Chile is one of the most diverse countries we’ve ever been to. From the deserts of the north, to the beaches of the centre, rolling lush green hills of the south and glaciers even further down, this country has something to offer everyone. We spent just over 4 weeks in Chile, popping into Bariloche in Argentina and back when we headed down south. If you have time to explore southern Chile, we really recommend it as there is a totally different vibe in that end of the nation. Most people hit Santiago, Valparaíso and San Pedro de Atacama before heading into Bolivia and they miss so much! Anyway, here are some key tips for Chile to keep in mind before you go:
Tips for Chile border crossings
Both Argentina and Chile have extremely stringent border control processes. Everything you own will be dog-sniffed, and if you look especially gringo your luggage will be searched too. Make sure you’re not taking anything stupid with you, and keep in mind that foods such as fresh fruit are also forbidden, so eat your lunch before the border. If crossing by bus, get the earliest bus you can to avoid the hundreds of school kids that pop over to see god knows what. When you arrive in Chile, you will be given a slip that says ‘PDI’ on the top. This is not just a receipt that you can pop straight in the bin, it’s a police proof of entry, and you need it when you exit the country (well, they won’t do anything if you don’t have it, but we recommend avoiding the patronising lecture we got from the self-important border officer if you can).
Getting around within Chile
Chile is the first country along our route to make real use of colectivos – old, colourful minibuses that have no timetable; they simply leave when they’re full. These are painfully cheap, often 4-500 pesos for up to half an hour of driving, and although unpredictable there are normally enough of them to get to where you need in good time. There are no designated stops, so you just have to shout when you want off.
Long-haul buses are generally comfortable and on time. However, if you ever book through an online collator such as Recorrido.cl or Busbud.cl and you reserve a seat with an affiliate of Pullman (Atacama VIP, Cidher, Sol del Sur, Elqui, FichTur, Los Corsarios, Los Conquistadores del Sur), be aware that the brand you reserved with may not be the brand that’s on the bus. We learnt the hard way at 11pm in Valparaíso, when we were told that our Pullman bus had left an hour before, and we’d been sitting right in front of it waiting for a green Atacama VIP bus as described on our ticket. We’d even gone to the Pullman desk an hour before departure to ask where to go as they were written in the smallprint as a potential place to confirm the ticket, but the guy at the counter cursed and shooed us away. We ended up with no other choice than to follow a woman with ‘hostal’ written on a cardboard sign to her house in a dodgy area and pay 16,000 pesos for a night in her smoky basement that had blood all over the shower-curtain and could be padlocked from the OUTSIDE. Thanks, Pullman.
Taxis in Chile are cheap, so this is normally the best way to get around within the centre of a town. As always, look out for ‘Radio Taxi’ rather than just flagging any old car down on the street. Chile is apparently an excellent place to hitchike, but we didn’t have the easiest experience of hitch-hiking from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama.
Pack for all weathers
As we mentioned earlier, this country’s terrain ranges from deserts to glaciers, so one of the most important tips for Chile is to make sure you’ve brought the right kind of clothing to cope. Layering is always good, but down south you’ll need an effective waterproof jacket too. Up north, expect to absolutely swelter in the close heat, and you’ll need factor 30 as a bare minimum (though good to know they sell up to SPF 100 here). If you want a real-time example of how quickly the weather can change in the south of Chile, take a look at this skyline in Puerta Varas:
Free transactions in Chile
Most banks in Chile charge for foreign bank transactions, however, if you can get yourself to a Scotia Bank your transactions will be free, at least on the Chilean side. Luckily, the cash limit is normally 200,000 pesos (around £215), so much more lenient than in Argentina! Don’t forget to have a read of our list of free ATMs with no bank transactions across Latin America to get the most out of your money whilst travelling.