As wonderful as Chile is, if you’re home alone looking after kids while your partner is glued to their laptop, then you can kiss goodbye to a good quality of life. Equally, a company that doesn’t respect its employees and their families cannot be trusted.

All in all I love Chile. I love Santiago. I love the Chilean people. There are however, several issues regarding our personal expat lifestyle that need to be ironed out if we are to settle here for any length of time. Not all the above is working for us right now, and if things stay this way, I may be wishing my beloved latino home adios earlier than expected.

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