Getting there & away
To cut steep costs in getting to South America take advantage of seasonal discounts and try to avoid peak times such as Christmas, New Year's or Easter. Advance purchase will normally provide the best, but not necessarily most flexible, deal. Discount ticketing is rare in Latin America.
If buying on the web, shop around as prices vary. Tickets for midweek flights are cheaper than weekends. The following Internet sites are reliable, but there are scores more you can choose from. Check travel magazines and the weekend travel sections of newspapers for some more ideas. Also see the suggestions given under specific countries.
Flight Centre (www.flightcentre.com)
Chile's northern border touches Peru and Bolivia, while its vast eastern boundary hugs Argentina. Of the numerous border crossings with Argentina, only a few are served by public transportation. Chile's Ministerio de Obras Públicas (MOP; Public Works Ministry) is working to improve border crossings, especially those to Argentina. At major land borders - such as Los Libertadores complex between Santiago and Mendoza, and the Pajaritos crossing between Osorno and Bariloche - Chilean customs officials X-ray the baggage of arriving bus passengers (photographers may want to separate their film). Most international buses depart from Terminal de Buses Santiago.
There are buses to almost every country on the continent, but only masochists are likely to attempt the 4½- to 10-day marathons to destinations like Quito, Ecuador and Caracas, Venezuela. Common destinations are served by the following bus companies, all located in the Terminal de Buses Santiago:
Buses Ahumada (02-778-2703)
Cata (02-779-3660; firstname.lastname@example.org)
Fenix Pullman Norte Internacional (02-776-1727; email@example.com)
Pullman del Sur (02-776-2424; www.pdelsur.cl in Spanish)
Tur Bus (02-779-5624; www.turbus.com in Spanish)
Turismo Nevada (02-776-4116)
Chilebus Internacional (02-776-5557)
There can be additional charges and confusing paperwork if you're taking a hired car out of Chile; ask the rental agency to talk you through it.
Most short-term travelers touch down in Santiago, while those on a South American odyssey are more likely to sidle in at their leisure - via bus from Peru, boat or bus from Argentina, or a bouncy bus or 4x4 trip from Bolivia. Entry is generally straightforward so long as your passport is valid for at least six months beyond your arrival date.
Theoretically, Chile requires a return or onward ticket for arriving travelers, and occasionally officials may ask for evidence of an onward ticket if the date of your return ticket is beyond the initial 90-day tourist-card limit.
Unless you're crossing from Chile's extreme south there's no way to avoid the Andes. Spectacular scenery and popping ears are guaranteed but there is public transportation on only a few of the crossings to Argentina, and many passes are closed in winter.
Calama to Jujuy & Salta
A popular route over the Andes via San Pedro de Atacama, Ruta 27 over the Paso de Jama. It has a regular bus service (advance booking is highly advisable); it's a good road as far as the border and is open all year. Slightly farther south, on Ruta 23, motorists will find the 4079m Paso de Lago Sico a rougher but passable summer alternative. Chilean customs are at San Pedro de Atacama.
Iquique to Oruro
A few scattered bus services run along a paved road from Iquique past the Parque Nacional Volcan Isluga to the Paso Colchane; you can catch a truck or a bus on to Oruru from here (on an unpaved road).
Copiapó to Catamarca & La Rioja
There is no public transportation over the 4726m Paso de San Francisco; it's a dirt road that should only be driven in a vehicle with high clearance, but rewards with spectacular scenery - includ- ing the luminous Laguna Verde.
La Serena to San Juan
Dynamited by the Argentine military during the Beagle Channel dispute of 1978-79, the 4779m Paso del Agua Negra is a beautiful route, but the road is unpaved beyond Guanta and buses eschew it. It is a good bicycle route and tours run to hot springs on the Argentine side.
Santiago or Valparaíso to Mendoza & Buenos Aires A dozen or more bus companies service this beautiful and vital lifeline to Argentina, along Ruta 60 through the Los Libertadores tunnel. Winter snow sometimes closes the route, but rarely for long.
Talca to Malargüe & San Rafael There's no public transportation through Ruta 115 to cross the 2553m Paso Pehuenche, southeast of Talca. Another crossing from Curicó over the 2502m Paso Vergara is being developed but is still hard to access.
Temuco to Zapala & Neuquén
A good road crosses the Andes over the 1884m Paso de Pino Hachado, directly east of Temuco along the upper Río Biobío. A secondary unpaved route just south of here is the 1298m Paso de Icalma. There may be occasional bus traffic in summer.
Temuco to San Martín de los Andes
The most popular route from Temuco passes Lago Villarrica, Pucón and Curarrehue en route to the Paso de Mamuil Malal (known to Argentines as Paso Tromen). On the Argentine side, the road skirts the northern slopes of Volcán Lanín. There is a regular summer bus service, but the pass is sometimes closed due to snow in winter.
Valdivia to San Martín de los Andes
This mix- and-match route starts with a bus from Valdivia to Panguipulli, Choshuenco and Puerto Fuy, followed by a ferry across Lago Pirihueico to the village of Pirihueico. From Pirihueico a local bus goes to Argentine customs at 659m Paso Huahum, where travelers can catch a bus to San Martín.
Osorno to Bariloche via Paso Cardenal Samoré
This crossing, commonly known as Pajaritos, is the quickest land route in the southern Lakes District, passing through Parque Nacional Puyehue on the Chilean side and Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi on the Argentine side. It has a frequent bus service all year.
Puerto Montt & Puerto Varas to Bariloche
Very popular in summer but open all year, this bus-ferry combination via Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales starts in Puerto Montt or Puerto Varas. A ferry goes from Petrohué, at the west end of Lago Todos Los Santos, to Peulla, and a bus crosses 1022m Paso de Pérez Rosales to Argentine immigration at Puerto Frías. After crossing Lago Frías by launch, there's a short bus hop to Puerto Blest on Lago Nahuel Huapi and another ferry to Puerto Pañuelo (Llao Llao). From Llao Llao there is a frequent bus service to Bariloche.
Puerto Ramírez to Esquel
There are two options here. From the village of Villa Santa Lucía, on the Camino Austral, there is a good lateral road that forks at Puerto Ramírez, at the southeastern end of Lago Yelcho. The north fork goes to Futaleufú, where a bridge crosses the river to the Argentine side where you can catch colectivos to Esquel. The south fork goes to Palena and Argentine customs at Carrenleufú, which has bus services to Corcovado, Trevelin and Esquel. Customs and immigration are much more efficient at Futaleufú.
Coyhaique to Comodoro Rivadavia
There are several buses per week, often heavily booked, from Coyhaique to Comodoro Rivadavia via Río Mayo. For private vehicles, there is an alternative route from Balmaceda to Perito Moreno via the 502m Paso Huemules.
Chile Chico to Los Antiguos
From Puerto Ibáñez, take the ferry to Chile Chico on the southern shore of Lago Carrera and a shuttle bus to Los Antiguos, which has connections to the Patagonian coastal town of Caleta Olivia or south to El Chaltén or El Calafate. There is also a narrow mountain road with a regular bus service to Chile Chico from Cruce El Maitén at the southwestern end of Lago General Carrera.
Cochrane to Bajo Caracoles
Puerto Natales to Río Turbio & El Calafate
Frequent buses connect Puerto Natales to the Argentine coal town of Río Turbio; and from Río Turbio to Río Gallegos and El Calafate. All year, but far more frequently in summer, there are buses from Puerto Natales to El Calafate, the gateway to Argentina's Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, via Paso Río don Guillermo.
Punta Arenas to Río Gallegos
Punta Arenas to Tierra del Fuego
From Punta Arenas, a 2½-hour ferry trip or a 10-minute flight takes you to Porvenir, on Chilean Tierra del Fuego, where there are sporadic bus services to the Argentine city of Río Grande, which has connections to Ushuaia (it's also possible to hitchhike). Direct buses travel from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia via the more northerly, more frequent and shorter ferry crossing at Primera Angostura.
Puerto Williams to Ushuaia
The passenger boat service from Puerto Williams, on Isla Navarino (reached by plane or boat from Punta Arenas) to the Argentine city of Ushuaia can be sporadic, and the journey nearly impossible without a chartered boat or flight in the winter.
Road connections between Bolivia and Chile have improved dramatically, with an excellent paved highway running from Arica to La Paz. The route from Iquique to Colchane is also paved - although the road beyond to Oruro is not. There are bus services on both routes, but more on the former.
The only train is a weekly service from Calama to the border village of Ollagüe, with connections to La Paz (US$12.50, eight hours); there is a parallel, but mostly unpaved, highway here.
Chile has direct connections with North America, the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. You can also fly to one of Chile's neighboring countries, such as Argentina, Bolivia or Peru, and continue to Chile by air or land. International flights within South America tend to be fairly expensive unless they are purchased as part of intercontinental travel, but there are bargain round-trip fares between Buenos Aires and Santiago.
Most long-distance flights to Chile arrive at Santiago, landing at Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez (02-690-1752; www.aeropuertosantiago.cl) in the suburb of Pudahuel. There are also flights from neighboring countries to regional airports such as Arica, Iquique, Temuco, Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas.
Many major national and international airlines have offices or representatives in Santiago.
Aerolíneas Argentinas (airline code AR; 800-610-200; www.aerolineas.com.ar; Roger de Flor 2915, Las Condes)
Air Canada (airline code AC;02-337-0022; www.aircanada.com; Torre del Pacifico, Andres Bello 2687, 16th fl, Las Condes)
Alitalia (airline code AZ; 02-378-8230; www.alitalia.com; Av Vitacura 2700, Las Condes)
American Airlines (airline code AA; 02-679-0000; www.aa.com) Centro (Paseo Huérfanos 1199); Las Condes (Av El Bosque Norte 0107, Local 11)
Avianca (airline code AV; 02-270-6600; www.avianca.com; Isidora Goyenechea 3365, Local 1201, Las Condes)
British Airways (airline code BA; 02-330-8600; www.britishairways.com; Ebro 2743, Las Condes)
Delta (airline code DL; 800-202-020; www.delta.com; Av Vitacura 2700, Las Condes)
Iberia (airline code IB; 02-870-1070; www.iberia.com; Bandera 206, 8th fl, Centro)
Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano (LAB; airline code LB; 02-688-8680; www.labairlines.com; Moneda 1170, Centro)
Lufthansa (airline code LH; 02-630-1655; www.lufthansa.com; Av El Bosque Norte 500, 16th fl, Las Condes)
Qantas (airline code QF; 02-232-9562; www.qantas.com; Isidora Goyenechea 2934, Oficina 301, Las Condes)
United Airlines (airline code UA; 02-337-0000; www.united.com; Torre del Pacifico, Andrés Bello 2687, Las Condes)
Varig (airline code RG; 02-707-8001; www.varig.com; Av El Bosque Norte 0177, Oficina 903, Las Condes)
Lan and Qantas share a flight from Sydney to Santiago, stopping in Auckland. A round-trip ticket from Australia to Santiago averages around A$3000. Lan (1300-361-400; 64 York St, Sydney) also has an office in Australia.
Canadians will have to take connecting flights through a US city. Air Canada, American Airlines and Delta offer connections to Santiago from Toronto. Travel Cuts (866-246-9762; www.travelcuts.com) is Canada's national student-travel agency and has offices in all major cities.
There are regular direct flights from Madrid to Santiago with Lan and Iberia, and several airlines have flights from major European cities via Argentina or Brasil, including Lufthansa and Varig. Fares from Western Europe start from around €650, and usually a few more hundred euro for most other destinations. STA Travel (www.statravel.com) has offices in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Germany. The following travel agencies are also good possibilities for bargain fares from Continental Europe.
Many airlines fly daily between Santiago and Buenos Aires, Argentina for a standard fare of about US$237 for the round trip. However, European airlines that pick up and discharge most of their passengers in Buenos Aires sometimes try to fill empty seats by selling cheap round trips between the Argentine and Chilean capitals.
There are Lan flights from Santiago to Mendoza (round trip US$215, twice daily), and to Córdoba (round trip US$259, three daily), but discount round trips are also frequent on these routes. In Patagonia from November through mid-March, Aerovías DAP (213-776; www.dap.cl) flies from Punta Arenas to Río Grande and Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, and from Puerto Natales to El Calafate.
Lan and Taca have numerous daily flights from Lima, Peru to Santiago for about US$334 (round trip), and many discount fares pop up on this route. Lan also flies from Lima to the southern city of Tacna, only 50km from the Chilean border-city of Arica, for US$109 one way. Crossing overland from Tacna and flying from Arica to Santiago (one way US$195) is slightly cheaper than flying nonstop from Lima to Santiago.
Taca and Avianca link Santiago with Bogotá, Colombia daily (round trip US$649), either nonstop or via Buenos Aires. Lan fly to Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital (round trip US$245). Varig and TAM fly to Brazilian and Paraguayan destinations.
Some recommended agencies include the following:
At the time of writing there were no direct flights between London and Santiago. Connections from the UK go through Madrid, Buenos Aires and the US. Prices average between £600 and £700, depending on the time of year.
The following are reputable agencies:
Ebookers (0870-814-0000; www.ebookers.com)
Flight Centre (0870-499-0040; www.flightcentre.co.uk)
Journey Latin America (020-8747-3108; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk)
North-South Travel (01245-608-291; www.north southtravel.co.uk)
Quest Travel (0870-442-3542; www.questtravel.co.uk)
STA Travel (0870-160-0599; www.statravel.co.uk)
Trailfinders (0845-058-5858; www.trailfinders.co.uk)
Travel Bag (0800-082-500; www.travelbag.co.uk)
From the USA, the principal gateways to South America are Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Dallas. One alternative to landing in Santiago is to fly to Lima, Peru and on to the Peruvian border city of Tacna, or to Arica (in northern Chile). For visitors to the Atacama Desert, this would save a long trip north from Santiago.
The following are recommended for online bookings in addition to those mentioned earlier.