After driving nine hours from Pucon, Chile to Santiago, Nicole and I were ready to drop off our rented white Volkswagen Gol hatchback at the airport Hertz.
But first we needed to fill the tank with gasoline.
After finding a busy gas station near the airport, I hopped out at the pump ready to insert my credit card and be about my business. But unlike other service stations we'd been to in Chile, this place required prepayment. Calamity ensued.
I joined the other motorists in line at the payment booth. When it was my turn I tried to communicate that I needed to fill my tank all the way up rather than just purchase a predetermined amount. No bueno.
"Completa," I said with my best cheerful grin. The attendant spoke rapid Spanish back to me. So, like any good non-native speaker, I happily started repeating the one word I knew to communicate what I'm looking for. "Completa, completa!"
At this point, the line of motorists started to build behind me. Seeing that they had a foreign, rookie gas buyer in front of them, two gentlemen jumped up to help. As often happened to us, when locals saw that I couldn't communicate, they assumed Nicole must be the one who spoke Spanish. Nope! After they approached and seemingly explained that her husband was having a tough time purchasing the gasoline, this became apparent enough.
We finally made a guess as to how much gasoline we might have needed to fill the tank, 30,000 pesos (!), and paid the attendant. By now, the people in line had assumed I was helpless. One friendly guy took my keys, unlocked the gas tank cap, and started filling our tank. I stood and watched. Part of me was wondering if maybe he worked at the gas station. The other part couldn't believe that it had come to this.
I tried to signal that I could pump my own gas but he was having none of it. Then the gas nozzle clicked to a stop at 28,000 pesos. Frankly, Nicole and I were happy to have guessed close enough to the actual amount we needed. Nonetheless, our helpful new friend (who didn't work at the gas station) was having none of it. We stood around for the next five minutes while he dribbled gasoline into our tank, waited for it to settle, and then squeezed in some more. We did get the full 30,000 pesos worth, even though it was hard for him to even insert the nozzle into the tank by the end. And then we headed off, to everyone's relief.
After spending seven weeks in Chile, we feel like we got to know the country well. As evidenced by the story above, the people could not have been nicer. We continually enjoyed our interactions with friendly locals.
Beyond that, Nicole and I assembled the following list of our thoughts and impressions as travelers through the country. Some are small, some are big. Most certainly these are unique to us. I'm sure someone else could visit and have a totally different experience but this was ours:
1. The landscape and scenery are stunning and made a big impression on us as we drove from place to place. Mountains, valleys, ocean, and forests, the vistas could not have been more diverse and gorgeous.
2. Time schedules are unpredictable. Countless times we looked up the hours of a restaurant or store and drove there only to find the it inexplicably closed. Most businesses also shut down for lunch from 2pm to 4pm. We quickly learned to have backup plans rather than depend on a place being open.
3. Driving is very manageable. We rented a car for the entirety of our stay (except for when we were in Santiago). We loved the freedom the car gave us and, for the most part, the roads were well maintained and uncrowded. Driving was a breeze.
View of Volcan Villarrica from our Airbnb in Pucon
5. Grocery stores aren't everywhere and the quality varies greatly. Because we spent all of our time in Airbnbs, we cooked most of our meals. The Jumbo supermarket chain consistently stocked most any of the food and ingredients we looked for. The problem was, "Jumbos" aren't found in many places. We found other supermarkets wildly inconsistent. Some, like one we visited in Pichilemu, were downright sketchy.
6. Plenty of people speak some English but many do not. We had some goofy encounters, like the at the gas station described above, but for the most part us not speaking Spanish wasn't a problem. Nonetheless, even the limited Spanish we know was a big help.
7. We were glad we packed layers of clothing. The temperature fluctuations as we traveled north and south and to and away from the ocean surprised us.
Finally, if we had it to do over again, we would have traveled a little faster than we did in order to see a few more places. Because of the length of our trip, we typically have been staying for two weeks in most places. That is what we did in Chile, staying two weeks in Valparaiso, Pichelemu, and Pucon, and one week in Santiago. But the still-developing nature of Chile meant that, in some places, we were ready to go well before the two week mark. This was particularly true in Pichelemu where we struggled to find things to do. Moreover, once we got down to Pucon, we were annoyed that we didn't have time to get further South, deeper into Patagonia. Next time!
Overall, we left Chile with a really good feeling about the country. It is a place we would love to go back to. Despite our seven weeks there, we felt like we only scratched the surface!