“I collect friends and experiences.”
– Amanda Hilligas
As you may know, I am a huge fan of traveling. It is one of my priorities in life, so I make sure that I set aside time and budget for travel.
I’m also fortunate to have friends who are located in some pretty cool places in the world, and we were lucky enough to be invited to come down to Santiago, Chile and stay with her for nine days.
I also harbor visions of being able to become what I call a semi-expat, spending some time overseas taking advantage of geographical arbitrage to have a similar or better standard of living than we have in the United States. So, I was intrigued by the possibility of exploring Santiago as one of those places.
Rather than give a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of the trip, I’ll give you a brief overview of our itinerary and then share my overall impressions of the trip.
Day 1: Arrive, recover
Days 2 – 3: Valparaiso
Day 4: Casablanca Valley wine tastings
Day 5: Independence Day in Chile
Days 6-7: Colchagua Valley wine tastings
Day 8: Fútbol, Barrio Brazil in Santiago
Day 9: Los Dominicos market, depart
You don’t come to Chile for either the food or the coffee. The street foods are nothing special. The most common street food is called a completo – it’s a hot dog with avocado and enough mayonnaise to spackle your entire house. We were left wondering how Chileans made it to a ripe old age with their diets and with the smog in Santiago. Coffee there is instant. If you have a craving for brewed coffee, then you’ll have to hit up a Starbucks or one of the higher end coffeehouses. Otherwise, it’s brown water with caffeine.
The best meals that we had were in one of three categories.
- High end Chilean food. The best meal that I think I had in all of Chile was at a restaurant in Valparaiso called Caffe Turri, and it was incredibly well-made Chilean food.
- Peruvian food. The second and third best meals were at Peruvian restaurants. I don’t know if it was the sauce they used or not, but both dishes I had were some mix of chicken, rice, and miracle sauce. They were delicious. The quality of the food that we had in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant outside of Santa Cruz made up for the hour long wait for it.
- Italian food. Possibly the best pizza I have ever had was at Da Dino in Las Condes, a Santiago suburb. The slices were $9 per slice, and I thought it was $9 well spent. We also had two amazing dinners at Cafe Bella, the self-styled “only best Italian restaurant” in Santa Cruz.
It may have been because we were in Chile during Independence Day, but there were Chilean flags everywhere. You couldn’t turn around without seeing another Chilean flag. In a sense, Chile, even though it is a very long country, was historically isolated. The Atacama desert borders it on the north. The Andes border it on the east. Oceans border it on the south and west. Resultantly, Chilean people seem pretty homogeneous.
They also celebrate Independence Day with gusto. People put flags on their cars, in their houses, and on poles. The flags on the cars reminded me of a similar scene in South Africa during the World Cup, but instead of dozens of different types of flags, people would put two or three Chilean flags on their cars. If you’ve ever seen people deck out their cars for a college football tailgate, you have a good idea of the decorations used.
Our hostess took us to celebrate in what is supposed to be a Chilean tradition. The usual tradition is to go to a big park, take part in a carnival, and fly kites. However, we did a slightly different celebration. Our hostess took us to a blue collar dive bar in downtown Santiago. At three in the afternoon, the place was packed. There were people with guitars singing, people dancing, and everyone was drinking a horrible, horrible concoction called a terremoto. Terremoto is the Spanish word for earthquake. My words cannot do the drink or the experience justice, so I’ll refer you to our friend Carla’s excellent writeup, since she was there with us. No mas terremotos!
In most places in the world, the people you meet are friendly. It seems that in every episode of my favorite travel podcast, The Amateur Traveler, including the four that I’ve done, the guest talks about how friendly the people are. Chile was no exception. People went out of their way to help us, and they were exceptionally patient with us. I know very, very little Spanish, and my wife took Spanish in middle school, so when our hostess wasn’t with us, we were limited to our Spanish phrasebook, a phone app, and pointing. Even though most Chileans that we met didn’t speak English, they worked with us to communicate. They were proud of Chile and wanted us to have the best experience that we could possibly have.
Even though they’re in a hospitality industry, the ones I remember the most were the winery tour guides from the Colchagua valley. Perhaps it’s because they all spoke English, but they seemed to go out of the way to ensure that we had great experiences at their wineries. We used to live in Virginia, and lived within a thirty minute drive to some wonderful wineries. However, we’ve never been moved to hug the person responsible for our tastings. We did it three times in three wineries in the Colchagua Valley.
I’d certainly be remiss if I didn’t mention Chilean wines. There are over 200 wineries in Chile, and with a population of 16 million, there’s not a market to support domestic consumption of that much wine. As a result, Chilean wines are, for the most part, exported elsewhere in the world. In most of the wineries we visited, between 80% and 90% of the wines were exported. We found that we liked the reds better than the whites, but the regions that we visited had the terroir for reds – warm days, cool nights, and good soil. Even though cabernet sauvignon is the wine that the regions we visited are most known for, we enjoyed tasting a wine that we’d never experienced before: carmenere wine. Carmenere was thought to have been wiped out by a pest back in the 19th century, but it was rediscovered in Chile in 1994. For some reason phylloxera doesn’t live in Chile, and apparently, the grape had been exported to and grown in Chile for a long time. Everyone in Chile thought it was merlot, but some French tourists swore that they were not drinking merlot during a tasting, and a few DNA tests later, carmenere was rediscovered.
Wine is also cheap in Chile. We had bottles of wine at meals for $15-20 at restaurants – something almost unimaginable in the United States. Bottles at wineries can often run under $10 but won’t make you think of the quality of a Two Buck Chuck wine. I’m not a wine expert – I can’t describe the nose or conjure up tastes that occur in the back of my mouth, but I do know binary descriptions: good and not good. Chilean wine falls squarely into the good camp.
Since I’m a fútbol junkie, I thought I would be remiss to be in South America and not take in a game. We went to see the Palestinos vs. Universidad de Concepcion game in Santiago. If you’ve ever been to a game in the U.S. or in Europe, you expect to see nice stadia. Don’t have the same expectation when seeing a match involving smaller clubs in Chile. While both teams are in the Chilean premier league, the stadium was very basic. It reminded me of a cricket match that my wife and I saw in the Bahamas, with simple concrete seats, a gravel track, and a pitch which was mostly grassy.
The football itself was, to me, on par with the United States USL – the second division of American soccer. While they, for the most part, tried to keep the game on the floor, there was quite a bit of Route 1 being used – boot it up to the strikers and see what happened. What did surprise me was the general lack of use of the wings. I’m used to seeing wing fullbacks bombing forward, a la Maicon or Rafael, but in this case, they weren’t really used except as backwards outlets. Most of the play was through the middle, and was predominantly a game of central midfielders trying to break through defenses. At one point, I told my wife that if I was the Concepcion coach (since Concepcion was the away team), I’d jam the middle and dare Palestinos to try to beat me on the wings. Apparently their manager was listening to me, since that’s what he did. It also proved why I’m not a manager. Finally, Palestinos started using the wings, and it was on a well built up attack down the right flank and a cross which pinballed through the penalty box until it found a thankful Palestinos striker to slot home that the home team score the only goal of the game. And the crowd went wild…
In the U.S., a stray dog is a rarity. Animal control or the shelters take care of the dogs and ensure that there are very few roaming around. Such is not the case in Chile. Strays are very, very common. As a dog lover, it was hard not to both be touched and want to pet/help the dogs. However, they seem pretty well-adjusted, and apparently, neighborhoods “adopt” certain dogs and take care of them, even taking them to the vet when they get sick or injured. Because of the number of strays, I would have expected to see a lot of mutts, but many of them were purebred. The most surprising to see was a pair of Yorkies in the Barrio Brasil section – a very well-to-do enclave in Santiago. Our theory was that the owner must have been elderly and passed away, and the kids didn’t want to take on the dogs, so out into the street they went. It must have been pretty recently that this event happened. Most of the street dogs we met seemed to have a street savvy to them – they were used to life on the streets. These Yorkies were clueless and terrified. It was sad.
The other downside was having to watch where you stepped. Dog poo wasn’t a big problem in the nicer neighborhoods in Santiago, but walking in Valparaiso was akin to stepping through a minefield, albeit with much less impactful results of not watching where you stepped. Carla has a picture of my wife having to do the twist in a park because she managed not to avoid the doggie traps.
Costs and Budgeting
I can’t do a writeup without talking about budgeting, can I? It’s my job!
Santiago for tourists is not cheap. I had an image in my mind of a place which would be significantly cheaper than the United States. Because of the weakness in the U.S. dollar and the strength of the Chilean economy, this was not the case. We were fortunate that we had a free place to stay for half of the trip, and while we stayed in nice but budget hostals (lower end hotels) when we traveled outside of Santiago, there’s no getting away from how expensive the Santiago region was. Most of our meals were between $20-30 per person, except when we choked down completos one day. To me, the costs were comparable to what costs were when we lived in Charlottesville, Virginia. A reasonable budget would be $100/day for lodging and about $75/day for food and travel. If you don’t mind public transportation, the subways and buses are clean, cheap, and efficient. However, gas is expensive. It was about $6 a gallon, and having a car was a necessity to get to many of the wineries we visited. There is also a $160/person visa fee which U.S. citizens must pay upon arrival into Chile, so don’t forget to account for that cost.
Since we like travel so much, we set aside a portion of our budget every month to a travel slush fund so that we can pay cash for our trips. It is one of our subaccounts, along with Christmas, insurance, car repairs, and other non-recurring expenses.
One tip for budgeting for trips: if you have a pet, don’t forget to account for the cost of boarding your pet when you leave. Many people account for the plane fare, lodging, food, museums, etc., but forget to account for Fido’s lodging as well. Don’t forget boarding costs if you’re not bringing your pet with you.
I’m really glad that we went to Chile. We’d never been to South America, and we had a great hostess who was extremely gracious in letting us crash at her place as well as taking us around for most of our time there. It was the first time I’d been to a country where English was not commonly spoken and I couldn’t get by on one of the languages I knew. We had a good time and really enjoyed the people of Chile.
However, Chile never really clicked with me. At least, the Santiago region never did. Carla continued on to the lake district further south, so I’m interested to hear about her experiences down there and to see how they differ from Santiago. Still, because of the cost, I think we can rule out Santiago as a “semi-expat” destination.
Go for the wine. Stay for the locals.