What is Chile like? Well… Chile is Chile. There’s no place like it.
It’s not a developing country – the roads are smooth, the police aren’t corrupt, online banking works. Yet the choice in supermarkets isn’t great, few people speak English (this isn’t a bad thing… just saying…) and I hear some industries really struggle to find skilled workers.
I love Chile. I love the lifestyle, the culture, the people. But there is a lot I don’t like.
Having lived here just over a year, here are my very honest impressions of this beautiful country. I live in Santiago so most of my thoughts are related to the capital, but hopefully my comments give you an idea.
Some foreigners here tell me that they find Chileans rather cold and reserved, but I don’t think that’s fair. Sure if you’re from a sunny country like Mexico then you may find the locals more reserved than back home. However as a Brit I count many Chileans among my friendship circle. My Chilean friends have a good laugh about themselves, about Chile and life in general.
In fact the people whom I hear complaining most about Chileans are Chileans! My Chilean friends are mostly married to foreigners or have lived in other countries previously. Perhaps because of this they have a very global outlook and lament Chile’s classist structure.
It’s also a rather conservative country. Or at least a very traditional country. Most Chileans I know are Catholic, and while they’re not all practicing Catholics, religion does play some part in their lives. This is neither good or bad… again, just saying.
In terms of views of homosexuality, I feel Chile has a long, long way to go still. Sure, it’s not like parts of the Middle East. Homosexuality is legal, but I still feel it’s all rather hush hush. In some parts it’s reportedly dangerous to be openly gay (read this BBC report for starters).
A maid we once employed explained a Chilean slang word for ‘vulgar’ to me. ‘You know murderers, psychopaths, pedophiles and homosexuals… all that sort of stuff…’ Of course I challenged her, but she didn’t get why I got so worked up about her comment. It’s 2019, but sometimes it feels like living in the dark ages here.
But it’s not all bad. As I say, my Chilean friends really go out of their way to help me. They’re kind, open, funny and smart.
As mentioned, class is a big thing here in Chile. Or at least in Santiago. What school did you go to? What school does your kid go to? These are big worries here it seems. I helped out a friend at a HR firm and I found it weird to see 40 year old managers listing their primary school on their CV resumes. But apparently the school you went to is a big, big thing here.
But there’s more to the culture than class paranoia. It’s also a country which has done incredibly well following a bloody coup and severe political unrest. Nowadays I find people don’t want to talk about the past. Of course there are museums and galleries dedicated to Chilean history, but most people seem very focused on the future.
For the fiestas patrias national public holiday it’s mandatory for all buildings of a certain size to display a Chilean country flag. At first this felt like some horrid jingoistic propaganda, but as friends pointed out, after a country was torn apart by politics, it’s really important to come together. Fiestas patrias, and so much of Chilean culture, is about celebrating together as one nation.
Local media isn’t always great, but press is free and fair. I don’t feel under any pressure typing this honest review of Chile. In other countries, I’m not so sure.
There’s also a thriving arts scene, with lots of big and small theatres, as well as shows and festivals. Chilean horse shows shows, beautiful vineyards, stunning nature reserves, craft markets, fun neighbourhoods … it’s a lovely place to live.
I come from the UK and in comparison Chile is slow! Even the pace of life in the capital is very, very slow. People stand still on escalators (I can’t help but rush everywhere and I huff and puff when people refuse to keep left). Locals block the pavements, idly chatting away for ages as I struggle to get past. It’s not uncommon to show up for work 15 minutes late and then claim you’re on time. Or maybe it’s me…? OK, maybe we Brits are just in too much of a rush?!
There’s a strong emphasis on family life. Weekends are for visiting family. Free time is for coming together with friends and family for a barbecue or a restaurant meal. Long leisurely lunches are very long and leisurely here!
The Chile lifestyle is pretty relaxed. Yes, Hermes and Louis Vuitton have stores here, but the fashion is not flashy. Crime probably has something to do with this too – wear a designer bag and get it snatched.
Having said this, while crime is an issue, Chile feels much safer than most other south american countries.
Perhaps the thing I like most about Chile is that people are very friendly and welcoming of children. Even businessmen on rushed lunch breaks have helped me with my stroller and unruly kids. It’s a great place for raising small kids.
All in all the lifestyle is sunny and relaxed.
Work and professional life
Chileans work late. In fact one thing that does annoy me about life here is the lack of productivity. A hierarchy in the office dictates that in some industries juniors might find themselves staying late in the office just to show face until the big boss leaves. It’s not uncommon to be working until well past 9pm. Embassy workers seem to fare much, much better however.
I’ve also heard of companies extolling their many company benefits, but in fact their not benefits, they’re the law. Fathers are entitled to five days paternity pay by law, but in reality many feel unable to take this.
Office politics is a big thing in many companies, with a lot of employees complaining that they can’t get ahead because of politics. So and so is friends with the big boss so he got a promotion, so and so went to school with the director so he can’t be fired… urgh.
I also hear a lot of complaints of a lack of professionalism, a lack of official pay bands and structure. Even the big companies seem to be winging it in terms of promotions and pay structure. Sadly your performance might not be as important as your postcode.
On another more positive note, there are a LOT of public holidays here.
In terms of work as a women, I’d say 70% of my friends here work. It can be tough as a parent to find a flexible position, but with the help of a maid, school buses, as well as friends and family, my friends make it work. Like any country, life as a working parent is a real juggle though.
Working here as a foreigner is possible. Getting a work visa is a lengthy process, but it’s relatively easy. Most of my working foreign friends do speak fluent Spanish. Those that don’t speak Spanish are working solely with foreigners, remotely for a foreign company or for a diplomatic mission.
Chile isn’t well known for its food worldwide. I’ll be honest, I was really disappointed with the food when we first arrived.
There are some fabulous restaurants, but it’s a treasure hunt to find the good ones (click here for my fave grocery stores). There’s a lot of rubbish fast food and junk in the way too.
There are some great raw ingredients on offer, but the quality of food at many restaurants isn’t always up to the same level. The local fruit and vegetables are really, really good (apart from those in the supermarkets).
As for local Chilean food, some of my favourites include sopaipillas (a light, corn based fried pastry typically served with a tomato salad salsa), empanadas (a pastry envelope typically filled with minced meat, but now all sorts of flavours are available) and chanco en piedra (a super refreshing and zingy tomato salad). My meat eating friends also enjoy a good barbecue (‘asado’).
As for fancy restaurants – Borago, 99, 040, El Patio, Europeo and Bocanariz always great reviews from locals and expats alike. Otherwise head downtown to Barrio Lastarria or Bellavista and you’ll find some great little bistros and local food spots.
And let’s not forget the wine. The best in the world? I’m perhaps a little biased but I reckon so. Certainly in terms of cost vs. quality, Chilean wine is hard to beat.
Cost of living in Chile
The cost of living sucks. All in all the lifestyle here is great, but Chile is expensive. And Santiago is really expensive, in comparison to local salaries, at least.
If you’re coming on a good expat package with your medical insurance, schooling and housing covered you’ll do OK. You’ll still need to reckon with horrendous grocery bills, but chances are you’ll enjoy a great life. If you’re surviving on minimum wage without added benefits, you might find other countries easier to live in, at least in terms of costs.
Of course other countries and cities are more expensive. London accommodation is much higher than in Santiago. Groceries are marginally more expensive in Switzerland (unless you know how to shop… then Swiss goods work out cheaper). It’s a wonderful country, but I feel it’s overpriced.
We were originally looking to buy a house in Santiago, but compared to Barcelona and London (where I have family) it makes no sense. Maybe I’m pessimistic but I really feel housing costs are inflated here in Santiago. I do wonder if the housing bubble will burst. In any case I don’t trust the Santiago economy enough to invest in a home here. Sorry, told you I’d be honest!
Of course the rural parts of Chile bear no comparison to costs in the capital, but Chile life still does not come cheap.
Where to live
Most expats in Santiago tend to hover around these main communes:
Las Condes – a big neighbourhood, stretching from the busier, but still quite residential parts of town, to much more suburban type areas.
Vitacura – a central, residential zone with a lot of boutique stores and restaurants.
El Golf – a more central, business, built up neighbourhood.
Lo Barnechea – a much quieter, more rural part of town where a lot of schools are based. A little outside of the city, air quality tends to be better here. The commute to the city can be really rough in terms of traffic.
La Dehesa – the sister to Lo Barnechea. Here there are lots of mid to higher end housing developments and mall complexes. Again it’s tough getting to and from the city centre, so you’ll have to work hard to dodge rush hour traffic.
Of course there are many, many other places to live. I also have friends living in San Apoquindo, downtown and in Nunoa, but 90% of my expat friends live in the above places.
As for other areas of Chile, well it’s true that 99% of expats are living in Santiago. Of course I know migrants who love Vina del Mar, Valapaiso and the southern regions of Chile, but most foreigners I know are all in Santiago.
There is so much to Chile. It’s a complex, wonderful country and I’m learning more every day. I’m sure my post will need updating in a few years time as the country is changing so quickly. Roads are being built, there are a steady stream of startups and the pace of life is changing.
Of course I have my ups and downs, but on the whole I really enjoy life in Chile. My expat buddies do too.
Do you live here or are you moving here? Leave me a comment below! If you’re moving to Santiago, you might like to download my directory of all the places I love in town, too.