Have I mentioned that I don’t speak Spanish? Before I left, Alej taught me some key phrases and words, and the most useful was the vocabulary for meat and seafood. I don’t remember if she taught me “sin” (without) or if I picked up on that one on my own, but it came in handy (“sin carne” was something I said a few times). The first person I really interacted with was one clerk at my hotel and he didn’t speak any English, but I managed to get from him that breakfast started at 8, because I knew the words for breakfast and 8. My room number was written on the key, so I didn’t have to try the key in every lock, or anything. (Aside: both hotels I stayed at had massive keychains on the room keys. Their policy was that you leave the key at the front desk when you leave the hotel, you don’t take it with you. Then, when you return from outside the building, you get your key back from them. That was totally new to me. Someone said they do that in Spain too).
One thing that tripped me up was my numbers. In high school my BFF took Spanish and became obsessed with the word “ocho” (8), so I knew that one. U2’s classic song Vertigo taught me “uno, dos, tres, quatorce.” Which, luckily, I learned was “1,2,3, 14” before I really embarrassed myself. Basically I could count to 5, but got messed up on 6,7, and 9. Someone loaned me a phrasebook about halfway through my trip, so I could buy nine stamps at the post office without having to show how many I wanted with my fingers - which I did quite often in general, usually to confirm that I’d heard them correctly. At one market stall I wanted to get a pair of earrings, but I didn’t understand how much they were, and the guy typed it out on a calculator for me. Not too many of the people I interacted with spoke much English, so often it was a matter of communicating with the minimal number of words spoken slowly and lots of hand gestures.
Someone told me that if you can understand Chilean Spanish than you can understand Spanish anywhere because those wacky Chileans speak really fast and tend to drop endings and such. Not that I noticed. But I do blame that for my inability to understand most questions put to me, and not my unwillingness to put any serious time into learning the native language.
For the most part it was okay. Lots of the restaurants had English menus, or English on the menu. The translations ranged from good to odd (using “cattle” instead of “beef”). I could easily order by pointing at what I wanted and saying “por favour.” I only ate at one place that didn’t have English on the menu. I went for lunch, and I was alone so couldn’t draw on anyone else’s bad Spanish for help. I wanted a sandwich, so I read through the sandwich descriptions and chose the one that didn’t have any words in it that I knew were meat words. I totally nailed it and got a delicious veggie sandwich with cheese, avocado, tomato, artichokes, and green beans.
Speaking of food, I’ve been asked a lot about how hard it was to eat veggie there, and it really wasn’t that hard at all. I avoided restaurants that had giant, outdoor BBQ pits, and the one that was subtitled (I swear) “A Tradition in Beef.” I also avoided the Peruvian restaurants because I had it on good authority that I wouldn’t have found anything to eat there. There was a vegetarian restaurant that was fabulous and we ate there three times. This place had veggie options, and the benefit of an English menu and English proprietors, so it was a nice break to go there and be able to communicate fully (I had some really good Chilean beer there too). This place had good gelato and was where I got the thankfully-veggie sandwich. There were some other not-so-good restaurants too, and lots of pasta y pizza places. I had really good falafel and hummus for lunch one day.
The hotel included breakfast, and the first place I stayed at had awesome breakfasts. It wasn't just some sucky continental breakfast, it was a feast of pastries and breakfast cake and these awesome olive bread rolls, and flat bread, and jams, fresh fruit, cheese, crepes, yogurt, cereals, eggs, and fruit juice. I loved the fruit juices in Chile. They were so freaking fresh - in one restaurant I ordered the fruit juice and I heard then blending it. The hotel had this great melon juice that I could have just drank all day. The conference hotel had a really good strawberry-banana juice that I had a lot as well.
I had heard someone say Chilean food isn't that good, and while I can't vouch for traditional Chilean dishes (aside from the traditional Mapuche bread I had at the veggie restaurant which was awesome), the food I had on vacation was generally quite good.