Covid-Related Travel Update, June 2022: Chile is open to international tourists. Visit the Chile government’s official website for travel-related information and regulations. Don’t forget to read the government’s rules to be followed in public spaces here.
A month before my solo trip to Chile, I ran into Valentina. We were riding the same train from Bangkok to Siem Reap. As we got off the train, Valentina told me she was from Chile.
What a coincidence! I was just heading to Chile. Cozying into the same hostel in Siem Reap, we soon became travel friends. Call me Val, she said.
While strolling together in the magnificent Angkor Wat temple, Val asked me if I knew how Chileans greeted each other. I shook my head. I knew nothing about the Chilean culture. We were in June, and my flight ticket to Santiago was booked for the end of July. The classic me hadn’t yet applied for a Chile visa. But I wasn’t worried. I was going as a volunteer of the English Open Doors program [EODP] to teach English in Chile; I knew the program would help me arrange a visa quickly.
Val took it upon her to educate me about the traditions in Chile (and also gave me a lot of travel tips for Chile). And Val’s guidance made my six-month solo adventure through Chile a little easier. To return the kindness, I am aggregating all the unique things about the culture of Chile travelers should know.
Hope you enjoy the read.
Chilean Culture — Things You Should Know
1. The famous Chilean greeting
Val said we should kiss on both cheeks. Perplexed, I watched her as she came closer. She touched her right cheek to mine, kissed the air, and repeated with the left one.
I was happy. I think of physical intimacy as a crucial way of forming relationships with people. When we hug and pat and hold each other, we share the human experience.
Val said men don’t kiss unless they are close friends. If two men meet for the first time, they shake hands. Business meetings also call for handshaking. But a man and a woman always kiss.
I imagined all the tall, blue-eyed Chilean men I would be able to kiss on the cheek. Come on, the Chilean customs wanted me to.
But remember to not plant a full, wet kiss. Kiss the air, kiss the air, Val shouted.
Later, I taught students from grade seventh to high school. Though my older students kissed the air, the little ones gave me full-blown kisses on the cheeks. Some flirtatious Chilean men also planted big kisses; most of them had met an Indian for the first time, and they were teasing me in good spirits.
You always kiss before leaving the house or while coming in. Kiss to greet each other in the morning. If a Chilean family invites you to their house, walk in and kiss the women. With men, shake hands (depending on the gender you recognize with). But if you move further up to the center of Chile, that is Santiago, Viña del Mar, and Valparaíso, the culture takes a bit of a sophisticated turn. See how formal is the other person, and respond accordingly.
[Of course, I kissed and hugged everyone.]
2. (Most) Chileans don’t have dinner. They have “once.”
The EODP program placed me on a beautiful island in the South of Chile. A blue home in the town of Castro on Chiloe island was to be my abode for at least four months. And like all other volunteers, my bed and breakfast was arranged with a Chilean family. You get board and lodging and a little stipend in exchange for teaching English to Chilean students. That’s the deal.
The host family comprised of my energetic short host mother Cecilia, three other volunteers from England and the US, and other paying guests from Chile.
Every evening, Ceci called us for once. Not once, but pronounce it as “on–say.” She told me most Chilean families prefer to eat once, an early and light supper, instead of dinner. Then she brought out cheese, ham, eggs, margarine, and the leftover algae soup and pasta from lunch. Everything was settled next to the breadbasket on the round dining table in Ceci’s warm cozy kitchen.
We ate all our meals at the dining table. Heated by the customary wood-fired stove, the dining-cum-kitchen was the warmest place in the house. And so it would be in most Chilean homes.
Every evening at about 7, we toasted bread on the stove. All of us ate our toasts with margarine and eggs. Or we made sandwiches with ham and cheese. Sipping tea and Nescafe instant coffee, we chatted about our day. (At that time I ate everything, except cow and blood-soaked sausages, thankfully.)
The British volunteer Al, a Chilean psychologist, and I finished the leftovers from lunch. Al even used to cut some onions and sprinkle them with the red chili powder I had brought from India. Though Ceci wasn’t big on greens, slowly I also started buying lettuce and other greens. Then Al and I would whip up spicy omelets and green salads for our once.
During the five months I stayed with my host family, I only remember having dinner on our birthdays, Christmas, and Chile’s independence day. We also celebrated our welcome and farewell parties.
So if you are invited to an evening meal in Chile, be prepared to have once rather than a full-fancy dinner. Unless someone calls you in for dinner especially.
Since I traveled to South America, I stopped having dinner, too. Now I eat an early meal at about 6 or 7. If I have already eaten something heavy, this meal would be fruits, yogurt, and such. Else, you know the deal. And eating light and keeping 3-4 hours between food and sleep has helped me sleep better and lose the extra weight. (Find more on healthy living in this guide.)
3. The people of Chile love to eat spice-less food. You may even call Chilean food bland.
My Chilean friends will kill me, I know. But I cannot live without sharing my disappointment at the lack of spices in Chilean delicacies.
We were first introduced to the bland Chilean food in the week-long English teacher training in Santiago. The volunteer program had put us at a hotel with an in-house restaurant. All our three meals were free, so we were thankful. But we couldn’t stop ourselves from hating the chefs sometimes. Most of our meals were pasta and steaks with rice or bread. You could taste the meat and the dough but neither salt, nor pepper, oregano, basil, and the hundreds of herbs over which civilizations have killed each other could be found in the food we were served.
Over and over we were given the popular Chilean dessert jello. Some say people of Chile love jello, but none of my Chilean friends are jello fans. If you solve the mystery of jello, please let me know by leaving a comment on this Chilian culture guide.
When I arrived in Castro, Ceci welcomed me by baking pizzas. To my surprise, I saw Al loading his pizza with a red chili sauce. Though I had heard the English are obsessed with spices, I hadn’t seen any British person pasting their food with so much red chili. Then I had a bite of the pizza. The pizza was crunchy but it didn’t have any flavor to it. The hundreds of spice-less meals that followed made me accept that Chileans don’t like to flavor or garnish their food.
That’s why Al was loading up on a chili sauce whose unopened bottle can be found in every Chilean home. I joined Al, and the sauce was surprisingly hot enough to satiate the spice hunger of a British and an Indian.
Having said that, I loved the casuella de pollo (chicken casuella), algae soup, and some other algae preparations of Ceci. They had cumin, oregano, kurkuma (turmeric), and perhaps even a little red pepper: these are anyways the most common spices found in Chilean homes. But a lot of people didn’t even use these while cooking. I was lucky enough to find another friend who plucked chilies from her neighbor’s homes and cut into them faster than a rabbit bites through a carrot. (I have written all about her in this narrative on spending a diwali in a Chilean home, which is also a great read to understand life in Chile.)
Spices were absconding from the restaurant food, too. But some restaurants served salsa picante: an interesting mixture of fine-chopped onion, tomato, coriander, and green chilies.
If you are a spice lover, do carry some spices from your home country. They might save you on a rainy day. And when you return, just hand over the packets to a Chilean friend or an acquaintance who can appreciate them.
Also Read: Why did I work in a restaurant when I had a full-time job.
4. Chileans love to inquire about personal life [a most-celebrated Chilean tradition]
My fellow teachers and principal, Chilean host mother and housemates, and taxi drivers and strangers constantly bombarded me with personal questions. Do you have a boyfriend? How old are you? Are you religious? Are you Hindu? How many children do you have? How much is the program paying you? You are so sexy, will you marry me?
While some western friends were perturbed by these sudden bombardments, my trick was not to feel offended. The people of Chile were just curious. And personal discussions are part of the culture in Chile.
So don’t be surprised if your Airbnb host questions you about your girlfriend or if you will have their son in marriage.
But the good thing about this personal space encroachment is you get close to the Chileans quickly. They talk about their private lives, too. The mother-in-law of my Airbnb host in Santiago received me at his home and showed me around. She first asked me all sorts of questions. And then, just like that, told me she had remarried after her first husband died. “We live once, so we should enjoy,” she said.
Be open in Chile, for Chileans are open about their lives.
5. Most Chileans are religious
Most Chileans are Catholics and they feel strongly about their religion. Like the rest of us, people of Chile, too, get offended easily if someone questions their faith.
When my host mother Ceci prayed and thanked God for the little things, I respected her faith and neither asked a question nor showed disbelief. She wouldn’t have taken it well.
Though the traditions of Chile change a lot from the smaller Southern towns to the central parts of the country, you may want to stay clear of deep discussions about God or religion with a stranger.
On another note, visiting various wooden Churches in Chile is one of my 50 favorite things to do in Chile.
6. Get used to the background noise of the omnipresent television
Most Chilean families are pretty close-knit. They hang out together, eat and drink together, and watch television together, too. My host mother switched on the television set in the morning and only shut it off at night before going to bed.
Even restaurants and bars kept their television sets running. First, I resented the noise of the dramatic primetime shows. But then I started picking up new Spanish words while listening to the news and reading the Spanish subtitles of our favorite telenovela “Te Doy La Vida” with my friend Al. Whenever I didn’t understand a word, I asked about it spawning away a new conversation.
Either tune out the television or use it to learn Spanish in Chile. But you won’t gain much success trying to get it turned off. Oops.
7. Chileans break a lot of bread [First Thing to Know About Chile Culture]
Do you plan to be on a gluten-free or Keto diet on your trip to Chile? haha. That’s funny.
Chileans love bread. They eat bread for breakfast, lunch, once, dinner, and for one or two of those occasional hunger pangs too. In Chile, bread is baked with all-purpose flour while ignoring the whole wheat and other whole grain flours. You can find a bakery on every street corner. Some of the bread, sold in different shapes and sizes, is really good, too. Marraqueta and hallulla are my favorite.
Damn, I miss those hallulla sandwiches with cheese!
In Chile we were never short of bread. Except once. While shopping in a supermarket, my Canadian friend and I found out the market had run out of bread. It was an epic moment. We clicked pictures and embraced each other for having witnessed a historical moment in the history of Chile. Another friend (and volunteer with the program) said she was eating so much bread, she had become bread.
I guess one can make endless jokes about Chile love for bread.
But on a serious note, people have been eating a lot of bread and rice in every culture. Generally, flour and rice are more affordable than nutritious food. Some argue that the people of Chile eat so much bread because it is so good. But I believe that bread is so popular in Chile because it is one of the most affordable food items in the country. As Chile is cold and Chileans love eating meat, bread goes well with their meals.
On Chiloe island, vegetables and fruits were expensive. Ceci calculated every bit she bought. Rarely did we have prawns or lettuce or grapes, but we always had lots of bread.
Chileans call bread El Pan. Or if you are not a fan of el pan, then indulge more with salads, soups, algae, meat, and of course, be ready for a few frowns.
8. No other country can beat the public lovemaking of Chile
As students ran out of the class, I walked to the professor’s room to brew myself a cup of tea. But I had to lower my eyes for the little children who had just refused to learn the names of the days in English were now entwined in each other’s arms unabashedly in the corridors and in the classrooms.
We all kiss and hug in the open. Well, not in India but when have I followed the rules? But the public lovemaking in Chile was unbeatable. Lovebirds caressed, french-kissed, fondled, and I don’t know what else for I didn’t have the heart to see more. Couples could be found in parks, on streets, on the public benches, in alleys, and in restaurants.
I imagined only the teenage and younger couples engaging in free caressing in the open. But I even saw adult couples making out ferociously in the parks. My Chilean friend told me that most Chileans live with their parents until they get married and some even later on. Hence the desperate need for privacy.
I also knew friends who had moved back to live with their families to save or just be together. When you see some extravagant public display of affection, try not to freak out.
My take on life partner: Why do we need a life partner and where to find one.
9. Chileans love to be in physical proximity
Like Indians, Chileans are also casual about physical contact. Most of them don’t like to maintain a formal distance and never frown if they brush against each other. So don’t apologize hard or be overridden with guilt if you bump into someone on the street; they might even appreciate it. At least, in the bucolic parts of Chile.
On Chiloe island, we always hugged each other freely, rubbed arms and backs, and never left without greeting in the Chilean way.
Blending in with the customs of Chile and letting my instincts take charge, I pulled the cheeks of people around me often and hugged them. Soon my host mother started calling me “muy de piel” or literally “very much of the skin.”
[if you have been enjoying this post so far, you would love my story of how I got stuck on the Chile-Bolivia border, too.]
10. Vegetarians would have a hard time in Chile
Now don’t be scared, but South Americans and Chilean love animals, especially in their palates and on their plates. They eat beef, chicken, pork, and seafood. Some even eat quite rare preparations of the meat.
When I told my host mother I didn’t eat beef, she respected my choice. Beef is the favorite meat of Chileans, and Ceci often made it at home. And when she did, she always made me a vegetarian dish. It was mostly sea algae or stuffed zucchinis.
A bloody beef sausage was a delicacy on the island of Chiloé. I almost fainted with the idea of eating a sausage while blood dripped over my arm. And once while trying to break into a cold, bony piece of rare-cooked pork, I wished I had the power to disappear.
Some of the people of Chile judged vegetarian travelers for not eating animals. They have been raised as hardcore non-vegetarians and they don’t understand why anyone would not eat meat.
Though most of the dishes contain meat, you would find restaurants with vegetarian options such as pasta or potato preparations. So ask for a vegetarian dish. Check for chicken, egg, and seafood in it, especially in the soups, and settle down.
Some of the Spanish phrases to use if you are a vegetarian:
I am a vegetarian – “Yo soy vegetariano.”
I don’t eat meat – “Yo no como carne.”
I don’t eat beef – “Yo no como carne de vacuna.”
I don’t eat chicken – “Yo no como pollo.”
I don’t eat seafood – “Yo no como mariscos.”
I don’t eat pork – “Yo no como cerdo.”
11. Chileans love to drink and make some of the best wine. Let’s also not forget Pisco.
With my Chilean friends and their families, I drank through the night until the golden dawn hours. The people of Chile love to live. They stay up all night, drink and eat, eat and drink, and talk and dance. Friday calls for celebrations in all parts of the country. Not only wine bottles are pulled out of cellars, but a fresh stock of liquor is also bought at the local shop. Parties in Chile start late and go on until the breakfast, at least.
Expect to see bars bustling through the night. Friends fumbling in at 11 or 12 pm. Your Airbnb host boiling wine with oranges and cinnamon to make the special drink navegado or adding strawberries to wine.
Ceci was always whipping up some pisco with lemon, ice, and sugar to make a pre-lunch aperitivo or a little Kunstmann beer was essential to enjoy the pastel del choclo (a corn dish). These are all normal things in Chile.
Chileans also make some of the best wine in the world, so don’t come back without trying some.
12. Chilean time is not the one your clock shows
At 11 pm, I have been waiting for a couple of Chilean friends for two hours. They had promised to pick us up at 9. We were all going to a party. But after two hours, I had had enough. I changed into my nightwear and started drinking with my housemates. My Chilean housemate explained it to me then, “Chileans are always late, sometimes by two, three, or even four hours. Disculpa.”
If I had to bet who could beat Indians in arriving late, my first choice would be the Chilean people.
13. Not Speaking English is One of the Most Important Tradition in Chile
Most people of Chile prefer to speak Spanish and avoid English. I respect the Chilean’s love for their mother tongue. But the condescendence of some towards those Chileans who speak English isn’t very helpful. Looking at adults always conversing in Spanish and avoiding English even if needed, many children in Chile believe that speaking English must not be a good thing to do.
On our traditional island, only some parents cared about their children learning English. The rest thought of English as a burden and something against the culture of Chile. Concomitantly, some children never learned even conversational English. Most of my students could not even ask me “how are you.” Professors who spoke to me in English were made fun of by their colleagues. Some even asked for subtitles.
The love for the country is strong in Chile. Chileans are passionate about their mother country. No surprise that the people of Chile celebrate their independence day for almost a week and drown themselves in liquor and food while at it.
But in the metropolitan cities of Santiago and Valparaíso, many of my friends and students spoke fluent English. At home, they switched to Spanish.
Don’t expect your cab and bus drivers, hotel and hostel attendants, and waiters to speak much English, though they would use Google Translate’s voice feature abundantly to converse with you.
Download the offline Spanish file in Google Translate, and don’t shy away to motion people to wait while you search for a dish on the menu or translate a slang the driver threw at you in haste.
Must Read: 25 failproof tips to learn a new language on your own (all the methods I used to learn Spanish)
Irrespective of whatever I have said above, I adore Chile and the Chilean people. I was even about to settle down in the beautiful river-like country. For you wouldn’t find people warmer and more helpful than Chileans.
Some of those kind-hearted people are my best friends, some still have their homes open for me whenever I go back (hopefully after reading this, too), and some I carry in my heart wherever I go.
Enjoy while you are in Chile, for as Chileans say, “que disfrute” — that you live the moment to the fullest (the closest translation possible).
Happy Journey! Que tenga un buen viaje!
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