An Expat Guide to Living in Santiago, Chile

Charis McGowan

Hands down, Santiago is one of the best places to live in South America – and this guide will tell you why and how to do it

At first glance, Santiago seems to fall short compared to other South American cities. It lacks the exotic allure of Rio, the historic charm of Cusco and the elegance of Buenos Aires. You can’t come here to learn tango, drink caipriñas or see historic indigenous landmarks. No, Santiago isn’t the kind of city that neatly arrives with a package holiday itinerary. Sure, you’d be a fool to turn down a sunny beach holiday to Rio over a trip to Santiago – but living is a different thing.

Chileno, po!

Of course, South America isn’t a place where you can easily get by with English alone. Even if you arrive with a bit of Spanish, you will find it difficult in Chile. Before I moved over, I asked a friend who had lived here what the Chileno was like – “Probably the Spanish equivalent of a Scouser who moved to Birmingham at a young age,” came the reply.

With loads of slang, fast-talk and word merging, Chilean is the type of Spanish that even Spanish speakers can’t understand. It’ll be OK, though – as soon as you learn you can replace any word you don’t know with the term ‘weon’ or ‘wea’ and add a ‘po’ at the end of each sentence, you’re almost already there. Can’t remember the word for pepper? “Pasarme la wea, po” is absolutely fine for “Please pass me the pepper.” Bienvenido a Chile.

Santiago Steps, Chile

Work, work, work

Most English-speaking natives who live in Santiago are English teachers. There are hundreds of language schools that will employ you even if you don’t have prior teaching experience – all you need is to speak English. If you do have teaching experience or a teaching qualification, you can apply for better-paid jobs with prestigious institutes like The Instituto Britanico or the British Council. These places will set you up with a visa and, in some cases, even help out with flights.

Schedule your classes well. Some language schools will send you half way across the city for 6.000 CLP an hour (that’s about £6) – that’s not much if you are travelling 40 minutes to get there. Take your time and consider your options, there is enough demand to be picky.

Alternatively, set your own rates. Private classes can go from 8-20 CLP an hour (again, just knock the zeros off, £8-20) You can advertise your tuition services on websites like yapo.cl – plenty of expats who live here get by just on private, cash in hand classes alone.

If you are arriving without Spanish and without a job, then a different career path may be challenging to find. Minimum wage is dreadful here so waiting tables isn’t something you want to do in the meantime.

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Find a depto

Remember, you are in Chile. An apartment isn’t called an ‘apto’ or ‘piso’, but a ‘depto’! You can find rooms on compartodepto.com or on Facebook groups such as Room and Flat Finder. Be aware, some of these rooms are let out for inflated ‘gringo’ prices. Rent isn’t bad in Chile, the maximum you should pay is the equivalent to £200-300 monthly, all included. However, make sure you don’t pay £250 for a small room in a shared apartment. With that amount you could be looking at your own small place.

Foreigners tend to live in the Providencia part of the city, under the guise that it is safer and cleaner. The rent has increased a lot in that area, so it is worth looking around the nice areas in the centre, such as Bellas Artes or Bellavista.

Alternatively, the historic Barrio Brasil also has plenty of housing options. It’s a bit further away, but prices are cheap.

Escape the smog

Santiago is surrounded by the Andes, which is incredible in theory. However, the air is often so misty and smoggy that the Andes aren’t very visible most time. Smog is a problem here, especially in the winter months. Thankfully, Chile is geographically amazing – the mountains or the beach are never far away. You can easily escape the smog – catch a bus 1.5 hours to the coast and you’re in the beautiful port town of Valparaiso, or if you go 1.5 hours to the mountains, you can hike around the Andean town of Cajon del Maipo. Those are just the closest options – incredible nature is found all throughout Chile.

Santiago, Chile

Get some skills

As mentioned earlier, Santiago won’t beat other Latin American cities when it comes to sultry salsa or tango classes. Let’s just shove the Latino stereotype aside though, and consider learning a bunch of other cool stuff. From Santiago, it’s possible to surf and snowboard in one day – although that would be a bit exhausting. Travel three hours south to Pichilemu and learn how to surf in a world-class spot, or start mountaineering in the Andes. Too physical? Just go to some nearby vineyards to learn some wine trivia to show off at your next soirée. These activities are far cheaper than in the European equivalents, so it makes sense to start a new hobby here.

Santiago is just a cool city, full stop.

Why live here? To sum it up, it is just a cool city. It’s not touristy, it’s not dangerous, there’s endless bars that sell delicious pisco cocktails or beers at cheap rates (£1.50 for a litre bottle of beer? Thanks!), there are fun and diverse club nights, everyone loves a BBQ in the park and it is pretty much always sunny.

You are in South America, without a lot of the challenges that you’d find in other South American countries. Santiago is accessible, relatively organized, has a great transport system and is safe.

Just come with some streetwise knowledge and a bit of Spanish and you’ll get on just fine here, weon.