As we walked along a quiet tree-lined street, looking in shop windows, I happened to stick my head through an open double-door to take a peek at the interior courtyard behind a storefront. In this small Santiago neighborhood, these interior courtyards are often home to hidden treasures... like a small cafe or restaurant or a boutique or shop.
In this case, I found eight cafe tables under large umbrellas, positioned on the lush, green grass in the brilliant summer sunshine. One table for two looked inviting, so we stopped in for a late lunch.
This hidden-away fine-dining establishment had an excellent menu. But the real surprise was the wine list. The most expensive bottle of white--a Santa Ema Reserve Chardonnay--was less than US$21 at today's exchange rate. It was a great example of the kind of value we found throughout much of Santiago and just one of perhaps a dozen small hideaways we found our first weekend in Santiago's Barrio Italia. (This particular restaurant was Lucitano, located at Condell 1414.)
If you've checked into Santiago but have never heard of Barrio Italia, don't feel bad; it's not even in the latest Lonely Planet guidebook. It's a small, local neighborhood in the southwest part of Providencia, a sector that lies east of Santiago Centro. Barrio Italia was originally a center for furniture-makers, and quite a few still ply that trade here today.
Otherwise, this is a quiet area of antique shops, sidewalk cafes, restaurants, and coffee and pastry shops, along with a handful of clothing boutiques and art galleries.
Barrio Italia is popular among local residents, but it's not one of the recognized tourist locations, even though it's fairly convenient to Centro and easily accessible via modern public transit, with a couple of Metro stops nearby.
For my wife and me, it was a good choice for a "winter home" this year... one of many attractive options that we've seen in Chile's capital city.
But why Chile?
I've been to Chile a number of times before and have wanted to return for an extended stay. Here are just a few of the things that drew me to the country...
Chile is a First World alternative in Latin America, with Latin America's highest standard of living. In fact, throughout the Americas, only the United States and Canada rate higher for overall standard of living. The water is drinkable, phone and Internet are fast and reliable, and the public transit system is modern and efficient. The highways are modern, fast, and well-maintained.
In addition, here's a telling event that should get your attention. Chile is now part of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. Since May 1, 2014, Chileans can enter the United States without a visa... just like people from England, Denmark, or Japan.
To me, this is a big deal. It means that, in the eyes of the immigrant-shy U.S. government, the country of Chile is strong and economically successful. In other words, it is a country that offers its people enough opportunity so that they have no need to want to try to stay on in the United States to eke out a living illegally.
Indeed, since the inception of the Startup Chile program, many sharp, young Americans have come to Chile to take advantage of the opportunities in this country.
Chile has an honest culture, with low levels of public corruption. In the Americas, Chile is in the "Clean" category along with Uruguay, Barbados, and the United States, according to Transparency International's 2014 study. (Only Canada made the "Very Clean" category in the Americas.) And, make no mistake, corruption affects your life as an expat. Corrupt countries aren't just politically corrupt; they are also where you're more likely to be short-changed, have your pocket picked, or be cheated in a business deal.
Chile has amazing geographic diversity. It runs 2,650 miles from north to south and offers an astonishing array of climates and geographic settings in between. From seaside resorts to small beach villages... from mountains, lakes, and wildlife of the Lake District (including wintertime skiing) to the sophisticated scene in Santiago... it would be hard to imagine a lifestyle that you can't find in Chile. Further, if you'd like to live abroad in a place where there are four seasons, this is one of your few options.
The cost of living in Chile is reasonable. Everyone says Chile is expensive, especially Santiago. Indeed, this is not a place to settle if budget is a critical consideration. But I wouldn't call it expensive. Take a look at these cost comparisons with popular expat destinations:
- The cost of living is 14% higher in Panama City than in Santiago...
- It's 19% higher in San José, Costa Rica...
- And 23% higher in Montevideo, Uruguay.
To give a North American frame of reference, consider these comparisons:
- You'll spend about 32% more to live in Phoenix than in Santiago...
- 33% more to live in Portland, Oregon...
- And 66% more to live in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Residency is easy in Chile, and it includes a path to citizenship. You can apply by mail, and there's no background check required for U.S. or Canadian citizens. Citizenship requires five years' residency, a simple application, and no test.
Chile makes a convincing case on paper, checking lots of boxes. But the real reason to be here is the lifestyle.
From my apartment in Santiago's Providencia sector, (near the north end of Barrio Italia, mentioned above), you can walk to everything you'll need. The supermarket is just over two blocks away. The metro station is four blocks away, giving me access to the entire metropolitan area in minutes. Modern buses run past the end of my block, and taxis are inexpensive and plentiful. The flag drops at less than 50 cents, at today's exchange rates.
A dozen fine-dining options lie within a 10-minute walk, interspersed among small cafes, galleries, and boutiques. We've got a brand-new, five-story mall nearby, as well as hundreds of mom-and-pop groceries and shops.
The summertime weather is awesome, with warm sunny days and cool nights. I can't think of a better place to ride out the North American winter.
And, with the huge advantage of the U.S. dollar's current exchange advantage, this is also a fairly inexpensive place to ride out winter.
Comparing Latin America's Property Prices Across Markets