Transportation - Get In
The most common entry point for overseas visitors is the Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport (SCL) in the commune of Pudahuel, 15 km (9.3 miles) north-west of downtown Santiago. It is the largest aviation facility in Chile and one the 6th busiest of South America by passenger traffic (over 11 million in 2010). It is a major connecting point for air traffic between Oceania and Latin America.
Santiago International Airport is served by several non-stop international service, mainly from Europe, the Americas and Oceania. LAN Airlines is the largest national carrier and flights from the main cities in the Americas, Sydney, Auckland, Papeete, Frankfurt and Madrid. Other airlines serving SCL are Aerolíneas Argentinas, Air Canada, Air France, American Airlines, Avianca, Copa Airlines, Delta Airlines and Iberia.
If you are arriving at Santiago, keep in mind that Santiago does not have enough gates to allow most international aircraft to occupy parking spots at gates while being serviced. Your aircraft will likely be directed to a remote parking spot on the tarmac along with many others and you will be bused to immigration inspection, which will add another 15 to 20 minutes of delay.
Other airports with international services are in Arica, Iquique, Antofagasta, Concepción, Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas, all of them to neighboring countries. The Mataveri International Airport in Easter Island receives only LAN Airlines flights from Santiago, Lima and Papeete.
If you are already in South America, a cheaper and reliable way is to go by bus to Chile. Buses from Argentina depart daily from Mendoza, Bariloche and San Martín de los Andes, and even from Buenos Aires weekly. From Peru, there are several buses from Arequipa; some taxis also cross the border between Tacna and Arica. There are also several buses from Bolivia to northern cities and Santiago. Also, there are Brazilian buses from São Paulo, on Mondays and Thursdays.
If you are crossing from Bolivia and Argentina through the Andes, be aware that it takes place at high altitude, up to 4000 m (13,000 ft). Also, the roads from Peru and Bolivia are a bit poor in quality, so be patient. During the winter season, which begins in June and ends in August, it is not uncommon for the passage from Mendoza to close for days at a time.
Transportation - Get Around
Chile has a rather good airport infrastructure. The main hub for flights in Chile is the Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport (SCL) in Santiago, from where several airlines serve even the remotest corners of the country. These airlines are the three Chilean airlines: LAN Airlines, Sky Airline and Principal Airlines. Although LAN is by far the largest companies, Sky and PAL offer good services to the main cities.
When travelling within Chile, please consider reserving your tickets before entering the country: flight coupons are recommended and can be bought at LAN when you also purchase your flight to Chile with them. LAN offers a good online reservation service but in the others is not that good yet and mainly in Spanish, although it is possible to use them to compare fares.
Because of the shape of the country, many routes are subject to several time-consuming layovers. You might take this into account as you can have up to 4 stops en route to your destination! (e.g. for a flight from Punta Arenas to Arica you may have stops at Puerto Montt, Santiago, Antofagasta and Iquique). Domestic routes are served , Airbus 319, Airbus 321 and Airbus 320 when flying with LAN, a Airbus 319/320s when flying Sky Airline.
The only airline flying to Easter Island is LAN Airlines from Santiago. Other remote locations are served by regional airlines. In the Extreme South, Aerovías DAP offer daily routes from Punta Arenas to Porvenir in Tierra del Fuego and Puerto Williams. Between November and March, DAP offers very limited and expensive flights to Villa Las Estrellas in Antarctica. To Robinson Crusoe Island, there are weekly flights from Santiago and Valparaíso.
The bus system is pretty sophisticated and provides a cheap and comfortable way to get from town to town. Keep in mind that local companies will usually stop at many stations along the way, however, you can always ask if there's a non-stop or directo service. Companies that cover almost the entire country include Turbus and Pullman(websites in Spanish only). In Santiago, you can find both terminals and more companies on Universidad de Santiago subway station. Companies that cover the North of Chile and Argentina (Salta) include Geminis.
Keep in mind that prices vary on a daily basis, so are usually more expensive on weekends and holidays tickets than on weekdays. Ticket prices are also almost always negotiable - don't be shy to ask for a discount, especially if you are in a group. Always ask around in different booths and make sure the vendors see you are shopping around.
The quality of service varies quite a lot. Check if the bus is "cama" (bed), "semi-cama" (heavily inclining seats) or ejecutivo (executive - slightly inclining seat). Toilets are not always available and if available not always working - especially if you are getting on a bus at a later stage of a long journey (i.e. Arica - Santiago).
Tren Central, the passenger section of the government railway company, regularly operates trains between Santiago and Chillán, as well as ocasional service between Santiago and Temuco, which occurs when holidays cause a long weekend. It also operates the last remaining ramal, or branch line, between Talca and Constitución, as well as a wine-tasting train through the central valley for tourists.
Micro = transit/local buses. The word is the contraction of microbus. Larger cities have cross-town bus routes at very affordable prices. Only Santiago's system, called "Transantiago", have maps (Map as of October 2010) with all the routes, so a little bit of Spanish and the audacity to ask around can get you places effectively in other major cities. To travel by "micro" in Santiago you will need to buy before a smart contactless travel-card called "BIP" and charge it with money. You can do so in any subway station, in most supermarkets and in some smaller stores. This card also allows you to travel by subway in Santiago. Be careful! You won't be able to travel by bus without money in your BIP card. The card costs US$2.50, and a ticket costs a little over US$1.00, which allows you to make up to four transfers between metro and buses within a 2-hour time period. You only need to scan the card at the beginning of your journey and at every transfer. You should hop off the "micro" through the back doors.
A mix between a micro and a taxi. These small cars have routes and get around quicker and more comfortably. Fares are similar to those on the Micro, and depend on the hour. Here you pay in cash.
A metropolitan railway system operating in metropolitan areas of Santiago and Valparaíso. A reliable way to move around in the city. You must pay the fee only once (when you enter the system) and you can ride as much as you want. There are now more stations in Santiago because of the recent construction of two new lines. Visit the website for more information.
Car rentals are widely available throughout most major cities, but not in smaller towns. Usually a credit card, a valid driver's license and a passport, all three issued to the same person, are needed to rent a car. Technically, if your driver's license is not in Spanish, you also need a International Driver Permit (IDP). Many rental car companies will not actually ask for an IDP, but it's a good idea to have one, just in case you encounter the police. Rental rates in Santiago are very similar to those in the U.S., but prices can be much higher in other cities. If you want to bring rental cars across South American borders (as part of a road trip), you will need to notify the rental car company in advance, pay additional fees, and obtain extra paperwork to show that you are authorized by the company to drive its vehicles across borders. Rental cars in South America all come with hidden GPS transponders (even if there is no navigation system in the car) so the company will know if you try to take the vehicle out of the country without their knowledge or drive too many kilometers per day (if your vehicle has a per-day limit).
Parking spaces and street lanes are narrower than in the U.S., so it's a good idea to get a small vehicle. However, like most Latin Americans, Chileans prefer to drive vehicles with manual transmissions to conserve fuel. As a result, the smallest vehicles available for rent with automatic transmissions are usually standard-size sedans, which are more expensive. North American drivers who can only drive automatic transmissions (and would also like to obtain both required and supplemental liability insurance and to reduce personal responsibility for vehicle damage to zero) should be prepared to pay up to USD $100 per day to rent such vehicles.
There are several important vehicle-related documents which you must be able to present upon demand by the police, like the permiso de circulation (proof of payment of a vehicle registration fee to the local jurisdiction in which the vehicle is regularly garaged), and proof of Chilean vehicle insurance. The rental car company will normally keep those documents somewhere in the car. For example, Avis Budget Group puts them in a portfolio folder which is small enough to fit in the glove compartment. Make sure you know where those documents are, so if you encounter the police, you will be able to present the vehicle documents promptly, along with your passport, driver's license, IDP, and rental car contract.
Road signs and markings
All traffic signs and markings are in Spanish only. They are an interesting hybrid of European and North American influences. The European influence is more obvious in areas like speed limit signs and graphic icons, while the North American influence is more obvious in areas like warning signs (yellow and diamond-shaped) and typefaces (Chile uses the FHWA typeface that is standard in the United States). Most traffic signs are self-explanatory but a few are not. If you cannot read or speak Spanish, you must take the time to memorize the meaning of the most common signs and markings, so that you will not inadvertently violate traffic law and draw unwanted attention from the police.
Like European countries, but unlike most North and South American countries, Chile uses white lines on roads to divide both traffic moving in the same direction and traffic moving in opposing directions. These are supplemented with arrows on the ground as well as arrows included on street name signs.
Chile does not use the "DO NOT ENTER" sign used in English-speaking countries. Instead, Chile uses the Latin American version: the international prohibition symbol (a red circle with a diagonal slash) over an arrow pointing directly up.
Chilean guide signs on regular highways are usually green. Guide signs on expressways (autopistas) are usually blue, except for guide signs for motorway exits, which are usually (but not always) green.
Rules of the road
Speed limits are usually 60 km/h in cities, 100 km/h on intercity highways and some urban expressways, and 120 km/h on the finest intercity expressways. Dangerous road sections are all often signed with lower speed limits, such as hill crests, blind curves, tunnels, busy urban streets, and narrow urban alleys. The latter two tend to be signed for 30 km/h.
There is no right turn on red, except for signs (rarely seen) which expressly authorize right turns on red with caution after making a complete stop.
Santiago and other cities have reversible lanes and roads. They also have bus-only lanes (also used by taxis) which private vehicles are supposed to stay out of, and which are enforced by photo and video surveillance. If you enter bus-only lanes and proceed to cruise straight down several blocks, without any indication of making a turn or merging into regular lanes, don't be surprised if the rental car company informs you that you were ticketed.
Like many countries, Chile prefers to use yield or give way signs whenever possible, and uses stop signs ("PARE") only when absolutely necessary (usually because it's a blind intersection and someone was killed there). If there aren't any visible traffic signs or markings governing priority, and two vehicles reach an intersection simultaneously, priority belongs to the vehicle approaching from your right.
Traffic signals are usually on timers with no sensor loops, so you will have to sit and wait even if it's the middle of the night. Unlike most Latin American countries, carjackings are relatively rare, so running red lights and stop signs late at night is not tolerated by police.
Chileans generally obey red lights, stop signs, and other traffic control devices, and their driving is much more sane than most of Latin America. However, visitors from the United States and Canada will still find their driving to be more aggressive than at home. This is most evident when merging, especially when traffic from multiple lanes has to merge together in order to detour around road closures or accidents. Chileans also sometimes follow the European model of gently bumping into other vehicles while parallel parking, in order to squeeze into very tight spaces. Thus, many Chilean vehicles have chipped or scratched paint from such close encounters.
Also, despite steep fines and frequent use of radar guns, photo radar, and speed traps, speeding is rampant. When driving on intercity expressways, you will often encounter the "autobahn" problem seen in Germany, where you might merge into the right lane behind a truck or subcompact vehicle barely able to sustain 80 km/h, then have to patiently wait for the opportunity to merge into a left lane dominated by regular vehicles driving at the speed limit of 120 km/h, as well as occasional speeders exceeding 140 km/h.
Chilean roads are generally excellent compared to most of Latin America. Expressways are virtually always well-maintained, paved, painted, signed, and largely free of potholes, cracks, litter, and debris. However, many older streets in cities are in poor condition, and drivers must be alert to avoid cracks, dips, drains, and potholes. Country roads are also sometimes in poor condition; they are not paved to the same thickness as in foreign countries, and even slight deterioration may cause the underlying dirt base to show through.
In big cities, it is a good idea to avoid rush hours, between 7 and 9 AM and between 5 and 8 PM.
Chile has relied upon privatized toll concessions to build and maintain major highways since the early 20th century. If you plan on driving around Chile, plan on paying lots of tolls. Many toll concessions have surge pricing during major holidays and weekends. Rates ("tarifas") for all types of vehicles are always posted on large signs before toll plazas, and if you miss the rate sign, the current rate in effect that day for standard passenger cars is always posted on a sign in front of each separate toll booth. Chilean highways normally use barrier toll plazas at locations that are hard to avoid (e.g., near steep mountain ranges and rivers), and do not use distance-based tolling tracked through tickets.
If you rent in Santiago, note that Santiago has adopted a mandatory electronic toll collection system ("TAG") for use of all privatized tollways in the city; even the airport access road is a tollway. There are no toll plazas on the Santiago tollways, only toll gantries, so driving on them without a TAG transponder means you may incur a large fine. All rental car companies in Santiago are required to include TAG transponders in vehicles and include TAG fees in their rental car prices. Once you have rented a vehicle in Santiago, you should feel free to use Santiago tollways (which can save substantial amounts of time), since you are paying for them.
Unfortunately, Chile has not yet mandated full automatic interoperability between TAG and the various Televia transponders used on intercity toll roads, such as Route 68 which connects Santiago to Valparaiso. There are now programs under which users of transponders on one system can temporarily gain interoperability, but such access has to be manually requested before each use and it is a substantial hassle. And many toll plazas still do not take credit cards. Therefore, if you rent in Santiago but plan to drive to other cities, you must obtain sufficient Chilean pesos to pay tolls before leaving the city and go through the cash ("Manual") lanes at toll plazas. Similarly, if you rent in another Chilean city and drive to Santiago, you should examine city maps first and stay away from tollways that require TAG.
Many private parking facilities in Chile are just like parking facilities anywhere in the world. You take a bar-coded ticket upon entry, pay at a vending machine before returning to your vehicle, and then insert the ticket into a reader at the exit gate. In Santiago, the parking concessionaire Saba uses orange RFID "ChipCoins" for the same purpose, as well as for access control to parking garages (so that the only people who can enter underground parking garages are those who already obtained ChipCoins at the vehicle entrance).
Otherwise, public parking on streets and in some surface lots is more complicated, because Chile does not have parking meters. Instead, you will see signs saying that so-and-so curb (or lot) has been concessioned out to a specific person or company, between certain hours, for so many pesos for every 30 minutes. If you don't see anyone present, it's usually okay to park there (unless the sign also says you can't do that), but if the concessionaire is present, they will print out a receipt on a handheld machine and tuck it under your windshield wiper to track when you arrived. You then pay them the parking fee when you come back.
In some public parking areas, even if there isn't a sign declaring that a particular street has been concessioned, you may see self-appointed car guards who will demand tips in exchange for watching your car when you are absent (and who might sometimes help you back into spaces and back out of them). This is a racket (and quite annoying to people from places where car guards are not tolerated), but it's generally a good idea to cooperate; CLP 500 is usually more than sufficient to secure their cooperation. Car guards are usually not seen in private parking facilities, as they have private security guards on patrol who are paid out of parking fees.
Petrol fuel in Chile is normally unleaded and comes in 93, 95, and 97 octane. Diesel is also available at many stations. Due to high taxes and Chile's distance from major oilfields, expect to pay about 1.5 times the average U.S. price for equivalent fuel (but still less than in most of Western Europe). Self-service is illegal, so you must know enough Spanish to ask for the correct octane and to tell the attendant on duty to fill it up.
Hitchhiking in Chile is not difficult, given enough time and patience. It is seen as a common form of travel for tourists or young, adventurous Chileans. On large highways such as the Panamerican Highway, hitching is really great and easy because there are many trucks going between big cities. Smaller, more scenic roads such as the Carretera Austral in the south, can leave you waiting for half a dozen hours in the more remote sections but the rides will generally get you a long way and are worth waiting for. If you are a tourist be sure to show it with your backpack, flags attached to your backpack, etc. The locals love chatting with foreign travelers.