Pretending I’m a local in Santiago de Chile

Upon my arrival in Chile, Tom asked me to tell him tales of South America and since I learnt a thing or two from my time with the Germans, plus I’m lazy as Hell, I’ve decided to kill two birds with one stone by updating everyone with one post as to my three-day adventure so far in Chile, or rather Santiago as I haven’t had time to visit anywhere yet – I mean, come on, I’ve only been here three days. So far, I’ve been trying to blend in as my my mum and my sisters have taken me around the city.

While most backpackers think they need to learn Spanish to be able to explore Chile, the truth of the matter is that you don’t need to speak that language to get around Santiago… what you need to learn is Portuguese. No, seriously. I was walking around the city centre with my mother in search of a travel agency when we were stopped by a tour lady. Although we told her that we spoke Spanish, she ignored that and opted to speak to us in Portuguese. I don’t understand Portuguese, damn it! The number of Brazilian tourists is such that all travel agents are from Brazil as well. It’s madness. As we kept walking around the city centre, we were intercepted by other Brazilian travel agents who couldn’t come to terms with the fact that we don’t understand Portuguese. Learn English for a change!

Framed by graceful snowcapped Andean peaks, Santiago’s proximity to both mountains and the Pacific ocean allows visitors to both ski and surf in the same day – yeah, I hate people with that kind of energy too; meanwhile, its historical and cultural heritage has filled the city with museums and buildings that salute prominent figures such as Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda. You won’t miss these activities, they are all listed in travel guides and there are signs all over the place…

Between the hill and the valley, however, the capital of Chile hides a fascinating lifestyle sparkled with a dark sense of humour that only locals can get away with. Buckle up and come on this authentic local ride with my mum, my sisters and me. 

Eat like a local...

Just like Spaniards, social gatherings around food are a ritual amongst Chileans… My mother’s side of the family is from Viña del Mar, I should know. Ever since my infant years, my exiled Chilean family would get together and have lively conversations for hours while eating some exquisite Chilean empanadas, enjoying sweet puff pastries with ‘dulce de leche’ and sipping on black tea… No milk, though. Please don’t be like my mother and order Chilean empanadas in Chile; here they are just “empanadas”.

A sudden flashback washed down by a tidal wave of nostalgia took over me when my baby sister suggested it was time for “la once” (the eleven), a mid-afternoon meal consisting of tea or coffee with either delicious Chilean bread or cake. While this meal is most similar to afternoon tea or high tea, its name supposedly comes from “elevenses” from the XIX century when there was an important British migration to Chile. In fact, this is the South American country with the largest number of British descendants and their culture has influenced Chilean population since 1840.

According to my mum, “la once” comes from an Englishman who wanted to order a liquor called “aguardiente” and he only remembered the word had eleven letters. My sister, however, said that “aguardiente” was codeword for miners. I believe that “la once” comes from an Englishman who had a big night and woke up in the middle of the afternoon thinking it was mid-morning, thus ordered elevenses, but I just made that up.

As we walked down the streets in the heat of early autumn, we stopped to buy a drink made with wheat and peaches from a vendor cart. These refreshments are called ‘mote con huesillo’. Don’t be surprised if you hear: ‘You are more Chilean than a mote con huesillo’. Roughly translated into English, this is a famous expression that remarks how very traditional this drink is. You can ask any local and they will tell you that the best place to buy them from is ‘El Rey del Mote con Huesillo’, established 80 years ago. Not only traditional, this drink is sweet, delicious and refreshing. You can get a good one for 800 pesos (US $1) in the city centre.

If you are looking for quick meals, avoid fast-food American franchises. Going to a McDonald’s in Chile is the equivalent to putting ketchup on your pasta in Italy. Ugly gringos, party of one… When you crave fast food, opt for a barros luco, a mouthwatering baguette with grilled meat and melted cheese. Named after a Chilean president who loved this snack, you can get a decent one from a street stand.

For lunch, Santiago locals go en masse to a wrought-iron fish market called Mercado Central. Baby eels, succulent shrimps, scrumptious fishes, lobster, you name it, they’ve got it. If you had one drink too many the night before, try one of their hangover-curing fish stews like caldillo de congrio – poet Pablo Neruda’s favourite. You should also try a dish of locos – literally, “crazy” – which are among Chile’s favourite shellfish. 

In the evening, you will find most locals dining in a place called Patio Bellavista. This complex gathers many bistros, cafes and restaurants where people can eat and relax while listening to live music.

Exercise like a local…

The sight of snow-capped mountains brings two sports to mind: skiing and snowboarding. 35 miles east of Santiago, you will find one of South America’s most modern ski centres, Valle Nevado, which is known as the city’s ‘local’ mountain.

Every Sunday, a main avenue is closed so locals can give ‘Eye of the Tiger’ a South American touch by running through Santiago, while others cycle through Santiago’s hidden gems and parks every day.

On the picture, you can spot the Costanera, the highest skyscraper in South America.

While visitors walk around the city to see every touristic site, Chileans’ love of nature embark them on more exciting activities such as climbing and hiking on the most treasured hill of the city, Cerro San Cristóbal. A 60-minute hike to the top will reward you with a view of the whole city that you will never forget. We put on our sports clothes and shoes, sunglasses, sunscreen, filled up our water bottles, carried our snacks, stretched out and got ready to make it to the top. When we arrived there, however, we took the cableway to the top instead. But we had the best intentions.

We did climb up Cerro Santa Lucía in the city centre, although it is nowhere near the latter. Our effort was rewarded with glorious views over the city and the acknowledgement that Charles Darwin walked there.

Explore like a local…

Given Santiago’s geographical situation, Chilean weekend getaways would turn anyone neon green with envy. Only an hour and a half away from the capital by car, you will find white sandy beaches in Valparaíso – known as the ‘Jewel of the Pacific’ and also a world heritage site.

If you don’t mind cold waters, join the locals and explore the Pacific seabed. Put on your gear, and scuba dive in Valparaíso surrounded by soft corals, towering sponges, tie-dyer starfish, flower corals and colonies of playful sea-lions.

An hour away by car from Santiago, you can visit Cajón del Maipo, a gorge that is home to El Morado Natural Monument, a mountain reserve with trails to the San Francisco Glacier. By the end of the day, you can relax at thermal springs nearby. We are going there tomorrow, so stay tuned.

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