As you might expect given its incredibly long, thin shape, Chile encompasses a wide range of climates (and micro climates). Its seasons are the reverse of those in Europe and North America, with, broadly speaking, winter falling in the June to September period and summer in the December to March period.
Chile is an expensive country compared with most of South America. Accommodation is relatively expensive, but eating out is relatively good value if you avoid the flashier restaurants and take advantage of set lunch menus. Transport is relatively inexpensive.
In general, per week, you'll need to allow US$250 to get by on a tight budget; around US$600 to live a little more comfortably, staying in mid-range hotels and eating in restaurants most days; and upwards of US$1000 to live in luxury.
The most widespread hidden cost in Chile is the IVA (Impuesto al Valor Agregado), a tax of 19 percent added to most goods and services. Although most prices include IVA, there are many irritating exceptions. Hotel rates sometimes include IVA and sometimes don't; as a tourist, you're supposed to be exempt from IVA if you pay for your accommodation in US dollars. Car rental is almost always quoted without IVA. If in doubt, you should always clarify whether a price quoted to you includes IVA.
Once obtained, various official and quasi-official youth/student ID cards soon pay for themselves in savings. Full-time students are eligible for the International Student ID Card (ISIC; isiccard.com).
Chile is one of the safest South American countries, and violent crime against tourists is rare. The kind of sophisticated tactics used by thieves in neighbouring Peru and Bolivia are extremely uncommon in Chile, and the fact that you can walk around without being gripped by paranoia is one of the country's major bonuses.
That's not to say, of course, that you don't need to be careful. Opportunistic pickpocketing and petty theft is common in Santiago and major cities such as Valparaíso, Arica and Puerto Montt, and you should take all the normal precautions to safeguard your money and valuables, paying special attention in bus terminals and markets – wear a money belt, and keep it tucked inside the waistband of your trousers or skirt, out of sight, and don't wear flashy jewellery, flaunt expensive cameras or carry a handbag. It's also a good idea to keep photocopies of your passport, tourist card, driving licence, air tickets and credit card details separate from the originals – whether it's safer to carry the originals with you or leave them in your hotel is debatable, but whatever you do, you should always have some form of ID on you, even if this is just a photocopy of your passport.
Chile's police force, the carabineros, has the whole country covered, with stations in even the most remote areas, particularly in border regions. If you're robbed and need a police report for an insurance claim, you should go to the nearest retén (police station), where details of the theft will be entered in a logbook. You'll be issued a slip of paper with the record number of the entry, but in most cases a full report won't be typed out until your insurance company requests it.
220V/50Hz is the standard throughout Chile. The sockets are two-pronged, with round pins (as opposed to the flat pins common in neighbouring countries).
Most foreign visitors to Chile do not need a visa. The exceptions are citizens of Cuba, Russia, Middle Eastern countries (except Israel) and African counties (except South Africa).
Visitors of all nationalities are issued with a 90-day tourist entry card (Tarjeta de Turismo) on arrival in Chile, which can be extended once for an additional 90 days. It will be checked by the International Police at the airport or border post when you leave Chile – if it's expired you won't be allowed to leave the country until you've paid the appropriate fine at the nearest Intendencia (up to US$100, depending on the number of days past the expiry date). If this happens when you're trying to fly out of the international airport in Santiago, you'll have to go back downtown to Moneda 1342 (Mon–Fri 9am–1pm; t2 672 5320).
If you lose your tourist card, ask for a duplicate immediately, either from the Fronteras department of the Policía Internacional, General Borgoño 1052, Santiago (t2 698 2211) or from the Extranjero's department of the Intendencia in any provincial capital. There's no charge for replacing lost or stolen cards.
If you want to extend your tourist card, you can either pay US$100 at the Intendencia of Santiago or any provincial capital, or you can simply leave the country and re-enter, getting a brand-new 90-day Tarjeta de Turismo for free.
A tourist card does not allow you to undertake any paid employment in Chile – for this, you need to get a work visa before you enter the country, which can either be arranged by your employer in Chile or by yourself on presentation (to your embassy or consulate) of an employment contract authorized by a Chilean public notary. You can't swap a tourist card for a work visa while you're in Chile, which means that legally you can't just go out and find a job – though many language schools are happy to ignore the rules when employing teachers. Other points to note are that under-18s travelling to Chile without parents need written parental consent authorized by the Chilean Embassy, and that minors travelling to Chile with just one parent need the written, authorized consent of the absent parent.
Australia 10 Culgoa Circuit, O'Malley, Canberra ACT 2606 t02 6286 2098, chileabroad.gov.cl/australia/.
Canada 50 O'Connor St, suite 1413, Ottawa, ON K1P 6L2 t613 235 4402, chile.ca.
New Zealand 19 Bolton St, Wellington t04 471 6270, chileabroad.gov.cl/nueva-zelanda/en/
South Africa 169 Garsfontein Rd Ashlea, Delmondo Office Park Block C, Gardens, Pretoria t012 460 1676, chileabroad.gov.cl/sudafrica/.
UK 12 Devonshire St, London W1N 2DS t020 7580 1023, chileabroad.gov.cl/reino-unido/en.
US 1732 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036 t202 785 1746.
Chilean society is extremely conservative, and homosexuality is still a taboo subject for many Chileans. Outside Santiago – with the minor exceptions of some northern cities such as La Serena and Antofagasta – there are no gay venues, and it is advisable for same-sex couples to do as the locals do and remain discreet, especially in public. Machismo, while not as evident here as in other Latin American countries, is nevertheless deeply ingrained and mostly unchallenged by women, despite a growing feminist movement. That said, gay-bashing and other homophobic acts are rare and the government has passed anti-discrimination legislation. The International Gay and Lesbian Association (iglta.org) has information of gay- and lesbian-friendly travel companies in Chile (and around the world). santiagogay.com is another good source of information.
You'd do well to take out an insurance policy before travelling to cover against theft, loss and illness or injury. Before paying for a new policy, however, it's worth checking whether you are already covered: some all-risks home insurance policies may cover your possessions when overseas, and many private medical schemes include cover when abroad.
After checking out the possibilities above, you might want to contact a specialist travel insurance company, or consider the travel insurance deal we offer. A typical travel insurance policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Most exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid; in Chile this can mean scuba-diving, white-water rafting, windsurfing and trekking, though probably not kayaking or jeep safaris. If you take medical coverage, ascertain whether benefits will be paid as treatment proceeds or only after you return home, and if there is a 24-hour medical emergency number. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit will cover your most valuable possession. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police.
Chile is one of the most wired Latin American nations. Cybercafés are everywhere, and broadband (banda ancha) access is quite common. Most hotels and many cafes and restaurants provide wi-fi access, often for free.
There are plenty of short-term work opportunities for foreigners in Chile; the difficultly lies in obtaining and maintaining a work visa. You can only apply for one once you have a firm job offer, with the result that many people enter on a tourist visa and hold off on applying until they've actually found work.
If you're pre-planning a longer stay, consult the websites of the Overseas Jobs Express (overseasjobs.org) and the International Career and Employment Center (internationaljobs.org); both list internships, jobs and volunteer opportunities across the world.
Many students come to Chile taking advantage of semester or year-abroad programmes offered by their universities. Go to studyabroad.com for links and listings to study programmes worldwide.
Demand for native-speaking English teachers in Chilean cities is high and makes language teaching an obvious work option. Though it can be competitive, it's relatively easy to find work either teaching general English in private language schools or business English within companies. A lucky few get by with minimal teaching experience, but with an EFL (English Language Teaching)/TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) qualification you're in a far better position to get a job with a reputable employer. CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) courses are among the best and you can qualify before you leave home or even while you're abroad. The most lucrative work is private, one-to-one lessons, which are best sought through word-of-mouth or by placing an ad in a local newspaper. The British Council website (britishcouncil.org/work/jobs.htm) has a list of vacancies.
Opportunities for work need not be limited to language teaching. You can easily become a volunteer in Chile, but you'll often have to pay for the privilege. Many organizations target people on gap years (at whatever stage in their lives) and offer placements on both inner city and environmental projects. For free or low-cost volunteer positions have a look at the excellent volunteersouthamerica.net.
Study and work programmes
AFS Intercultural Programs afs.org. Intercultural exchange organization with programmes in over 50 countries.
Amerispanwamerispan.com. Highly rated educational travel company that specializes in language courses, but also runs volunteer programmes all over Latin America.
British Council britishcouncil.org. Produces a free leaflet which details study opportunities abroad. The website has a list of current job vacancies for recruiting TEFL teachers for posts worldwide.
Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) ciee.org. Leading NGO offering study programmes and volunteer projects around the world.
Earthwatch Institute earthwatch.org. Scientific expedition project that spans over 50 countries with environmental and archeological ventures worldwide.
Rainforest Concern rainforestconcern.org. Volunteering opportunities protecting threatened habitats in South and Central America. The Chilean project is based in the Nasampulli Reserve in the south of the country.
Raleigh International raleigh.org.uk. Volunteer projects across the world for young travellers.
The Chilean postal service is very reliable for international items, but can be surprisingly erratic for domestic items. A letter from Santiago takes about five days to reach Europe, a little less time to reach North America and usually no more than a couple of weeks to more remote destinations. Allow a few extra days for letters posted from other towns and cities in Chile. Do not send any gifts to Chile using regular post; theft is extremely common for incoming shipments. For important shipping to Chile try express services such as FedEx and DHL.
Post offices are marked by a blue Correos sign, and are usually on or near the Plaza de Armas of any town; postboxes are blue, and bear the blue Correos symbol.
No two road maps of Chile are identical, and none is absolutely correct. The bulk of errors lie in the representation of dirt roads: some maps mark them incorrectly as tarred roads, some leave out a random selection of dirt roads altogether, and some mark them quite clearly where nothing exists at all.
You'll find a number of reliable country maps, including the Rough Guides' detailed, waterproof Chile map. The comprehensive TurisTel map is printed in the back of its guides to Chile and also published in a separate booklet. Sernatur produces a good fold-out map of the whole of Chile, called the Gran Mapa Caminero de Chile, on sale at the main office in Santiago, and an excellent map of the north, called the Mapa Rutero Turístico Macroregión Norte, free from Sernatur offices in Santiago and the north. Other useful maps include Auto Mapa's Rutas de Chile series, distributed internationally. Outside Chile, also look for the Reise Know-How Verlag and Nelles Verlag maps of Chile, which combine clear road detail along with contours and colour tinting.
You can pick up free and usually adequate street plans in the tourist office of most cities, but better by far are those contained in the Turistel guidebooks, with a map for practically every town and village you're likely to want to visit. Bookshops and kiosks sell street-indexed maps of Santiago, but the most comprehensive A–Z of Santiago appears in the back of the CTC phone directory.
The best ones to use for hiking are the series of JLM maps, which cover some of the main national parks and occasionally extend into Argentina. They're produced in collaboration with Conaf and are available in bookshops and some souvenir or outdoor stores.
The basic unit of currency is the peso, usually represented by the $ sign (and by CH$ in this book, for clarity). Many hotels, particularly the more expensive ones, accept US dollars cash (and will give you a discount for paying this way; For more information, see Hotels). Apart from this, you'll be expected to pay for everything in local currency. You may, however, come across prices quoted in the mysterious "UF". This stands for unidad de fomento and is an index-linked monetary unit that is adjusted (every minute) daily to remain in line with inflation. The only time you're likely to come across it is if you rent a vehicle (your liability, in the event of an accident, will probably be quoted in UFs on the rental contract). You'll find the exchange rate of the UF against the Chilean peso in the daily newspapers, along with the rates for all the other currencies.
Credit and debit cards can be used either in ATMs or over the counter. MasterCard, Visa and American Express are accepted just about everywhere, but other cards may not be recognized. Alternatively, pick up a pre-paid debit card such as Travelex's Cash Passport (travelex.co.uk).
Travellers' cheques should always be in US dollars, and though most brands are accepted, it's best to be on the safe side and take one of the main brands such as American Express, Citibank or Thomas Cook. You will have to change them in a casa de cambio (exchange bureau), usually for a small commission.
Most shops and services are open Monday to Friday from 9am to 1pm and 3pm to 6pm or 7pm, and on Saturday from 10am or 11am until 2pm. Supermarkets stay open at lunchtime and may close as late as 11pm on weekdays and Saturdays in big cities. Large shopping malls are often open all day on Sundays. Banks have more limited hours, generally Monday to Friday from 9am to 2pm, but casas de cambio tend to use the same opening hours as shops.
Museums are nearly always shut on Mondays, and are often free on Sundays. Many tourist offices only open Monday to Friday throughout the year, with a break for lunch, but in summer (usually between Dec 15 and March 15) some increase their weekday hours and open on Saturday and sometimes Sunday; note that their hours are subject to frequent change. Post offices don't close at lunchtime on weekdays and are open on Saturdays from 9am to 1pm.
February is the main holiday month in Chile, when there's an exodus from the big cities to the beaches or the Lake District, leaving some shops and restaurants closed. February is also an easy time to get around in Santiago, as the city appears half-abandoned.
January 1 New Year's Day (Año nuevo)
Easter Good Friday, Easter Saturday and Easter Sunday are the climax to Holy Week (Semana Santa)
May 1 Labour Day (Día del Trabajo)
May 21Combate Naval de Iquique. A Remembrance Day celebrating the end of the War of the Pacific after the naval victory at Iquique
June 15 Corpus Christi
June, last Monday San Pedro and San Pablo
August 15 Assumption of the Virgin
September 18 National Independence Day (Fiestas Patrias), in celebration of the first provisional government of 1810
September 19 Armed Forces Day (Día del Ejército)
October 12 Columbus Day (Día de la Raza), marking the discovery of America
November 1 All Saints' Day (Todos los Santos)
December 8 Immaculate Conception
December 25 Christmas Day (Navidad)
Landline telephone numbers are six or seven digits long, depending on where you are in the country. If you are making a long-distance call you need to first dial a "carrier code" (for example "188" for Telefónica or "181" for Movistar), then an area code (for example "2" for the Santiago metropolitan region or "32" for the Valparaíso region) and finally the number itself. Mobile phone numbers have eight digits. When calling from a landline to a mobile, dial "09" and then the rest of the number (for mobile to mobile calls, the "09" is not necessary).
Using phonecards is a practical way to phone abroad, and it's worth stocking up on them in major cities, as you can't always buy them elsewhere. Alternatively there are dozens of call centres or centros de llamadas in most cities. Another convenient option is to take along an international calling card. The least expensive way to call home, however, is via Skype.
The cheapest way to use your mobile is to pick up a local sim card, though you may also have to get your phone unlocked to ensure it works. The main operators are Movistar, Entel and Claro, and you'll find several branches of each in the larger cities.
From the end of October to late March, Chile observes Daylight Saving Time and is three hours behind GMT; the country is four hours behind GMT the rest of the year. Easter Island is two hours behind the mainland.
Chile's government-run tourist board is called Sernatur. There's a large office in Santiago, plus branches in every provincial capital. It produces a huge amount of material, including themed booklets on camping, skiing, national parks, beaches, thermal springs and so on. In smaller towns you're more likely to find a municipal Oficina de Turismo, sometimes attached to the Municipalidad (town hall) and usually with a very limited supply of printed information to hand out. If there's no separate tourist office it's worth trying the Municipalidad itself. Another source of information is the excellent series of TurisTel guidebooks, published annually by the Chilean phone company CTC, and available at numerous pavement kiosks in Santiago, and CTC offices in Chilean cities. They come in three volumes, covering the north, the centre and the south, and give extremely detailed information on even the tiniest of places, with comprehensive street plans and road maps. The English translation, available at many kiosks, however, suffers from infrequent updating.
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs dfat.gov.au.
British Foreign & Commonwealth Office fco.gov.uk.
Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs international.gc.ca.
Irish Department of Foreign Affairsforeignaffairs.gov.ie.
New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs mfat.govt.nz.
South African Department of Foreign Affairs dfa.gov.za.
US State Department travel.state.gov.
Chilean Patagoniachileaustral.com. Website dedicated to tourism in Chilean Patagonia, including city guides, national parks, hotels and weather forecasts.
Chile Hotels chile-hotels.com. A long list of Chilean hotels, with online booking facilities, plus brief descriptions of the towns and cities.
El Mercurio emol.com. The long-established, rather conservative daily newspaper, online in Spanish.
Foody Chilefoodychile.com. Well-written blog on what and where to eat in Chile.
I Love Chileilovechile.cl. Useful website with news, features, music and blogs, plus its own online radio station.
South American Explorerssaexplorers.org. Useful site of the long-established travel NGO. Offers travel advisories and warnings, trip reports, a bulletin board and links with other sites.
Chile Travelchile.travel. Descriptions of the major attractions in each region, with some historical and cultural background.
Chile makes very few provisions for people with disabilities, and travellers with mobility problems will have to contend with a lack of lifts, high curbs, dangerous potholes on pavements and worse. However, Chileans are courteous people and are likely to offer assistance when needed. Spacious, specially designed toilets are becoming more common in airports and the newer shopping malls, but restaurants and bars are progressing at a slower pace. New public buildings are legally required to provide disabled access, and there will usually be a full range of facilities in the more expensive hotels. It is worth employing the help of the local tourist office for information on the most suitable place to stay. Public transport on the other hand is far more of a challenge. Most bus companies do not have any dedicated disabled facilities so, given that reserved disabled parking is increasingly common, travelling with your own vehicle might be the easier option.
Families are highly regarded in Latin American societies, and Chile is no exception. Chile's restaurants are well used to catering for children and will happily provide smaller portions for younger mouths. In hotels, you should try to negotiate cheaper rates. The main health hazards to watch out for are the heat and sun. Very high factor suncream can be difficult to come by in remote towns so it is best to stock up on sunblock at pharmacies in the bigger cities. Always remember that the sun in Chile is fierce, so hats and bonnets are essential; this is especially true in the south where the ozone layer is particularly thin. High altitudes may cause children problems and, like adults, they must acclimatize before walking too strenuously above 2000m. If you intend to travel with babies and very young children to high altitudes, consult your doctor for advice before you leave.
Long-distances buses charge for each seat so you'll only pay less if a child is sitting on your knee. On city buses, however, small children often travel for free but will be expected to give up their seat for paying customers without one. Airline companies generally charge a third less for passengers under 12 so look out for last-minute discount flights – they can make flying an affordable alternative to an arduous bus ride.
Chile is a fairly risk-free country to travel in as far as health problems are concerned. No inoculations are required, though you might want to consider a hepatitis A jab, as a precaution. Check, too, that your tetanus boosters are up to date. Many travellers experience the occasional stomach upset, and sunstroke is also quite common, especially at high altitudes.
Chile is well endowed with pharmacies (farmacias) – even smaller towns usually have at least a handful. If you need to see a doctor, make an appointment at the outpatient department of the nearest hospital, usually known as a clínica. The majority of clínicas are private, and expensive, so make sure your travel insurance provides good medical cover.
Rabies, though only a remote risk, does exist in Chile. If you get bitten or scratched by a dog, you should seek medical attention immediately. The disease can be cured, but only through a series of stomach injections administered before the onset of symptoms, which can appear within 24 hours or lie dormant for months, and include irrational behaviour, fear of water and foaming at the mouth. There is a vaccine, but it’s expensive and doesn’t prevent you from contracting rabies, though it does buy you time to get to hospital.
Anyone travelling in Chile’s northern altiplano, where altitudes commonly reach 4500m – or indeed anyone going higher than 3000m in the cordillera – needs to be aware of the risks of altitude sickness, locally known as soroche or apunamiento. This debilitating and sometimes dangerous condition is caused by the reduced atmospheric pressure and corresponding reduction in oxygen that occurs around 3000m above sea level. Basic symptoms include breathlessness, headaches, nausea and extreme tiredness, rather like a bad hangover. There’s no way of predicting whether or not you’ll be susceptible to the condition, which seems to strike quite randomly, affecting people differently from one ascent to another. You can, however, take steps to avoid it by ascending slowly and allowing yourself to acclimatize. In particular, don’t be tempted to whizz straight up to the altiplano from sea level, but spend a night or two acclimatizing en route. You should also avoid alcohol and salt, and drink lots of water. The bitter-tasting coca leaves chewed by most locals in the altiplano (where they’re widely available at markets and village stores), can help ease headaches and the sense of exhaustion.
Although extremely unpleasant, the basic form of altitude sickness is essentially harmless and passes after about 24 hours (if it doesn’t, descend at least 500m). However, in its more serious forms, altitude sickness can be dangerous and even life-threatening. One to two percent of people travelling to 4000m develop HAPO (high-altitude pulmonary oedema), caused by the build-up of liquid in the lungs. Symptoms include fever, an increased pulse rate, and coughing up white fluid; sufferers should descend immediately, whereupon recovery is usually quick and complete. Rarer, but more serious, is HACO (high-altitude cerebral oedema), which occurs when the brain gets waterlogged with fluid. Symptoms include loss of balance, severe lassitude, weakness or numbness on one side of the body and a confused mental state. If you or a fellow traveller display any of these symptoms, descend immediately and get to a doctor; HACO can be fatal within 24 hours.
In many parts of Chile, sunburn and dehydration are threats. They are obviously more of a problem in the excessively dry climate of the north, but even in the south of the country, it’s easy to underestimate the strength of the summer sun. To prevent sunburn, take a high-factor sunscreen and wear a wide-brimmed hat. It’s also essential to drink plenty of fluids before you go out, and always carry large quantities of water with you when you’re hiking in the sun. As you lose a lot of salt when you sweat, add more to your food, or take a rehydration solution.
Another potential enemy, especially at high altitudes and in Chile’s far southern reaches, is hypothermia. Because early symptoms can include an almost euphoric sense of sleepiness and disorientation, your body’s core temperature can plummet to danger level before you know what has happened. Chile’s northern deserts have such clear air that it can drop to -20°C (-4°F) at night, which makes you very vulnerable to hypothermia while sleeping if proper precautions aren’t taken. If you get hypothermia, the best thing to do is take your clothes off and jump into a sleeping bag with someone else – sharing another person’s body heat is the most effective way of restoring your own. If you’re alone, or have no willing partners, then get out of the wind and the rain, remove all wet or damp clothes, get dry, and drink plenty of hot fluids.
Chile’s shellfish should be treated with the utmost caution. Every year, a handful of people die because they inadvertently eat bivalve shellfish contaminated by red tide, or marea roja, algae that becomes toxic when the seawater temperature rises. The government monitors the presence of this algae with extreme diligence and bans all commercial shellfish collection when the phenomenon occurs. There is little health risk when eating in restaurants or buying shellfish in markets, as these are regularly inspected by the health authorities, but it’s extremely dangerous to collect shellfish for your own consumption unless you’re absolutely certain that the area is free of red tide. Note that red tide affects all shellfish, cooked or uncooked.
Media output in Chile is nothing to get excited about. If you know where to look, journalistic standards can be high but you might find yourself turning to foreign TV channels or papers if you want an international view on events.
The Chilean press has managed to uphold a strong tradition of editorial freedom ever since the country’s first newspaper, La Aurora, was published by an anti-royalist friar in 1812, during the early days of the independence movement. One year before La Aurora folded in 1827, a new newspaper, El Mercurio, went to press in Valparaíso, and is now the longest-running newspaper in the Spanish-speaking world. Emphatically conservative, and owned by the powerful Edwards family, El Mercurio is considered the most serious of Chile’s dailies, but still has a minimal international coverage. The other major daily is La Tercera, which tends to be more sensationalistic. The liberal-leaning La Nación is the official newspaper of the state. The online English-language Santiago Times is a good read, though you’ll need to subscribe to get full access.
Chile also produces a plethora of racy tabloids as well as ¡Hola!-style clones. For a more edifying read, try the selection of Private Eye-style satirical papers, such as The Clinic and the weekly magazine Siete más 7.
In Santiago you can usually track down a selection of foreign papers, though elsewhere you’ll generally have to rely on online editions.
Cable TV is widespread, offering innumerable domestic and international channels. CNN is always on offer, and BBC World is widely available. Of the five terrestrial channels, the top choice is Channel 7, the state-owned Televisión Nacional, which makes the best programmes in Chile. Generally, however, soap operas, game shows and, of course, football, predominate.
Voice of America and Radio Canada can both be accessed but unfortunately the BBC no longer broadcasts its World Service in Chile.