Did you know that you can live and work in the land of penguins? No, we’re not talking about Antarctica. We got the inside scoop from Geneviève, a Canadian travel writer who went on an assignment of a lifetime to explore Chile thanks to a Working Holiday Visa.
What made you decide to apply for a Working Holiday Visa in Chile?
“Once you do a Working Holiday Visa, you want to do more. I spent a year teaching in Japan and went to Australia. I worked with a company called Step Abroad that helps young Canadians go on Working Holiday Visas abroad. In exchange for content creation, they sent me on a test program in Chile as their guinea pig. I was away for six months and discovered a lot.”
How did the people around you perceive your decision to travel and work in Chile?
“They weren’t surprised since this wasn’t my first time, but they didn’t expect me to go to Chile. Many people go to teach English in Korea or in countries that are a little more common. But I like to think outside the box and do things differently.”
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What was the first thing you did when you arrived in Chile for your Working Holiday Visa?
“I had a bit of an unusual journey. People typically start their trips in the capital city of Santiago, whereas I chose to begin in Chiloé. Chiloé is not very populated and is so far south of Chile that it’s cold enough for penguins. It’s not the tropics; let me make that clear. It’s a small island where no one speaks English, so it was an excellent opportunity to learn Spanish. My number one goal was to discover everything the island had to offer.
You get a different experience going to a big city like Santiago. The first thing I did there was ‘free’ walking tours. They’re not 100% free because you tip at the end, but they’re a great way to discover the city and learn where all the key places are.”
How did you find accommodation in Chiloé and then in Santiago?
“I had to find my own accommodation during my Working Holiday Visas in Japan and Australia, but this time I worked in hotels, where accommodation was included. It cut into my salary a bit, but it was great not to think about housing. In Chiloé and Santiago, I had my own room and wasn’t far from work in the morning. Zero stress.”
How did you make friends in a country where you didn’t know anyone?
“It’s certainly a challenge, but my work environment helped me make friends. I also used Bumble BFF to meet other women to go out for coffee and walk around and an app called For Locals to attend small events or free walking tours with other people.
While I was travelling, I also realized that when you’re staying in youth hostels, you need to make a point to step out of your comfort zone. You have no other choice. You need to be that person who says, ‘Hey, how are you? Will you be my friend?’
Travelling abroad also provides a great opportunity to become independent. It helped me become comfortable on my own, to be able to sit at a restaurant table by myself and not feel awkward.”
What are the biggest differences between living in Chile and living in Canada?
“The language barrier. On the island of Chiloé, it was 1000 times worse. It’s like teaching English to someone in Canada and sending them to Newcastle in the UK. Even though you speak the same language, the accents differ.
The other thing is the concept of time. In Canada, if you tell me that I start work at 9:00 a.m., I will be there at 9:00 a.m. But in Chile, your colleagues will arrive at 9:30 a.m. This is normal. Everyone is riding on ‘Chilean Time.’ Sometimes I had to stay a half hour later waiting for someone to replace me. I couldn’t get frustrated, so eventually, I started coming in late too.
On a Working Holiday Visa, your travel mode is always activated. At home, you do the 9-5 rat race. In Chile, I went exploring on a Thursday night after work just because I felt like it and always discovered new restaurants in different barrios (neighbourhoods).”
What kind of job did you have during your Working Holiday Visa in Chile?
“Both jobs were in hospitality. In Chiloé, I worked in a small traditional hotel made of wood on stilts. I would walk down the stairs from my room and go to work, where I could interact with tourists.
My schedule made it possible to go out and explore. A normal day for me was working at the front desk, having a chef-made meal like you wouldn’t believe, talking to my bosses and them telling me to leave early at 2 p.m.
In Santiago, I lived and worked at a hotel again. Here’s an insider tip: when you work at the front desk of a hotel, you might be offered amazing tours for free! Businesses are eager to have you try their excursions because if you like them, you will likely recommend them to the hotel’s guests. This is how I was able to score some free tours and other swag from different vineyards.”
Is it possible to work in Chile if you don’t speak Spanish? Do you have any tips on how to learn the language?
“You don’t need to speak Spanish to work in Chile. You can easily get a job in a summer camp, ski resort or something similar in places where the clientele is usually tourists. You could also look for positions to teach English or French.
When it comes to learning Spanish, Duolingo works great when you’re at home, but once you’re in Chile, I recommend booking a week or two of intensive Spanish classes. You’re already totally immersed, and you’re more likely to remember it. It’s also a great opportunity to make friends or find someone to practice with.
Ultimately, what’s important is to learn enough of the language so that you can go to the market and buy fruit a bit cheaper than what the person tells you. People appreciate when we try to speak their language, even if it’s only small talk. And it’s a lot more fun and it allows for human interaction.”
Was the money earned during your Working Holiday Visa enough to cover your cost of living in Chile?
“Absolutely. I travelled a bit and probably spent more than I should have if I wanted to save money, but I was there to live those experiences. As long as I didn’t go down to zero in my bank account, I would be okay. My savings might have decreased, but that was my choice.”
Do you have any tips on how to travel on a budget in Chile?
“I suggest making a budget. Expect a lower salary than you would make in Canada. Ask yourself if you want to eat at restaurants every day or if you plan on going grocery shopping. Do you always want to take Uber, or will you take the subway?
It’s good to shop online to compare and ask questions. For instance, is it worth spending the extra $20 to fly, or are you okay with spending 12 hours on a bus? You can also take public transportation. The metro in Santiago was great.
Walking tours are also a great way to save because they cost a lot less than other tours. After that, you can decide which things you want to revisit.
I used Booking.com to find hotels and then went to the hotel’s website to see if the price was lower. You can set your VPN on your computer to Chile to see what’s available beforehand. And if you’re using Google Chrome, it will translate the sites back to English for you.”
What were your favourite places to visit in Chile?
“San Pedro de Atacama is the best place I’ve ever visited in my life! It’s quite a bit further north, so by the time we got there by plane from Santiago, it was a lot warmer. Suddenly we were in the desert with red dirt all around, like we were on Mars. It’s one of the driest places on the planet, where it rains like once a year and it’s the best place to see the stars with little to no light pollution. And if you go up high enough, there’s snow. And geysers. I would go back anytime.
I really liked Embalse El Yeso in Cajon del Maipo. Even though you’re only a few hours from Santiago, there’s lots of snow. The bright blue reservoir reminded me of Lake Louise in Canada. It was super pretty, especially to see it via a guided tour where you can have a picnic meal out front. Not too far away is a vineyard (the only one I visited) called Concha y Toro, where legend has it that it was the devil’s cellar. So much history there.
What I loved most about Santiago were the museums, most of them are free. They didn’t cost anything, so I just went for them, even if I wasn’t sure what they were. The Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago is super beautiful. There’s a café that looks like a castle across the street from it. Cerro Santa Lucia is another place with stairways and viewpoints where you can see a full view of the city and catch breathtaking sunsets. It’s surreal.
Valparaíso, also called Valpo, is a great spot for a 2-day getaway. It’s a city built on top of a mountain. You need to mentally prepare yourself to climb all the stairs. You’ll get lost in all the beautiful ocean views and street art on the walls.”
Did you visit any other countries during your Working Holiday Visa?
“I took a short vacation in Buenos Aires, Argentina, between jobs. After discovering the markets, I took a boat from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The streets are made of cobblestone, and it’s a bit touristy but nice. From there, I went to Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay and to Punta del Este, both beach towns on the coast. Luckily, I was there in the off-season, but normally it’s where the rich and famous of South America vacation.”
What would you say to someone wanting to travel and work with a Working Holiday Visa in Chile?
“Just give yourself the chance to go. That’s the hardest thing. Once you’ve signed the paperwork, the rest will all work out.
As soon as you get over the initial anxiety, it’s so rewarding. I was so happy to experience the big things and the small things – learning Spanish, meeting people, seeing places, and eating food that I loved. There will be days that aren’t as fun, but that’s life. The most important thing is to explore.
I was ready for something off-the-beaten-path, but I don’t recommend spending three whole months in Chiloé. If you go, you should start in Santiago to get your bearings. You won’t feel so out of place. And it might be more economical to fly out of Santiago if you want to go somewhere else.”
This makes us want to explore the full length of Chile, from the beaches to the desert to the chilly southern coast!
If you are a Canadian between the ages of 18 and 35 and want to learn more about the Working Holiday Visa, be sure to visit the International Experience Canada website for more details.
️ For even more inspiration, listen to our #NomadTALKS series on YouTube, where we talk with other Canadians who have travelled and worked abroad.
The original interview was conducted by Safia Dodard and compiled by Britney Claveau. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.