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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    – Flimzy
    Nov 9, 2013 at 15:30

4 Answers 4


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.


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).


Before I travel, I borrow language CDs from the library. (I start 9-12 months in advance.) I can keep them for three weeks and if they aren't on hold for other people I can renew them up to 9 weeks. Most library systems will allow you to borrow materials from other libraries, so I request whatever is available from all libraries. Some will be simple and some more difficult, but I listen to all of them. If nothing else I become accustomed to the sounds. I listen while driving and while I'm doing boring chores. It's amazing how much I can learn in a short while.

If you at least make a little effort, most people will be happy to help you. I strongly recommend you learn essentials, like "where is the bathroom" "how much does this cost" but the best things you can learn is "I don't speak Spanish well, please speak slowly" and "I don't understand." Please don't nod like you know what is being said when you don't.

I also have a language app on my iPad that doesn't have to be connected to WiFi. I can type in anything and get a translation to show to someone. (In some parts of the world perhaps a street vendor will not be able to read, but people at hotels and restaurants probably can.) I can also have a person type in an answer and I can translate it back to English. The translations are often awkward, but they can usually be understood by both people.

You can also find some free lessons online. Some will try to sell you upgrades, but you can usually get along with what you learn in the free sessions.

Look up "1000 most common words in Spanish" and "free online Spanish lessons." You'll find many sites. Try a few until you find one that seems to work for you. You have to put some effort into it, but it's worth it and then you can use what you learn in many Spanish-speaking countries. And since Spanish has similarities to Italian and Portuguese, if and when you need to learn a little of those languages, you'll be a step ahead.


I traveled to Central(interior) Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, Peru and Chile. I have no knowledge of Spanish or have ever conversed with someone in the language prior to these trips.

However, i picked up a few travel nouns and sentences along my travels. With enthusiasm and eagerness, I was able to communicate basics (like asking for directions, ordering food and do little negotiations) with random strangers in all these countries except Chile.

Spanish diction in Chile is different to other tropical countries. I also felt people in Santiago to be more closed and introverted than their counterpart countries(personal opinion). So yes, traveling in Chile without a Spanish speaking guide is difficult (but manageable).

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