You’re toodling away through your day in Santiago, perhaps already having seen some of the sights, like Cerro San Cristobal, or the PreColumbian Art Museum, when hunger starts to gnaw at you. But you’re on a budget, and don’t want to blow it all on a meal, despite some of the great restaurants on offer in Santiago. So you figure you’ll head to a supermarket to pick up some supplies to make a great hostel meal. Here’s a guide to the supermarket, which should help minimize frustration (yours and others’) with the process, which is sometimes not as easy as it seems. Many of these rules may apply for other places in the world and Latin America especially, but certainly bear little resemblance to what I remember from home!
This guy is sometimes, but not often, loitering outside the Santa Isabel grocery store, photo, Bearshapedsphere, used with permission.
Entering the store
At times, there’s a security guard who may want to tape your bag shut. If someone official looking with a roll of tape says something to you on your way in, hold onto your bag but present the zipper pulls, as he probably wants to tape them together to make sure you don’t steal anything. If you’re carrying a lot of stuff, yo umight like to use the ice-skating rink-style lockers at the front. These take the old (large) 100 peso coin and you get a key. Your stuff is probably safe in there, but I wouldn’t leave a laptop or anything that valuable, just to be sure.
Shouldn’t that be refrigerated?
You may be surprised to find both eggs and shelf-stable milk (the kind in the tetrapak) on the shelves, rather than in the refrigerated section. The eggs are fresher than in most places in the states and the milk keeps pretty much forever, so don’t worry too much about it.
Cheese, meat, olives, etc.
Here you’ll have to go to a counter, where other people will be waiting. Take a number, or you will never be served. When it’s your number, hold up your tag and have some Spanish ready. You can point for the item, but you’ll want to know either how many slices or how much by weight. Slices are láminas, so if you want four slices of cheese, you’ll say “Cuatro láminas de queso.” Olives, pickles and other assorted items are sold by weight, and you can either ask for them in terms of grams (doscientos gramos is two hundred grams) or in cuartos or medios (1/4 kilo and 1/2 kilo, respectively).
Fruit and veggies
The fruit and veggies are either sold por peso (by weight) or por unidad (by item, some times abbreviated, un.) If they’re by weight, you must put them in a plastic bag (even if it’s one banana, one avocado, etc), and bring it to the scale in the fruit and vegetable section. If you’re not sure if something is weighed or not you can say “Se pesa?” (Do I need to weigh this?)
Fresh bread is one of Chile’s tastiest treats, and each of the different shapes has a different recipe and different price, so don’t mix the breads in a single bag. Again, the bread must be weighed at the scale in the bread section, in a plastic bag. The weigher will put a sticker on your bag and send you on your way.
Everything that comes in a disposable container is fair game. However, if you want to be more aggressively green and are going to be in the same place for a while, you might want to use the kind of drink that comes in an “envase” or deposit-container. You can tell the difference because the disposables say “no retornable” or look like regular bottles, whereas the “envase” ones look a bit more beat up, thicker, etc. The first time you buy something in an envase you pay the deposit, and from then on you just trade the bottle in at the customer service for a receipt which you then present to the cashier. Most travelers find this a hassle and stick to the disposable bottles. Yellow domes in the parks are for recycling plastic bottles.
Unless you are visibly drunk or clearly under 18, or it’s the eve of an election, you will not be asked for ID or refused purchase of alcoholic beverages in Chile (though drinking them on the street is commonly done, you can be fined).
Some items, such as batteries, cigarettes, disposable razors, chocolate (sometimes) and other expensive and easily-stolen-and-resold items are kept someplace separate, often behind a locked section in an aisle or near the cash register. That’s a perfect time to practice your Spanish, and don’t forget the tips listed here on how to speak like a Chilean (and understand what is being said to you)!
Choosing a line: Make sure not to stand on the line that says “Facturas” as that’s the line for people paying from a corporate account.
Answering questions: You will be asked two questions: juntas/acumulas puntos? (do you have a point card), and later, “quieres donar/donarías X pesos” (Would you like to donate or would you donate X pesos?). This money goes to a foundation which may or may not be aligned with your own political beliefs and there are people who object to this collection of money as it benefits the supermarkets who then get tax benefits and good PR for donating their money, which is actually yours. Most people donate the pesos regardless, which is always 4 or fewer pesos, which translates to less than one cent.
The bagboy/girl: The baggers you see are not actually employees, but rather volunteers. People customarily tip them, as they are working to make money for tuition. They’re usually high schoolers. It’s up to you if you want to tip them or not. 100 pesos is a fine tip, 200 is nice, but use your judgment.
Be green: If you don’t want a bag, you can say, “Sin bolsa.” (No bag) They will think you are crazy, but you can use a reusable bag or peel the tape off your zipper pulls and stick the stuff in there.
Don’t take pictures in the grocery store. It is allegedly a security risk, and you will be asked to stop taking pictures and/or delete your photos.
If you see a “deal” where two of something are sold for one low price, you must buy them both to get that low price. Really.
And if you’re wondering what special treats await you in a Chilean supermarket, don’t miss this post on supermarket snacks in Chile.