Chile Travel Guide – Travel Information for Your Road Trip

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Here is a Chile Travel Guide detailing the practical side or our journey. In Chile we traveled some 120 days between 2007-2013.

Border Crossings

Crossing borders between Chile and Argentina means that you get to see the most beautiful parts of the Andes. Do drive back and forth often, because many of the passes are just stunning! Do keep in mind, though, that many border crossings are closed during the winter because of snow. Chile provides info online on the matter.

Our 10+ border crossings into Chile have been straightforward in terms of immigration and customs. However, there is SAG, and these guys are at every border, and that’s where the nuisance starts.

SAG – Handing over fruits, vegetables, meat

You are not allowed to bring fresh/dried fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat products into Chile. You may like this law or not, but is an understandable one since Chile is such a closed-off country and therefore free of a lot of diseases – and they like to keep it that way.

The nuisance is the inconsistencies in the enforcement of this law. You’ll hear the stories from other travelers. Many have had to hand over stuff that just didn’t make sense: a still-closed bag with dog food that was bought in Chile only weeks earlier, cans of tuna, a still-sealed container with dried pepper are among the ones I remember.

Our weird ones that I can remember:

  • At one border they made an issue of bird feathers that we keep as souvenirs pinned to the inside of the Land Cruiser. After a long discussion we could keep them as look as they came from Asia and not Argentina. Makes sense?
  • At another border the official wanted to confiscate an almost completely gone mini broom made of natural materials (there could be seeds in there).

At the border crossing coming from Mendoza the Land Cruiser was checked by a sniffer dog. I have to say that this thorough check (1,5 hours) was one of the friendliest we had. This was our first crossing into Chile and the officer handed us a leaflet, which listed the following forbidden products (for up to date info, check SAG’s website):

  • fruits and vegetables
  • potatoes and lentils
  • plants and seeds
  • wood (artesanía)
  • honey, wax, propólea y polen (last 2 are Spanish words, I don’t know the translation)
  • meat, sausages and cecinas (another Spanish word unknown to me)
  • cheese and eggs
  • animals, birds and bees

After all these crossings we concluded that the level of nuisance depends on the border crossing, as well as the mood of the officer (and no doubt your own mood will help or be counter productive). Sometimes we crossed without an officer checking the Land Cruiser’s bowels, at other times the officer was obviously searching for something to confiscate because he felt like it.

Luck helps, no doubt.

Stocking up for Torres del Paine

If you drive down from El Calafate (Argentina) to Torres del Paine, you have two options:

  • Take the short route via Cancha Carrera (Arg) – Cerro Castillo (Chile)
  • Take the longer route via Puerto Natales.

If you intend to stay in Torres del Paine for a while, we suggest driving via Puerto Natales for your shopping. Taking the short route meant passing only by Cerro Castillo, where the tiny grocery shop was hardly stocked at all (Dec ’07).

Hiking Torres del Paine’s 10-day circuit
View of Grey Glacier

Our Travel Budget

Chile Budget Pie (©photocoen)

Money Matters

The rate was 672 pesos to a euro (Sep ’13). All cities have ATMs, including the more remote ones such as Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas and San Pedro de Atacama.

Chile is an expensive country compared to most South American countries (with the exception of Brazil and French Guiana), especially the daily groceries add up quite a bit compared to Argentina. The toll on the Pan-Am can add up as well.

On the other hand, the products in hardware stores seem to be cheaper and definitely of better quality than in Argentina. A comparison between Toyota garages gave us the impression that many of the spare parts are also cheaper than in Argentina (or cost the same).

On average we spent 31 euros per day in Chile.

01. Documentation

You don’t need a Carnet de Passage, at the border you will get a Temporary Import Document. There was one exception to the otherwise straightforward paperwork for the vehicle: on the Tacna-Arica border and the Chilean border with Bolivia & Chile (Visviri), we needed a paper called Relación de Passageros, on which you register who are the passengers.

People who regularly cross the border generally carry a stack of these forms, and the easiest is just to ask one of them for one.

At the border we got a 3-month visa, free of charge (this may differ per nationality, do check the official channels for specific info).

Read More: Chile’s Northernmost Border Crossing

Flat tire in the middle of nowhere, north Chile

02. The Land Cruiser

We have good experience with the Toyota Garage in Osorno (Sep ’07), where they ordered parts for us in Santiago and had them delivered within two days.

Good experience as well at the Automovile Club de Chile in Calama (Nov ’08). Coen could work on the Land Cruiser by himself.
Automovil Club de Chile
Av. Ecuador 1901
Calama
Phone: 055 – 342770
GPS Waypoint: -22.46890, -68.92390

Read More: Magic-number Car Tires for Overlanding

Working in Automovile Club Calama
New tires in Iquique
A problem on the Carretera Austral – lights no longer work

Some of the parts we bought in Chile:

  • shock absorbers
  • headlights
  • air compressor
  • a couple of tools
  • 5 tires (Iquique, Zona Franca) and tubes.

Type of work we got done in Chile:

  • Welding of the exhaust (several times)
  • Changing of oil/filter brake fluid
  • Vulcanizing of the engine supports

03. Diesel, Gas Stations, Roadmaps & Guidebooks

Diesel prices

  • October 2007 (around Santiago): diesel costs around 470 pesos per liter.
  • December 2007 (southern Chile): around 573 pesos per liter.
  • December 2008 (San Pedro de Atacama): around 634 per liter.
  • January 2010 (Iquique): around 455 pesos per liter.
  • September 2013 (Arica): around 660 pesos per liter.

Gas stations

Gas stations are everywhere with the notable exception of the altiplano in north Chile. If you plan to do off-the-beaten trips east of Iquique and/or Arica, stock up on fuel because the chance is high you won’t find it along the way. The towns with gas stations we remember: Arica, Iquique, Pozo Almonte (all on Ruta 5), the village of Pica and in Putre you ask around and maybe find somebody who can sell you a couple of liters.

The towns with gas stations we remember: Arica, Iquique, Pozo Almonte (all on Ruta 5), the village of Pica and in Putre you ask around and maybe find somebody who can sell you a couple of liters.

In general public toilets in Chile are reasonable clean (well, at least compared to neighboring countries), have toilet paper and often have hot showers. At the Copec stations you pay for these services. The Copec stations along the Pan-Am have WiFi, you recognize them by a red shopping bag on their road signs.

Buying Diesel from Bolivia at the tripoint of Chile, Bolivia, Peru

Roadmaps & Guidebooks

We are happy with Reise Knowhow maps, which are made of strong quality paper (they don’t tear and are water resistant). The Chilean map is 1:600.000. We’ve also had good experiences with Nelles Verlag Maps and International Travel Maps.

In Chile: YPF and Copec gas stations sell good roadmaps, which of course include the locations of their gas stations.

Our standard guidebook is Lonely Planet. Although quality can differ quite a bit per country and edition, we generally find it gives a good overview of the country. We use this book to get a feel for the country and once we’ve crossed the border we will search for local guidebooks and other sources of information.

Other travelers, especially overlanders, are smitten with the South American Handbook as it is more focused on road travel.

I have also enjoyed Lonely Planet’s phrasebooks and find its Healthy Travel booklets useful as well.

04. Public Transport

That part of the budget was spent on:

  • Ferry crossing at Punta Arenas.
  • Ferry crossing at the border between the Argentinean and Chilean Lake District, Puerto Fuy (recommended).
  • Ferry crossing to/from Tierra del Fuego.
Tatio Geysers
Llaima Volcano, El Conguillio National Park
Chuquicamata Coppermine in the Atacama Desert
Andacollo Festival

05. Sightseeing in Chile

Although we spent most of our time on road trips, enjoying landscapes and wildlife, we did our share of sightseeing as well. Apart from spending money on Torres del Paine and a couple of other national parks we paid entrance fees for:

  • Couple of museums, observatory Cerro Mamalluca (recommended).
  • Thermal bath Amarillos (near Chaitén, GPS Waypoints: -45.99642, -72.44222).
  • Sights around San Pedro de Atacama.

06. Accommodation & Camping

Read More: Accommodation & Camping in Chile

07. Other Expenditures

All expenditures mentioned above minus what we totally spent is what we call daily expenditures. This is mostly groceries and going out for lunch/dinner.

Additional Info

La Cumbre – equipo de montana, is a store with lots of quality outdoor equipment (Sep ’07).

Av. Apoquindo 5220
Las Condes (neighborhood northeast of Santiago)
Santiago
Phone: 056-2-2209907
la_cumbre@email.com
GPS Waypoints: -33.41055, -70.57395

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9 thoughts on “Chile Travel Guide – Travel Information for Your Road Trip

  1. Propoleo is propolis, a resinous product collected by bees, that they use to seal cracks in the hive. It has medicinal properties, and here in Chile, is one of the first lines of defense against an incoming cold. Polen is pollen. Glad you didn’t get caught with anything by SAG, the fines are tremendous!

    Let me know if you’ll be around Santiago. As you know, it’s where I am most of the time! I know you prefer not to stay in cities, but if you’re nearby, certainly we could meet up!

    • Hi Eileen, thanks for the explanation.

      I always make sure I have the car empty of forbidden goods but always bring a potato or something so we have something to hand over and fill in the form saying that yes, we carry vegetables. Learned all that the hard way… Have to say that on our way back to Peru (we’re no longer in Chile, but thanks for your offer! – would be great to meet at least) the Peruvian ‘SAG’ gave us more of a headache. Saying we had to empty everything on the roof and then everything we carried inside the car to put it through the X-ray!
      Lots of talking from Coen’s side before he waived us on… pff.

  2. I came across at Arica from Peru. Knew about the SAC regulations and told the guys with the dog that I ate all the bananas and kiwis and didn’t have any cheese or eggs. Showed the garbage bag before I trew it in the special bin. wrote that I had plant stuff in the document, and explained that I had pimento and peanut butter in closed jars and marmalade. I was especially worried about my truck load of ginger jam and peanut butter because I am addicted to the stuff. And also all my species but the dog didn’t care and neither did the guys. They were more interested in the small mini camper and the foreign plates; Bonaire, Dutch Caribbean. They were extremely friendly, although not to everyone… I always carry a big smile and in my bad Spanish opened all the doors to have the dog in and show respect for their work.
    Because my Ford Transit Connect had clutch pedal problems and the car is not sold and known in South America, the Ford Garage in Santiago was very helpful. I ended up only paying for a new air filter, as the problems were luckily not clutch cylinder related.
    I have one question though.
    I can’t get insurance for my car here in Chile. And found out that the insurance I bought in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia – the SOAD, is only for third party person liability… Not for car damages at all. I am going to try to use an Argentinian insurance for southern South America countries or else the dutch ANWB insurance.
    I hope to see you somewhere on the way…
    Good luck.
    Eric

    • I think third party means it will pay for damages you have inflicted on a third party. So If you damage another person, or car, the insurance will pay for those damages. It will not however pay for the damages to your own vehicle.

      • Yes Coen, that is what I thought too, but when I went to search for an insurance in Chile, the Insurance company explained to me in detail that it is only for persons involved in an accident, so not even the other persons car…
        This was from an insurance company! So I have to trust this is really the case. I am now researching the possibility to get the insurance from Argentina since that one is for the car too [third party] and valid for more countries in South America. When that does not work I try ANWB [dutch insurance].

        • I just read this story about a accident of fellow overlanders in Colombia and another Erik comments following:

          Sorry to hear that happened to you guys. We learned after our wreck there that the SOAT insurance you have to buy in Colombia only covers people. No cars or property of any kind are covered by SOAT. Colombia had the sketchiest drivers so far. Ecuador and Peru are way better. Erik

          That leads me to believe it’s the same thing as you state… How strange?

  3. Great article! Just let me add a note: If you are driving to Chile from Argentina, it is very important to double check the status of the tunnel Cristo Redentor, Agua Negra, etc. mostly during winter.
    It is very common that is closed without any notice due heavy snow storms and the distance between Mendoza/San Juan and the tunnel is a long way to go… do not waste time and double check before leaving Mendoza or any other city in Argentina.

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