By Mark Gallilee
Mark Gallilee, lead mechanical engineer at ALMA Observatory in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, moved to Santiago with his family in March 2018. However, after failing to settle, the family moved back to Oxford, UK, in August the same year. Gallilee now commutes between the UK and Chile.
When we moved to Santiago, it was a rush to find an apartment before I started work. Unfortunately, we chose the wrong location.
We moved to an area called La Dehesa, west of Santiago city and away from the airport. La Dehesa is not typical of Santiago because it houses a large expat community and almost looks like a US suburb. It has good restaurants and expat food (there is an English shop in Espacio Urbano on Rodeo Avenue), and international schools, such as Nido de Aguilas.
However, the city’s pollution is bad in winter especially, and La Dehesa is no exception, despite its higher altitude compared with the rest of the city. My wife suffers from asthma and the pollution made this unbearable.
She also had bad luck with car accidents, and my son had to go to hospital for stitches after an accident at the beach. It was all too much for them. Luckily, direct flights from Santiago to London make commuting to the UK feasible.
Santiago is much cheaper than London for a comparable standard of living, and the weather is much better than most places in Europe. However, Chile is expensive in South American terms. Renting a two- or three-bedroom family apartment in the capital costs between 500,000 and 1m pesos ($750-$1,500) a month, depending on the area.
Some central neighbourhoods, such as Providencia, are cheaper, easily accessible on the metro and offer a metropolitan lifestyle with cafés and bars. But, as in all big cities, you need to be careful when walking at night, especially alone.
Expect rents to be higher in La Dehesa, Vitacura or Las Condes — areas popular with expats because of the high-end lifestyle they offer. Security tends to be tighter in these districts and all three have good international schools, upmarket shopping centres, such as the Nueva Costanera in Vitacura, and nice cafés and restaurants. Las Condes has better public transport because it has more metro stops, whereas in Vitacura, and especially La Dehesa, it is better to own a car.
You have not tasted avocado until you have done so in Chile — it is perfectly ripe. Typically, Chileans order avocado, or palta, on toast, and there is no need to pollute this perfect fruit with anything other than salt and pepper for flavour.
As for other food, Uncle Fletch, a gourmet burger and craft beer restaurant in La Dehesa, is set in an old train carriage, which adds to its ambience. Try the Sleeping Beauty burger and be prepared for the surprise — and to share it with another person.
LOBO Brasserie, well known for its beautifully prepared French cuisine, is perfect for a relaxing weekend morning. I recommend the prosecco brunch: a choice of French pastries, fresh fruit, juice and unlimited prosecco, all for less than £20.
Reñaca, a small seaside town 90 minutes’ drive north-west of Santiago, is a lovely place for a break from the city. I have only discovered it since my family left for the UK — I wish we had visited it while they were here. It has a boardwalk and beach, with exercise equipment for the energetic, and cafés serving excellent seafood. Try the locos (Chilean abalone) with a pisco sour (a cocktail). This beach would not look out of place in the sunny climes of California.
Another beach resort, to the north of Reñaca, is Papudo, with restaurants along the beachfront offering freshly caught seafood.
Away from the beach, Chile offers a wealth of adventures, such as mountain climbing in the Andes, where 6,000m peaks are common, exploring glaciers in the south and hiking across deserts in the north. Star-gazing in the Atacama desert is an unmissable experience — the clear, dry climate allows a view of the Milky Way to be found in few other places on Earth.
My experience has been that it is difficult to break into groups of friends outside work. I recommend joining local groups and persevering. Also, do not be so European about arrival times: people here work to “Chilean time”, which can mean being 10-15 minutes late. Relax, throw out your perceptions and it will be much easier to integrate.
If we were to do the move again, I would travel around for a few months beforehand with the family to take a good look at the different areas. Take your time before settling and, most of all, enjoy the adventure.
What do you wish you had known before you moved?
To be patient — everything takes longer than you expect. Also, there are nice places to live outside Santiago: consider beach resorts such as Viña del Mar and Reñaca, which has a British school. Both towns are about 90 minutes’ drive from central Santiago — which would be a long daily commute, but the low pollution and relaxed lifestyle would make it worth it.
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Photographs: Mark Gallilee; Dreamstime; Nido de Aguilas school