This is a photo of a typical residential street in the capital city of Santiago. Because I’m from the U.S., I’m going to use that as my point of reference when describing the differences between the Chilean residential street and one in the U.S.
This following picture is taken in the neighborhood in which I’m living, called Valle lo Campino. Most of the streets in this little suburb look like this.
Valle lo Campino is located in the municipality of Quilicura, which is located just north-east of Santiago center (look in the top-left corner of the map below). Only thirty or so years ago, this part of Santiago was still undeveloped, much of the land still used primarily for agriculture.
Because of this, it is fairly common to see remnants of farms and old ranch-style houses tucked in amongst the burgeoning residential neighborhoods. It’s common to see carts and horses and caballeros (farmers/cowboys) in traditional attire.
Here’s a close-up view. You can see that the little “pueblo-suburb” of Valle lo Campino is actually tucked into the hills. It makes this part of Santiago feel like you’re not really in the city. Outside our windows, we glimpse hills, not apartment blocks and skyscrapers, as would be seen in other Santiago neighborhoods.
Now, let’s get down to the details:
ONE The hill you see in the background is one of several large and steep hills that are scattered around the capital. This one has a huge white metal cross on the top and it is scattered with walking and dirt bike trails. No formal roads go to the top, although there are several other cerros, or hills – most notably, Cerro Santa Lucia and Cerro San Cristobal – that do have paved paths and even roads that climb to the top.
TWO The colors of the houses are pretty much all in the warm tones – reds, yellows, ochres, oranges, yellows, tans – all variations. Chileans are NOT afraid of color and while our neighbor seems to be made up of a range of reds and yellows, I’ve seen houses all the colors of the rainbow in Santiago.
THREE Streets tend to be narrow and cars will often park on the street. There are lots of speed bumps because nothing else controls the speed of autos within the city. I’ve certainly never seen a carabinero, or policeman bother with enforcing speed or traffic rules. (More on this in another post – driving in Chile is a unique experience.)
FOUR Although you can’t specifically see this in the photo, I thought I should warn you. There are no dog pick-up rules enforced in Chile. Walk down Chilean streets with caution.
FIVE Also, another reason for paying attention, sidewalks can be worn and torn and missing chunks. Our neighborhood isn’t so bad but there are certainly places in Santiago that are inaccessible to peoples in wheelchairs. In fact, on the topic of ADA-type regulations, very few are in evidence in Chile. Elevators aren’t required, minimum aisle/doorway measurements aren’t a thing, and wheelchair accessible bathroom stalls are rare.
SIX Houses are fenced and gated. Closed communities with security personnel are also common. In our neighborhood, like many in Santiago, there are little security buildings scattered throughout. A watchman is usually stationed in them around the clock. We also have security personnel that patrol our neighborhood in vehicles. Overall, our neighborhood is pretty safe.
One of the more sobering things about living in Chile is the evidence of extreme poverty. As far as I’m aware, there’s not much state help with housing and basic services. Because of this, and a lack of regulations regarding buildings and structures, there are shanty-towns and shacks in all parts of the city, some built with only tarps and stained mattresses.
SEVEN This is a mailbox. It is attached to the gate and has a narrow slot along the street-facing side for mail to be put into. On the other side is a lock for the homeowner to access the mail. However, in Chile, mailboxes are pretty much hardly ever used. That’s because the mailman (who delivers letters and packages only) will either just throw your mail over your fence or ring your buzzer and ask for a tip to give it to you. I’m not being sarcastic or making a social commentary here. This is just what happens.
The upside to the mailman asking for tips is that there is hardly any junk mail. Because, think about it, if Chileans are expected to tip their mailman 100 pesos for each individual piece of mail received, a whole bunch of junk mail will end up costing them. Utility bills are another thing that the mailman does not deliver. This is because the utility companies have couriers and employees that go out to the neighborhoods and deliver the bills personally. The upside to my seemingly-useless mailbox is that the utility folks do use them. And, I must say, I like our utility bills – they are rarely more than a single sheet. No special offers and extra envelopes. Just your bill.
EIGHT This tiny yellow thing in the distance is a street sign. You can’t really see it and neither can cars. Be warned that if you are driving in Chile, many of the important street signs that will make a difference to how you choose to drive in a certain area are overgrown or blocked by plants, trees, and poles. Keeping them visible doesn’t appear to be a priority. But remember, this won’t get you a ticket because traffic rules aren’t enforced. It will, however, get you in an accident if you aren’t 110% paying attention.
NINE This strange metal cage is not for Frisbee golf. This is a trash can, believe it or not. These are everywhere in Santiago and Chile but they don’t seem to be very practical. For one thing, they are open to the elements and have holes all over. I realize the idea is to put sealed plastic bags in the open cage for the trash-men. However, with the abundance of street dogs, any bags put into these containers are quickly ripped to shreds, leaving a pile of garbage on the ground beneath them. In my neighborhood, most people have trash cans, like the kind in the U.S., but in more crowded parts of the city, trash cans just aren’t practical so they have these.
Our trash is picked up three times a week, which I’ve never experienced before in the U.S. where they only come once a week. Also, when the trash-men come, you know it. They come strolling down the street in front of their truck ringing cow bells and shouting out that they are there. I once forgot to put out the trash the night before so I ran out to meet them. The man kindly offered to help me get my can and then he stuck his hand in my face and asked for “Money, money for desayuno.” Yup, that’s right, if the trash-men see you, they will ask for a tip.
TEN You’ll also notice a lot of foliage on the typical Chilean street. This is both a blessing and a curse (sort of). Not only is Santiago one of the most tree-happy cities I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit, but the variety of trees and plants is astonishing. I’ve mentioned before and I’ll say it again, in the summer, you can stroll down any street and make a meal of it, plucking a variety of fruits right from the trees. The curse bit I mentioned has to do with allergies which will kick in big time in September and October. Most people I know are affected – including yours truly, even though I have no allergies in the U.S.
As I mentioned in #8 above, trees aren’t groomed to make way for street signage, or for sidewalk space, it turns out. Trying to walk down a Chilean sidewalk in the middle of summer can be compared to participating in a strange obstacle course – you duck to avoid smacking face-first into a tree branch, high jump to get over the colossal crack, and side step to avoid the dog crap. Hell, I don’t even have to work out here!
So, there you have it. You’ve literally just walked down the street with me. Fun, wasn’t it?