While we strolled through the artistic arcades of the magnificent Angkor Wat temple, my Chilean friend Valentina, whom I had run into on a train from Bangkok to Siem Reap a month before my trip to Chile, asked me if I knew how Chileans greeted each other. I shook my head expressing my ignorance of the question and the Chilean culture.
I didn’t know anything about South America or Chile in that hot month of June, even though I was flying to Chile in July, if my visa went through, which I hadn’t applied for by then. Without noticing my obliviousness, Valentina went on telling me about Chilean traditions, greetings, and other customs I should have known before going to her country.
While traveling in Chile, her insights on the Chile culture helped me throughout my six-month-long solo adventure through the passionate land. Returning the kindness, I am aggregating all those unique conventions that left an impression on me so that you are prepared to visit this beautiful land of some even more beautiful people.
Also Read: Travel Guide to Chile – I have written everything that might help you travel in Chile.
Here you go.
Chilean Culture – Things you should know
1. The famous Chilean greeting that you should remember on your trip to Chile—
Valentina said we would kiss on both cheeks. Perplexed, I watched her as she came closer, and then we touched the right cheeks, kissed the air, and then did the same with the left one.
The idea of such human intimacy while meeting every new person excited me.
Men don’t kiss unless they are really close friends, she said. If two men meet for the first time or in a formal environment, they shake hands. A man and a woman always kiss. I imagined all the tall and blue-eyed Chilean men whom I would be able to kiss on the cheek just because the culture of Chile required me to.
But remember that you don’t plant a full, wet kiss on anyone’s cheek. Kiss the air, kiss the air, Val shouted.
My students whom I taught English kissed my cheeks, but the parents of little children ask them to give full kisses. And sometimes some men, such as a professor in the school, or another quick acquaintance, also planted a huge kiss on my cheeks; Most of them had met an Indian for the first time, and they were just teasing me in good spirits.
Recommended Read: Teach English in Chile, my experience and everything about the English Open Doors program.
2. Chileans eat “Once” instead of dinner —
As my host mother called us for Once, pronounced as “on-se,” she explained to me that most of the 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 from the refrigerator and settled it next to the breadbasket and the teabags on the round dining table in the cozy kitchen.
We huddled around the dining and gorged on toasted bread which we polished with margarine and made sandwiches with ham and cheese and sipped tea and Nescafe instant coffee. While I am one of the always-hungry humans, my housemates Al, a British volunteer, and a Chilean psychologist ate maybe five times more than I could. So we three together used to finish all the lunch leftovers during once.
Al and I even used to notch up the once with spicy omelets and green salads.
During the five months that I stayed with my Chilean host family, we must have eaten “once” for four months and three weeks. The other week was the combined exception of Christmas, our welcome and farewell parties, and a few birthdays when we had splendid dinners.
So if someone invites you for an evening meal, be prepared to have a once rather than a full-fancy dinner.
3. The tradition of eating spice-less or bland food —
My Chilean friends might kill me when they read this, but as long as we are talking about food, let me show my disappointment for the lack of spices in the Chilean delicacies.
Our first introduction to the bland food was in the week-long English teacher training in Santiago where the volunteer program(would write more about it in a separate post) put us at a hotel that had an in-house restaurant. The fellow volunteers who might be reading this post would agree when I say that the food was free, so we were thankful, but our human instincts did make us hate the food makers some time. For the food, mostly pasta and steaks with rice or bread, was bland and the precious dessert served to us was Jello, which Chileans love.
When I moved on from that hotel to my host family on an island, the first meal was of pizzas that she had baked at home. To my surprise, I saw Al loading his pizza with a red chili sauce. Though I had heard that the English people are obsessed with spices(all pun intended), I hadn’t seen them pasting their food with chilies from so up close. And then I had a bite of the pizza, which tasted great, but it was bereft of any spice whatsoever.
With the hundreds of meals that followed, I accepted with a heavy heart that Chileans don’t eat any chili or cumin or oregano or that to find a hint of spice in their food is like expecting an Orangutan on the bustling Bangalore streets.
So Al and I loaded up on a chilly sauce, that you can find in almost all Chilean homes but unopened or rarely used, which was surprisingly hot enough that it satisfied the spice need of an Indian and a British. Of course, Al also sprinkled the onion salad with the MDH red chilly powder and the cumin powder I had carried from India and which had got me some looks from the customs on the Santiago airport. But what the hell.
Spices are absconding from the restaurant food, too. Though some restaurants serve salsa picante which is an interesting mixture of fine-chopped onion, tomato, coriander, and green chilies.
If you are a spice lover, you might forget your toiletries, but don’t forget to carry some (Indian) spices or buy some sauces or ask for them at the restaurant and throw a handsome amount of them in your food unabashedly. Those spices would come handy if you cook in hostels or Airbnb, and while coming back, you can just give them to some Chilean friend or an acquaintance who would thank you for life.
Also Read: Why did I work in a restaurant when I had a full-time job.
4. Chileans would love to inquire about your personal life —
Never shy away while traveling in Chile, for Chileans won’t shy away from you and would ask you all about your private life. My fellow teachers and principal, Chilean host mother and housemates, and strangers constantly bombarded me with questions such as whether I was single or if I had a boyfriend, how old I was, whether I wanted to get married, if I was religious, did I have children, how much was the program paying me, that they thought I was sexy, et cetera.
While some western friends were perturbed by these sudden personal questions, my trick was not to feel offended, and even if I did feel embarrassed, I hid the embarrassment. The Chileans didn’t want to hurt me but were asking all those questions out of curiosity, and such intrusion and personal discussions are part of the culture of Chile.
So don’t be surprised if on your first day while traveling in Chile your Airbnb host asks if you ever want to have children or if you were Hindu and if you think that cow is holy.
But the good thing about this personal space encroachment is that you can ask them private questions openly even if you don’t know them well, too. The mother in law of my Airbnb host in Santiago who received me at his home showed me around, asked me all sorts of questions I detailed above, and then told me that she had remarried after her husband died and that we live once so we should enjoy irrespective of our age or social judgments.
Be open in Chile, for Chileans are open about their lives.
Also Read: Peru, in poetry and pictures.
5. Majority of the Chileans are religious —
Be open, but respect their religious sentiments. Most of the Chileans are Catholics and feel strongly about their religion and faith. So even though I am an atheist, I never discussed or highlighted my atheism when my host mother prayed or thanked God at even the mundane daily events.
Coming from India, I understood and accepted the rigidity towards religion and respected it, but my friends from the US or the UK found it a bit hard to accept the religious impositions or their host families’ faith.
You don’t have to do much, just don’t go in deep discussions on God.
Related Read: A story of India by an Indian girl.
6. Get used to the background noise of the TV —
Chilean families, most of which are close-knit, hang out together while chatting, eating, drinking, and watching television. My host mother switched on the TV in the morning and only shut it off at night when she went to bed.
The television was even switched-on in the restaurants and bars while ridiculous tv shows echoed through the place. I resented the noise in the beginning, but then I started picking up new Spanish words while listening to the news or reading the Spanish subtitles on the TV along with my friend Al.
Whenever I didn’t understand a word, I asked about it spawning away a new conversation. And, of course, we still tune into the title track of our favorite telenovela “Te Doy La Vida” and sing along.
7. Chileans break a lot of bread —
Do you plan to be on a gluten-free or a Keto diet on your trip to Chile? Then let the forces of nature bless you.
Lisa, a friend from Minnesota who was also teaching English in Chile, said that she was eating so much bread that she had become bread.
Chileans love bread. And they bake it mostly with all-purpose flour while ignoring the whole wheat flour. Every corner has a bakery, and you can buy bread in different shapes and sizes as per the weight. They eat bread in breakfast, lunch, once, dinner, and maybe if an occasional hunger pang hit them otherwise.
Once while shopping for groceries in a supermarket, my friend from Vancouver Island and I noticed that the market had run out of bread. We made pictures and embraced each other for witnessing a historical moment of Chile.
But on a serious note, Indians also eat a lot of chapati and rice. Why? Because flour and rice are cheap. Bread is cheap in Chile, and that is why many people eat a lot of bread to fill themselves well by spending only a little money. On the island where we were living the vegetables and fruits were expensive as everything was brought from the mainland, but the bread was affordable and readily available.
So start eating a lot of bread or as Chileans call it El Pan. Or if you don’t, then think of indulging with more 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 the bell rang and the students ran out of the class, I walked to the professor’s room to get a cup of tea and was surprised to see the young couples entwined in their arms and smooching unabashedly in the corridors and in classrooms.
We all appreciate a few kisses and hugs in the open, but the public lovemaking in Chile was unbeatable as the lovebirds caressed, french-kissed, fondled, and I don’t know what else for I didn’t have the heart to eye more, in the open parks, on streets, on the public benches, in alleys, and in restaurants.
Though you can easily find the teenage and younger couples engaging in free and flaunting caressing in the open, I even saw some adult couples making out ferociously in the park. My Chilean friend explained to me that most of the Chileans live with their parents until they get married and some even later on, hence the desperate need for privacy.
I also became friends with some families in which the son and his wife or the daughter and her husband moved back to their parents home to save money or just live together.
So if you see some extravagant public display of affection, don’t 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, and the majority 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 less-urbane parts of Chile.
On the island, we always hugged each other freely, rubbed arms and backs appropriate as per the situation and conversation, and never left without greeting the Chilean way and wishing each other a good day.
Blending in with the culture 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.
Related Read: Human relationships – Their importance and ways to build them.
10. Vegetarians would have a hard time while traveling in Chile —
Now don’t be scared, but South Americans and Chilean love animals, especially in their palates and on their plates.
When I told my host mother that I didn’t eat beef, she respected my choices, even though beef is the favorite meat of Chileans, and always made a vegetarian dish for me. But throughout Chile and South America people love beef, chicken, pork, and seafood, and some even eat raw preparations and thick bony steaks of these.
A bloody beef sausage was a delicacy on the island of Chiloé where 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 that I had the power to make things invisible.
Some of the South Americans even judged the vegetarian travelers for not eating animals as most of them have been raised 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 precisely, check for chicken, egg, and seafood in it, especially in the soups, and then settle down.
Some of the Spanish phrases that could come handy if you are a vegetarian are –
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,” and I don’t eat pork – “Yo no como cerdo.”
I have a comprehensive guide on the most important Spanish phrases you need to know if you are traveling to Latin America. Go read it or download the pdf version.
11. Chileans love to drink and make some of the best wine —
While traveling in Chile, as I drank through the night until the golden dawn hours with my Chilean friends, acquaintances, and sometimes even their whole families, I realized that they liked staying up all night and drinking through the wee hours. Their parties start late, around 11 pm, and go until morning.
So expect to see the bars bustling through the night, friends fumbling in at 11 or 12 pm, people you meet inviting you to a party which start at 12 and goes until 6 or 7 in the morning, your Airbnb host boiling wine with oranges and cinnamon to make a special drink called navegado or adding strawberries to wine or whipping up some pisco with lemon, ice, and sugar to make a pre-lunch aperitivo just because she is feeling low, or a little drink is essential to enjoy the pasta del choclo (a corn dish).
Chileans also make some of the best wine in the world, so if you come back without trying some, I would curse you.
Also Read: Chile Independence Day – Memoir of Fiestas Patrias.
12. Never trust the time that Chileans promise to show up at —
Around 11 pm, after having waited for two hours for a couple of friends who had guaranteed to meet at 9 and go to a party and were still not to be seen, 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 2,3, or even 4 hours. Disculpa.”
If I had to bet that who could beat Indians in being late, my first choice would be Chileans.
So watch out.
13. Last but not least, not Speaking English is part of the Chile culture —
Even though the English-teaching volunteer program I participated in was run by the government of Chile along with the UN and thus you can imagine how much the government wants to promote English, most of the people of Chile prefer to speak Spanish and avoid English. I respect their love for their mother tongue, but this attitude sometimes has an adverse effort on the growing children who start believing that speaking in English must be bad if they could instead converse in Spanish.
Some of the parents cared for their children to learn English, while a bunch of them did not and never promoted English at their homes. Implications – some children never learned even conversational English, and most of my students could not ask me “how are you.”
The colleagues of a few professors who spoke to me in English made fun of them and even asked for subtitles. Though that was the scene on the more orthodox and traditional island, a majority of my friends and students from the metropolitan cities of Santiago and Valparaiso spoke fluent English with me and switched into Spanish at their homes, a patriotic style that I really liked.
So don’t expect your cab and bus drivers, hotel and hostel attendants, and waiters to speak much English, though they would use the Google Translate’s voice feature abundantly to converse with you.
Download the offline Spanish file in Google Translate, and don’t shy away to tell someone to wait until you searched for a dish from the menu or translated a slang that the driver threw at you in haste.
Must Read: 25 failproof tips to learn a new language on your own
Irrespective of whatever I have said above, I adore Chile and its people and was almost about to settle down in the beautiful river-like country. For you wouldn’t find people warmer and more helpful than Chileans anywhere else in the world.
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 Chileans know how to live and enjoy life.
And as they say, “que disfrute” – That you enjoy the moment and the opportunity to the fullest.
Happy Journey! Que tenga un buen viaje!
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