Insider tips to Chile: Part I

What do you need to know to get your bearings in Chile? This is the first in a series of posts on the basics of getting acquainted with everyday aspects of life in Chile… in other words “Cachando Chile 101.”

Chilean FlagI don’t get a lot of visitors from “back home.”
I have to admit—we really aren’t kidding when we say that Chile is at the ends of the Earth! But I am very happy to report that my best friend from grad school, Kathleen Skoczen (now Chair of the Anthropology Dept at Southern Connecticut University) is here for research (and pleasure), and I’m doing my best to bring her up to speed on the do’s and don’t of getting around. It’s not the Spanish that will get her, but rather Chile’s particular quirks.

The following is something of a fast-track Intro to Chile, with some very basic yet vital information about how to get started in Chile, from the airport to your door to the street…

Cachando Chile Tips: 1st Steps

Arriving in chile:

I had warned her that as a first-time visitor from the United States, she’d have to pay US$140 for a visa at the airport—it’s a reciprocal tax that Chile charges US citizens. The last I knew they only accepted cash. She was prepared, but oops—first she was directed to the wrong line, then when she found the right line, they seemed confused that she wanted to pay cash rather than put it on a credit card. She also said that the clerk inspected each bill very carefully and refused to accept any that was even slightly less than perfect.
Bottom line: expect to pay up and be ready for the amount and method to change at will.
Want to know in advance if YOU will have to pay an entrance fee? Check the Santiago Airport (SCL) site for a list of countries subject to the reciprocity tax. And THANKS to Pepe of Pepe’s Chile for providing the link–and be sure to check his site for loads of useful info on Chile.

Also VERY IMPORTANT to know: do NOT try to bring in fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, plants, seeds, spices, honey, or a whole host of other agricultural items. You will have to fill out a form on the plane. If you have ANY doubts, be sure to mention it after you pick up your luggage and are about to go through the final security check before leaving the airport. That’s where a SAG (Chile’s Agricultural & Livestock Service) official will take that form you filled out. It’s better to declare and ask than try and sneak something through and get caught–that nice bag of dried chili peppers could cost you plenty! (See: SAG and the No Spice for Chile Campaign)


Here in Chile people (2 women or a woman and a man) greet each other with a kiss on the cheek—just one—right cheek to right cheek, kiss in the air. Two men will shake hands. If they are good friends, they’ll pull each other in to a shoulder-to-shoulder half-hug (their right hands still clasped in the shake) and pat each other on the back with the left hand as they do it. It’s interesting to note the body language here. The closer they are, the harder they’ll do this. A light pat-pat is kind of a “yeah, yeah, good to see ya” and a hearty thump-thump-thump indicates a close friendship.

Younger guys (late teens and 20s) have started the cheek-kissing bit too—but a foreigner should not take the first step in this regard. In a formal situation a woman and man may shake hands as well. You don’t kiss people who are providing services for you (store clerks, hotel employees, your building concierge, housekeeper, the mail carrier, etc. unless you really get to know them), although a surprising number of doctors will greet their patients with a kiss. A good rule of thumb is if in doubt, let the Chilean take the lead.

When you answer the phone say “Aló,” which technically should sound like ah-LOW, but often sounds more like “AHH-low.” Not “Diga,” (as they do in Mexico) which means “speak” and sounds like an order and is therefore rude. Not “Saludos” (as Kathleen informs me is the proper greeting in the Dominican Republic, because in Chile “Saludos” is used at the end of a conversation (ex: Manda mis saludos a la familia! Send my regards to the family). BTW, we don’t say Aló when greeting someone in person or in writing; then a simple “Hola” is fine.

The most common way to say goodbye is “Chao” (pronounced Chow), and variations such as Chao-chao and chaoito (chow-EE-toh) are common, but sound pretty funny when they come with an accent (or from a man). More standard leave-takings are hasta luego and the more formal–and more religious–Adios, which literally means “to God” (along the lines of “may God be with you”).

Money honey: Get your lucas straight

Watch those dots and commas! Before we even think about exchange rates, let’s start with the decimal system. Of course Chile uses it… but its written form is just the opposite of the one we use in the US, so a thousand is “1.000″ and a tenth is “,10″. This can be confusing when someone is quoting prices for a room at, for example, $25.000 per night—which is about double the $US25.00 that you might think it means.

Dollars into Pesos: Next step, money exchange. We set out looking for the Casa de Cambio (Money Exchange) that was supposed to be a block away, but ended up finding a bank instead. Both work. Chile’s currency is the peso, and, as I told her, 1 peso is worth about dust. More specifically, yesterday, she received a rate of $483 pesos to the dollar. Post-graduate studies in Anthropology don’t delve deeply into the fine art of dividing by 483, so my advice was to just get a rough idea of what things cost by dividing the price by 500, which is the same as doubling it and lopping off a couple zeros. Close enough.

Chile’s money is pretty cool. Really. Each coin is a different size and each bill a different color and comes with fancy holograms, designs that are only visible when held up to the light, and peep-holes and shiny security strips (long before the US did). (There’s a peso-inspired post in the works there, but if you want to know more, for the time being you can stop over to the Central Bank for a look at Chilean coins and bills).


1,000 Chilean pesos (1 luca)

How many bucks to the luca? Even though the currency is officially based on a peso, it’s the $1000-peso bill that grabs the attention. All bills are in increments of $1000 (the $500 bill of old has since gone metal—bi-metal in fact). The smallest is worth $1000 and just as one US dollar is called a buck, in Chile, $1000 is known as a luca, and prices are often informally quoted as lucas. Diez lucas are $10,000 pesos.
FYI: you may well hear dee-eh LOO-kah instead of diez lucas because Chilean speakers often drop their esses and New World Spanish zzzz’s sound just like esses–or would if you could hear them, which you can’t–but they’re there, lurking around at the tip of a pen, waiting to be written out!

And while we’re at it, here’s another FYI (although most likely thoroughly unnecessary for a visitor to know): a gamba refers to $100 pesos—although it can also be $100,000 pesos (context will clue you in) and a million pesos is a palo (a stick. No clue why!).

Ok- so far, so good. She’s here, got a visa, lucas in her pocket, an apartment, and knows who, where, when, and how to kiss aló and chao. Next up: getting out and around…

Stay tuned!


38 responses to “Insider tips to Chile: Part I

    On my first visit to Chile, on the plane, I was given a little green slip of paper (the Visa) which I slipped in my passport. Chileans have an identity number which they give on all sorts of occassions, foreigners give their passport numbers. On one of these occassions of showing my passport the little green scrap of paper fell out. I didn’t realise until it was almost time to go home. When I did panic set in. Fortunately we had a computer or we wouldn’t have known what to do. It said I could go to prison. (Imagine a sweet, gentle, inoffensive, little white haired, old grandma). It also said I could get a new one if I confessed my crime at a Police Station.
    Finding the Police Station was a bit of an adventure, a crazy micro ride, asking directions (desparately trying to remember my second teach yourself Spanish lesson), a death defying crossing of a manic dual carriageway, a long wait sitting in a corridor feeling like a criminal. Eventually a nice policelady interviewed me, gave me another little green slip – laughed, and told me off for being a silly billy. “Don’t do that again, will you?” was her parting remark.

    On my second visit my son and his Chilean bride to be were about to hold their do it yourself wedding. (I did say we are not rich.) He asked me to bring in couscous to make a side salad as he couldn’t find any there. So I brought in 2 bags of white not quite powder. The guards were baffled and very suspicious and had to call in their boss to examine these suspicious bags. Meanwhile I was trying to explain was couscous was in my one year’s worth of teach yourself Spanish. In the end they let me go, no doubt wondering if they had let so big drug runner’s grandma lose in their land.

    We were told our credit cards would work in Chile. They only worked half the time. The ones that caused a problem were the ones with chip and pins. We ended up using our old fashioned debit cards and desparately trying to electonically tranfer money into this little used account. At one point we were desperately emptying our pockets of change to try to pay our hotel bill. That was two years ago so maybe that’s been corrected now but I made sure I had a secret stash of cash with me the second time I went.

  2. Hi Anne- thanks so much for giving such great examples!
    That was actually the Landing Card that you lost. It will have the airline logo on it, and will vary in color depending on the airline (I’ve mostly seen white & yellow, but those were mostly airlines coming from the US). Non-resident passengers fill out the form in duplicate, the top half is retained when they enter the country and the other returned when they leave. I don’t know about today, but in the past, few people were warned coming in to the country about how important that paper is. But a good rule of thumb is that if an official puts something in your passport, make sure it stays there until you leave. My mother took hers out (and stored it in a safe place, of course) the day we tried to go overland to Mendoza, and they wouldn’t her board the bus!
    RE bringing in food. Yes, they do look VERY closely at things they don’t know… I had to explain Wasabi peas once, but when they realized they crushed easily with a pinch, they decided they were baked and therefore ok.
    Money-well the good news is that we use pin cards here now too, so that should (should) solve that problem!
    Thanks again for your additions!

  3. I would also caution bringing anything that was fruit-flavored. I arrived in Chile shortly before Easter, bringing boxes of jellybeans as gifts, which were taken away because they were “fruit.”

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  5. @Rachel-Are you KIDDING me?? That really takes the cake! Kathleen and I were just talking about the scandal that then-president Ronald Reagan provoked that he declared that the ketchup used in school lunches was a vegetable… now you tell me that Jellybeans belong in the FRUIT section of the food pyramid? ahaha- rich!

  6. Well, I once read somebody posting (might have been in twitter) that his medicine was confiscated because “it tasted like honey”. Sometimes officials can be very stubborn. On the other hand, I travel quite a bit, and I’ve never had problems (I admit to sneaking in some forbidden seeds)

    Also, I remember when I first arrived in Chile, I only had my US bank account, and my ATM card was my only means of getting cash. Except that it would´n work everywhere. Sometimes I had to go around the block in bank-busy areas just to find the random one that would work. I’m thinking it’s gotten better since then. Never had problems with my credit cards, though.

  7. Hi there ChefGarcía! Since you just admitted to criminal spice-running activities, I won’t reveal your true identity! (at least not here!).
    Honey-flavoring Hmmm sounds suspicious! But it’s true that a lot of cold remedies ARE honey-flavored… I suppose if jelly beans could be considered fruit, cough drops could be suspicious too!

  8. Citizens of several countries will pay the reciprocity fee, not just US citizens. See rates on the Santiago airport site.

  9. Pepe- Thanks for the dato! I was looking all over for it, but checking Visa fee instead of reciprocity tax! I just updated the original text and added a link to your very useful site!

  10. After arriving at the airport a few years ago, I was told I had to pay the $140 dollar fee, unless I was a Chilean citizen. I have dual citizenship but for convenience I always travel using my Canadian passport. I explained this to the clerk but she wanted to see proof. I told her that I did have a “cedula de identidad” but I did not remember the number. She had another employee verify my info in their database, and voila, there it was. I saved $140 buckaroos. Sorry, it does not apply to gringos, but only to semi-gringos, :-).

  11. Hi John- Interesting point! Never thought about that. But I do know many Chileans with dual citizenship who travel with both passports and come in and out of Chile with their national ppt and everywhere else with the other.
    And Bienvenidos a Chile pues!

  12. The only problem is that most Chilenos have not changed their names and both ppt have the same name. Can you imagine trying to convince a Chileno clerk that “Juan Carlos Carrillo Valdes” is the same as John C Carr?

  13. I e-mailed the Chilean Embassy in London and they sent me a comprehensive list of what not to bring. You are right, it’s pretty strict. I even clean my teeth before landing in case my crevices are examined for residual food. I did puzzle Customs with two jars of proprietary English pickles (Branston if you are interested) but luckily ‘Picante Ingles’ proved satisfactory. Marmite, Weetabix, Daddies brown sauce, custard powder and tins of baked beans are OK.
    I always use ‘cambio’ for money changing or debit/credit cards for paying for stuff and have had no problem. I have had difficulty at both ‘cambio’ and banks changing traveller’s cheques so now tend not to use them. It helps having a son with a Chilean bank account for transferring money into before I come, not a facility available to everyone I guess.

    Maybe catch you in March Margaret.

  14. @JackTowel – Love your sense of humour Jack, especially the part about “I even clean my teeth before landing in case my crevices are examined for residual food”.
    Are sure you are using Chilean Ministry of Health approved dental floss though?

  15. Good point about the name change bit John! And I can just imagine what English speakers did with Carrillo–with those 2 r’s and 2 l’s!
    Jack- thanks for the chuckle. and funny that the only thing I know I know on your list of approved things are the baked beans… and even then I bet they’re different from US style!
    Also funny that someone would bring beans from abroad… Ever heard the expression “más chilenos que los porotos”? (More Chilean than beans)!

  16. Gringos simply couldn’t manage ny name. A kid in High School once left me note addressed to “Dear Wand”.

  17. Wand? Wow, that’s a stretch! I can only imagine what they must have done to your last name!
    I actually wrote about this identity shifting thing a while back! Check out

  18. Dental floss John? I use thin sisal twine just to be sure. You could lose a small tomato in the gaps between my teeth!

    You definitely can’t bring lava bread, picalilli, Bubble and Squeak or Toad in the Hole into Chile from UK.

    Maybe I should start a ‘Things to Know Before You Come to UK’ blog Margaret?

  19. @Jack Towel – I think I just found your picture in my computer!
    Take a look,

  20. Sounds like a great idea John! I’ve never been to the UK and I’m sure I’d be in for MANY surprises! Start your blog and I’ll subscribe!

  21. Just clicked over here from the Post a Day 2011 – what an interesting post!
    I’m not sure I’ll ever make it over to Chile (from New Zealand) – having a baby means our travel budget is now zip – but what a great taste of what it would be like!

  22. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it!
    New Zealand, huh? very high on my must-see list!

  23. Good Morning, I am planning to relocate to Chile in June or July and was wondering what the best/easiest places to get a resonable apartment and possibly some kind ofemployment… Any help would be fantastic, I am 27 year old fully bilingual U.S Citizen 🙂

  24. That’s a tall order there Ricardo! Why are you relocating here? What kind of work do you do? I’m not sure that I can give you any specific advice, but you should be able to find plenty of general info in this blog and those of the other Chile bloggers (see the blog roll on the right hand side of the page for links to others with interesting, useful blogs about living in Chile). Good luck with your plans!

  25. Thanks for the prompt response, well I want to relocate because to be perfectly honest I have had it with the day to day life here in Sunny Miami, Fl and I guess the endless Work ->Home->Work home lifestyle. I wholeheartedly believe that life should be AWHOLE lot more than how many hrs you can work in a day to by the latest whatever gadget/thing they are shoving in your face on the TV,Radio,News… That said I have been working a gov’t job for the past 6-7 years and wow it is has been taxing on my soul 😦 I just truly and honeslty need to simplify my life and enjoy the basics…. Thank you again 🙂

  26. Hmm, tough one. Sounds like you’re in a rut that needs getting out of, although I’m not really sure that moving to Chile is going to fix things in the long run. Certainly won’t simplify anything, but it would definitely add an interesting challenge.
    I love living in Chile, but it’s not for everyone.
    Warning: people here tend to work much longer hours for much lower pay (a standard work week was dropped from 48 to 44 hours just a couple years ago). Unless you can land a job from abroad, it will take some creativity to find a niche that suits you and then figure out how to turn that into an income.
    That said, it is an absolutely beautiful country and probably the easiest place to live in Latin America in terms of quality of life, although it’s also the most expensive.
    I strongly suggest you keep up the research, try and find a job before you get here (many people start off teaching English, for example), and wish you lots of luck in finding your new path out of Miami!

  27. @Ricardo – Here is a tip that may help you land a job a bit faster. Keep the fact that you are bilingual close to your chest. I am not suggesting you lie about it; just do not divulge it at first. Why? Gringos are still treated differently in Chile. By that I mean, my “Chilean brothers and sisters” DO use a double standard.
    They treat foreigners (often) more seriously than the locals. I was born and raised down there, and I know my people fairly well. Hope and pray Margaret doesn’t read this, or I’ll have to answer to some committee right away, 🙂
    This is why I say do not start yapping in Spanish right away.

  28. Great post, great blog (found a link to the chilenismos on allchile)!
    I was warned before arriving here for the first time that I would be attacked by taxi drivers as soon as I got out in the “main hall” – still the sight of all those people shouting at me made me drop my jaw. 😀

    Second time I got here I actually had to open up my big bag, an angry guy was shouting “alimentos, alimentos!?!?” at me and I had no idea what the food in question would be. I checked before I left to make sure that the tea I was going to bring would be ok, so I was a bit scared.. Turned out that they in the x-ray had seen a pumpkin in the bag. The pumpkin was in fact a decoration, belonged in a gift bag with one of the bags of tea.. The customs guy was looking at it closely and then finally knocked gently on it.
    His face expression? Priceless 😀

  29. Hi Kamilla- Welcome to Cachando Chile! Glad to have your comments and stories!
    Yes, the intro to Chile at the airport can be a bit daunting! and I can just imagine the scene with the “pumpkin”!! Wouldn’t you love to have had a camera? Of course your stomach was probably in knots… I’m always nervous that they’ll find something or other… For example, I wanted to bring back some wooden Christmas tree ornaments from Germany, but was afraid that they wouldn’t make it through. Technically they shouldn’t (plant matter!)

  30. saludos , u palo es expresion informal que en tiempos mas antiguos causaba mucha gracia diversion o humor, hoy ya no pero que decia alucion a que si algun bien o consumo te combraban o valia 1 millon de pesos chilenos, era un cifra exageradamente grande dificil de conseguir, por eso, a manera de reirse de la situacion en desgracia, las personas se burlaban de si mismas,pues para ellos que le cobren un millon se sentia o era igual a que te dieran un golpe en la cabeza con un madero y quedaras aturdido ,o algo desorientado sin capacidad de reponerte o reaccionar por el hecho de haber escuchado tal semejante cifra inalcanzable,que hoy ya no es tan terrible, saludos

  31. qué buena la explicación! quedó clarísimo. y es cierto, la primera vez que tenía un millón de pesos en mis manos, me sentía ricachona, como “millonaria”!!

  32. Hi Margaret, Nice blog. I live in Argentina and am thinking of moving to Chile after so many years here. One thing, to note, although I am Americana, I have permanent residency in Argentina and do not pay the
    reciprocity fee when I enter Chile. This would go for any other US citizens if they have permanent residency in any of the Unasur or Mercosur countries. Also for the first time in many years, Argentina is much more expensive than Chile. About the comment to the young man who is bi-lingual, Sorry Mr. Carr, you are incorrect. My Chilean friends in Santiago tell me that my being bi-lingual is a definitive advantage for jobs especially in high tech. I have traveled all over South America and live in Argentina. There are people who do not like me because I am American, there are people who don’t like me because I speak Spanish with an Argentine accent. The there are those who are excited to be my friend because I am foreign and different. Some people are eager to speak English with me, some pretend not to understand my Spanish. The same is true in reverse with my latino friends who live in the US. We are foreigners even if we speak the language..but life goes on and there are always wonderful people who do accept us. Besos from Buenos Aires

  33. will a cherry vodka be considered a fruit on the airport?:)

  34. haha–not to worry, the cherries in your vodka should slide through just fine–as long as you don’t start the tipple before you leave the airport!

  35. ok, thanks:) i’m going to santiago de chile for the first time on the 4th of march, for 3 weeks, so i’m making last minute preparations, trying to think of things i should take with me and find out what to expect once i arrive. i’ve found your blog tremendously helpful and also, at times, extremely funny, can’t count times it made me laugh out loud:) i will definitely remember not to say that i’m excitada, at least not in public;) thankfully i’ve already known the expression “tener verguenza” so it didn’t cross my mind to say that i am embarazada. i know only un poquito de espanol, but the more i read about the language chileans use, the more i think that my spanish wouldn’t be of much use anyway. even the guy i’m going with, who originally comes from chile, but is living abroad for the last 8 years, admits, that he doesn’t always understand his friends any more:)
    and a quick question at the end since i have the opportunity: will i have any problems with using my debit/credit cards in chile or should i be ok most of the time?

  36. Hi Morrigaine- Glad you’re enjoying the blog and finding it helpful (and funny, I like funny)… You shouldn’t have any problem with your debit/credit cards, but just to be sure, I’d check with the bank. For example, my bank (here in Chile) suddenly put a hold on all card use outside the country. I was on vacation in the US at the time and it was quite a chore. Now I know that before I leave the country I need to notify the bank so they will accept charges from the countries I’m traveling in. It’s a pain, but in the end, it’s better than having fake charges from Timbuktu appear.
    Enjoy your trip! I hope you love it as much as I do!

  37. Thanks for the advice. I know for sure that my British bank wants to know in advance if I’m ever using my card abroad, so I did notify them already, but I should double check with my Polish bank just to be on the safe side.
    I really hope that I will enjoy my stay in Chile as much as I hope to enjoy it:) And if I like it enough, I will definitely consider going there for longer, not only for vacation. I always wanted to do it, but wasn’t brave enough until now. Finally the time has come!:)

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