First Impressions of Santiago Chile-18 years on

Chilean FlagWhat do Colo Colo, animitas, confetti, and Ninja turtles have in common? They all form part of my earliest impressions of Chile.

It’s been 18 years already. Sí po, as we say here in Chile. I first set foot on Chilean terra firma on June 6, 1991, 18 years ago today. I didn’t know a soul or have a clue about what I was getting into, but I had enrolled in a 6-week intensive language program at the Instituto Chileno Norteamericano, had a hotel address in my pocket, and a couple years of high school Spanish under my belt. And ganas—a great desire—to know this new country.

I flew in on Ladeco, a Chilean airline that has since merged with LAN Chile, and at some point during the night the pilot’s voice crackled “grbledy-grabldys colocolobrbldysgmp,” which was immediately followed by loud cheering, whistling, and celebratory applause throughout the cabin. ¿Huh? What was that about Coca Cola? Were they offering a free six-pack upon landing?… Clueless! As I would come to understand over the coming days, the Chilean soccer fútbol team Colo Colo had just won the Copa Libertadores tournament, which is (still) a very big deal… As it turns out, knowing this and remembering the exact date is one of those little tidbits that this gringa can proudly trot out at appropriate moments to win friends and influence Chileans…

Chilean Solidarity:
Chileans like to talk up their solidarity, and even before I left the airport I did, in fact, have proof of such—along with a warning to be more careful in the future. The bus into the city cost $500 pesos. I had traded in my US bucks for Chilean lucas and admired my newly acquired assortment of colorful pesos and oddly shaped coins. I’ve always loved that money from other countries is so much more interesting than that I grew up with; esthetically speaking, US currency, for all its worth (or not), is pretty boring. I sifted through the wrinkly wad of bills that came in blue, green, and two shades of pink and handed a pink one over to a bemused but kindly gentleman behind a glass window. He held up his spread-fingered hand to stop me. He showed me two different bills and pointed to one and very slowly over-pronounced: “kee—nee—EN—tos” and then another saying “sin—ko—MIL.” Don’t speak Spanish? I realized that apparently I didn’t either… I had not noticed that one pink note had an extra zero and he knew it. He could have pocketed the $4,500-peso difference and I would have been none the wiser. (As an aside, the $500-peso note has since been replaced by a bi-metal coin, although pink remains a popular color for paper money because the newish $2000 bill is also pink as is the $5000 note. Hmmm, I wonder who decides such things as the color of money?)
Incidentally, a few days later I would learn that not everyone was quite as solidario—or as honest—as the airport guy when a cab driver tried to “take me for a ride.” He took the proverbial scenic route and planned to charge me about ten times more than he should have, but fortunately the person waiting for me caught on, set him straight, whipped a $1000-peso note out of my hand and into his, scolding “that’s all you get.” (Phew! Saved again!)

Leaving the airport, I took a window seat on the bus, eager to soak in as much as I could as soon as I could. Shortly after we pulled out onto the main road, I spotted an odd little blue structure on the curb that looked like a cement dog house with a candle burning inside. I’d never seen anything like it. It turned out to be the first of the many, many animitas that I would see every day in Chile and the beginning of a lifelong fascination with these little shrines that mark the place where someone has died tragically. Popular belief holds that something of the person’s soul remains on that spot, and people pray to them, ask for favors, and return with flowers, candles, plaques, and a wide assortment of other gifts to give thanks for favors granted.
(See a previous post on Animitas).

Fútbol Madness:
As I settled into my hotel room in some long forgotten part of downtown Santiago, I flipped on the “teli” to start tuning my ear and try to discover a bit more about the country and culture. And did I ever. Every single channel was showing soccer fútbol … not just a news blip, not sports in general, but full-blown fútbol, fútbol, fútbol on every channel all day long!

I went out to explore. There was confetti everywhere—it looked like New Year’s in June. And troops of cheering, chanting school kids paraded two-by-two behind their teachers toting school banners, waving Chilean flags, and tossing more confetti they had made themselves. Obviously this fútbol business was one very big deal, and these Colo Colo guys had just become national heroes. It was not long afterward that I began to hear (repeatedly) that Chile had come in 3rd in the 1962 World Cup… (That’s part of the standard information package for all newcomers—ya gotta love a country that celebrates 3rd place for 45 years!)

Ninja Turtles a la Chilena

I’m not sure what I really expected to find in Santiago, but never in my wildest dreams were there any Ninja Turtles involved, so imagine my surprise at coming half way around the world to find a Pizza Hut with larger-than-life Ninjas at the door! MacDonald’s had yet to appear, but Kentucky’s favorite colonel’s famous red and white shack was popular, although it could hardly compete with big green turtles! (For the record, I am talking about the Teenage Mutant variety of Ninja Turtles, and not Chilean carabineros (police) in riot gear–who do look very much the same!)

Other Random Flashbacks:

Gorgeous dark-haired, green-eyed guys, Spanish-speaking redheads, business men in suits and ties eating ice cream cones at 10AM, groups of women wearing identical suits who  turned out to be office workers in classy uniforms, the lack of fat people on the subway, the contradiction of seeing palm trees against a backdrop of the snow-topped Andes Mountains, passengers hanging off the sides of the buses whizzing by at rush hour, student-types trying to sell foreigners their poems printed on little pieces of paper…

When I let my memory roll back to those early days… there were so many surprises, so many things that caught my attention and piqued my interest…
I had found in Chile a constant source of amazement.
I wondered about everything. I wanted to know everything… and still do today, 18 years later.

How about you? Do you have stories about your first impressions in Chile? Leave a comment or write a post and we’ll link them here!

Here’s what others have to say about their first impressions:

Clare at Clare Says:  First Impressions (of Chile) (arrived in Rancagua, 1996)

Vicki at Futalandia:   Chile September 2006- First Impressions (Santiago and Chile’s  deep south, 2006)

Lydia at Just Smile and Nod: First Impressions of Chile (Santiago and Valparaíso)

Abby at Abby’s Line: Thoughts on my First Day in Chile (Santiago, January 2007)

Eileen at bearshapedsphere: Pucha I don’t speak Cellphone! (Santiago, April 2004)

Emily at Don’t Call Me Gringa: First Impressions (arrived in Santiago, June 2005)

Sara at La Gringuita Diaries: First Impressions of Chile (August 2006, Concepción)

Emily at Chilemily: First Impressions (July 2001, Viña & Copiapó)

Amanda at Still Life in South America: First Impressions (December 2008, Santiago)

Renée  at Patas Arribe: First Impressions (February 2008, Santiago)

Kyle at Kyle Hepp: My First Impressions (1997, Santiago)

Eileen Shea: The Funniest Gringa in Chile (early 1980s, Santiago)


43 responses to “First Impressions of Santiago Chile-18 years on

  1. what fun this was to read. the wonder of the everyday really does make life interesting. thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks, it’s fun to think back– I’d love to hear about your first impressions! Write them up on your blog and let’s link!

  3. That is such a great grouping of memories. I arrived in 96– so I too remember Ladeco and some of the games! I will definitely join up with my post over at Clare Says. I will tell you when it is up!

  4. Hi! I didn’t realize you’d been here that long! (I do check your blog!) I’m looking forward to reading about your early experiences in Chile!

  5. Pingback: First Impressions (of Chile) « Musings from inside, outside, and underneath

  6. Margaret, I’m curious…18 years ago, did you have any idea you would stay in Chile for 18 years? I once thought I would live the rest of my life in Costa Rica, then again I thought I’d live forever in Panama. I told my husband that unless he buys me a pub in Ireland with a Guinness tap, THIS is where I will live the rest of my life and I’m damned well sticking with it!

  7. Nooooo! I had planned on 6 weeks in 91 then coming back to do fieldwork and returning to the States for a life in academia… but Chile has this way of getting under your skin!

  8. Been here 5 years!

    First impressions are.

    negative points.
    (1) Only country I know with worse food than the UK
    (2)How can anyone survive the driving here?
    I ask this to Chileans and they say “We are better than Bolivia or Peru”
    Why not be better than everyone?
    (3)Why does EVERYONE stare?
    (4) How many Chileans does it take to dig a hole? 6, 1 to dig, 5 to stand around looking at the 1 digging.
    (5) How many people do I have to go through to buy bread? 4. 1 to put it in a bag, 1 to weigh it, one to give me a ticket and 1 to take my money.
    (6) Manjar! What is that terrible awful crappy goo people eat here?

    Positive points.

    (1) I am a sex symbol here! I am a fat 43 year old. I go to a supermarket and get eyed up by teenagers! Why oh why did I not discover Chile as a single man in my twenties?
    (2) people like my work not because it’s any good, but because I am a Gringo! I once got a job for “Being English”! They did not even look at my portfolio
    (3) How cheap is everything here? To live like this in the UK I need to be seriously loaded
    (4) Lucamar! Love that goo

  9. Matt, that is hilarious!


    here’s my post.

    haha, and to Matt Wilson, you should check out a picture I posted on my blog a couple days ago about how many Chileans it takes to change a car tire!

  11. Lydia- Can you believe that I was thinking of your tire changing picture when I read Matt’s comment about digging a hole?
    Matt- ha-ha… I don’t know about the food, but the WINE’s a whole lot better! And I agree with you 100% on the Manjar (ick!)
    Everyone else- Matt is NOT fat, and he gets checked out because he stands a head taller than anyone else in Santa Cruz, has bright blue eyes, and a big smile… Matt- of course they’re going to check you out!
    And don’t believe a word about what he says about people liking his work only because he’s a gringo- NOT TRUE! go check it out at (and by the way, there are at least 3 Matt Wilson photographers out there… “ours” is the good one!)

  12. WOW How much do I owe you Peg? a keg of manjar?

    I left a comment on the flat tire photo and it called me gategoo! A name I have not used internetally for around 6 years!

    I should mention I am very happily married to a Chilean who drives well, cooks well but does eat manjar from a jar with a spoon!

  13. Ha-ha-ha! You can KEEP the manjar! You’re not gonna pawn that stuff off on ME!! I’ll never be THAT Chilean!
    And yes… Everyone! I should have made it clear too that Matt has a wonderful wife who is not only beautiful, charming, and intelligent, but very talented too… she’s Andrea León, the winemaker behind Clos Apalta, which Wine Spectator named the Nº 1 wine in the world!!
    But Matt- the question is… where do the kids stand on the whole manjar issue??


    On buying a cellphone when your Spanish is kinda iffy, but your cellphone (language) is nearly nonexistent.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  15. One loves it the other hates it (Ref Pegs Manjar comment)

  16. Matt- So there you have it! The well-balanced Chile-Brit family!

  17. Great idea! I’ve posted as well…it hasn’t been 18 years for me quite yet, but even after 4 there are things that I look back at from that first day and just have to laugh about.

    Matt, good point about everyone staring. I was thinking just the other day that I need to start being more conscious of that as I’ve fallen into the habit and don’t want to be the weird impolite person staring at everyone in California next week!

  18. @Matt Wilson…you survive the driving here…just BARELY. That’s how.

    Margaret, I will do mine tomorrow, I didn’t see this today!

  19. I’ve been debating ALL day, should I ask this question, or not. I know I should be ashamed to ask, but here goes, and I deserve any thrashing I get…What does cachando mean? If I end up being banished, so be it!

  20. Kyle- great! Hope you’re feeling better!
    Vicki- no problem! In CHILE “cachar” is a commonly used slang term means to understand, as in to “get it.” Have you noticed how people used the word “cachái” all the time? It’s like saying “ya know what I mean?”
    After naming the blog–which makes perfect sense in Chile–I discovered that Peruvians (perhaps elsewhere too) use it to refer to having sex.

  21. Thanks for inviting me to participate. Mine is up. I am going to read everybody’s later. Right now, I am late to work. Ooops.

  22. Mine is really up now.

    I think the men in business suits eating ice cream is a little strange too, I mean at 10 in the morning. Breakfast of champions.

  23. “Breakfast of Champions” Originally a 50’s American cereal commercial. However more recently used by Kurt Vonegurt in a book of the same name. referring to a Cosmopolitan cocktail.
    However I like the suits eating ice cream image.
    have you also noticed how ALL Chileans can eat completo Italianos without getting any of the 4 inch high goo they pile on top spilling on their clothes! My wife says this is learned at university because it’s all they can afford to eat! I prefer to think it’s inherent in their DNA.

  24. I agree with everyone on the manjar! I thought I was the only one…I’m glad others are disgusted by it too.

    I love that you thought the pacos were teenage mutant ninja turtles. I started thinking that just starting in the past week when I’ve seen them in their riot gear for all the protests recently. But I had never really noticed it before!

  25. Well Cachai means to catch or the English translation wold be “Know what I mean” or “catch my drift” maybe “Cachando” means do we all get it? However Peg is the top banana in the translating department.

  26. My name for Manjar is “manky Gwar”

  27. I originally read cacahando as cachondo, which even in Chile means something special. But hey, if Chile does that for you, more power to you.

    I like the flavor, but not the consistency of manjar. Manjar blanco (and/or casero) is another animal completely. The Soprole or Colun stuff I could do without. Of course, this is a culture that generally eschews chocolate, so there’s really no accounting for taste!

  28. The first time I was in Santiago driving with my future wife I heard this man saying “Super Ocho, Super Ocho” I asked what he was selling, Andrea said Super 8’s” I said “We have to buy some, they stopped making this film years ago, it’s great I have an old camera it will work on” The look I got was priceless

  29. Matt! I can just picture the whole Super 8 conversation!
    Someone, I think it was Eileen who told me about some gringos looking for “man-jar” (like a jar of man) instead of “man-HAR” good one!

  30. I was a doofus the other day and tried to buy a Super Eight instead of a Super Ocho.

    Some days my Spanish is not so good.

  31. Haha… good one… well they DO have “After Eight” mints! But don’t worry, it happens to all of us!

  32. Loved your post!

    I also blogged about my first impression of Chile!

  33. Pingback: First Impressions of Chile « Still Life in South America

  34. Thanks Emily! I enjoyed yours too- the first from the north! It’s now linked in!

  35. Pingback: Group Blog: My First Impressions of Chile « Kyle Hepp

  36. I found these ex-pats in Chile blogs and they have been so fun to read. I lived there 96-00, married my pololo, now living in the states for grad school with 2 chil-amer tots and starting to think about returning. I love Chilean Spanish–it is so interesting. What is up with not liking Manjar–that stuff rocks. I have lots of funny stories about Chile–too many for a comment space. Great site.

  37. Ha-ha… Manjar- seems to be a bit of love it or hate it… I can take it in small doses, but it’s soooo sweet and sooooo everywhere… I always say that if a restaurant in the States has 10 desserts on the menu, 7 or 8 will have chocolate. In Chile, make that manjar instead!

  38. Pingback: Eileen Shea: the funniest gringa in Chile « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  39. Very informative post. Thank you.

  40. Pingback: Colo Colo wins Copa Libertadores (Blast from the Past) « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  41. Pingback: Thoughts on my first day in Santiago, Chile « Abby's Line

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