Chile’s geographic isolation from the rest of South America led to the development of a rich culture. From political unrest and gauchos to vibrant street art and traditional dance, Chilean culture is as varied as the geography—each region’s customs seem to be a reflection of the wild landscapes that make it a world-class destination.
After navigating Santiago, driving the spectacular Carretera Austral, trekking through Patagonia, and exploring Valparaíso, we put together our official unofficial guide to Chilean culture.
“You can’t understand Chilean culture without understanding the history,” my “Tours 4 Tips” guide in Santiago, Camilo Andrés Alba, tells me. In particular, he’s referring to the events that led up to the 1973 coup d’état, the death of socialist President Salvador Allende, and the reign of military dictator Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990. This period of political tumult is still highly controversial and so the topic is often avoided—even in Chilean schools. “It’s a taboo topic,” Alba says. But this history shaped the country into what it is today.
While members of the up-and-coming generation like Alba (born in 1989) are now able to forge ahead within an entirely different state of affairs, “we need people to build this historical context,” he says. “It took a long time for our society to feel empowered again.” A great place to learn more about this history is the Museum of Memory and Human Rights and the Museo Histórico Nacional in Santiago.
From the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, to the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, to the hip, avant-garde galleries in Barrio Bellavista, Santiago is full of opportunities to see both contemporary and historical art. Some of the most memorable works you’ll see, however, are right on the street—literally. The colorful, dream-like murals along the city’s sidewalks are a prized Chilean tradition. Some local street artists—like Inti, who has gone on to paint neighborhoods from Honolulu to Paris—have even reached international acclaim. If you really want to immerse yourself in a decorated city, make a visit to Inti’s hometown of Valparaíso, where it’s almost harder to find a blank wall than a painted one.
Chile’s literary history is remarkably rich. The first Chilean poet that usually comes to mind is luminary Pablo Neruda, whose passionate and surrealist work earned his place as an essential part of the 20th century canon, and earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. You can dive into the whimsical world that shaped his poetry by visiting La Chascona, the house he lived in while in Santiago.
But Neruda isn’t the only literary giant to come out of Chile. Before Neruda, poet Gabriela Mistral became the first Latin American author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945, “for her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world.” The Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral (GAM) cultural center in Santiago is named after her and you can also find her across the country on the 5,000-peso note.
Latin dance is known the world over for its intimate focus on partner and flashy moves. From performers wearing traditional garb in Santiago’s Plaza de Armas to couples in the midst of a late dinner, Chileans can often be seen dancing the cueca, which claims the title of national dance. Both male and female dancers use a handkerchief in the courtship choreography, wrapping it around their partner’s waist or twirling it around above their head.
Nightlife is big in Chilean hotspots like Santiago and Valparaíso and there are plenty of unique clubs featuring tango or salsa music. If you’re a bit stiff in the hips, sign up for lessons in Santiago, then go join a public tango session in one of the city’s many parks and plazas.
As a bustling, cosmopolitan city, you can find just about any type of cuisine in Santiago that suits your fancy. But it would be a shame to visit Chile without sampling some of the traditional local cuisine. The best places to savor Chilean fare are at Santiago’s markets. Head to Mercado Central for seafood dishes typically from coastal Chile, or to La Vega Central for meat-based ones typically from the northern regions. Popular favorites include machas a la parmesana (a razor clam-like shellfish cooked with parmesan cheese), pastel de jaiba (crab pie), and pastel de choclo (a layered pie with beef, chicken, olives, and a hard-boiled egg, topped with ground corn and sugar and then baked in the oven).
With cheaper prices and great quality, the market is also a great place to do your grocery shopping if you’ll be in town for awhile. Take note, however, that bargaining is frowned upon here: instead, prices are set by a loyalty system. “You always buy the same apples from the same person, and eventually you get the best prices,” Alba explains. “But if you ‘cheat’ … then you’re punished.”
Alcoholic beverages are mainstays in just about every culture and Chile is no exception. From a growing wine reputation to refreshing beers and unique cocktails, Chile has plenty to offer those who love libations. Chile’s wine just keeps getting better and wine lovers turn to Chilean bottles when considering a quality value. Chile’s coastal breezes and moderate rainfall make for excellent grape growing conditions in its northern latitudes. Carménère is the unofficial Chilean wine—Europe’s Carménère grape was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in Chilean vineyards in the 1990s after years of being mistaken as Merlot.
Beer tends to be on light side. Most major brewers stick to pale lagers but smaller producers and craft brewers put out some quality cervezas. Try D’Olbek or Cerveza Austral for a darker brew. The title of official Chilean cocktail has to go to the pisco sour, aka Chile’s National Spirit (Peru also claims the pisco sour as its national beverage, and major differences exist between the two versions). The Chilean pisco sour is made from pisco brandy, lemon, sugar, and ice. It’s often served as an aperitivo with lunch or dinner.
Mate is as essential to South American culture as the gaucho. Mate is a tea brewed from the leaves and stems of the yerba mate plant, a member of the holly family. Moderately caffeinated, it packs a softer punch than coffee and contains essential elements like magnesium, manganese, and potassium. The name mate is derived from the quichua word “mati” which refers to the traditional gourd used to hold the brew. Although northern Chile seems to be inundated with NesCafe instant coffee, mate is the energy drink of choice down south. Proper etiquette in the mate circle is important. never move the bombilla (straw) once it’s in place, always pass the mate gourd back to the server, and only say gracias when you’ve had your final sip. It’s an honor to be including in a mate circle, so be sure to be embrace the ritual and be respectful to the server
The public bus systems in Chile are cheap, quite impressive, and always exciting, especially in urban areas. The local buses in Valparaíso are an attraction of their own, crawling around the steep, narrow roads of the city’s 52 unique cerros (hills). The 612 bus, aka “The Rollercoaster,” will take you to several miradors (lookouts) for a spectacular view of the colorful city. Be sure to have your fare ready—instead of a base pay, drivers are paid by the number of riders they have in a shift. Buses often race along the main stops to pick up the most passengers. If you’re dawdling, you may get kicked off the bus at the next stop.
Lady and the Tramp aside, stray dogs bring to mind bring a somewhat unsavory picture. In Santiago, however, a stray dog is just another neighbor, and most are surprisingly healthy, friendly, and clean—the obvious beneficiaries of their bipedal friends. Estimates for how many strays are in Santiago range from 200,000 to half a million. They are, quite literally, everywhere. And many of the people they share the city with welcome their presence: “I would not like Santiago without the stray dogs,” local tour guide Gonzalos said. “It would be weird to me.”