EVERY CITY has its quirky oddities and one of Santiago's may be the city centre's ubiquitous Cafe con piernas - Cafe with legs. Reportedly unique in South America and certainly in Chile, these cafes are places where you can sip a latte in the company of scantily clad women, employed for their "good personalities" above all else.
Guidebooks generally only mention this peculiarly Santiago phenomenon in passing and then allude to what actually goes on in these establishments.
Take this brief quotation from the Lonely Planet (6th edition): "Despite the strip club ambiance, no alcohol is served (at least,that's the official story) and the only things customers can buy is nonalcoholic beer and hot, strong espresso (at least that's the official story)."
What no guidebook tells you is the unofficial story they allude to so here it is:
Firstly, saying cafe con piernas are places with women who serve coffee is correct but about as illuminating as saying restaurants are places where waiters serve food. It all depends what you're in the mood for.
The cafes can be divided in to three levels as I put it.
The first level by such chains as Cafe Haiti and Cafe Caribe, provide mostly stand up cafes which serve good coffee at a good price, in a clean, airy environment.
The waitresses who serve from behind the counter will generally be wearing a uniform low cut tight dress.
While they attract a mostly male clientele, females are not at all an uncommon sight accompanied generally by colleagues. Many are located to the south of Plaza de Armas in the shopping area and where a lot of professionals work and so can get quite crowded.
Level two bears little resemblance. Located more to the north of the plaza, these shop fronts will have mirrored or darkened glass with tacky neon lights outside, shining weakly in the daylight (these cafes close in the evening). Inside your eyes will take a few seconds to adjust to the dimly lit surroundings while the ears are assailed by Latin pop music.
Within this category there are some cafes where the waitresses (scantily-clad) will stay behind the counter (the majority) and some others where they will stand beside you, allowing a certain level of petting. The average female worker here is in her early 20s with a surprising number being single parents, living at home.
Level three cafes are plain seedy and better avoided (unless of course the coffee is incidental to the piernas). These cafes are generally located in galleries are are indistinguishable from level twos from the outside although sometimes the waitresses will pop their heads outside the door inviting passersby in.
Pretty soon the difference will become clear once you enter - that being to extract as much money from you as possible as quickly as possible. After asking your name (the ice-breaker) you will be asked to invite them for a drink and before your eyes have fully adjusted to the very low light their hips will be gyrating against your own.
Their next proposition will almost certainly be illegal (prostitution is only legally tolerated in special nightclubs know here simply as nightclubs).
It could be argued that Level threes are not really cafes at all but a sheltered, discreet pickup point, and where the police turn a blind eye.
Although a miserably low minimum wage exists in Chile, most level two and three cafes do not pay the women any wage, nor do they have a contract, health insurance, pensions, holiday pay...or indeed any rights. They mostly receive roughly 10 percent of the cover price of each drink, will take a 50:50 split of "invited" drinks - where the customer pays double, and of course tips.
By law.they should also have the right to be able to take breaks and sit down but all too often there are no chairs or if they are they are for customers only - the owners discourage their girls from sitting on the job. The result is that many suffer back pain, exacerbated by ridiculously high high-healed boots which they must wear.
If travellers, male or female, feel curious about these cafes I would suggest a level two and be prepared to leave a tip.
First timers and "gringos" are often asked to buy a drink for the waitress but people who are regulars tend to get asked less. While a tip at the end is expected it is rarely demanded.
If you do invite them for a drink, ask the price first. Note also that the waitresses will sometimes drink a mini-me version of your drink (sometimes even just water). Don't take this as some affront or attempt on their part to down it so they can ask you to pay for more - just imagine drinking an espresso strength coffee every 20 minutes for 10 hours, six or sometimes seven days a week. If you do visit such an establishment, you can always decline to offer a drink but pay them the value as a tip, thereby cutting out the middle man and giving them double money, while saving their bowels in the process.
Finally don't expect much conversation if you do not speak Spanish and if you do, do not expect anything approaching stimulating.