Chile Driving Guide 2021
Driving in Chile is not so different to driving in the USA,as long as you have an International Driving Permit and an understanding of the basic rules.
March 31, 2020
Chile was ruled in the northern part of the country by the Inca before the Spanish showed up in the 1500s. The Mapuche, an indigenous group, lived in central and southern Chile. The country declared its independence from Spain in 1810, but it did not break free from the Spanish completely until 1818. It added territory during the War of the Pacific from 1879 to 1883, during which it won land from Peru and Bolivia. Several elected governments ran the country. Salvador Allende was the Marxist leader of the government who was taken out of power in 1973 by a military coup. Augusto Pinochet then led the country until an elected president was sworn in in 1990. The country has seen steady growth, significantly reduced poverty rates, and the rise of a strong democratic and representative government.
The population of Chile is estimated to 18,186,770, and nearly 89 percent of the country is white and non-indigenous. The Mapuche makes up nine percent of the population, and other indigenous groups are also present in the country, including Aymara, Rapa Nui, Likan Antai, Quechua, Colla, Diaguita, Kawesqar, Yagam/Yamana, and others. About two-thirds of the country is Roman Catholic, while another 16 percent or so is
Evangelical/Protestant. Most of the country lives in the middle third of the country around Santiago, the capital. There are very few people in the north near the Atacama Desert, and the extreme south is nearly empty as well.
If you plan to visit South America, your trip would be incomplete without a trip to Chile. Boasting some of the most stunning scenery and indigenous cultural diversity in the world, Chile is a country worth taking a road trip in. Traveling from north to south in this narrow South American country will be the trip of a lifetime. Take the time to learn about Chile’s past, great places to visit, and to take in some tips to make your holiday one to remember.
Where to Go in Chile
Chile is a long and narrow country, and it includes a subtropical climate in the north and tundra in the south. For a great first-person guide to driving in Chile, check out Chris Moss’s article in The Telegraph from 10 November 2017, entitled “Desert, flamingos, and Snow: Why Chile Provides a Road Trip Like No Other.” His tips and the personal journey will tell you some of the top places in the country to visit.
Definitely visit La Serena in the northern part of the country. It is the second oldest town in the country and has beautiful architecture and a gorgeous beach. You’ll find it has a reputation as an intellectual town, and it features an archaeological museum and astronomical observatory. Bike in Elqui Valley, or swim/snorkel/dive at Isla Damas (or hike), and visit the Fray Jorge national park if you love the outdoors.
In Santiago, you’ll be able to see the stellar mountain views of Cerro San Cristobal Park. Pablo Neruda’s writing retreat is there if you like to see where poetry history was made. You can ski Valle Nevado or Portillo or do some wine tasting at Vina Aquitania. If you love museums, head the Museo Chile de Arte Precolumbio or Museo de la Moda. Hiking is wonderful in the mountains at Cajon de Maipo.
Except for Tierra del Fuego, Chiloé Island is the largest island in the Los Lagos region. The architecture and culture here are very unique. Wooden churches were built by the Spanish and Jesuit missionaries to try to Christianize the southern archipelago.
If you like gambling and beaches, you’re going to love Iquique. It’s a casino town with a lively boardwalk and amazing Georgian architecture from the 19th century. It’s also a great place to surf, paraglide, or sand-board. If you like history, you can walk down the wooden sidewalks of a historic mining town. The cobbled street of Baquedano gives you a glimpse into its bustling history.
As you head south, you’ll be able to take in the many fjords and channels. They provide the only way to experience this area of Patagonia. You can take trips that start from Puerto Montt and head toward Carretera Austral, Laguna San Rafael, and Puerto Natales. You might see whales, birds, and sea lions as you move south where the channels are narrower than further north. Valparaiso is located on the coast of Central Chile, and it’s an important port city. It has working-class roots and an underground street art movement. It is famous for its brightly colored houses, great nightlife, and stunning views of the sea.
The Chilean Lake District is a volcanic valley area that goes from Puerto Montt in the South to Temuco further north. You’ll see forests, lakes with clear water, and volcanoes covered with snow. This area was home to the Mapuche, one of the tribes that managed to avoid being conquered by the Incas. You can visit Los Alerces National Park to experience some gorgeous nature. The mountains in the area are only two thousand years old, so they are very tall and rugged.
San Pedro de Atacama is a Chilean town on the border of a massive flood and salt plan dwarfed by mountains the color of copper. Star tours are popular as it is one of the darkest places on earth.
Torres del Paine is a national park located in the southernmost part of Chile. Three large stone pillars, called the “towers of blue,” are the park’s namesake. You can find several other similar towers and glacier lakes. You can move through this park via minivan tours, hikes that take several days, or catamaran trips. You can also see some of the parks on horseback. To see most of the park, however, you will want to hire one of the many guide companies who can help carry your equipment and cook meals on hikes that take between five and seven days.
Over 2,000 miles from the middle of Chile lies Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. This island has several giant statues of humans carved by Polynesians, but no one knows much else about them or why they are there. You can only see the statues from a distance, but you can hike around the island and hang out on two white-sand beaches or go diving off the coast. The island also has an extinct cinder cone and several tours run by natives of the island that allow you to see views that you wouldn’t otherwise get to experience.
Driving in Chile
Driving in Chile as a U.S. citizen is not a complicated process. Driving in Chile with a U.S. license is not hard to do. In fact, regarding driving in Chile, the U.S. embassy says, “[v]isitors can drive with a valid U.S. license for the duration of their tourist permits, which usually last 90 days.” But go ahead and get an International Driver’s Permit just in case your car rental company requires it. It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. Getting one is a simple process and doesn’t take much time to do before you leave for your trip to Chile.
Driving a motorcycle in Chile with a U.S. driver’s license is fine provided you have an endorsement to drive a motorcycle on your American license. You should also have one of your IDP if you get one (which you should, just in case). There are several motorcycle rental and touring companies that will help you plan a trip in just about any part of the country on a motorcycle. You can get fully-featured tours that include hotel stays and meals to make your trip easy and enjoyable! Driving a motorcycle through the incredible vistas of the Carrera Austral in Patagonia or the Atacama Desert in the northern part of the country. You should expect to pay twice as much as you would for a car rental, though.
Getting a Chilean License
If you’re from Canada, Germany, or Australia, you do not need an IDP, either. However, if you’re from another country than these, you will need an IDP to drive while you’re in Chile. Getting an international driving license in Chile isn’t an option. (“International Driving License” is often used the same as “International Driving Permit.”) You should get one before you leave home if you want to drive while you’re in Chile. Once your visa has expired, you’ll need to get a Chilean driver’s license to drive legally. You’ll need to pick up an application for a Chilean driver’s license and file it at the motor vehicle department of the municipal building in your home district. To get a Chilean license, you’ll need to
- Be 18 years old or older.
- Have a Chilean identification card.
- Have a school record to show that you’ve completed at least the 8th grade or higher. If your school records are from the U.S., they must be authenticated at a Chilean Consul in the U.S. U.S. consular officials are not allowed to authenticate U.S.-issued documents for use in other countries.
- Pass the written and practical driving tests as well as a medical exam.
Renting a Car in Chile
Driving in Chile with a U.S. driver’s license is fine if you want to rent a car,but,as mentioned previously,get an IDP just in case the car rental company requires it. You don’t need a car rental in Santiago as there is plenty of public transportation available,but you’ll need a vehicle if you’re traveling somewhere else in the country,like the Lake District or if you want to do a seaside drive. Here is what you need to rent a car in Chile:
- You should be 20 years of age or older (Although some sources say you must be 25 or 21. Check with your rental agency.)
- A credit card in the driver’s name (or maybe a large cash deposit,depending on the agency).
- Home country driver’s license.
- International Driving Permit (just in case).
- The U.S. embassy in Chile notes that you may not be able to get insurance in some forms if you don’t have a Chilean or international driver’s permit.
If you’re wondering,“What is the driving age in Chile?” here’s the answer. To drive in Chile,you have to be at least 18 years old and have a driver’s license from your country. You must have held that license for a year. So if you’re too young to rent a car on your own in Chile,but you’re traveling with someone who is,you may be able to drive the vehicle if you meet these requirements. Check the rules with your car rental company.
Expect to pay about 24,000 Chilean pesos,or about USD$28,per day for a car with a 150-200 km daily limit (or maybe unlimited mileage). Extra insurance,fuel,and the 19 percent IVA (value-added tax) will add significantly to the cost of renting a vehicle.
If you’re going to travel for several months,it may make sense to purchase a car. You have to change the title within 30 days,or you may have to pay a fine. You can do this through a notary by asking for a compraventa,which costs about 8,000 Chilean pesos,or USD$9.50. Additionally,you’ll have to get a tax identification number,a Rol Único Tributario,and you can get it through Impuestos Internos,the Chilean tax department. It takes about 10 days to get this number. You can’t sell Chilean cars in other countries.
You can find cheap cars for sale in duty-free areas of Regiónes I and XII (Tarapacá and Magallanes),but only people who are permanent legal residents of those zones can drive the vehicles outside the areas for up to 90 days each year.
You’ll also need “insurance coverage in the event of death or bodily injury as a direct consequence of accidents in which the insured vehicle participates. It will also cover the expenses if you are a pedestrian or the passenger of a public motorized transportation service,but will not cover any damages to the vehicle,” according to the U.S. embassy in Chile. Seguro Obligatorio de Accidentes Personales is the name of this insurance or SOAP,and you must buy it once a year when you purchase your vehicle’s registration.
Truck Driving in Chile
If you plan to live and work in Chile,and you want to drive a truck,you will need to get a Chilean license for truck driving. Truck driving in Chile means getting a license that suits the class of vehicle that you will be driving. For example,a professional license class A4 or A5 will allow you to drive a cargo vehicle that weighs over 3,500 kilograms. Go to your transportation center in your city’s municipality buildings to take the necessary exam(s) and to learn more about getting your license.
Driving in Chile and Argentina
Driving over the Argentinian border in Chile can be simple and quick,or you could be stuck for hours. If you’re not prepared,you may even be turned back. If you’re thinking of renting a car and driving to Argentina,make sure you talk to your rental car agency well ahead of time. Most of them will allow you to drive the car over the border,but you will need a special permit to do so. This permit will cost about 20,000 Chilean pesos,or about USD$24. You will also need a permit to cross the border into Argentina as well as special insurance. If you’re leaving Santiago,go north on Route 57,and then head towards Argentina on Route 60,but don’t forget to take your passport,permit to take the car into Argentina,and proof of valid insurance. You can get insurance from just about any insurance agency.
Without the permit or insurance,you won’t make it past the border crossing. You’ll head to the immigration center in Horcones 16 km past the border on Route 7 in Argentina to have your documents checked. Renting a car and driving to Argentina is the road trip of a lifetime across the Andes,and you don’t want to miss it by not having all your documents prepared ahead of time. Without them,you’ll have to turn around and drive right back to Chile.
According to LonelyPlanet.com,“One-way rentals are difficult to arrange,especially with nonchain agencies,and may come with a substantial drop-off charge. Some smaller agencies will,however,usually arrange paperwork for taking cars into Argentina,provided the car is returned to the original office. There may be a substantial charge for taking a car into Argentina and extra insurance must be acquired.”
If you are traveling with kids and want to cross into Argentina,you need their passports (U.S. and Chilean,if there is one Chilean parent or the child,was born in Chile),original birth certificate (or certified copy). If the children are alone or with only one parent,they need travel judicial authorization (notarized permission from non-traveling parent(s)),and Documento Nacional de Identidad (DNI).
Driving for Tourists in Chile
Here are some tips for driving in Chile as a tourist:
- Bencina is the word for gasoline,and it costs about 750 Chilean pesos,or USD$0.89 per liter,and up,and gas-oil(diesel) is cheaper.
- If you break down,you can usually find at least one good mechanic in even the smallest towns.
- Carry extra fuel with you when you go to remote areas because fuel may not be available. Rental agencies provide you with an extra container for fuel called a bidón.
- Purchase extra insurance if you rent a car for additional liability coverage. Read your policy thoroughly. You can usually travel on dirt roads,but you shouldn’t go off-roading. Your credit card may include insurance for your rental card.
- You’ll pay about 300 Chilean pesos,or USD$0.36,for thirty minutes of street parking. You’ll get a piece of paper under your windshield wiper that states when you arrived from a parking attendant,and you will be charged when you leave. You don’t usually have to pay on weekends. Attendants may be present,but you don’t usually have to pay.
- You’ll typically drive on good roads in Chile,and there are sometimes toll booths,called peajes on the Pan-Americana. You have to pay when you use a distance of the road,which costs between 600 and 3,000 pesos,or USD$0.71 and $3.56,or when you exit the highway to get into a city (600 Chilean pesos,or USD$0.71). Check www.turistel.cl for a list of tolls.
- You’ll find that several roads in the southern part of the country are in the process of being paved. You’ll see distance markers every 5 km on the Pan-Americana and the Carretera Austral.
- Watch out for dogs on the roads and highways. You’ll also see many people using the highways as places to walk,so be careful when you drive.
- You may be surprised at the number of gravel and dirt roads that pop up unexpectedly in Chile. They are not shown on maps,typically,and road construction can slow you down significantly. Plan accordingly. Road construction can also cause your drive to be muddy and or bumpy.
- Drivers in Chile are quite conservative compared to other countries in South America,and this is especially true for pedestrians. Despite this,city drivers often run red lights and don’t always use their turn signals.
- Speed limits come with fines of 35,000 Chilean pesos,or about USD$42
- Driving in Santiago,Chile can be difficult because it’s a large city. You’ll see that there are restricciones vehiculares (vehicular restrictions) that are in place according to smog levels. Depending on the last digits on a license plate of a vehicle,you may not be able to drive on certain days. Watch the news the day before you plan to drive to see if there are restrictions on your driving. If you violate those restrictions,you’ll have to pay fines. Check out www.uoct.cl for more information on these rules. The rules typically involve cars without catalytic converters.
- If you are in a car accident,report it to the Chilean police,called Carabineros,as soon as you can. Give the name of the injured or dead,the license plate of the vehicle,time/date/place of the accident. The police report will be needed to file for compensation with insurance. Don’t throw away receipts for expenses related to the accident. Insurance may cover all or only some of the medical/funeral expenses. You can find out more about SOAP on the Chilean Securities and Insurance Superintendence website.
- Emergency numbers:131 (fire),132 (ambulance),133 (police).
- Parking doesn’t always follow rules in Chile,and it is only more formalized in large cities. You’ll still see people parking in odd places there. Just find a safe and marked lot so that you’ll be safe. Some large cities have parking meters or ticket kiosks in commercial areas,but it isn’t expensive. You can go to large parking lots that are covered or uncovered. They are more secure,but they cost more. Your car may be towed if you don’t park in the right place,but it doesn’t happen often.
- If you have a disabled placard,take it with you. Even though there isn’t much in the way of laws or help for disabled drivers,having the placard can help you perhaps in finding a more accessible parking space.
Road Rules in Chile
Here are some rules of the road to help you drive safely and within the limits of the law in Chile.
- The urban speed limit is 50 kph, and it is 100 kph in rural areas. The highway speed limits vary between 100 and 120 kph. Speed traps are common, and there are fixed speed cameras o the roads. You’ll get a fine by mail or through your rental car agency. You’ll get a ticket from a mobile police officer on the spot and information on how you can pay.
- The drunk driving limit for blood alcohol content is 30 mg, or 0.05%.
- You drive on the RIGHT in Chile, as you would in America.
- Only hands-free phones are allowed in Chile.
- You must wear your seat belt in both the front and rear seats of a vehicle.
- Stay out of the way of the white and yellow Micro mini buses.
- City streets are typically in good condition, but they may not be so well-maintained outside the city center.
- Rush hours are between 7 and 9 a.m. and 5 and 8 p.m.
- Carry not only extra fuel but also water and a spare tire when you are in remote areas.
- You can get complete road maps of Chile from the Automóvil Club de Chile in Santiago. You can get them on their website at http://www.automovilclub.cl.
- Chile endured a large earthquake in 2010, and it hit many roads hard. Most roads have been restored, however.
- If a child is under four years of age, they can ride in a car seat in the back of a vehicle. If they are under 12, they must only ride in the rear with an adult seatbelt. One that is adjustable for smaller passengers is preferred.
Driving in Patagonia
Driving in Patagonia in Chile is an awesome adventure. Choose a four-wheel drive vehicle as you’ll be driving on roads that are not well-maintained. Make sure the vehicle is in good condition and that the tires are in excellent shape. Also, watch around you because you’ll see lots of trucks, cyclists, walkers, horseback riders, and wildlife that share the roads with you. Also, don’t follow cars in front of you too closely as rocks can damage your vehicle.
Make sure you know where you’re going before you had out. Talk to locals or others who have been on the same route to learn about the condition of the roads. Find out where gas stations are and the distance between them so you don’t run out of fuel. Ask which road locals would recommend and if you should watch out for something if you must pick between two roads. Sometimes in the afternoons on the Carretera Austral, there are times where you can’t use part of the road because of construction called cortes. Make sure you leave time in your schedule to wait.
Use the Maps.me app if you want to take the shortest route, but, even though the app knows the roads in Patagonia, it doesn’t know the condition of the roads. Consider sticking with roads that are more well-known. Also, the wind can reach up to about 120 km/hr in Patagona, so if you need to stop the car, park the car so that the wind hits from the side or front. The door may nearly blow off when you open it!
Things to bring with you on a drive in Patagonia:
- 20-liter fuel can.
- Spare tire or two - A tire repair shop is called a vulcanización in Chile.
- Radio. There is often no cell service in rural areas.
- Reflective jacket (required in Chile for drivers, as well as 2 reflective triangles, a fire extinguisher, and a spare tire).
- Extra food and water.
Be aware that you can’t bring in non-processed food and gasoline sometimes into Argentina, depending on who is at the border control. You may have to empty your fuel can before you cross the border as well, according to some reports. So be aware of these points if you plan to cross into Argentina in Patagonia.
Driving Highway 5 in Chile
Driving Highway 5 in Chile is driving on part of the longest road in the world, well, the longest network of roads: the Pan-American Highway. This is the longest route in Chile and is known as Ruta 5. It covers 3,364 kilometers and goes from the Peruvian border north of Arica to Puerto Montt. Then it goes by ferry to the island of Chiloé. It goes through Santiago (called Autopista Central there).
It is a two-lane paved road with a speed limit of 100 kph. You can drive 120 kph between La Serena and Puerto Montt, where it is a 4-lane highway. It divides into two routes in Puerto Montt. Ruta 5 is gorgeous in the south, and you’ll drive through woods and large cities. It’s a toll road south of La Serena all the way to Puerto Montt. You’ll need to drive with your lights on during the day.
Driving in Santiago Chile
When you’re driving in Santiago, Chile, be aware that the smog levels can get high during the fall and winter. Remember those driving restrictions we talked about earlier? The restrictions are that you can’t drive if your license plate ends with certain numbers or letters between 7:30 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. In Santiago, be aware that some of the roads have electronic free-flow tolls. You’ll likely get a bill from your rental car company or be charged for them directly by the rental agency.
You’ll find parking assistants to help you find appropriate parking in Santiago and other places in Chile. They are usually employees of the city, and they’ll help you park your car. When driving in Santiago, it’s also important to consider that all of the main roads in the city have one lane that is just for buses and taxis. A yellow median separates them. You cannot use their lane. During rush hour, you should also pay attention because some main roads change direction so that all traffic goes just one direction for all lanes.
Driving on the Carretera Austral
One of the most beautiful drives in Chile is the Carretera Austral (Southern Highway), known for its pristine scenery and fresh air. Cyclists love it, and drivers flock to it. You can go white water rafting or hike deep into the region. Visiting glaciers is part of the package, and you can see the stellar Tortel Cover, which has cypress footbridges and gorgeous panoramas. The Baker River is a beautiful place to fish if you want to rest for a day and catch your dinner at the southern tip of the world.
This highway starts in Puerto Montt and ends in Villa O’Higgins. You’ll cross some water with rural ferries. There are few gas stations but not many. Fill up at every chance you get, and check your vehicle’s air, water, and oil levels regularly.
Some of the most scenic places to visit include Pumalín Park (warm rainforests with fjords, great for hiking and camping), General Carrera Lake (where you can sail across the waters), the hot springs at Puyuhuapi, Queulat National Park (Think trees, fjords, and channels.), Coyhaique and Puerto Aysén (where there are gorgeous mountains awaiting your climb).
Driving in Chile in Winter
Chilean winters can be rough, especially in the southern part of the country. Driving in Chile in winter requires some planning and careful execution of any driving when the weather becomes snowy and icy.
- Make sure that your vehicle is fully stocked with water, fuel, food, fire extinguisher, blanket, reflective triangles, tools, shovel (for digging out of snow banks), extra warm clothes, a good spare tire, and anything else you may need.
- Talk to your rental car company about whether snow chains are necessary or advisable for where you plan to drive.
- Ensure that your tires are good for winter weather and that they are fully aired up.
- Drive slowly, leaving enough distance between you and the car in front of you.
- Avoid driving when possible when there is snow on the ground. Take extra precautions if you do.
- Remember that the winter driving restrictions for Santiago take place in the fall and winter because of smog problems.
If you are driving in Chile in the winter from Santiago to La Serena in the north or further south along Ruta 5 from Santiago, pay attention to all warnings and signs as you drive. It’s about a five and a half hour drive from Santiago to La Serena, some of the route following the coast. Watch out for blowing snow or drifts that may build up if it begins to snow. Also, be careful of black ice that can build up on the road that you can’t see.
Driving in Chile is one of the most adventurous trips you can take. It would literally take months to enjoy all the beautiful drives this country offers. The scenery in Chile is like no other in the world in terms of its raw beauty and stark contrast to the sky. Take as much time as you can to plan your trip and to prepare for it as well as possible. You’re going to love driving in Chile. Nature has blessed Chile with some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, and, as a traveler, you have to see as much of it as you can on your trip. Everything that you will see there seems bigger and more fantastic than anything else you’ve seen in the world.