Given Chile's length, travelers, especially those short on time, must fly if planning to visit several destinations. LAN Airlines (tel. 866/435-9526 in the U.S., or 600/526-2000 in Chile; www.lan.com) is the leader of the airline pack in terms of destinations, frequency, and quality of service. LAN serves Arica, Iquique, Calama, Antofagasta, Concepción, Temuco, Valdivia, Osorno, Pucón (Dec-Feb only), Puerto Montt, Coyhaique (Balmaceda), and Punta Arenas. Sky Airline (tel. 600/600-2828; www.skyairline.cl) is another Chilean domestic carrier, with daily flights to all major cities. The Spanish-owned Aerolineas del Sur (tel. 800/710-300; www.aerolinasdelsur.cl) offers daily economical Santiago-Punta Arenas flights, and flies to Puerto Montt, Calama, Antofagasta, and Iquique.
If you're planning to visit several countries within South America, remember to check out LAN's South America Air Pass, which allows travelers to custom-book one-way flights around the continent and within Chile, for typically lower prices.
Car rentals for Santiago are totally unnecessary, but they do offer immense freedom if you are in the Lake District or wish to drive along the coast. Weekly rates for a compact vehicle, rented from and returned to the Santiago airport, average about $280 to $375 (£187-£250). Prices include basic insurance with no deductible and unlimited mileage, although some companies include full insurance in the price, with the exception of theft of car accessories such as a stereo. Each company sets its own policy, so comb carefully through the contract before signing it.
You may find cheaper rates by booking via an agency's website before you arrive. Most major American rental-car companies have offices in Chile, which are listed under the appropriate chapter for each company's location. To make a reservation from the United States, call Alamo (tel. 800/GO-ALAMO; www.alamo.com), Avis (tel. 800/230-4898; www.avis.com), Budget (tel. 800/472-3325; www.budget.com), Dollar (tel. 800/800-4000; www.dollar.com), or Hertz (tel. 800/654-3001; www.hertz.com). If you haven't made a reservation, you can still rent from an agency kiosk at the airport.
Don't overlook a few of the local car rental agencies for cheaper prices; you'll sometimes find better value with the smaller operations. Note: If you plan to take the car over the border to Argentina, you'll need to make a request 3 to 4 days ahead of time for the proper paperwork to be set up, and pay $90 to $110 (£60-£73) extra for a stay of up to 14 days in Argentina. In this case, you'll need to reserve locally, not through a company's general website in your home country.
You don't need an international driver's license to rent a vehicle -- your current driver's license suffices. It's a disappearing practice, but the police, or carabineros, are allowed to stop motorists without reason, which they frequently do under the guise of "control." They usually just ask to see your license and then let you pass through their checkpoint.
Driving in Santiago is better than driving in some other capitals, but you'll find more considerate motorists outside of the capital. Drivers use their horn and indicators constantly to signal where they are turning or that they are passing another vehicle -- you should, too. On the highway, car and especially truck drivers signal to advise you that it's safe ahead to pass, but don't put your entire faith in the other driver's judgment, and give yourself ample space, as Chilean drivers have lead feet. The concept of "merging" is entirely foreign to Chilean drivers -- you'll need to be a little aggressive to get into another lane, or wait until all traffic passes by to enter. Right turns on red are forbidden unless otherwise indicated.
Outside Santiago, especially on roads off the Pan-American Highway (Carretera Panamericana), your major concern will be keeping an eye out for bicyclists and farm animals along the road. The Panamericana underwent a huge expansion and modernization program in 2001, and drivers must now pay for it via periodic tollbooths on the highway and at most highway exits. Tolls, or peajes, are expensive, ranging from $1.20 to $6 (80p-£4; note that tolls are higher from 5pm on Fri to midnight on Sun). Most country roads off the Panamericana are dirt, either smoothed with gravel or washboard bumpy and pothole scarred. Gasoline is sold in liters and is called bencina, and comes in three grades: 93, 95, and 97.
Car-rental agencies provide emergency road service. Be sure to obtain a 24-hour number before leaving with your rental vehicle. The Automóvil Club de Chile also offers services to its worldwide members, including emergency roadside service. For more information, contact the offices in Santiago, at Av. Andrés Bello 1863 (tel. 2/431-1000, or toll-free in Chile 600/464-4040; www.automovilclub.cl).
Maps can be hard to come by; Copec, the gas station chain, sells Automapa's Rutas de Chile road maps at most of its larger stations; however, maps often sell out. Hertz offers complete maps to renters, but many rental agencies don't; request one ahead of time and fully expect them to fall through on their promise. If they do, a few shops in the airport sell maps or the excellent Turistel guidebooks (also sold at most bookstores and a few kiosks on popular intersections in Santiago). They are in Spanish but provide detailed road maps, city maps, and visitor information -- you can even download and print maps from the website www.turistel.cl before you leave for your trip.
The company Empresa de los Farrocarriles del Estado (EFE) offers high-speed train service from Santiago to Chillán aboard modern and comfortable coaches, stopping along the way in Rancagua, San Fernando, and Talca, and passing through beautiful, pastoral landscapes along the way. Call EFE or check the website for updated information (tel. 600/585-5000; www.efe.cl), or check with your travel agent or hotel for a reservation.
Traveling by bus is very common in Chile, and there are many companies to meet the demand. Fortunately, most Chilean buses are clean and efficient and an excellent choice for traveling shorter distances. Longer distances, Santiago to Calama, for example, can be excruciating, so reevaluate taking a flight, and check www.lan.com for last-minute flights if price is an issue. The main bus companies in the country are Pullman (tel. 2/334-6683; www.pullman.cl), Tur Bus (tel. 2/490-7500), Expreso Norte (tel. 2/777-4462), and Cruz del Sur (tel. 2/335-8358; www.busescruzdelsur.cl).
If you decide to travel for more than a few hours by bus, it helps to know your options. Standard buses go by the name clásico or pullman. An ejécutivo or semi-cama is a little like business class: lots of legroom and seats that recline farther. At the top end of the scale is the salón cama, which features seats that fold out into beds. A salón cama is an excellent way to get to a region such as the Lake District, as riders sleep all night and arrive in the morning. Fares are moderately priced and seats fill up fast, so buy a ticket as far in advance as possible. Ask what is included with your fare, and whether they serve meals or if they plan to stop at a restaurant along the way.
By Ferry & Local Cruises
Navimag offers an exceptional 3-day journey from Puerto Montt (Lake District) to Puerto Natales (Patagonia) or vice versa aboard a passenger/cargo ferry that introduces travelers to remote, virgin fjordland unseen outside of Norway. The journey is very popular with backpackers with a lot of time on their hands and who enjoy the camaraderie that often develops among passengers during the journey. Navimag is not a luxury liner, but there are berths that provide enough standard comfort for even finicky travelers.
Transmarchilay has cargo ferries for vehicles that link Puerto Montt and Chiloé with the Carretera Austral. Andina del Sud and Cruce de Lagos work together to provide countless visitors with a full-day cruise between Argentina and Chile in a boat-bus-boat combination through Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park near Puerto Varas and Nahuel Huapi Lake at Bariloche, Argentina. The demanding traveler will find ample comfort aboard the small cruise ships provided by the following companies.
Skorpios has 4- and 7-day cruises from Puerto Montt or Puerto Chacabuco, stopping at Castro and Quellón in Chiloé before or after the Laguna San Rafael Glacier; they also have a dock in Puerto Natales that takes passengers to Pío XI Glacier (the only advancing glacier off the Southern Ice Field) and the remote village Puerto Eden. The ship Mare Australis offers an unforgettable journey through the untouched wilderness of Tierra del Fuego, either as a round-trip journey from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia and back, or one-way.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.