First Impressions of Chile

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

“A long journey to a tall, crowded city.
Trying to find hidden gems within
Hiding my valuables and contemplating value
walking along streets and parks and people
looking for peace.”

Heather Markel, May 2019.


Though I was in Torres del Paine in February, I haven’t explored Chile any further until now. My entry this time is Santiago. Coming from Mendoza I feel disappointed. I journeyed through beautiful mountains to find myself in, well, a big city. The first shock is feeling almost like I could be in New York – there are tons of people at the crowded bus station, I can’t figure out where to get an Uber, it’s overwhelming. I arrive at my hotel and feel like I’ve landed on the bad side of town. Then I learned that all of Santiago feels kind of like the bad side of town – much of it (not all) is run down and dirty. My hostel owners are lovely but they warn me right away to carry my backpack in front of me. Then they ask if I really need everything in my bag. When I pare down, they end up giving me a bag to borrow – smaller with a zipper. It’s the first time since coming to South America that anyone has told me to watch my valuables when out on the street. I am also told it’s not a good idea for me to be walking around alone too late at night.

Fish market in Santiago.

Photograph by Heather Markel. Copyright 2019

I don’t love Santiago, but I did find some areas that are interesting. I did a tour (check out www.tours4tips.com) which brought us to the local markets, and the cemetery which proved to be fascinating. Apparently wealthy people build virtual homes to be buried in. Their theory is that one day they will be forgotten because their ancestors won’t have the close experience with them. Therefore, the home they are buried in will be memorable enough that passerby will remember them. Poorer families rent a sort of cubby for their family member. If very poor they rent for about 5 years, and then “forget” to renew the lease. That cubby is then shared with several other people. Other families can pay for the entire cubby and then only one person is buried in it. An interesting way to learn about any culture is in how they view death and the afterlife. Chile is no exception.

“Extremes from north to South in land, people and culture.”

Chile is much more expensive than Argentina or Colombia. You can still manage to save money on food by cooking or eating an empanada (roughly $2 depending where you buy it.) Bus travel is interesting. In Argentina buses are more comfortable, and for long journeys you get actual food, such as a sandwich. For my 16 hour ride from La Serena to San Pedro de Atacama (which ended up being 20 hours due to a flat tire) we got a small, sweet muffin. Though tipping is optional, it feels like it’s an obligation since every merchant will ask you for their tip. This habit is worse in the South than in the North.

Valparaiso – worth a visit.

Photograph by Heather Markel. Copyright 2019

Traveling in Argentina, it’s hard to find anyone that takes American Express, and they prefer cash to credit cards. In Chile, American Express is widely accepted, even for small purchases. I find it interesting that a country that’s one of the most expensive in South America and seems to have a lot of business, also has more danger associated with it. Pick-pocketing is common. I also met a couple in Santiago that fell prey to a fake baggage handler who convinced them to put their bags on top of their bus. (Luggage always goes into a luggage hold at the back of the bus and you get a ticket for each bag). When they arrived in Santiago, their bags were gone. My hostel owner dropped me off at the bus station the morning I left and warned me not to accept any help with my bags as people impersonate baggage handlers.
(The photo above is a mausoleum at the cemetery!) An interesting fact about Chile – it’s the only country in the world that owns land in three continents; Chile (South America), Easter Island (Oceania) and Antarctica. It’s also very close to the ocean so seafood is marvelous. YES I ate Chilean seabass, obviously! Ceviche is pretty excellent, too, though I must say, Colombia is an excellent rival for this delicacy.  I should mention that portion sizes in Chile are enormous – enough for at least two people. You aren’t going to lose weight here! Avocado and cheese are in almost everything.

Chile is known for the mining of copper. (Remember those miners trapped underground and rescued?) Copper is inexpensive and there is an abundance of beautiful copper jewelry throughout the country. The people are lovely – hostel owners have gone really out of their way for me, and shown immense kindness. Chile isn’t just chilly, it’s COLD. At night in the fall it’s just freezing. I keep needing more layers and being amazed that I’m still cold! Chile also has some amazing night skies – this photo of the moon is seen from an observatory in La Serena – pretty impressive! Finally, on a comfort level, Chileans are around my height. This means that I can see over their heads, and finally reach the hanging straps in the subway and bus!!!!

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