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We are going to Chile in November and are planning on doing the Isla Navarino Dientees circuit trek. We have booked our DAP flight to Puerto Williams and return cruise from Puerto Williams to Punta Arenas. And are also planning to go to Torres del Paine for some days. Our biggest concerns are:

We don't know how to speak Spanish. We are thinking of buying a English-spanish-English dictionary but are concerned if enough people know English in those regions. And if we will be able to communicate effectively enough to get through.

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I have edited your question to focus on a single question; please feel free to ask your other question as a separate question. –  Flimzy Nov 9 '13 at 15:30

2 Answers 2

We have traveled Chile for a month. If you don't speak Spanish you will at times have difficulties communicating. Not everybody speak English. A lot however do speak English and the are also quite a lot who speak German and French. Even if people don't speak English they often remain quite friendly and you can go a long way with foot and hand language. Often someone is called who does speak English. An English/Spanish dictionary does help but be aware that some distinct differences in similar words exist. Best is to try to pick up local words. You should definitely go for a "completos", which is a hotdog with guacamole sauce. Having said this all, I would not worry much. Chile is a great country to travel through.

I would advise against renting a car only. The buses in Chile are quite comfortable, some companies even offer lie flat seats for not-too-expensive fares. We traveled long distances by bus, but rented cars at location to explore. I did not bring an IDP; my EU license was widely accepted.

When you do rent a car to explore, make sure your contract allows getting on unpaved roads. In some areas more the half of the roads are unpaved, limiting your options drastically. It also helps to bring a GPS. We had a Garmin etrex vista with maps downloaded from open street view.

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I have not been to Chile, and I do speak Spanish. But let me offer some general advice on traveling in countries where you don't speak the language:

  • How effectively you can communicate is largely up to you.

    There likely are exceptions in some parts of the world, but in most places, people are happy to try to communicate with you. Most "necessary" communication occurs in the course of doing business--buying food or gifts. In this context, most shop or restaurant owners are happy to communicate using hand gestures, or broken English, or pointing at menus and signs.

    Making a purchase really isn't that hard without using spoken language, as I can attest to from personal experience.

    How effectively you can communicate in a country where your language isn't spoken, depends primarily on how willing you are to stick your neck out and try.

  • If you're observant, and you apply yourself, you can learn a few essential words very quickly.

    If you stay in a foreign-speaking country long enough, and you actually put forth some effort, you will learn some phrases very quickly. It's even easier if you visit the same shops repeatedly, so you talk to the same person(s) each time--especially if you find one who is patient with you.

    Most people are more patient with you if it's obvious you're trying to communicate in their language, rather than insisting that they communicate in yours.

  • You will make mistakes, don't let that slow you down

    Many people are afraid of embarrassing themselves by making a mistake in a language they don't speak. This can be the biggest enemy to effective communication. We've all spoken to someone who doesn't speak native English, and sometimes its challenging, but it's more effective than not communicating at all!

    No want taxi.

    It's not proper English, but it's effective communication. And it's even more effective in the context of waving one's hands and shaking one's head, etc.

  • Dictionaries are of limited value to tourists

    This is my own opinion; others may disagree. But language dictionaries are useful tools when learning a language, but not so much when touring.

    1. To be an effective tool, you must already know something about the language--pronunciation, for instance. Without knowing how to pronounce the Spanish language, knowing the Spanish word for "carrot" (zanahoria) is worthless. You can say "Zanahoria" as many times as you like, and few, if any, native Spanish speakers will have the slightest idea what you're saying, because you'll say it as if it were an English word, unless you learn the rules of Spanish pronunciation first.

    2. When you need a word, it's too late to look it up. When you're standing in the market, and want to order carrot juice, it's the wrong time to look up the words for "carrot" and "juice." You could take 5 minutes to pull out your dictionary, look up the two words, and form your question. Or you could take 3 seconds to point to the carrots and the juicing machine.

  • Learn a few important phrases before going on your trip

    It's always good to know a few basic phrases in the native language anywhere you go. Learning the essentials doesn't have to take long. 5 phrases can get you a long way, anywhere you go. If you'll be visiting the region longer, or are just more ambitious, you may want to learn additional phrases. Google will show you several lists of "important phrases for tourists". I suggest, at minimum:

    • Hello. Hola.
    • Good morning. Buenos días.
    • Good afternoon. Buenas tardes.
    • Good evening/night. Buenas noches.
    • Goodbye. Adios.
    • Please. Por favor.
    • Thank you. Gracias.
    • Do you speak English? ¿Usted habla inglés?
    • Where is the bathroom? ¿Dónde está el baño?*

*As in English, the preferred local term for "bathroom" varies a lot in Spanish (and likely any other language which is spoken in enough geographically diverse places). Bathroom, toilet, lou, water closet, restroom, men's room, etc. Learn which term is used in your region (on google, or just by observation once you arrive).

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