'Cachai,' Completos and Cafés con Piernas: 10 Things We Really Wish We'd Known About Chile

Your first Sunday in Santiago likely left you wandering a ghost town with a non-functional cell phone ("international" plan--yeah, right), trying not to stare at the overly affectionate Chilean couples around every corner and wondering why everyone kept saying "cachai."

But you're not alone--many of us have been there, too, and hope you won't make the same mistakes we once did. Here's a crash course on the 10 most beneficial, useful and even crucial things to know about Chilean life that we each learned the hard way:

Santiago Chile Crash Course
Photo by Alfredo Pernas

1. Chileans tend to really push the envelope when it comes to showing the world just how much they love their other half.

A simple peck on the cheek and pat of the hand just won't do for this impassioned nation. Regardless of age, expect to see various un-edifying examples of Latin lovin' in public spaces across the country.

2. The cornerstone of Chilean culture is the country's fundamental slang that makes "proper" Spanish speakers cringe.

Practically every chilenismo (Chilean saying) has at least two meanings, many times contrary to each other. La raja often means great, spectacular--or simply, the s**t. On the other hand, it can also mean very tired or spent.

Worse yet, the word weón--and its infinite derivatives--is used more often than a drunken Irishman swears. It can mean nearly anything from a term of endearment for a close friend to a violent word directed at enemies, to an idiot, "dude," "f**k" and practically any other noun, verb or adjective possible in conversation. Cachai ("got it")?

3. Santiago on Sunday feels like the Twilight Zone.

No one is around and the few shopkeepers who are working peer at you strangely as if they're wondering, "Why are you here? Is there something wrong with you?" From Las Condes to Lampa, the streets are as dead as the dodo. It’s like everyone knows something you don't, and is out somewhere having fun without you.

Santiago Chile Crash Course
Photo by Adam Fuller

4. If you like hot dogs, Chile is mecca.

Completos (hot dogs with tomato salsa and mayonnaise) and italianos (hot dogs with tomato salsa, mayonnaise and guacamole) are served everywhere and eaten on almost any occasion.

Their pile of ingredients can be a bit intimidating at first; but once you polish your technique, you'll find that they're a surprisingly satisfying and tasty part of Chilean life.

5. Santiago’s urban narcotic jungle can be summed up in two words: Avenida Suecia.

While the swarm of drug movement is abound on this Providencia street, you'll also find lots of strip bars and cheap, friendly, but dubious suripantas (hookers). Watch out for pickpocketers, flaites and possible she-males, though.

6. Chilean phones aren't like phones anywhere else.

It's perfectly obvious to all the locals that you dial "02" before the number if it's a land line, "09" if it's a mobile and "963" if the recipient has brown hair and it's a Tuesday, but for any newcomer the process is utterly incomprehensible.

To make matters worse, if you've only got 3 pesos of credit left on your phone, you may as well send smoke signals--and you didn't really expect to be able to send and receive texts from abroad with your new mobile, did you?

7. Pisco is the pride of Chilean booze, and a pisco sour is the way to imbibe this deceptively strong grape liquor.

Santiago Chile Crash Course
Photo by Elaine Ramirez

However, finding a good pisco sour can be hit or miss. When contemplating a sample, make sure that the bar makes them fresh, either normal (lemon juice, sugar, pisco, and ice) or peruano (lime juice, sugar, pisco, ice, and egg white).

Look around for the traditional petite flute glass in the hands of locals--it's a bad sign if everyone is drinking beer by the liter.

8. If it's your first time in Chile, prepare to fork over some cash at the airport (or swipe your credit card) when you arrive.

There is a "reciprocity fee" charged to US (US$131), Canadian (US$132), Mexican (US$15) and Australian (US$61) citizens upon entry to Chile. The stamp you're awarded is valid for the life of your passport, but the tourist visa lasts for just 90 days. Avoid major hassles and don't let your tourist visa expire on you--immigration won't let you leave without resolving the issue. (Trust us, we've been down that road.)

9. Whether you're job hunting, booking accomodations or just asking for a tad more info on a concert or event, forget about sending an email.

It takes a while to realize it wasn't just bad luck that no one answered--Chilean culture values the warmth of face-to-face communication or phone calls over the cold, impersonal binaries of an email or text.

To further frustrate any first-worlder, Chilean time is different than the hour on your watch. It's an unspoken understanding that whenever you work out a good time for both parties, you actually mean any time at least 30 or 40 minutes thereafter--stretching up to 4 or 5 hours when talking to gardeners, plumbers or cable TV repairmen.

10. Many cafés in Chile serve more than just coffee.

Santiago Chile Crash Course
Photo courtesy Whats up Buenos Aires

A café con piernas ("coffee with legs") comes with, well, a nice side of T and A. As one of Chile's most tantalizing cultural phenomena, delicious espressos and juices in these themed cafés are served by affectionate, attentive and scantily clad waitresses.

If you buy your seductive server a drink, you'll get a nice little dance and, sometimes, a few offers beyond that cup of joe (wink, wink).

Written by Sofia Carvajal, Matt Dillinger, Adam Fuller, Hattie Mills, Charlotte Mountford, Elaine Ramirez, Jason Snyder, Victor Soto and Natasha Young

What did you find out the hard way when you first got to Chile? Let the world know with your comments below:

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