Stay Safe in Chile
Like most large cities in South America, Santiago suffers from a high rate of pickpocketing and muggings. It is advisable not to walk around the city centre with expensive-looking jewellery or watches, even during the day. Stay alert and be especially careful in all busy areas of Santiago. It is recommended to carry your backpack on the front of your body in busy areas. The latest laptops and mobile phones can be lucrative for thieves, so be on your guard when using them in public places.
For tourists or other “beginners” who are not used to handling Chilean hard currency at the counter, you can reduce the risk of having your wallet stolen by following some tips:
- Separate coins and notes. Coins are often used to pay for public transport (except on buses in Santiago, where you have to get on with your beeper card), newspapers or snacks. Keep them in a small purse to keep your bills hidden.
- The 1000, 2000 and 5000 peso notes should be easily accessible. Higher value notes should be kept in another, more secure place in your wallet, to avoid accidentally paying 10,000 pesos instead of 1,000, for example. All banknotes are of different sizes and are all very different in colour and design.
- Don’t take out your wallet until the seller tells you the price.
The Chilean Carabineros (national police) are very trustworthy. Call 133 from any phone if you need help in an emergency. Some municipalities (such as Santiago or Las Condes) have private guards, but they usually do not speak English. Don’t try to bribe a carabinero, you could get into serious trouble! Unlike other South American police forces, the Chilean carabineros are very proud and honest, and corruption would be a serious offence to their credo.
Regarding driving conditions: Chilean drivers are generally not as unpredictable and erratic as those in neighbouring countries.
Some parts of Chile are still racially homogeneous and locals will be curious if they see an Asian or black person. If you are from the Middle East and want to mix with Chileans, dressing like a local will help, even if you naturally speak with a foreign accent that people will notice immediately. Cities like Santiago, Viña del Mar and Antofagasta have become more multicultural in recent years, with immigrants from Haiti, Colombia, China, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, so if you are a foreigner in these places, you will not be greeted with curiosity. Some Chileans who have a bad opinion of foreigners may shout “negro” (black in Spanish) or “chino” (Chinese in Spanish), but only report to the carabineros if someone physically attacks you. Racist attacks are generally rare, but the carabinieri know how to deal with this kind of crime, so don’t hesitate to report it if something happens.
Immigration from countries where Islam is the state religion is very low compared to European countries. There are mosques in the country, but the average Chilean is not used to seeing a woman in a hijab or burqa, so many will stare or make a comment. There have been reports of Chileans verbally harassing traditionally dressed women and some have even reported being pulled by the hijab by boys or men. Although this is rare, it can happen and should be reported to the police. Some people will also defend your right to wear a hijab or burqa. Do not assume that all Chileans are racist. There is a sizeable Palestinian community, but most of them are Christians.
Be careful when taking pictures in areas where there are military buildings or when you see soldiers guarding an entrance, for example. They have the right to stop and confiscate your camera. Be prepared to spend time answering questions and having each photo examined by a soldier or marine. You will avoid detention because the marines will understand that you, as a foreign tourist, did not understand the warnings and an interrogation will be conducted because that is what soldiers are supposed to do in such a situation. But it is better to avoid such a situation and ask if you can take a picture instead. Some Marines or soldiers may speak little English, but if not, point to an object and say “si?” while pointing to your camera so that they understand that you want to take a picture. If they respond with a “no”, it is wise to respect their decision.
Stay away from political demonstrations in any city, especially Santiago. The student protests that shocked the country in 2011 always ended in violence. If you want to see something, stay in a safe area and avoid proximity. Carabinieri are always on alert when there is a political demonstration and some people join in just because they want to cause violence. Also avoid sports celebrations, such as Chile winning a tournament, as these will also end in violence.
When going out to bars or clubs, be careful when ordering a drink. If you want to play it safe, order a bottled beer or pay for a bottle of wine or hard liquor if possible. Problems with alcoholic beverages have increased, so always be careful when ordering your drink. Places aimed at young people or students tend to offer cheap drinks, wine and beer, which you should avoid at all costs as they are poorly made and can be dangerous for you. Instead, order well-known brands such as Cristal or Casillero del Diablo in a bar or nightclub.
If you walk through the streets of many cities, you will see many dogs and many of them live on the street. They are likely to be carriers of disease, so avoid touching them. If you are used to dogs or have a dog owner, it can be very helpful to avoid them. They are everywhere and popular tourist areas are full of stray dogs. Don’t argue if you see locals being aggressive towards stray dogs. They see them every day and will not appreciate a tourist who has only been or will be in Chile for a few days having an opinion on how to deal with dogs that they think are aggressive towards the locals.
Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, all of Chile is prone to earthquakes and tsunamis.
Stay Healthy in Chile
As medical standards are relatively good throughout the country, it is not difficult to stay healthy. However, you will usually find more sophisticated resources in a private medical facility. In an emergency, call 131, but don’t expect an operator to be fluent in English.
Vaccination against hepatitis A is recommended for all travellers. Other possible vaccinations, depending on your travel situation, are as follows: Hepatitis B, typhoid, rabies and flu.
Tap water is safe to drink. Just be aware that the water comes from the mountains, which may be more difficult for foreigners. In this case, it is advisable to buy bottled water.