So my trip’s over; what did I learn? Well before I get to that, a little about my trip home:
The journey back from Santiago was tiring, of course, but quite pleasant. We flew in EC-LEU, a much more modern A346 than the one we went out on. It had in-seat touchscreen entertainment, and even WiFi and a GSM picocell (though I didn’t investigate the cost of these). On the other hand, I didn’t get much sleep. Iberia had a slightly odd approach to the in-flight service, too: in addition to the basic evening meal (pasta) shortly after take off at around 4pm CLST, and a light breakfast just before landing at 06:30 CET, there was a half-salami sandwich at midnight CET. My body-clock really wasn’t sure what meal that was supposed to be! We were also about an hour late taking off from Santiago as the luggage belt had apparently broken and so we had to wait for two containers of luggage to be delivered to us. At least the plane did wait, though, and we were still away before the strike started. We arrived more or less on time too, thanks to a decent tailwind over the Atlantic, but that did also make the flight a little bumpy, particularly as we crossed the equatorial zone.
The flight back from Madrid in G-BZHC was rather less comfortable. I didn’t know BA still had some really ancient B763s in their fleet but apparently so. It really was quite old. We were also twenty minutes late leaving thanks to an ATC strike in France that had slightly reduced capacity over their airspace, but again, a decent tailwind (which has also been keeping Western Europe very mild for December) meant that we landed about on schedule. I was lucky too: not only did my bag survive, but it was one of the first off too.
There was just one amusing thing to describe from the flight: my Bencher morse code key (which was in my hand-luggage as it’s a little fragile) looks similar to a battery on an X-Ray machine and so throughout my travels it had raised eyebrows in security, but no problems. In Santiago, the same was true again, but this time the X-Ray machine worker was so interested when I showed it to him that he took his eyes off the screen and let the conveyor belt run everyone else’s bags through unchecked, while he and I had a discussion about how it worked!
What I learnt
And so now, here’s the what I learnt about life in Chile. Hopefully this will be useful to anyone else going there:
Credit cards, as I had read before I went, are very widely accepted, and there isn’t any of the ‘major credit cards’ distinction we have in the UK. Anywhere that will take Visa/Mastercard will also take AmEx and Diner’s Club. You are often asked whether it’s a Credit Card (if the merchant doesn’t ask and presses the button for the national RedCompra debit card system, the transaction will be refused) and sometimes you’ll be asked which currency you want to pay in (see below). European chips aren’t generally recognised by the machines and need swiping. Contactless payment, which I only found in one supermarket, doesn’t work with a UK card. When you use a credit card, you need to give your passport number in addition to signing. I’d suggest memorising the number to save time at checkouts as getting passports out can be frustrating. You’re sometimes also asked whether you want the transaction to be sin cuota or con cuota. It seems that Chilean credit card terminals can separate transactions into multiple payments over time, presumably so you can take advantage of interest-free installments offered by the merchant, rather than by the card company. Anyway, I always answered sin cuota, and everything worked fine.
ATMs are also plentiful. I found that Banco Estado machines didn’t work with Visa Debit cards, but both Santander and BBVA did. Watch out though, as Santander add a 5000 CLP (£5) fee to the transaction in addition to any fees charged by Visa / your bank. BBVA don’t charge this fee. When you use a cash machine, there’s an odd question you have to answer, about whether the card is for a Credit Card / Savings Account / Checking Account / Current Account. I found that Checking Account worked for UK current accounts. Machines that had the Current Account option didn’t always approve the transaction.
The one mistake I made was taking US Dollar-denominated AmEx traveller’s cheques (for the additional security these provide). I only found a couple places in Santiago that would exchange these; most places won’t touch them, and where they are exchanged the rates are very disadvantageous. (E.g. 600 CLP = $1 for buying traveller’s cheques, when the same place would buy dollar cash for 706 CLP. I even found one place offering 500 CLP = $1).
If you’re booking hotels, you’ll almost certainly have come across the strange VAT rule: to encourage tourism, hotel stays for foreign tourists are exempt the 19% VAT charge. In theory, to show you’re a foreign tourist, you have to pay in US Dollars (hence why you may be asked what currency to pay in), they have to take a copy of your passport and immigration receipt, and you have to declare that you are staying less than sixty days. That’s the theory, but not all places adhere to these rules in practice. Some places will allow you to pay in Peso cash but will make out the invoice in Dollars, for example. Only one hotel I stayed at didn’t know how to deal with a foreigner under this VAT rule. If that happens, you need to ask for a Factura de Exportación (Export Invoice), which will prompt them to handle it correctly, even if you think that the it would be hard to export a hotel stay! Incidentally, I found that campsites worked on a Peso cash-only (no cards) basis, with no need to show passports. I didn’t get receipts from the campsites either. Hostels (as opposed to hotels) were also generally cash-only but did take passport details and issue Export Invoices.
This section is, like the rest of this post, based on my experience only. I’m not an expert on Chilean driving law, so you should check what I’ve written here.
I didn’t drive anywhere particularly busy, and certainly not in Santiago, but driving was quite easy. Ruta 5, the Panamerican Highway, is very good quality and is mainly dual carriageway (it goes to single carriageway on Chiloé). Ruta 5 has a general speed-limit of 120 kph, which is generally followed by most drivers.
The main thing to watch out for on Ruta 5 is that, like all other roads in the country, it has bus-stops with pedestrian crossings over it: not what you’d expect on a fast motorway. These are signposted as 30kph zones (see below on speed limits) but everyone ignores that unless a bus is around, as to do 30kph on such a fast road would be dangerous.
Other major roads, where the speed-limit is 100 kph, are of variable quality. Some are good; others may be little more than unsurfaced dirt tracks. Maps do show which roads are surfaced and which aren’t but I found they were often out-of-date.
I soon learnt that the main thing is to watch the line of the driver in front of you and to follow their tyres. Very deep potholes are numerous, even on major roads. Additionally, in roadwork areas, it seems common for the roadworkers just to remove the road surface without warning, or with just a Peligro (‘Danger’) sign. One minute you’re on nice surfaced road and then there may be a gravel/stone surface, which may only be a metre long, or may go on for miles. Bridges are another thing to watch for: in the UK we take it for granted that the road surface will match the bridge. Not so in Chile: if the road approaching the bridge has adverse camber and the bridge is laid completely flat, there will be a massive ledge on one side of the road where you join the bridge. Again, follow the car in front. If it suddenly switches to driving on the left on an approach to a bridge, it’s probably to avoid this!
Built-up areas are more difficult. The speed-limit is 60kph but again this is generally ignored. The 60kph zone may not be explicitly signed either: a Zona Urbana sign at the start of the built-up area also counts as a 60kph sign. Most towns are designed on the US block system with one-way streets. In places, my Tom-Tom satnav had the one-way system completely the wrong way around, which didn’t help. In common with the American layout, crossings are generally four-way stops but there may be a prioritisation implied if some of the approaches have Pare (Stop) signs, and others don’t. An interesting Chilean feature of four-way stops is their habit of putting pedestrian crossings, across them. This means that if you follow the paintwork on the road, and stop at the stop line before the crossing, you can’t see the other roads at the junction. You have to stop on the crossing to have visibility. And then, when you turn, expect there to be a pedestrian crossing on the road you are turning into. You may need to stop in the middle of the junction until they have crossed.
Some towns have a lot of traffic lights. Unlike America, where there are traffic lights, turning right on a red light isn’t generally legal unless explicitly signed. If there are pedestrian lights at four-way stops, it will usually be green for pedestrians at the same time as it is green for cars on the road that’s parallel to the crossing, so again, if you’re turning left or right, you need to expect a pedestrian to be crossing the road you’re turning into, even if the lights are green. I only found a couple roundabouts in the whole country.
In towns, lanes were a particular pain. Often they just aren’t painted, or where there are two lanes painted, taxi and bus drivers will try to squeeze past, making a third lane! It wasn’t uncommon for lanes to change within a few hundred metres either: for example a two-lane road where the left-hand lane is for left-turns only approaching one junction and then the right lane is for right-turns only approaching the next junction, meaning cars going straight on have to do a slalom.
Speed limits, as I’ve said, are often ignored, except that people don’t exceed the 120 kph maximum on Ruta 5. This is partly, I think, due to how difficult it is to tell what the speed limit is in some places. I mentioned the example of a 30 kph zone for a pedestrian crossing across a fast motorway above. That 30 kph zone will never be signed as being cancelled. So, as you drive, you find yourself having to guess what the hazard is that has caused the reduction, so you know when to speed up once you’re past it! Equally, on Ruta 5, I often found that there would often be a 50kph or 40kph sign just before an exit. It turned out that this is because of a sharp bend on the slip-road at that exit, and so traffic continuing on the road didn’t need to slow down anyway. Having said all that, I did see a few police speed traps with radar guns on both Ruta 5 and also on Ruta 64 (the road to Valparaíso). I generally just did something slightly slower than the cars around me if I saw one of these and didn’t know what the current speed limit was!
Chile felt a remarkably safe country, and all the people I met were incredibly friendly. Despite the television news which reported an armed robbery, shooting or carjacking almost every day, only one or twice did I start to feel a little uncomfortable. The police (Carabineros) are very present patrolling in all built-up areas and I got the sense they were well respected. People would have their photos taken with them and chat to them, and indeed their motto is ‘Un amigo siempre’.