Retire To Santiago, Chile

Santiago Would Be A Top Retirement Choice But For Just This One Thing…

Friends we spent the weekend with in Mendoza, Argentina, wondered about our impressions of Santiago, Chile, which we’d visited on the way to Mendoza City.

Last week’s visit was Lief and my first to Chile. We started in Santiago, both because it seemed a sensible choice for a first look at this country and also because it was on the way to our ultimate destination, Mendoza. We’re already thinking about when we can plan a return trip. Santiago has whetted our appetite for Chile but not satisfied it.

Santiago is a city that truly deserves the designation First World. We throw the phrase around metaphorically sometimes, saying that such-and-such a place is like a First World city.

That’s not the case here. Santiago really is a First World city. Some we met with told us this is a recent development. A decade ago, the description would have been generous. Today, thanks to the modern highway system, the modern commercial structures, the modern apartment buildings, the modern shopping, etc., it’s fact.

Santiago is a modern First World city that is also prosperous, thanks to another noteworthy fact: Chile is the biggest producer of copper in the world today. And the world today is demanding ever-more copper.

One result of this is a construction boom, both residential and commercial, and rising property values. Lief will report further on this city’s real estate market, but the most important thing to know about it is that, despite the boom, despite the appreciation in values, Santiago is still a cheap place to buy an apartment or a house. You have many good options, resale and new construction, on offer in the range of US$1,000 to US$2,000 per square meter.

You could say that Santiago is very “American,” as someone we spoke with this weekend did, because it’s a comfortable, convenient, developed, user-friendly city. I’d disagree, though. I’d describe Santiago as European. The undertones, in the culture, the way people eat, when people eat, how people dress, are Continental, not North American.

The cost of living is comparable to that in Medellin, Colombia…which is to say more or less comparable to that in Panama City. Some things will cost more, some less. New cars are a notable exception, far more affordable here than in either of those other two cities, because Chile imposes no duty on imported vehicles. They don’t make any cars of their own and so don’t penalize others who want to sell theirs on the Chilean market. The streets of Santiago, as a result, are bumper-to-bumper with shiny new autos, something that sets the city apart in a noticeable way from other places we’ve recently been spending time, including Panama City and, this weekend, Mendoza. Argentina, unlike its next-door neighbor, seems to want to penalize anyone who’d like to sell most anything on the Argentine market, including automobiles.

On paper, Santiago checks many of the right boxes and appears a great lifestyle or retirement option. Alas, in reality, there’s a serious rub:

The pollution.

Some complain about the pollution in Panama City. It has never bothered me. Many have written to ask how I can tolerate the pollution in Medellin, Colombia. I’ve never noticed any.

In Santiago, the pollution gagged us. After a full day of walking around the city from meeting to meeting, returning to the hotel after an al-fresco dinner, our throats were sore, our eyes were burning, and our heads were aching. Locals assured us the current pollution levels aren’t so bad. They’ll be much worse in another couple of months, come wintertime…

I enjoyed Santiago and recognize that she has much to offer the would-be expat and retiree. But I couldn’t recommend that anyone think about living here, certainly not full-time. How do people survive it?

As much as I liked the city, I’ve taken Santiago off my list, but not Chile. Chile is a developed, stable country that is also affordable and, in parts, exceptionally beautiful. Lief and I will return as soon as we can, next time to scout the Lake District south of Santiago, where many Chileans themselves choose to retire.

Kathleen Peddicord