Transport and Driving in Chile
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With a reliable and developed transport system, getting around Chile is easy and inexpensive. Santiago and Valparaíso have efficient metro systems while buses and trains link all major towns and cities. Seeing as Chile is a thin but quite long strip of land, air travel is also a popular means of transport.
Public transport in Chile
Prices for public transport are relatively low and those who make use of regular public transport in Santiago use a bip! card, which makes purchasing tickets and travelling by bus, metro and Metrotren Nos exceptionally convenient. The website, Red, is a useful reference for up-to-date information, although expats should note that the website itself is only in Spanish.
The most popular way to travel between cities in Chile is by bus. Long-distance buses connect all major destinations, from cities to small villages. Several bus companies offer efficient, clean and comfortable services across the country, and a selection of international bus services connect Chile to its South American neighbours. Turbus and Pullman Bus are coach services that cover much of Chile.
Fares for bus travel differ depending on the class of the bus. Because bus travel is the norm, companies have competitive rates and promotions. Many offer air-conditioning, comfortable seats and amenities such as on-board screens to watch films, WiFi and meal services. Others offer regular stops for restaurant- and restroom breaks.
Most Chilean towns have a central bus terminal and Santiago is the main bus hub with several bus terminals.
For travelling domestically and around cities and towns, buses are convenient and often can be flagged from the street. For new arrivals who are lost or unsure of the bus direction, don’t be shy to ask the driver if it’s the right bus.
Trains used to play an important role in Chile’s transport system, but services are limited nowadays and no longer the most popular means of travel around the country. Chile’s railways are operated by the state-owned Empresa de los Ferrocarriles del Estado (EFE).
Train travel is generally limited to the central regions of the country although there are some routes to neighbouring countries, offering transport for tourists and travellers.
In Santiago, the Metrotren Nos, a subsidiary of EFE, is a combination of the metro and train. It is part of the city’s integrated public transport network and makes getting around easier.
Santiago and Valparaíso have metro systems. The metro in Santiago is the most convenient and cost-effective way of getting around the city but congestion is common at peak times. The price for a trip on the metro is low and includes transfers.
Although the subway is relatively safe, it's important to stay vigilant as pickpocketing may occur, especially when the metro is packed with people.
Ride-sharing services and taxis in Chile
Taxis are plentiful in Chile’s major cities. They can be identified by their black exterior and yellow roof and can be hailed on the street or called ahead. Most taxis have a meter but passengers must make sure that the driver uses it, otherwise, it’s best to agree on a fare beforehand.
Colectivos, a combination of a microbus and a taxi, offer shared taxi services in towns and cities in Chile. These taxis normally offer set prices and run regular fixed routes that are displayed on signs on their roofs, although, at night, for an extra fee, they may drive to a specific location.
Ride-sharing and ride-hailing services and mobile applications are readily available in most urban centres. These are a good option for expats who cannot speak the local language as they provide a convenient means of directing the driver without risk of miscommunication.
Driving in Chile
Cars give greater freedom for travel, especially for those who like to explore or need to travel outside of main cities.
Chile has a good road network although some of the more remote roads and mountain passes may be in disrepair. Highways connecting towns and cities are called rutas nacionales and are identified by numbers. The Pan-American Highway is a fantastic route that spans across the Americas. Route 5, or Ruta 5, is part of this highway and is Chile’s longest route.
Cars in Chile drive on the right-hand side of the road. Chilean roads are relatively easy to navigate, although road signs are in Spanish. Several inter-city roads are tolled, mainly along Ruta 5. Tolls may not take credit cards, so it’s best to have cash on hand when driving across the country.
On top of traffic and difficulty finding parking in large cities, vehicle safety is a concern and drivers must not leave valuables in their cars.
Foreigners intending to drive in Chile must have an international driver's permit as well as a valid driver's licence from their home country. After obtaining residency, expats are required to apply for a Chilean driver's licence.
Renting, shipping or buying a car
Short-term rental cars can be worthwhile and come with insurance, although many rental agencies have a minimum age limit, restricting those under 25 years of age or charging them a higher fee. Well-known international car rental services including Hertz and Avis operate in Chile but local agencies may offer cheaper rates.
Expats can also ship their car or motorcycle to Chile, although this is an expensive option.
Alternatively, many individuals who stay for several months purchase a cheap, used vehicle, if it is in a suitable condition and is possible to resell afterwards. This option is generally affordable but can be risky and the bureaucracy involved is time-consuming.
Cycling in Chile
In the past, cycling has been unpopular in Chile as the rising economic prosperity of the country saw a sharp increase in Chileans buying cars. Recently, locals have developed an enthusiasm for cycling and many cycle locally on a day-to-day basis.
Transport infrastructure in Chile hasn't been able to keep up with this trend, though, and dedicated cycle lanes are few and far between – and those that do exist often end abruptly or are interrupted by lampposts or pedestrian sidewalks.
However, large cities are extending and developing their cycle paths to encourage this healthier way of getting around and reduce traffic. Because of the increased support and demand, bikes can also be rented from private companies in the city centres.
Many people cycle as part of their lifestyle for leisure, sport and adventure rather than for getting to and from work. Some cities, including Antofagasta, Santiago and Temuco, are involved in a project called CicloRecreoVía. Every Sunday, certain streets are closed off to cars allowing people to walk and cycle the streets as they wish. It has become quite popular and thousands of people get involved.
Air travel in Chile
Given the length of the country, long-distance travel in Chile is often easiest by air, particularly if travelling to the far south of the country.
While air travel saves time, it does not save money. Extra fees are often hidden and overlooked. Airports are located outside of city centres and transport to and from them by taxi can be pricey, while baggage fees also add up. That said, budget airlines frequently offer promotions.
Several domestic airlines operate in Chile, including LATAM Airlines and Sky Airline. The main air hub in Chile is Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport in Santiago.
It’s not advised to book domestic and international connection flights with little time in-between as flights may be delayed.
Boats in Chile
It’s possible to travel by ferry or cruise operators in Chile, and many are concentrated in the southern region of the country.
Travelling by boat is generally for tourist reasons to explore and experience something new. Boats can be slow so those choosing this option need to do their research on the company they choose to go with and their particular routes and look up reviews.
Walking in Chile
Walking around towns and cities in Chile is perfectly feasible and, of course, it’s free. Keep in mind that Santiago is like any other major city and so carrying valuables and walking alone especially at night should best be avoided. Booking a taxi in advance is the safest option to get around at night.
Hitchhiking is a relatively common way of getting around, used by both locals or backpackers. Although this is free or relatively cheap, safety is never guaranteed when asking for a lift from strangers. Still, many travellers find lifts waiting on the side of the road and at large truck stops and petrol stations.