15 Lessons Learned by an American in Chile

After a recent vacation to central Chile, I can honestly say this place was more of a challenge to me than anywhere else I’ve been. I think the biggest surprise was how few people in Chile speak any English. I’ve been to many places where the people speak a little English (i.e.. Costa Rica, Germany, Greece, Italy, etc.), and with that particular language I had attempted to learn before going to those places, it has not been a problem communicating.

Chile was the first time I’ve been to entire towns where no one (at least that I encountered) spoke English, not even at places advertised as tourist information places. While I don’t claim to be an expert on Chile, I learned many things during my two week vacation there and I’d like to share a few with you so that you can hopefully learn from my mistakes.

1. Learn as much Spanish as you possibly can beforehand. Use Duolingo. Use other apps. Listen to Spanish audio books. Do whatever you can to learn all you can before going to Chile. You will need all the help you can get.

2. When speaking Spanish with Chileans, keep it as simple as possible. The less words you have to use, the better. Also, ask the person you’re speaking with to use fewer words if possible.

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We encountered this little beauty at a national park.

3. Buy a hotspot for internet (also called MiFi). Wi-Fi is spotty at best even in some of the bigger cities. We did not buy a hotspot before we went to Chile and had to go a week with basically no internet. I’m considering renting one from xcomglobal for our next international vacation. If you have experience with them, or with another international mobile hotspot company, I’d love to hear about it.

4. There are no guarantees when it comes to public Wi-Fi. One place where we were staying was supposed to have Wi-Fi but it was down the week we were there. We went to a few restaurants and cafes that claimed to have Wi-Fi for customers only to find out the internet was down and would be down for several days at least.

5. Download Google maps of areas where you will be spending time onto your phone before even leaving for Chile so you will have offline access even with no internet.

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6. Find places to visit and things to do before leaving for Chile and print them out. Don’t wait until you get there thinking you’ll figure it out once you get there.

7. Don’t assume your credit card will always work. We tried to pay for lunch once with a credit card we had been using for well over a week with no problems only to be told the transaction couldn’t go through because of problems with the internet.

8. Make sure your credit card is chip-embedded or it won’t work well in Chile. Our debit card did not have a chip and didn’t work anywhere except banks.

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9. Make sure you always have cash on you. There are many toll roads in Chile that only take cash. You also need to be prepared to pay with cash in case your credit card doesn’t work (see number 7).

10. Most roads are in good condition and are paved but there are of course exceptions.

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Horse-drawn carts are still commonly used in small towns in Chile

11. Driving a rental car is your best option when venturing outside heavily populated areas but in Santiago taking the metro is your best option; in fact, driving in Santiago is not recommended.

12. Drivers in Chile are aggressive. Be prepared to drive above the posted speed limit to keep with the flow of traffic on highways, and don’t drive in the left lane unless you are passing. In small towns, however, stay within the speed limit as it is sometimes checked by policemen with radar (we saw this a few times in various cities).

13. Make sure you have plenty of gas when traveling to a new area. You may drive for hours with no gas station in sight (as we did going from Santiago to Vina del Mar).

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Lunch with a view over Valparaiso

14. Bring a converter and transformer (both) to safely plug in electronics.

15. The people in Chile are some of the most patient and kind people I’ve met. If you are trying to speak Spanish and follow their rules they will appreciate it more.

I hope you have been following along with me for some or all of my posts about Chile. This vacation was certainly an adventure but one I very much enjoyed. I would love to hear any and all comments!

An American in Chile- Getting Outside My Comfort Zone

After spending time in Santiago, Vina del Mar and Valparaiso, we drove to Las Cabras in the O’Higgins Region of Chile. We quickly realized how spoiled we were in the first three regions in comparison to the O’Higgins region. Using our limited knowledge of Spanish, we could easily get by communicating with others in all areas except the last one. Here, even less people spoke English than before. We were pretty much on our own. This is a difficult and isolating feeling. Now I understand how other people that come to the United States from other countries with limited knowledge of English must feel.

I can read Spanish much better than I can speak it and can understand the spoken word even less. However, between my husband, daughter, and myself we can usually figure out enough to get by. If I was a solo traveler, I would have had much more difficulty getting around Chile. Now I see why total immersion works when learning a foreign language. It’s a whole different thing when you’re forced to speak and understand another language.

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Americans are catered to in so many other countries, especially European countries. For example, when we were in Greece, the highway signs and many business signs were in English as well as Greek. Many people spoke English as well as Greek so we really had no problems communicating. The same was true in Austria and Germany. We had no problems finding someone whose English was better than our broken German. However, in Chile, we found entire towns where no one spoke English, or at least that’s what we encountered. We were told by Claudia, a woman working at the resort area where we rented a condo for a week that no one else in the region spoke fluent English other than her. I have no idea if that’s absolutely true, but of all of the people we encountered, no one else spoke more than a word or two of English.

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One thing I learned from my vacation in Chile is this:  if your Spanish is extremely limited you should be OK if you stick to more populated areas like Santiago. If you want to venture out to less touristy, less populated areas, you had better make sure your Spanish is pretty good or you will be completely lost. You also have to have a sense of humor, sense of adventure, and be willing to go without some of the things you have in the United States. For example, when shopping in a market in the small town where we were staying, our options for foods to take back to the apartment and cook for dinner were not things we would have ordinarily bought back home, but here we knew we had to just go with the flow.

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Another thing I learned is that many Chileans are not used to seeing and interacting with Americans. It was obvious to other people, especially in the small towns, that my family and I were outsiders. They would give us curious looks when they saw us. When we spoke English to each other, people would turn around and look at us, even in Santiago and Viña del Mar. We found most people to be extremely patient and kind when we tried to speak Spanish. We were snapped at (in Spanish) only at the metro station in Santiago when we asked if the person at the ticket booth spoke English after we had trouble understanding her very fast Spanish. I understand why she was like that, because she’s got a fast-paced job to do, so I don’t fault her.

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After visiting Chile I now personally understand the term culture shock. I hadn’t fully experienced it before so I didn’t truly appreciate it. Previously when I traveled to foreign countries, I had been sheltered in resorts full of English-speaking workers, or I had been to areas of that world that basically cater to Americans.

I also completely understand why so many Americans travel to South America with a group led by a tour guide. It’s difficult to be in a foreign country with limited knowledge of the language. It puts you outside of your comfort zone, which many people don’t like. I think it’s good every now and then to go outside your comfort zone, though. It helps you grow as a person and shows you that you are stronger than you thought you were.

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