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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).