Air

Time-saving flights have become more affordable in Chile and are sometimes cheaper than a comfortable long-distance bus. Consider flying from Arica to Santiago in a few short hours, compared to a crippling 28 hours via bus. Other than slow ferries, flights are often the only way to reach isolated southern regions in a timely manner. Round-trip fares are often cheaper.

Airlines in Chile

Chile has several domestic airlines. LATAM has the most routes. Sky Airlines, LAW and JetSmart are other options.

Regional airlines and air taxis connect isolated regions in the south and the Archipiélago Juan Fernández. Most Chilean cities are near domestic airports with commercial air service. Santiago's Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez has a separate domestic terminal; Santiago also has smaller airfields for air-taxi services to the Archipiélago Juan Fernández.

Tickets include departure tax.

Air Passes

Low-cost airlines are driving down flight costs in Chile. Sky Airline tends to have good one-way prices. The best rates with LATAM are found on its Chilean website, accessed only in-country, where weekly specials give cut-rate deals with as much as 40% off, especially on well-traveled routes such as Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas. Booking ahead and buying round-trips save money.

LATAM Pass offers miles on the One World alliance, with partners such as American Airlines, British Airways, Iberia and Qantas.

Antofagasta

Cost (round-trip, CH$)

47,000

Arica

Cost (round-trip, CH$)

68,000

Calama

Cost (round-trip, CH$)

50,000

Concepción

Cost (round-trip, CH$)

70,000

Copiapó

Cost (round-trip, CH$)

56,000

Coyhaique (Balmaceda)

Cost (round-trip, CH$)

90,000

Iquique

Cost (round-trip, CH$)

78,000

La Serena

Cost (round-trip, CH$)

37,000

Puerto Montt

Cost (round-trip, CH$)

44,000

Punta Arenas

Cost (round-trip, CH$)

105,000

Temuco

Cost (round-trip, CH$)

52,000

Bicycle

To pedal your way through Chile, a bici todo terreno (mountain bike) or touring bike with beefy tires is essential. The climate can be a real challenge: from Temuco south, be prepared for rain; from Santiago north, especially in the vast expanses of the Atacama Desert, water sources are infrequent and towns are separated by long distances. In some areas, wind is a serious factor; north to south is generally easier than south to north, with some readers reporting strong headwinds going south in summer. Chilean motorists are usually courteous, but on narrow two-lane highways without shoulders, cars can be a real hazard.

Ferries in Patagonia often charge a bicycle fee. Outside the Carretera Austral, most towns have bike-repair shops. Buses will usually take bikes, though airlines may charge extra; check with yours.

Hire

Most of Chile's more touristy towns rent bikes, although their quality may vary. There are relatively few bike-rental shops, but hospedajes (budget accommodations) and tour agencies often have a few handy. Expect to pay between CH$10,000 and CH$16,000 per day. A quality mountain bike with front suspension and decent brakes can cost CH$22,000 per day or more, but you're only likely to find them in outdoor activity destinations such as the Lakes District and San Pedro de Atacama.

It's common to leave some form of deposit or guarantee: an ID will often suffice.

Purchase

Bikes are not especially cheap in Chile. If you're looking to sell your wheels at the end of your trip, try approaching tour agencies that rent bikes.

Boat

Chile's preposterously long coastline is strung with a necklace of ports and harbors, but opportunities for travelers to get about by boat are concentrated in the south.

Navigating southern Chile's jigsaw-puzzle coast by ferry is about more than just getting from A to B – it's an essential part of the travel experience. From Puerto Montt south, Chilean Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego are accessed by ferries traveling the intricate maze of islands and fjords with spectacular coastal scenery.

Note that the end of the high season also marks limited ferry service.

Navimag's ferry service that runs from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales is one of the continent's great travel experiences. The following information lists only the principal passenger-ferry services. Also on offer are a few exclusive tour operators that run their own cruises.

Common routes include the following.

Castro to Laguna San Rafael Navimag cruises Mare Australis to the stunning Laguna San Rafael.

Chiloé to Chaitén Transmarchilay, Naviera Austral and Navimag run between Quellón, on Chiloé, and Chaitén in summer. There are also summer services from Castro to Chaitén.

Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo In summer, Naviera Austral ferries take the Ruta Bi-Modal, two ferries linked by a short land stretch in the middle, to Parque Pumalín's Caleta Gonzalo, about 60km north of Chaitén.

La Arena to Puelche Ferries shuttle back and forth across the gap, about 45km southeast of Puerto Montt, to connect two northerly segments of the Carretera Austral.

Mainland to Chiloé Regular ferries plug the gap between Pargua and Chacao, at the northern tip of Chiloé.

Puerto Ibáñez to Chile Chico Sotramin operates automobile/passenger ferries across Lago General Carrera, south of Coyhaique. There are shuttles from Chile Chico to the Argentine town of Los Antiguos.

Puerto Montt to Chaitén Naviera Austral runs car-passenger ferries from Puerto Montt to Chaitén.

Puerto Montt to Laguna San Rafael Expensive cruises with Catamaranes del Sur and Cruceros Skorpios go direct to take a twirl about Laguna San Rafael.

Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco Navimag goes from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco; buses continue on to Coyhaique and Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael.

Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales Navimag departs Puerto Montt weekly, taking about four days to puddle-jump to Puerto Natales. Erratic Patagonian weather can play havoc with schedules.

Puerto Williams to Puerto Yungay This new Transbordador Austral Broom route links southern Patagonia with the end of the Carretera Austral (Puerto Yungay is between Villa O'Higgins and Caleta Tortel). It stops in Caleta Tortel.

Puerto Williams to Ushuaia This most necessary connection still has no public ferry but does have regular private motorboat service.

Punta Arenas to Tierra del Fuego Transbordador Austral Broom runs ferries from Punta Arenas' ferry terminal Tres Puentes to Porvenir; from Punta Delgada, east of Punta Arenas, to Bahía Azul; and from Tres Puentes to Puerto Williams, on Isla Navarino.

Bus

Long-distance buses in Chile have an enviable reputation for punctuality, efficiency and comfort, although prices and classes vary significantly between companies. Most Chilean cities have a central bus terminal, but in some cities the companies have separate offices. The bus stations are well organized with destinations, schedules and fares prominently displayed. By European or North American standards, fares are inexpensive.

Major highways and some others are paved (except for large parts of the Carretera Austral), but secondary roads may be gravel or dirt. Long-distance buses generally have toilet facilities and often serve coffee, tea and even meals on board; if not, they make regular stops.

On Chile's back roads, transportation is slower and micros (often minibuses) are less frequent, older and more basic.

The nerve center of the country, Santiago, has four main bus terminals serving northern, central and southern destinations.

Chile's biggest bus company is TurBus, with an all-embracing network of services around the country. It is known for being extremely punctual. Discounts are given for tickets purchased online (later retrieve your ticket at the counter).

Its main competitor is Pullman, which also has extensive routes throughout the country.

Argentina's Chaltén Travel provides transportation between El Calafate and Torres del Paine and on Argentina's Ruta 40.

Classes

An array of bewildering names denotes the different levels of comfort on long-distance buses. For a classic experience, clásico or pullman has around 46 ordinary seats that barely recline and poor bathrooms. The next step up is executivo and then comes semi-cama; both usually mean around 38 seats, providing extra leg room and calf rests. Semi-cama has plusher seats that recline more fully and buses are sometimes double-decker. Salón cama sleepers seat only 24 passengers, with seats that almost fully recline. Superexclusive infrequent premium services enjoy seats that fold down flat. Note that movie quality does not improve with comfort level. On overnighters breakfast is usually included but you can save a few bucks by not ordering dinner and bringing takeout.

Normally departing at night, salón cama and premium bus services cost upwards of 50% more than ordinary buses, but you'll be thankful on long-haul trips. Regular buses are also comfortable, especially in comparison to neighboring Peru and Bolivia. Smoking is prohibited.

Costs

Fares vary dramatically among companies and classes, so shop around. Ofertas (promotions) outside the high summer season can reduce normal fares by half and student fares by 25%.

Sample Bus Costs & Trip Times

Asunción, Paraguay

Cost (CH$)

$76,000

Duration (hr)

45

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cost (CH$)

$78,000

Duration (hr)

22

Córdoba, Argentina

Cost (CH$)

$60,000

Duration (hr)

17

Lima, Peru

Cost (CH$)

$95,000

Duration (hr)

48

Mendoza, Argentina

Cost (CH$)

$36,000

Duration (hr)

7

Montevideo, Uruguay

Cost (CH$)

$69,000

Duration (hr)

32

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Cost (CH$)

$142,000

Duration (hr)

72

São Paulo, Brazil

Cost (CH$)

$96,000

Duration (hr)

55

Reservations

Except during the holiday season (Christmas, January, February, Easter and mid-September's patriotic holidays) or on Fridays and Sundays, it is rarely necessary to book more than a few hours in advance. On very long trips, like Arica to Santiago, or rural routes with limited services (along the Carretera Austral, for instance), advance booking is a good idea.

Car & Motorcycle

Having your own wheels is often necessary to get to remote national parks and off the beaten track, especially in the Atacama Desert and along the Carretera Austral. Security problems are minor, but always lock your vehicle and leave valuables out of sight. Because of smog problems, Santiago and the surrounding region have frequent restrictions.

The maps in the annual Copec guides are a good source of recent changes, particularly with regard to newly paved roads.

Automobile Associations

Automóvil Club de Chile has offices in most major Chilean cities. It provides useful information, sells highway maps and rents cars. It also offers member services and grants discounts to members of its foreign counterparts, such as the American Automobile Association (AAA) in the USA or the Automobile Association (AA) in the UK. Membership includes free towing and other roadside services within 25km of an Automóvil Club office.

Bring Your Own Vehicle

It's possible to ship an overseas vehicle to Chile but costs are high. Check your local phone directory under Automobile Transporters. When shipping, do not leave anything of value in the vehicle.

Permits for temporarily imported tourist vehicles may be extended beyond the initial 90-day period, but it can be easier to cross the border into Argentina and return with new paperwork.

For shipping a car from Chile back to your home country, try the consolidator Ultramar.

Driver's License

While an International Driving Permit (IDP) is not required, if you have one, bring it in addition to the license from your home country. Some rental-car agencies don't require an IDP.

Fuel & Spare Parts

The price of bencina (gasoline) starts from about CH$750 per liter, depending on the grade, while gas-oil (diesel fuel) costs less.

Even the smallest of hamlets always seem to have at least one competent and resourceful mechanic.

Hire

Major international rental agencies have offices in Santiago, as well as in major cities and tourist areas. Wicked Campers and Pucón-based Chile Campers rent bare-bones camper vans. To rent you must have a valid international driver's license, be at least 25 years of age (though some younger readers have had success) and possess a major credit card (MasterCard or Visa) or a large cash deposit. Travelers from the USA, Canada, Germany and Australia are not required to have an international driver's license to rent a car.

Even at smaller agencies, rental charges are high, with the smallest vehicles going for about CH$24,000 per day with 150km to 200km or unlimited mileage included. Add the cost of any extra insurance, gas and the crippling 19% IVA (impuesto de valor agregado; value-added tax), and it becomes very pricey. Try for weekend or weekly rates with unlimited mileage.

One-way rentals are difficult to arrange, especially with nonchain agencies, and may come with a substantial drop-off charge. Some smaller agencies will, however, usually arrange paperwork for taking cars into Argentina, provided the car is returned to the original office. There may be a substantial charge for taking a car into Argentina and extra insurance must be acquired.

When traveling in remote areas, where fuel may not be readily available, carry extra fuel. Rental agencies often provide a spare bidón (fuel container) for this purpose.

Insurance

All vehicles must carry seguro obligatorio (minimum insurance). Additional liability insurance is highly desirable. Rental agencies offer the necessary insurance. Check your policy for limitations. Traveling on a dirt road is usually OK and may be necessary, but off-roading is prohibited. Major credit cards sometimes include car-rental insurance coverage.

To visit Argentina special insurance is required. Try any insurance agency; the cost is about CH$20,000 for one week.

Parking

Many towns charge for street parking (from CH$300 per half-hour). Street attendants leave a slip of paper under your windshield wiper with the time of arrival and charge departing drivers. Usually parking is free on weekends – though attendants may still be there, payment is voluntary.

Purchase

For a trip of several months, purchasing a car merits consideration. You must change the vehicle's title within 30 days or risk a hefty fine; you can do this through any notary by requesting a compraventa for about CH$8000. You'll need a RUT (Rol Único Tributario) tax identification number, available through Impuestos Internos (www.sii.cl), the Chilean tax office; issuance takes about 10 days. Chilean cars may not be sold abroad.

Note that while inexpensive vehicles are for sale in the duty-free zones of Regiónes I and XII (Tarapacá and Magallanes), only legal permanent residents of those regions may take a vehicle outside of those regions, for a maximum of 90 days per calendar year.

Road Conditions

The Panamericana has quality roads and periodic toll booths (peajes). There are two types: tolls you pay to use a distance of the highway (CH$600 to CH$3000), and the tolls you pay to get off the highway to access a lateral to a town or city (CH$600). You'll find a list of tolls (in Spanish) on www.turistel.cl.

Many roads in the south are in the process of being paved. Distance markers are placed every 5km along the Panamericana and the Carretera Austral. Often people give directions using these as landmarks.

Road Hazards

Stray dogs wander around on the roads – even highways – with alarming regularity, and visitors from European and North American countries are frequently disconcerted by how pedestrians use the motorway as a sidewalk.

Road Rules

Chilean drivers are restrained in comparison to their South American neighbors and especially courteous to pedestrians. However, city drivers have a reputation for jumping red lights and failing to signal. Speed limits are enforced with CH$35,000 fines.

Chile has implemented a zero-tolerance policy toward drinking and driving. Even if you have had just one drink, it's over the legal limit. Penalties range from fines and license suspension to jail time.

In Santiago, restricción vehicular (vehicular restrictions) apply according to smog levels. The system works according to the last digits on a vehicle's license plates: the chosen numbers are announced in the news on the day before those vehicles will be subject to restrictions. Violators are subject to fines; for current restrictions, see www.uoct.cl (in Spanish).

Hitchhiking

Thumbing a ride is common practice in Chile, and this is one of the safest countries in Latin America to do it. That said, hitching is never entirely safe, and we don’t recommend it. Travelers who hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk.

In summer, Chilean vehicles are often packed with families on vacation, and a wait for a lift can be long. Few drivers stop for groups and even fewer appreciate aggressive tactics. In Patagonia, where distances are great and vehicles few, hitchhikers should expect long waits. It's also a good idea to carry some snack food and plenty of water, especially in the desert north.

Local Transportation

Bus

Chilean bus routes are numerous and fares run cheap (around CH$600 for a short trip). Since many identically numbered buses serve slightly different routes, check the placards indicating their final destination. On boarding, state your destination and the driver will tell you the fare and give you a ticket.

Santiago's bus system Transantiago has automatic fare machines. You can map your route online.

Colectivo

Handy taxi colectivos resemble taxis but run on fixed routes much like buses: a roof sign or placard in the window indicates the destination. They are fast, comfortable and not a great deal more expensive than buses (usually CH$700 to CH$1500 within a city).

Commuter Rail

Both Santiago and Valparaíso have commuter rail networks. Santiago's modern metrotren line runs from San Fernando through Rancagua, capital of Región VI, to Estación Central, on the Alameda in Santiago. Valparaíso's rail connects Viña del Mar and Valparaíso.

Metro

Santiago's superefficient subway is the metro, with some recent expansions. Try to avoid peak hours, which can get very crowded.

Taxi & Ride Share Services

Most Chilean cabs are metered. In Santiago it costs CH$300 to bajar la bandera (lower the flag), plus CH$150 per 200m. Taxi placards indicate authorized fares. The ridesharing app Uber has drivers in many Chilean cities and towns, though the availability of cars can be poor.

Train

Chile's railroads blossomed in the late 19th century, but now most tracks now lie neglected or abandoned. There is service throughout Middle Chile, however, and a metrotren service goes from Santiago as far as San Fernando. For details and prices check the website of TrenCentral.

It's difficult but not impossible to travel by freight train from Baquedano (on the Panamericana northeast of Antofagasta) to the border town of Socompa, and on to Salta, in Argentina.