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One of the most diverse countries in the world, Chile encompasses everything from stone-dry deserts to epic glaciers, from lava-spewing volcanoes to green and leafy vineyards. Little wonder then that Chile’s tourism industry is growing so fast.
Add to this Chile’s extensive and fascinating history, from the wonders of the giant Easter Island heads, to the Incan ruins still in evidence through to some of the best-preserved Spanish colonial cities.
In essence, Chile isn’t one single uniform landmass. Rather, every turn in the road promises new experiences and opportunities.
All this is wrapped in one of the most prosperous economies in South America, where living standards can be considerably higher than in more poverty-stricken neighbours.
A visit to Chile is truly the adventure of a lifetime…
Chile’s dimensions make generalizing about the climate tremendously difficult. Largely cut off from bordering Argentina by the Andes, Chile is over 4000 km in length, while averaging less than 200 km in width.
To the north, where the country meets Bolivia, one will find the Atacama Desert; the driest place on earth where rain may not fall for years at a time. Here the temperature swings can be extreme, rising to 32’C or more during the daytime, while frequently dropping below zero at night.
As one moves down the country from north to south, the climate starts to moderate. The central area, where Santiago is to be found, enjoys a more Mediterranean climate with pleasant warm summers and mild, moist winters. It is here that the majority of the population resides, and also where most of the Chilean wine is produced.
Carry on south and the mercury starts to fall. At the southern tip, Chile begins to break up into numerous islands and fjords, becoming icebound for months as a time over winter.
Far-flung Easter Island, owned by Chile, experiences yet a different climatic zone, this time a warm sub-tropical one where temperatures are more even and humidity remains high throughout much of the year.
Chile, in the southern hemisphere, generally experiences opposing seasons to those of us from Europe or North America. Summer, for example, typically runs from December to February, while winter is encountered between June and August.
Despite its peculiar dimensions, Chile is considered reasonably uniform in terms of the culture to be found here. Originally inhabited by native tribes, of which the Incans are best known, Chile was plundered by the Spanish in the 16th century. Much of the culture which the colonists brought with them can still be felt today.
For one, the Spaniards brought with them their passion for the family unit. Today, Chile is a firmly family-centric culture, with many small businesses being entirely family owned and run. Being welcomed into a family home should be treated with the sense of honour it deserves.
Secondly many Chileans are staunch Roman Catholics, with many national holidays revolving around religious events. Many stunning examples of colonial churches and cathedrals still exist.
As any football fan will know, Chile plays on the world stage. Major football games have become something of a national institution where the whole country comes out in force to support their highly successful players.
It should come as no surprise with Spain’s influence on Chile that Spanish is the official language. That said, Chilean Spanish is a rather unique dialect. Thus even experienced Spanish-speakers may have trouble keeping up with Chile’s fast-talking residents. If in doubt, ask for “neutral Spanish” which is more easily understood with basic Spanish skills.
Fortunately the difficulties with understanding the national language need not necessarily be a major issue, as an increasing percentage of the population speak fluent English. This is especially so among the younger generation, for whom English is a compulsory subject in school, and in more cosmopolitan Santiago.
It is interesting to note that Chile boasts the largest population of British descendants in South America, though in practise even school-boy Spanish will come in handy in more rural areas or when dealing with the older generation.
Sitting alongside these two core languages an assortment of other tongues may be experienced. Traditional tribal languages such as Quechua are not uncommon, for example. Furthermore Chile is home to the descendants of numerous German immigrants, so isolated areas may also speak German as a second or third language.
On entering Chile you will be issued with a tourist card. This must be submitted on exit. Losing your card in the meantime can be expensive proposition as staying in a hotel without your card will attract a 19% room tax on top of the normal residential charges.
With the majority of commerce occurring in Santiago, not to mention the pleasant climate to be found here, the reality that many expats spend the majority of their time in or close to the city. The country’s unusual dimensions mean that seeing the country as a whole can require travelling considerable distances. Note also that these distances won’t always be covered in one clean sweep; even internal flights may touch down or lay-over multiple times if travelling from north to south.
Speaking of flights, Chile maintains an excellent internal airport structure. Flights are typically reasonably-priced though note that only one airline – LAN – services Easter Island at present.
Fortunately, as numerous travellers have attested, transportation in Chile is generally clean, enjoyable and reasonably priced.
Possibly the most ubiquitous form of transport in Chile is the long distance bus service. Buses here are plentiful and punctual and, depending on the vehicle, can offer considerable levels of comfort. Before booking a bus ticket enquire what type of bus is available; the executive buses often offer fully-reclining beds and extensive legroom; ideal for overnight journeys.
Note that while Chile does have a small number of passenger trains, the bus network services more destinations in greater comfort so is generally the preferable choice.
For more local travel, the “micros” are smaller buses for getting around Santiago and other cities. These too are efficiently run; keep an eye out for the destinations clearly posted in the window. For your ease it is wise investing in one of the regional smart cards known as “BIPs”. Simply top up with credit as necessary and swipe your card when alighting. The same cards facilitate travel on Santiago’s metro system.
Taxis are plentiful in urban areas, though are much thinner on the ground away from these areas. They are typically metered and easily identifiable from their black paintwork with yellow roofs.
In terms of driving, the process of hiring a car in Chile is relatively painless and facilitates access to the more remote areas without issue. For this you will of course want to consider a 4WD vehicle, though in Santiago’s narrow streets, with their miniscule parking spaces, a small run-around is often more practical. It is for this reason that renting rather than buying can make sense, enabling one to choose the most suitable vehicle for the terrain in question.
For tourists, it is possible to use your home driving license. While there is no requirement to bring an International Driving Permit this is recommended by a number of experts. The reason is simply that Chile’s highly-regarded and efficient police force regularly set up road blocks in order to check driver’s paperwork. While a UK driving license, for example, is entirely legal you may find officers are less than familiar with them. IDPs are encountered far more frequently, and so will likely ensure you are on your way that much sooner.
In contrast, long-term expats will need to exchange their home driving license for the Chilean equivalent; a process that is typically quite simple to achieve.
In terms of driving conditions, it is generally agreed that the Chileans are far better and more considerable drivers than may be experienced in many other South American countries. Road surfaces vary, with some requiring considerable work while others (such as the Pan-American Highway) are regularly and lovingly maintained.
It is worth noting that navigating in Chile can come with its challenges, especially within urban areas. Road signs are almost exclusively in Spanish, and often bear no resemblance to their English-language alternative. Furthermore, while many Chilean towns and cities are neatly laid out in a grid system, a surprising number of roads are one-way. This can turn a seemingly simple drive into something altogether more challenging when you realize that the road you intended to take cannot be accessed. If in doubt, keep an eye out for the white arrows which indicate the flow of traffic.
Healthcare in Chile is split firmly between the more urban central areas, where hospitals are numerous and healthcare standards are high, and the more outlying areas which can be quite the opposite.
Public medical facilities offer free care to all; even expats and visitors. Oddly, however, ambulance services are typically reserved for those with health insurance or a residency permit. An ambulance can be summoned by dialling 131.
Many expats and tourists opt for the many private clinics to be found around Santiago which, due to their high costs, make private health insurance a necessity. In such establishments English-speaking doctors are far more commonly encountered, the standards of care tend to be far closer to Western standards and waiting times are far shorter.
Many tourists assume South America to be a cheap travel destination. However this isn’t necessarily so for Chile, which the World Bank classes as a “high income economy”. As a result, cash-strapped tourists should do their due diligence before arriving in order to ensure the best value-for-money.
The currency in Chile is the Peso – often designated on price tickets and menus as $. Possibly the easiest way to access Chilean currency is via one of the many ATMs to be found around the country. These are particularly tempting thanks to their “foreign” button, which will enable you to translate the instructions into your native tongue.
As a second option, traveller’s cheques can be cashed with relative ease, though those issued in US dollars are generally most readily accepted.
Credit and debit cards are accepted rather less than in many other countries. Chile is still largely a cash-carrying society, so get used to carrying considerable volumes with you. That said, mugging and pick-pocketing is not uncommon so visitors should take suitable precautions. Use of a money belt, or carefully separating large notes from smaller denomination bills and coins can be smart to avoid unwanted attention when you open your wallet.
For such a relatively wealthy and forward-thinking country, education in Chile is considered poor. This, combined with lessons taught exclusively in Spanish, means that most expats opt to educate their children at one of the international schools.
Sadly, while the standards of teaching are considerably higher at such institutions, the costs can be prohibitive. Most international schools offer only limited places each academic year, and may require the completion of an entry examination.
Expat families are therefore strongly advised to factor the cost of private education into package discussions, with the aim of encouraging your employer to cover the costs of schooling.
Chile’s traditional cuisine in many ways mimics that of Mexico – save for the spicy use of chillies. Most Chilean meals are based around wholesome ingredients such as meat and vegetables. Thanks to its considerable maritime border it should also come as no surprise that seafood is also prevalent on Chilean menus.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous meal in Chile is the so-called “curanto”. This isn’t just a recipe but an entire manner of cooking. In essence a hole is dug in the ground into which a fire a lit. Upon burning out, but while the embers are still hot, all the necessary ingredients are placed into the hole; typically a diverse mixture of seafood, meat and seasonal vegetables. The hole is then sealed while the ingredients bake, eventually producing a delicious warming stew-like consistency.
A second national institution, to be found all around the country, are “empanada”. The ultimate “fast food”, these are pastry parcels with an assortment of fillings. Two of the most popular are cheese or seafood. However the most uniquely Chilean variety – known as Empanada de Pino – consists of beef, egg, onion, raisins and olives.
It is interesting to note that Chile has adopted its own version of the English “elevenses”, no doubt as a result of colonial influence. While this light meal, typically consisting of bread and jam, often with tea and coffee, may share a heritage with Britain, it is the time of day which is unique. In Chile, this meal, known as “once” is typically enjoyed around 5pm, with a proper dinner typically enjoyed later on in the evening. “Once” translates literally to “eleven”.
Chile is situated on the so-called Pacific Rim of Fire. As a result it receives considerable seismic activity in the form of earthquakes and volcanoes. Visitors are therefore advised to familiarize themselves with the latest warnings before visiting, especially if you plan to visit some of the more volcanically-active areas.
The southern tip of the country experiences considerable levels of snow and ice, with glaciers remaining year-round. Visitors to this extreme environment, especially in winter, are advised to enlist the help of an experienced guide. Doing so will open your eyes to the many potential risks you may have been unaware of, and provide you with qualified advice should you get into any difficulties.
Due to the levels of crime around major cities, especially towards visitors, tourists and expats alike are advised to keep valuables hidden at all times. This is especially important on public transport where many thefts occur. Due to bags “going missing” from bus lockers, try to keep all essential luggage with you at all times. Furthermore, it can be advisable to wear rucksacks on your front, rather than your back, in busy areas in order to keep a closer eye on them.
Should you be the unfortunate victim of a crime, dial 133. The Chilean police are famous for their honesty and the quality of service they offer so you can feel confident that you are in safe hands.
Such a huge country, rich in history and natural beauty, affords visitors a huge variety of potential experiences. Two weeks in Chile is unlikely to ever do it justice; in many ways expats are best-placed to sample all her delights over the long term.
Torres del Paine National ParkOne of the largest and most popular national parks in all of Chile, Torres del Paine represents the ideal opportunity to explore the natural wonders of the Patagonian plains. Here, stunning granite mountains jut skyward, while wildlife such as guanacos and rheas strut around in the foreground.For hikers and nature-lovers there can be few better experiences in the part of the world, though for the ultimate experience hire a local guide. Here you will be able to gain access to areas otherwise off-limits and learn more about the fragile habitat through which you are walking.Easter IslandAlternatively known as Rapa Nui, this World Heritage Site is located over 2000 miles off the coast of Chile. Most easily accessed by plane, most visitors set foot here in order to experience first-hand the giant carved heads (“moai”) staring into the distance. But it’s not just the heads on display here; you’ll also find all manner of other signs of ancient human habitation including hand-built stone walls and petroglyphs carved into rock surfaces.Valle de la LunaAs the name might suggest this barren and rocky landscape closely resembles the surface of the moon. With numerous craters, caverns and peculiar stone formations sculpted by the winds here, it is little wonder that the area was used to test the Mars Rover before being sent into space. The area has an “other-worldly” feel unlike any other.Atacama DesertOddly, while the Atacama Desert is located on the western coast of Chile, it is still considered one of the driest places on earth. Allegedly, some of the weather stations located here have never received rain.One might imagine that such an arid area would be free of any life, but this would be far from the truth. From flocks of flamingos to the peculiar leaf-eared mouse, a surprising number of species manage to carve out a living in this extreme environment.However for the best possible visit try to arrive a few days after rain has fallen. At this point the bone-dry desert transforms into a floral meadow, filled with multi-coloured blooms and buzzing insect life. You’ll scarcely believe it’s the same location.Geyser el TatioMeaning “oven”, El Tatio represents a huge field of geysers high up in the mountains. The jets of boiling-hot water have been known to erupt up to six metres into the air, and there are dozens of them to be found within a relatively small area.For the ultimate experience, plan to get up very early in the morning and wrap up warm. As the sun begins to rise, yet with the air still chilled from the night, you’ll experience the most amazing views as the geysers generate vast columns of steam, glimmering in the early morning rays.
One of the largest and most popular national parks in all of Chile, Torres del Paine represents the ideal opportunity to explore the natural wonders of the Patagonian plains. Here, stunning granite mountains jut skyward, while wildlife such as guanacos and rheas strut around in the foreground.
For hikers and nature-lovers there can be few better experiences in the part of the world, though for the ultimate experience hire a local guide. Here you will be able to gain access to areas otherwise off-limits and learn more about the fragile habitat through which you are walking.
Alternatively known as Rapa Nui, this World Heritage Site is located over 2000 miles off the coast of Chile. Most easily accessed by plane, most visitors set foot here in order to experience first-hand the giant carved heads (“moai”) staring into the distance. But it’s not just the heads on display here; you’ll also find all manner of other signs of ancient human habitation including hand-built stone walls and petroglyphs carved into rock surfaces.
As the name might suggest this barren and rocky landscape closely resembles the surface of the moon. With numerous craters, caverns and peculiar stone formations sculpted by the winds here, it is little wonder that the area was used to test the Mars Rover before being sent into space. The area has an “other-worldly” feel unlike any other.
Oddly, while the Atacama Desert is located on the western coast of Chile, it is still considered one of the driest places on earth. Allegedly, some of the weather stations located here have never received rain.
One might imagine that such an arid area would be free of any life, but this would be far from the truth. From flocks of flamingos to the peculiar leaf-eared mouse, a surprising number of species manage to carve out a living in this extreme environment.
However for the best possible visit try to arrive a few days after rain has fallen. At this point the bone-dry desert transforms into a floral meadow, filled with multi-coloured blooms and buzzing insect life. You’ll scarcely believe it’s the same location.
Meaning “oven”, El Tatio represents a huge field of geysers high up in the mountains. The jets of boiling-hot water have been known to erupt up to six metres into the air, and there are dozens of them to be found within a relatively small area.
For the ultimate experience, plan to get up very early in the morning and wrap up warm. As the sun begins to rise, yet with the air still chilled from the night, you’ll experience the most amazing views as the geysers generate vast columns of steam, glimmering in the early morning rays.
For more information on moving abroad visit www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo.
Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Chile please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance or travel insurance.
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