On the whole, the standard of accommodation in Chile is reasonable, though many visitors feel prices are high for what they get, especially in mid- and top-range hotels. Bottom-end accommodation starts at around CH$8000 (US$16) for a dorm room, CH$20,000–25,000 (US$40-50) for a double. You’ll have to pay around CH$35,000–45,000 (US$70-90) for a double or twin with a private bathroom in a decent mid-range hotel, and anything from CH$50,000–70,000 (US$100-140) for a smarter hotel. There’s usually a wide choice in the major tourist centres and the cities on the Panamericana, but in more remote areas you’ll invariably have to make do with basic hospedajes (modest rooms, often in family homes). Most places include a small breakfast in their rates.
The price of accommodation often increases dramatically in high season – January and February – particularly in seaside resorts, where it can as much as double or even triple. Outside high season it’s always worth trying to negotiate a discount. A simple “¿tiene algo un poco mas económico?” (“do you have anything a little cheaper?”) or “¿me puede dar un descuento?” (“could you give me a discount?”) will often get you a lower price on the spot. It’s rarely necessary to make reservations, unless you’ve got your heart set on a particular hotel, in which case it can be a good idea to phone a few days in advance – especially at weekends, even more so if it’s within striking distance of Santiago.
Room rates are supposed to be quoted inclusive of IVA (a Chilean goods and services tax of 19 percent), but you should always check beforehand (¿está incluido el iva?). Many mid- and most upper-range hotels give you the opportunity to pay for your accommodation in US dollars, which exempts you from paying IVA. However, hotels are not always eager to offer this discount – they need to be reminded forcefully. Often, though, if they can’t take off IVA, they’ll offer you a discount of 10% if you pay cash.
Chilean hotels are given a one- to five-star rating by Sernatur (the national tourist board), but this only reflects facilities and not standards, which vary widely. In practice, then, a three-star hotel could be far more attractive and comfortable than a four-star and even a five-star hotel; the only way to tell is to go and have a look, as even the room rates aren’t a reliable indication of quality.
In general, mid-range hotels fall into two main categories: large, old houses with spacious, but sometimes tired, rooms; and modern, purpose-built hotels, usually with smaller rooms, no common areas and better facilities. You’ll always get a private bathroom with a shower (rarely a bath), hot water and towels, and generally cable TV. As the price creeps up there’s usually an improvement in decor and space, and at the upper end you can expect room service, a mini-bar (frigobar), a safe, a hotel restaurant, private parking and sometimes a swimming pool. The standards of top end hotels can still vary quite dramatically, however – ranging from stylish boutique hotels or charming haciendas to grim, impersonal monoliths catering for businessmen.
Motels, incidentally, are usually not economical roadside hotels, but places where couples go to have sex (rooms are generally rented for three-hour periods).
Residenciales are the most widely available, and widely used, accommodation option. As with hotels, standards can vary enormously, but in general they offer simple, modestly furnished rooms, usually off a corridor in the main house, or else in a row arranged around the backyard or patio. They usually contain little more than a bed, a rail for hanging clothes and a bedside table and lamp, though some provide additional furniture, and a few more comforts such as a TV or a thermos for making tea or coffee. Most, but not all, have shared bathrooms.
Where places differ is in the upkeep or “freshness” of the rooms: some are dank and damp, others have good bed linen, walls that are painted every summer, and a clean, swept, feel to them. Some of the slightly more expensive residenciales are very pleasant, particularly the large, nineteenth-century houses. While some residenciales cater exclusively to tourists, many, especially in the mining towns of the north, fill mainly with workmen.
Hospedajes and casas de familia
The distinction between a residencial and a hospedaje or casa de familia is often blurred. On the whole, the term hospedaje implies something rather modest, along the lines of the cheaper residenciales, while a casa de familia (or casa familiar) offers, as you’d expect, rooms inside a family home. The relationship between the guest and the owner is nevertheless no different from that in a residencial. Casas de familia don’t normally have a sign at the door, and if they do it usually just says “Alojamiento” (“lodging”); more commonly, members of the family might go and meet tourists at the bus stations. These places are perfectly safe and you shouldn’t worry about checking them out. Sometimes you’ll find details of casas de familia at tourist offices, as well.
Cabañas are very popular in Chile, and you’ll find them in tourist spots up and down the country, particularly by the coast. They are basically holiday chalets geared towards families, and usually come with a kitchen, sitting/dining area, one double bedroom and a second bedroom with bunks. They range from the very rustic to the distinctly grand, complete with daily maid service. Note that the price is often the same for two people as it is for four: i.e. charged by cabin rather than per person. That said, as they’re used predominantly by Chileans, their popularity tends to be limited to January and February and sunny weekends, and outside these times demand is so low that you can normally get a very good discount. Many cabañas are in superb locations, right by the ocean, and it can be wonderfully relaxing to self-cater for a few days in the off-season.
Many of the ranger stations in the national parks have a limited number of bunk beds available for tourists, at a charge of around CH$5000 (US$10) per person. Known as refugios, these places are very rustic – often a small, wooden hut – but they usually have toilets, hot running water, clean sheets and woollen blankets. Some of them, such as those at the Salar de Surire and Lago Chungará, are in stunning locations. Most refugios are open year-round, but if you’re travelling in winter or other extreme weather conditions it’s best to check with the regional forestry (Conaf) office in advance. While you’re there, you can reserve beds in the refugio. This is highly advisable if you’re relying solely on the refugio for accommodation, but if you’re travelling with a tent as a back-up, it’s not really necessary to book ahead.
Hostels are increasingly banding together to provide a link between Chile´s major cities. What was until recently a score of isolated bargain spots is now starting to resemble a highly developed hostelling operation such as the one, for example, in New Zealand; some are pretty smart, and a few even style themselves as “boutique hostels”. In addition to dorms, most also have a selection of private rooms. Hostels also tend to be among the best informal networks for information about local guides and excursions.
Many hostels are affiliated to Hostelling International (hihostels.com), and offer discounts for members.
There are plenty of opportunities for camping in Chile, though it’s not always the cheapest way to sleep. If you plan to do a lot of camping, equip yourself with the annual Spanish-language camping guide, Turistel Rutero Camping, which has maps, prices and information. Even those who don’t speak Spanish will find plenty of helpful information, ranging from trail maps to cabins. Official campsites range from plots of land with minimal facilities to swanky grounds with hot showers and private barbecue grills. The latter, often part of holiday complexes in seaside resorts, can be very expensive (around CH$15,000–20,000/US$30–40), and are usually only open between December and March.
It’s also possible to camp wild in the countryside, but you’ll really need your own transport to do this in remote areas. Most national parks don’t allow camping outside designated areas, in order to protect the environment. Instead they tend to have either rustic camping areas administered by Conaf (very common in northern Chile), costing about CH$5000 (US$10) per tent, or else smart, expensive sites run by concessionaires (more common in the south) that charge about CH$20,000 (US$40) for two to four people. As for beaches, some turn into informal, spontaneously erected campsites in the summer; on others, camping is strictly forbidden.
If you do end up camping wild on the beach or in the countryside, bury or pack up your excrement, and take all your refuse with you when you leave. Note that butane gas and sometimes Camping Gaz are available in hardware shops in most towns and cities. If your stove takes white gas, you need to buy bencina blanca, which you’ll find either in hardware stores or, more commonly, in pharmacies.