Without a doubt, Chile is the easiest South American country to navigate. Be it via the excellent highways, well-connected ferry system or far-reaching airline network, Chile transportation boasts developed infrastructure across the board, on par with that of North America and Europe.
Chile is reached via easy overnight flights from North American gateways like Dallas, Los Angeles, New York and Miami, as well as from Europe and beyond. Ruta 5, the Chilean stretch of the Pan-American Highway, cuts through the middle of the country for an astounding 2,090 miles from the Peruvian border north of Arica to Quellon at the bottom of Chiloe Island — an epic road trip (with some epic tolls!). Buses, micros (minibuses) and ferries connect some of the more remote destinations, especially in Patagonia.
Whichever mode of transport you choose, comfort is generally the norm in these parts. Read on to learn more about getting around Chile.
Flying to and Around Chile
Chile’s principal international gateway is Santiago‘s Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport, which is connected directly with North America, Europe and Oceania as well as its South American neighbors. Airlines that fly here include Aerolineas Argentinas, Air Canada, Air France/KLM, American, Avianca, Copa, Delta, GOL, Iberia, LAN, Qantas, TAM and United, among others. Chile’s other international airports, such as those in Arica, Iquique and Punta Arenas, also receive some flights from neighboring countries.
Chile has two main domestic airlines: LAN and Sky (along with a few regional/charter carriers serving remote areas of Patagonia and the like). As Chile runs more than 2,600 miles from top to bottom, flying is definitely the quickest way to cover large swaths of the country.
While LAN is the preferred choice of the two domestic airlines, it is considerably pricier than the competition on many routes — especially when it comes to one-way fares, which are often double that of the roundtrip fare on the same route (we know, it makes no sense). To get around this, it’s cheaper to book a roundtrip fare and simply not turn up for the return leg.
Renting a Car in Chile
Driving in Chile is a breeze — it is easily the best country in South America for driving and is home to the best highway infrastructure. Renting a car is pretty straightforward: You must be 25 years old and hold a valid driver’s license, credit card and government-issued ID (a passport is always preferred, but a national ID can work as well). Expect to pay more for a car with an automatic transmission and to face considerable toll charges on the country’s main highway, Ruta 5. Tolls can be paid by cash or credit card.
Major international car rental agencies operating in Chile include Avis, Hertz, Budget and Europcar, among others. It’s a good idea to carry an International Driving Permit along with your home country license, though it is not required for drivers from the U.S.A., Canada, Germany or Australia.
As in the U.S., Chileans drive on the right side of the road. Be aware that you must obtain a special permission certificate as well as Argentine insurance if you plan on crossing the border into Argentina with your rental car.
Chile by Bus
Known for comfort and efficiency, buses ply Chile’s lengthy Ruta 5 from Arica to Quellon and beyond. Classes of travel vary by company but generally speaking range from clasico/pullman (standard two-seater bus, no bathroom) to executivo (a step up, including bathrooms) to semi-cama (seats boasting extra legroom that recline even farther) to the ultimate in comfort, salon cama (with fewer seats that almost fully recline into a flat bed). Coffee, tea and breakfast are often served on long-distance overnight trips.
Inside centralized bus stations, Chilean bus companies are usually very good about posting departure times and prices for each destination they serve. Tur-Bus and Pullman Bus are Chile’s two biggest national bus companies.
Foreigners can most easily purchase tickets at the bus stations themselves or via sales offices in central locations in bigger Chilean cities. Online ticket sales are ubiquitous with larger bus companies in Chile, but foreigners often hit snags due to not having a Chilean tax ID number, or RUT.
For shorter trips to outlying cities, a super-efficient system of micros (minibuses) is usually used from the main bus terminal, leaving every five to 15 minutes throughout the day. Passengers simply pay the driver onboard.
Chile by Ferry
If you spend considerable time in Chile, you are likely to encounter a ferry at one time or another, whether as a tourism choice or as a necessity to get you from Point A to Point B.
One of the most popular routes is that of the Navimag, a stunning three-night journey through Patagonian fjords from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales. Other common ferry journeys navigating Southern Chile’s intricate maze of fjords include routes between Puerto Montt and Puerto Chacobuco, Laguna San Rafael or Chaiten; between Chiloe and Calbuco or Chaiten; and between Punta Arenas and Tierra del Fuego.
You will encounter several shorter-route ferries connecting roads and lakes throughout Chile’s Lake District as well.
Chile by Motorcycle
Thanks to Chile’s excellent highway system, hitting the open road on a motorcycle is certainly doable and the preferred method for navigating dramatic landscapes like the Carretera Austral in Patagonia and the Atacama Desert to the north.
The Chilean-Danish operator Ride Chile (based in Santiago) and Patagonia Rider (in Santiago/Punta Arenas) are both good sources for guided motorcycle touring and rentals. Prepare to pay at least twice as much as you would for a car rental, depending on the ride.
–written by Kevin Raub