What to know before your first visit to Chile

June 07, 2019

We break down everything you need to know about your first trip to Chile


Chile has a uniquely ribbon-like geographical shape that makes it the world’s longest country, full of dramatically different climates, terrains, and landscapes. Not only is it known for some of the most fascinating ruins in the world (hello, Rapa Nui!), but its outdoor destinations and natural landmarks like Tierra del Fuego are a sight to behold. Chilean wines have made their mark on oenophiles, as well as its growing winter sports scene, and of course, the mysterious Rapa Nui, formerly known as Easter Island.

Santiago has become a popular destination for startup companies and corporations seeking a foothold in South America, and the city itself is a bustling, vibrant home base for cosmopolitan expats.

Your first trip to Chile certainly won’t be your last, as there’s a lot of ground to cover, food to eat, and things to do.


Tierra del Fuego National Park in Chile


How to pack

Depending on where you’re going, the weather in Chile can be wildly different, so plan ahead. There are a few constant wardrobe staples, given that Chile’s 'backbone' is the Andes mountain range: good walking shoes that are comfortable on slopes, layers for unexpected chills and winds, and a good rain jacket. The sun is extremely strong in most areas, so a hat, sunblock, and sunglasses are must-pack accessories. Since Chile covers so much ground, there are distinct 'micro-climates' depending on where you are – the north is exceedingly dry and very cold at night. Central Chile is milder, and the South can have unpredictable, wet weather, as is typical for the Patagonian region. If you’re travelling to higher altitudes, prepare yourself by reading up on how to cope with altitude sickness.


Outdoor view of tourists walking close to the waterfalls in Pucon Chile


We had a quick chat with Chilean expat, Ignacio Barrenegoa, a frequent traveller who returns to his native country several times a year. He filled us in on a few lesser-known types of Chilean food, what first-time visitors can expect and pesky stereotypes.


Ignacio Barrenegoa in Chile


Which part of Chile are you from?

I was born in Santiago, which as you probably know, is the biggest city. I lived there until I was 18 and have been coming back since I left, quite often. I could say the city has changed a lot in recent years – the Chilean economy has grown since the 90s a lot, and therefore every time I go back to visit, you can see the changes, especially after a full year away, there’s a new huge building where there used to be nothing.


Skyline of Santiago de Chile with modern office buildings at financial district in Las Condes Chile


What are some of your favourite things to do when you’re at home?

Every time I go home, I think what I like to do the most is drink wine and go to a friend’s barbecue or have a barbecue at my father’s house. I think that’s very much in our culture – grilling meat and drinking good wine. I became a wine drinker, or a wine aficionado, when I was in Spain, so most of my wine background or what I learned about it came from there, but of course, that makes it easy to appreciate what we have in Chile.


A Chilean gaucho and his assistant demonstrate the carving of a whole barbecued lamb outdoors at a ranch in Patagonia Chile


What are a few things about Chile that you think first-time visitors wouldn't expect?

Our accent is famous for being hard to understand, even for a lot of Spanish speakers, especially if you go away from Santiago, in the south, in more rural areas, it can become really, really tough, even for Chileans sometimes. I think a lot of what surprises some people – at least, some people that aren’t familiar with Chile’s history or economy – is that Santiago particularly is a very developed, safe, and stable place. And a lot of people don’t expect to see skyscrapers and like, modern restaurants and bars as much. I think another very cool thing is the difference you have between the north of the country, which is basically desert, compared to when you go to the south, which has rainforest, and ice, and cold, and rain. There’s a big contrast. Another thing that takes people by surprise is that one of the main attractions in Chile is Easter Island [also known as Rapa Nui], which most people have heard of, but not that many know that it’s part of Chile.


Are there stereotypes of different kinds of Chileans from different parts of the country?

There’s not that much to say about the stereotypes, because I would say like maybe one third or more of the population comes from Santiago. So you could divide the country into 'people from Santiago' and 'people not from Santiago.' Once you got to the north, I mean, there’s not even enough people to come up with a stereotype, I would say. It’s not like in other countries, like in Spain, for example, where there are people from the south or people from Catalunya. I don’t think we have such a clear distinction in Chile, but definitely, there’s a big Santiago and not-Santiago differentiation – with such a centralised population, there’s a big difference.


What do you think are some of the most underrated aspects of Chile?

I think that Chilean food is not very popular anywhere, and that might be when it comes to preparation, I don’t think it’s very sophisticated. But there’s a lot to say about the products we have there, especially seafood. There are things that I’ve never seen anywhere else at seafood markets – not so much when you go to the big one in Santiago called Mercado Central, ‘cause that’s been taken over by tourists. If you ever have an opportunity to go to smaller fishing areas, fishing towns, there’s always little markets where they make very basic preparations with the seafood you find locally, and those are really, really good. There’s a special kind of abalone called locos, and those are really good, and not very well known. There’s piure, and it’s really special, really delicious, normally quite cheap because not a lot of people eat it frequently, but I think it’s very, very good. There’s also a seaweed that’s called cochayuyo, with which they make a salad, which is also very well worth trying.


Cochayuyo is the Chilean name for a popular seaweed sold in outdoor markets throughout Chile