First things first: Chilean Spanish and European Spanish are very different languages. While you will probably be understood in Santiago if you speak the type of Spanish you are taught in high school, even native Spanish speakers have a tough time understanding the Chilean locals. This is not only due to the strong Chilean accent, but the large number of slang words that exist in the region. One such Chilean word is the title of this post: Quiltro.
So, what are the quiltro? Quiltro is a familiar name given to the number of stray dogs that roam around Santiago and Chile at large. As a fairly cautious (and still very Western) traveler, I was quite wary of these dogs when I first arrived in the country. I assumed that they were dirty, uncared for, potentially violent or rabid, likely covered in fleas or ridden with disease. I wondered why they were allowed to roam about, leaving sticky presents on the sidewalk and continuing to breed when they could be gathered together and put up for adoption. What I quickly noticed, however, was that the locals not only seemed to tolerate these quiltro, but seemed to genuinely care for them, offering them pats, snacks or water.
Whenever I go to a new city, I always try to find a tip-based walking tour. For me, scampering about with knowledgeable (and often very personable) guides helps me adjust to an unfamiliar neighbourhood far better than if I am wandering around alone. While this may in part be due to my woefully poor sense of direction, I’ve noticed that the onslaught of facts I hear on a tour stay with me longer when my legs are as active as my mind. If you ever find yourself in Santiago, I recommend taking the Wally Tours for Tips. There are two free walking tours that they offer: one in the morning that takes you to some of the local markets and the national cemetery, and one in the afternoon that gives you an overview of Santiago’s history, including some of its more unique quirks. On both tours I took, I was not only led by fantastic guides, but protected by some of the local quiltro. When we were crossing the street, the dogs would wait for us on the other side, bark at cars that were about to turn, and constantly run from the back to the front to make sure the pack stayed together. They knew which buildings they were allowed into and for which ones they had to wait outside and sometimes they would scout ahead before doubling back to let us know that the coast was clear.
In Chile, the quiltro are friends, not pets. They belong to neighbourhoods, not a person or a family. Most of them are given shots by local vets who volunteer their services and given food and love from the people who know them. One of my guides said that a quiltro she has named Roja – who is a regular on the 3pm Santiago walking tour – has followed her home before and walked with her to work. Another dog fondly nicknamed Salchicha preferred the morning market tour where he would get the same sausage as a treat for which he was named. When we went to the cemetery or to the top of San Cristobal, there were quiltro resting in the shade. In parks, quiltro play with children. They are fiercely protective of the people and communities who care for them and are as loyal as any domesticated family dog.
For those of you who are scared to travel because you see only danger, I urge you to remember the quiltro. Seeing the unusual can be uncomfortable at times; in the case of wild animals, it may even be dangerous. But sometimes all you need to do is keep an open mind and you may learn that what you used to be afraid of is actually something you may come to love.