Becoming a Confident Traveler in Santiago, Chile

Julia Heller
I would like to preface this story by saying that I am not a public transportation snob (i.e. I don’t avoid cost-effective transportation for the sake of luxury) and I rather enjoy the thrill of hopping on and off trains, subways, buses, etc.
However, because of my experience of public transportation in Santiago, Chile, I can now appreciate even New York City’s public transit system, as they at least respect the idea of “rush hour” – designated hours where there’s barely enough air to breathe on public transportation. Regardless of the time of day, there are ALWAYS thousands of people cramming on and rushing off of metros and buses in Santiago. The first day I rode the metro, I couldn’t believe how many people came flooding out at my stop. It seemed like a never-ending clown car of Chileans pouring out of these subway cars – it was as terrifying as it was fascinating.
Also regardless of the time of day – 5AM or 10PM – there was always some sort of live performance. Whether it was the “newest and hottest” dance crew, a friendly old man reflecting on his “dark and cold times in the mines,” or my personal favorite, “Celine Dione’s Classic Hits Featured on the Flute,” the talent was endless. At first sight, most people would be overwhelmed by the number of passengers and loud, lively audiences, but who can turn down free entertainment at 6AM, right?
At this point, you’re probably wondering the same thing my mother asked me when I first explained all this to her - why didn’t you just take the bus instead? Well, the buses are even more chaotically crowded, and the entertainment doesn’t last more than 3 stops. And the reality is that I had to take both of these forms of transportation – first a 25-minute metro ride, then a 40-minute bus ride – just to get to work.
The most important lesson I learned while navigating my way through Chilean public transportation: make sure you wear plenty of deodorant.
All jokes aside, having to use Santiago’s public transit system gave me the confidence to travel independently, which is extremely rewarding. Becoming a confident independent traveler takes a lot of trial and error experiences. It’s much more than just reloading your Bip! card and becoming practically family with the person sitting next to you. On these trips, simply to and from work, I experienced an entirely different culture – the “Chilean way,” as it is often referred. I learned how to live like a local Chilean. I assimilated to the fast-paced and jam-packed city lifestyle that so many people living in Santiago were accustomed to. Although I was overwhelmed for the first few weeks, I came away from the experience unscathed and feeling really proud of my newfound independence and confidence as a solo traveler.
Julia Heller is a Pitt senior majoring in Natural Sciences on the pre-Physician Assistant track, with a minor in Spanish. She studied abroad in Lima, Peru in Summer 2017 and interned in Santiago, Chile in Summer 2018. She’s interning at Pitt Study Abroad for the 2018-2019 academic year, working on a collection of program and financial resources for pre-health students who want to go abroad.