Travelling in Chile is easy, comfortable and, compared with Europe or North America, inexpensive. Most Chileans travel by bus, and it’s such a reliable, affordable option that you’ll probably do likewise. However, internal flights are handy for covering long distances in a hurry. The country has a good road network, and driving is a quick, relatively stress-free way of getting around. Chile’s rail network has fallen into decline and only limited services are available. South of Puerto Montt, ferry services provide a slow but scenic way of travelling as far as Puerto Natales.
Chile is a country of almost unimaginable distances (it’s more than 5000km by road from Arica to Punta Arenas), which makes flying by far the quickest and most convenient way of taking in both its northern and southern regions in a single trip. Fares are quite high, though you can find good promotions from time to time.
The leading airline is LAN (600 526 2000, LAN.com), which besides offering the widest choice of domestic flights, is Chile’s principal long-haul carrier and the only one with flights to Easter Island. Sky Airline (2 352 5600, skyairline.cl) has more limited routings but usually lower prices.
Air taxis and regional airlines operate regular services to smaller destinations between Puerto Montt and Puerto Williams, but they are susceptible to weather delays and won’t fly without a minimum number of passengers (usually six). Two companies also fly out from Santiago to Isla Robinson Crusoe.
Chile’s long-distance buses offer an excellent service, far better than their European or North American counterparts – thanks mainly to the enormous amount of legroom, frequent departures and flexible itineraries. Facilities depend less on individual companies than on the class of bus you travel on, with prices rising according to comfort level. A pullman (not to be confused with the large company of the same name) or clásico contains standard semi-reclining seats; a semicama has seats with twice the amount of legroom that recline a good deal more; and a salon cama, at the top of the luxury range, has wide seats (just three to a row) that recline to an almost horizontal position à la first class on a plane. All buses have toilets. Some include meals or snacks, while others stop at restaurants where set meals might be included in the ticket price. Videos, piped music and bingo games are also common attractions (or irritations). Check out the locations of video screens first and seat yourself appropriately.
Thanks to the intense competition and price wars waged between the multitude of bus companies, fares are low. As a rule of thumb, reckon on around CH$1500 per hour travelled on standard inter-city buses; the most luxurious services are at least four times that. It always pays to compare fares offered by the different companies serving your destination, as you’ll almost certainly find one offering a special deal. This price comparing is easily done at the central terminal used by long-distance buses in most cities, where you’ll find separate booking offices for each company (though Tur Bus and Pullman Bus, the two largest companies, often have their own separate terminals). Some towns, however, don’t have a central terminal, in which case buses leave from their company offices.
Try to buy your ticket at least a few hours in advance, and preferably the day before travelling, especially if you plan to travel on a Friday. An added advantage of buying ahead is that you’ll be able to choose a seat away from the toilets, either by the aisle or window and, more importantly, the side of the bus you sit on. Even with a/c, seats on the sunny side can get extremely hot. There is little reason to buy a round-trip ticket unless you are travelling at peak season.
When it comes to boarding, make sure that the departure time on your ticket corresponds exactly to the time indicated on the little clock on the bus’s front window, as your ticket is valid only on the bus it was booked for. Your luggage will be safely stored in lockers under the bus and the conductor will issue you a numbered stub for each article.
If you’re travelling north of Santiago on a long-distance route, or crossing an international border, the bus and all luggage may be searched by Ministry of Agriculture officials at checkpoints, and all sandwiches, fresh fruit and vegetables will be destroyed.
By local bus, colectivo and taxi
Local buses, often called micros, connect city centres with suburbs and nearby villages. These buses are often packed, and travelling with a large rucksack can be difficult. The main points of the route and final destination are displayed on the inside of the front window, but it always helps to carry a street map and be able to point to your intended destination. Buses that leave the city for the countryside normally depart from their own terminal rural, usually close to the Mercado Municipal (market building).
Colectivos, which are shared taxis operating along a set route with fixed fares, are normally only slightly more expensive than local buses. Most colectivos look exactly like regular taxis (apart from being all black, not black and yellow) and have their route or final destination marked on a board on the roof, but in some cities colectivos are bright yellow cars, often without a roof-board.
Taxis are normally black with a yellow roof. Foreigners are often overcharged, so check that the meter has been turned on before you start a journey and get an estimate for the fare, if possible in Spanish. Fares should be shown in the windscreen.
While Chile’s towns and cities are linked by plenty of buses, most visitors are here for the country’s wilderness areas, which are often difficult, and sometimes impossible, to reach on public transport. Many remote attractions are visited by tour companies, but for more independence, your best bet is to rent a car. To do this, you need to be at least 21 years old and have a major credit card so you can leave a blank voucher as a guarantee. You’re allowed to use your national driver’s licence, but you’re strongly advised to bring, in addition, an inter-national licence. Chile’s carabineros (police officers), who frequently stop drivers to check their documents, are often suspicious of unfamiliar foreign licences and are always happier when dealing with international ones. Traffic regulations are rarely enforced, except for speeding on the highways. The speed limit is 50km per hour or less in urban areas and 100km per hour on highways, and radar speed traps are commonplace. If an oncoming vehicle flashes its headlights, you’re being warned of carabineros lurking ahead. If you do get pulled over, exercise the utmost courtesy and patience, and under no circumstances do or say anything that could possibly be interpreted as bribery.
Rental outlets and costs
Several international car-rental companies have offices throughout Chile. In addition to these, you’ll find an abundance of local outlets which are often, but by no means always, less expensive than the international firms. Rates can vary quite a lot from one company to another, and it’s always worth phoning as many as possible to compare prices. Basic saloon cars go from around US$400–500 per week. Make sure the quoted price includes IVA (the 19 percent Chilean value added tax), insurance and unlimited mileage. Your rental contract will almost certainly be in (legal and convoluted) Spanish – get the company to take you through it. In most cases your liability, in the event of an accident, is around the US$500 mark; costs over this amount will be covered in total by the company. Petrol, at the time of writing, cost around US7–9 a gallon.
Driving in towns
Most Chilean towns are laid out on a grid plan, which makes navigating pretty easy. However, the country is obsessed with one-way traffic systems, and many streets, even in the smallest towns, are one-way only, the direction of traffic alternating with each successive street. The direction is usually indicated by a white arrow above the street name on each corner; if in doubt, look at the direction of the parked cars. Parking is normally allowed on most downtown streets (but on one side only), and around the central square. You’ll invariably be guided into a space by a wildly gesticulating cuidador de autos – a boy or young man who will offer to look after your car (quite unnecessarily) in return for a tip. In larger towns there’s a small half-hourly charge for parking on the street, administered by eagle-eyed traffic wardens who slip tickets under your wipers every thirty minutes then pounce on you to collect your money before you leave (a small tip is expected, too). If you can’t find a space, keep a look-out for large “estacionamiento” signs, which indicate private car parks.
Driving on highways
The Panamerican highway, which runs through Chile from the Peruvian border to the southern tip of Chiloé, is known alternately as Ruta 5, la Panamericana, or el longitudinal, with sur (south) or norte (north) often added on to indicate which side of Santiago it’s on. Thanks to a multi-billion dollar modernization project, it is quickly becoming a divided highway, with two lanes in each direction and a toll booth every 30km. This is undoubtedly a major improvement over most single-lane highways in Chile, which are prone to head-on collisions involving buses and trucks.
Backcountry and altiplano driving
You’ll probably find that many places you want to get to are reached by dirt road, for which it’s essential to rent a suitable vehicle, namely a Jeep or pick-up truck. On regular dirt roads you rarely need a 4WD vehicle. For altiplano driving, however, you should pay extra to have 4WD (with the sturdiest tyres and highest clearance), as you can come across some dreadful roads, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town. Make sure, too, that you take two spare tyres, not one, and that you always carry a funnel or tube for siphoning, and more than enough petrol. Also pick up several five-litre water jugs – it may be necessary for either the passengers or the engine at some point. It can be difficult to navigate in the altiplano, with so much open space and so few landmarks – make a careful note of your kilometre reading as you go along, so you can chart your progress over long roads with few markers. A compass is also helpful. Despite this tone of caution, it should be emphasized that altiplano driving is among the most rewarding adventures that Chile offers.
Finally, a general point on tyre punctures. This is such a common occurrence in Chile that even the smallest towns have special workshops (bearing signs with a tyre painted white) where they are quickly and cheaply repaired.
While we don’t recommend hitching as a safe way of getting about, there’s no denying that it’s widely practised by Chileans themselves. In the summer it seems as though all the students in Chile are sitting beside the road with their thumb out, and in rural areas it’s not uncommon for entire families to hitch a lift whenever they need to get into town.
South of Puerto Montt, where the mainland breaks up into an archipelago, a network of ferries operates through the fjords, inlets and channels of Chile’s far south, providing a more scenic and romantic alternative to flights and long-distance buses. Two ferries in particular are very popular with tourists: one from Puerto Montt to Chacabuco and the San Raphael glacier, the other between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales. In addition, there are ferry links with Quellón on Chiloé, and with Chaitén, on the Carretera Austral, as well as a number of shorter routes forming a bridge along various points of the Carretera Austral. There’s also a ferry trip across Lago Todos Los Santos, in the Lake District, connecting Petrohué with Peulla, near the Argentine border.
Main ferry routes
Petrohué–Peulla, across Lago Todos Los Santos Five hours; daily crossings (year-round) with Andina del Sud.
Puerto Montt–Chacabuco–Laguna San Rafael Five days, four nights (returning to Puerto Montt); one sailing per week with Navimag (year-round) and two, three or four with TransMarChilay (year-round).
Puerto Montt–Chaitén Ten hours; one sailing per week with Navimag (Jan&Feb); three or four per week with TransMarChilay (year-round).
Puerto Montt–Puerto Natales Four days, three nights; one sailing per week with Navimag (year-round).
Quellón–Chaitén Five hours; three sailings per week with Navimag (Jan & Feb).
With the right amount of time and energy, travelling by bike can be incredibly rewarding. Your time is your own and you won’t find yourself stuck to rigid timetables or restricted to visiting destinations only served by public buses.
Supplies in Chile can be unreliable so it’s best to bring as much as you can from home. A good, sturdy mountain bike is a must, along with the usual locks and chains, strong racks, repair kit, lights, waterproof panniers, jackets and over-trousers. All equipment and clothes should be packed in plastic to protect from dust and moisture. Your major problem will be getting hold of spares when you need them – bike shops tend to be found only in Santiago and a few major cities. When on the road, bear in mind that long stretches are bereft of accommodation options and even the most basic services, so you must be completely self-sufficient and prepared for a long wait if you require assistance. Some bus companies will not transport bicycles unless you wrap frame and wheels separately in cardboard. When you enter the country, you may well find that customs officials enter details of your bicycle in your passport to prevent you from selling it.
The main danger when cycling on Chile’s roads are drivers. Make sure you stand out in the traffic by wearing bright colours, good reflective gear and lights when the vision is poor. It goes without saying that you should wear a helmet; it’s actually illegal to ride in Chile without one. Before you set off get your hands on one of the many good guidebooks available on long-distance cycling. Alternately contact the Cyclists Touring Club in the UK (0844 736 8450, ctc.org.uk).
Chile once possessed a huge network of railways, particularly in the far north where hundreds of kilometres of lines transported the region’s nitrate ore down to the ports to be shipped abroad. Now the nitrate days are over, no national railway lines operate north of Santiago, and what lines are left south of the capital are unable to compete with the speed, prices and punctuality offered by buses.