Cheap, clean, and efficient, the Metro subway (www.metrosantiago.cl) is by far the fastest and most agreeable way to get around the city. It's also an attraction in its own right -- stations are adorned with murals painted by some of Chile's most important artists. Unfortunately, it is now the most congested transport option, especially during rush hour from 7 to 10am and 5 to 7pm, when critical mass reaches an estimated six users per square meter. The Metro is considered to be generally safe; however, pickpocket incidents are on the rise with the new influx of passengers, so keep a sharp eye on your belongings.
There are five Metro lines. Line 1 is the principal Metro line for travelers, as it runs from Las Condes to attractions and bus stations downtown. Line 2 transfers from Line 1 at Los Heroes and stops at Cal y Canto (near the Mercado Central). Lines 4 and 4a are residential lines connecting Avenida Alameda with La Reina. Line 5 takes travelers transferring at Baquedano to Plaza de Armas and the Quinta Normal park. Note: Lines 3 and 6 are not scheduled for completion until 2015.
A prepaid bip card is the only way to pay for travel on Santiago's existing public transport system. Cards (tarjetas) can be purchased at Metro stations, various banks (Banco de Chile and Banco Santander), various commercial locations throughout the city, and designated Punto bip centres. Minimum Tarjeta bip credit is 800 pesos ($1.35/90p) going up to a maximum of 2,500 pesos ($43/£29). A one-way bus fare costs 380 pesos (65¢/45p), permitting three transfers within 120 minutes. If you then transfer from the bus to the Metro, you will be required to pay an additional 40 pesos (5¢/3p). If you begin your journey on the Metro, the initial fare costs 420 pesos (70¢/45p). You must validate your Tarjeta bip card prior to each journey or else risk being charged for fare evasion.
Transantiago: Mass Transit Mayhem -- Arguably the most loathed word in the Chilean lexicon, Transantiago, the integrated transport system introduced in February 2007, has provoked chaos on an unprecedented scale. The most ambitious transport reform undertaken by a developing country, Transantiago was introduced via a "big bang" approach rather than as a gradually phased-in scheme. The ensuing mayhem was reflected in President Michelle Bachelet's approval rating, which fell from 55.2% to 42.7% in the month following the system's introduction. With decreased bus routes, an increased route network, and insufficient infrastructure to deal with the complexities of a prepay system, travelers have opted to use the more efficient Metro. Since 2007, the Metro has been overwhelmed by increased passenger numbers (riders jumped from 1,300,000 to 2,200,000 that year). Government initiatives imply that the flaws in the system will be gradually smoothed out, dispersing the congestion to an expansion of the bus route network, however.
The Santiago bus system has undergone an overhaul in the last few years. Old yellow buses have been replaced with new gleaming white-and-green "Transantiago" coaches, which you cannot ride without a bip transit card. If you do not have a bip card, you can still pay cash on the local feeder buses, but at a higher rate and without the possibility of free transfers.
Taxis are reasonably priced and plentiful. They are identifiable by their black exterior and yellow roof; there's also a light in the corner of the windshield that displays a taxi's availability. Always check to see that the meter is in plain view, to avoid rip-offs. Drivers do not expect tips. Do not confuse taxis with colectivos, which are similar in appearance but without the yellow roof -- these are local, shared taxis with fixed routes that are too confusing to visitors to recommend taking one.
Fares are low compared to North American and European cities. The starting fare is 250 pesos (40¢/25p), then 60 pesos (10¢/5p) for every subsequent 200m. Drivers are permitted to charge more at night, so always check the rates (usually indicated on the window) before you get in; also try to get a verbal estimate of your fare and have small bills handy to avoid scams, which are frequent. It doesn't hurt to research your route in advance, either, as many taxi drivers don't have special knowledge of the city's layout.
Do not rent a vehicle if staying within metropolitan Santiago, but consider doing so if you are an independent traveler seeking to visit the coast, Cajón de Maipo, or wine country. Santiago's slick new Costanera Norte (an express transit tunnel that runs from La Dehesa and Las Condes to the Pan-American Hwy. and the airport) has entrances and exits along the River Mapocho, but finding one can be confusing, so check out the website www.costaneranorte.cl for a map, or ask your rental agency or hotel to guide you. The city's "TAG" system (TAG stands for an automatic toll that is charged electronically to the vehicle) is included in the rental price. Downtown Santiago, and the entire length of Avenida Alameda/Avenida Providencia are not recommended for timid drivers. Buses and other drivers steadfastly refuse to let other vehicles merge into their lane, so be prepared early to turn or exit a highway.
Rentals -- At the airport you'll find most international rental agencies, such as Alamo (tel. 2/690-1370; www.alamo.com), Avis (tel. 2/690-1382; www.avis.com), Budget (tel. 2/690-1233; www.budget.com), Dollar (tel. 2/202-5510; www.dollar.com), Hertz (tel. 2/601-0977; www.hertz.com), and local agency Rosselot (tel. 800/201298). All agencies have downtown or Providencia offices. Generally, Rosselot and Dollar are lower in cost. Many hotels also offer competitive rates and can pick up and drop off the car.
Driving Tips -- On weekdays, the two yellow lanes running the length of Avenida Alameda (which changes its name to Providencia, 11 de Septiembre, and Apoquindo in other neighborhoods) are bus lanes, and drivers of vehicles may enter only when preparing to make a right turn. Take care with speed limits (120kmph) on the main highways out of town, especially Ruta 5 where carabinieros (police officers) wield radars and purvey hefty fines.
It's a good idea to arrive in town with some maps, as gas stations are often sold out of maps and rental agencies usually do not stock any, especially regional maps. The Turistel road guide website (www.turistel.cl) has helpful route maps that can be printed.
Parking -- Every hotel, with the exception of budget hostals, offers on-site, free parking. There is no street parking downtown except Saturdays and Sundays, although there are underground lots called estacionamientos that are recognizable by a blue sign marked with a giant E. In Providencia, along Avenida Providencia, there is a series of expensive underground lots. Santiago meters busy streets in Providencia and Bellavista, which is done by an official meter maid who waits on the street and times and charges drivers -- he or she will leave a white ticket on your windshield. On commercial streets where there is no meter maid, you'll find the cuidador, an unofficial, ragtag "caretaker" who will "watch" your car for you. You're expected to give him or her a tip of 100 to 300 pesos (15¢-50¢/10p-35p) when you leave your space. Cuidadores can be aggressive if you elect not to pay them.
Do not under any circumstances leave valuable items in your car if you park on the street; break-ins are frequent in all of Chile. Car theft is common, too, so always park your vehicle in a lot overnight.
Santiago is not laid out on a perfect grid system; however, the neighborhoods most visitors stick to run along the length of the Mapocho River, making the river a good point of reference. Always carry a map with you. Saturday afternoons and Sundays are quieter days to explore neighborhoods such as downtown. Pedestrians should be alert at all times and never stand too close to sidewalk curbs because buses roar by dangerously close to sidewalks. Drivers are not always polite enough to give the right of way to pedestrians, so cross streets quickly and with your eyes wide open.
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.