Chile - Still Struggling to Overcome Its Recent History

From October 2022 to January 2023, we visited Chile for about 2 months.

Here some practical information about our overlanding journey. For more ample details and pics please refer to our respective posts.


To Start with:

  • Entering Chile you immediately have the impression that everything resembles a lot more to Europe than South America. Still, be aware, if you explore a little deeper you’re quickly confronted with the continent’s reality. Even if the level of cost definitely reminds us of Europe or the US. And even if most Chilies are much more reserved towards foreigners than anywhere else in South America you’re not back home. 
  • You’re still confronted with Chile’s heritage of a difficult history in the late 20th century. You often feel the omnipotence of the Government, sometimes you even have the impression that Pinochet’s spirit is still wavering thru the administration’s dusty offices. Still, you often experience that administration is not really made to better manage the country but to force innocent citizens to comply with government regulations and to show the superiority of the almighty bureaucrats still in power. Despite some progress, quite some situations remind what people may live in the proud Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • True, Chile tries hard to overcome its infamous past with memorial sites, museums, etc. All aimed to not forget the cruels of the Pinochet Regime. Still, they nearly voted José Antonio Kast as the next president. A guy officially admiring Pinochet’s regime. 

South America’s Safest Country – Do You Really Think So?

Reading carefully the different government’s travel advice you quickly have the impression of Chile as a pretty safe and ruly country. True, they don’t have too many drug cartels or organized gangs. Neither are too many sicarios active.

Still, we felt in towns like Valparaiso or Santiago more exposed to crime, especially petty theft, than anywhere else in South America. People warning us constantly, guys lurking around in dark’n’seedy corners, etc. Santiago is the unique place on our whole trip where some smart ladies obviously tried to help Monika with a general cleaning. In the middle of a busy street at noon. Fortunately, we quickly got rid of them.

Thus, let your daddy believe in the good travel advice of your government concerning Chile’s bad girls – and keep your eyes open when sneaking back to your sleepery at 3 am after a couple of beers.

Border Bureaucrazy at its Best – Chile’s Eternal Search for a Banana

To start with: before you get the chance to socialize with any Chili border authority somebody will give you a slip where immigration, customs, agriculture, and sometimes even health need to provide you with a stamp to confirm that they’re happy with you. Carefully keep this strange piece of paper to get out of the machinery again.

Of course, even proud US-citizens need a passport to enter Chile. Don’t believe you can enter the country with a copy of your grandma’s gas bill. Strange but true, citizens of some countries require even a visa. E. g. Australia.  Still, immigration is pretty easy’n’efficient. They allow you 3 months to stay in the country. You receive a small computer-printed slip you have to keep the whole time with you. Probably that’s the most important document you ever had in your life – it’s even needed to exempt you in any sleepery from VAT.

Then customs’ counter. Just need to get the paper stuff for your beloved car (see below).

After that, on to the more complicated case: agriculture. Visibly, Chile tries hard to be a modern country. Immediately you state this once you try to pass agriculture the very same way you do in most other countries: walk thru, ignoring all attempts of any bureaucrat to ask you any irrelevant questions. Not this way in Chile. Recently they introduced an online form to fill in. Either you already did it before or you use the QR code at their counter. It’s not complicated. They just ask the usual nonsense you’re accustomed to from similar US forms. Principally they want to know if you intend to import a banana or a sandwich with raw meat, or whatever is dangerous for Chile’s food production. Once you’ve finished with this important online form, you immediately get a confirmation on your phone.  Now, it all depends on the mood of the honorable agriculture ladies in charge – acting now jointly with customs. They may just ask you where’s your car and it’s ok. Probably they want to see a few of your stinking socks (customs) and search a bit for a banana (agric.). If their partners were not nice to them the night before, you risk showing them everything in your car. They insist to take out everything, placing it on a huge table – and after they didn’t look at it, putting it back in the car. Once a nasty girl even insisted to see our rooftop tent. Of course, we complied with her request. Just she had to help a little bit to open the cover. Well, it took some time – and she got quite dirty. Whatever, we knew it was quite dusty on the top. By the way, should they find a banana you risk a hefty penalty. Hence, no fresh fruits and veggies. For more complicated details see the agriculture’s famous website

Maybe a last word: Covid vaxxes. They were still mandatory at the time we crossed the border. Sometimes they wanted to see the vax booklet, sometimes not. At least they no longer require visitors to install this non-functioning Covid app which frustrated so many travelers until recently.

Now you’re discouraged? Of course not. Still, remember each time you cross the border between Chile and Argentina you have to repeat the whole process. We crossed more than half a dozen times. We just got used to it.

You Think You Can’t Enter Chile Without Your Beautiful Car

You’re right. You shouldn’t visit Chile without a vehicle. Especially, if you intend to see more than just a few places once you get off the night bus.

Maybe you think it’s complicated. Astonishingly, it’s not. Just go to the customs counter, give them your car documents, and the insurance. A minute or 2 later you have the printout of your TIP valid for 3 months.  You sign it – and that’s it. Getting out of the country – just give it back. Well, after that you still have to pass customs’ and agricultural’s physical inspections (see above).

Something special is the fact that you need insurance before entering Chile. Fortunately, that’s easy to obtain. Best head for 1 valid for Mercosur countries (Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil) and additionally Bolivia and Chile. The easiest way to obtain it is with gisela@speiserseguros.com.ar. About 80 USD for 4 months, payable within a month. We finally paid it in cash in Argentina with the blue dollar rate. This even cut it down to just 40 USD. At least something is easy in Chile.

Your Car Even Wants to Accompany You in Chile 

Of course, once you got the TIP you don’t want to leave your car at the border – and travel by bus thru Chile. Especially, as Chile is a pretty huge country.  It extends for more than 4200 km from north to south.

For that, you need to get used to driving in this country. It’s easy. A bit like in Europe – excluding Italy. Civilized. Respectful. Chili drivers obey traffic rules to a degree you’re no longer used to after a few months in other South American countries. So, don’t park where there’s a yellow line, nor at places reserved for taxis or other creatures creeping on the road. Probably, you won’t have a problem with an angry police girl. No, probably you just enter into a severe dispute with a law-abiding Chilean citizen not amused at all that a bloody foreigner interpreting the law in her own way. Yeah, maybe not exactly what you like – but a Chilean reality.

Fuel: of course, you need to buy some. Be aware it’s pretty expensive. not too far from European prices. Thus, each time you’re in Argentina fill up. Then, take into account that in the more remote areas in the north or on Carretera Austral you have to drive a few km to reach the next petrol station. On the highway crossing Atacama Desert, there may be 300km without any supply.

A word about police: you won’t see these guys too often. We never had the chance to socialize with them. Still, some people report having a lot of exchanges with them. No idea for what reason.

Finally roads: good, next to no potholes. On many roads, you pay a toll. Never understand the system too well. Sometimes you pay next to nothing, then suddenly a fortune. Along the coast often 4-lane highways. Except for the area of Valparaiso – Santiago not too much traffic. 

A little different on Patagonia’s Carretera Austral. There are still a few 100 km of pretty rough gravel roads. 

Now to another specialty: Chilean ferries.

Looks like ferries are Chile’s test field to optimize bureaucrazy at its worst. Sorry to say that. But all these ferries on some lakes to cross into Argentina, or those to continue thru Patagonia are mostly a pain in the ass. Their main problem is insufficient capacity. Especially during the holiday season in January – February. Of course, most of them you can book online. Just, often they’re fully booked months ahead, they don’t accept foreign cards, or your valuable card is simply not accepted. Some ferries you can just reserve by phone – only they forget to mention it somewhere. 

Especially on Carretera Austral, you risk getting stuck somewhere because of a ferry. You can queue up, hoping to get 1 of the few spaces for standby passengers. This can easily take a few days. Or, you head for 1 of the border crossings into Argentina. Skipping part of Chile. Not great, but another Chilean reality.

You’re Tired of Driving the Whole Way from North to South – Navimag Might Be the Solution

Why not use Navimag’s famous ferry between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales? This avoids driving twice the whole Carretera Austral – or its rather boring counterpart in Argentina.

It’s a spectacular trip of 3 days, and 4 nights on a big Chinese-built ferry thru Chile’s most spectacular landscape. You won’t have the comfort of a cruise ship. But, it’s pretty ok. You have an all-inclusive plan – covering everything except alcoholic beverages. Those you have to smuggle on board. Officially they’re strictly forbidden. In reality, it’s a question of discretion.

You sleep in cabins or dorms depending on your budget. Your beloved car will travel well-secured on a covered deck.

True, it’s not cheap to use the ferry. And it’s not always easy to find space on it. Nor to organize a ticket in advance. And finally, it just runs between November and April. 

About space: simply forget it between mid-December and mid-March if you can’t book as soon as possible before the season starts. You have to check with them when their system allows bookings for the next season. Not very customer friendly. But again, that’s Chile.

 Then, also be aware, you can only book online for passengers, not for cars. For that, you have to contact them directly. Still, that’s not easy as well. The guys never reply to any inquiries. At least in our experience. Finally, we booked thru a travel agent. Very easy, super service, all online, and for the same price. Just check with TravelAid in Pucón. 

What the Hell – Which Language Do These Guys Speak in Chile

You’re a brave overlander. You know that at least some basic Spanish is necessary to survive in South America. Thus, so far everything went smoothly. Until you arrive in Chile. Even if you know exactly that they claim to speak Spanish you’ll have incredible problems understanding these Chilies. 

Don’t be desperate, you’re not the only 1s. Even native Spanish speakers have to get used to their language. After a few days, you will also be able to communicate with them as usual.

Should you be convinced that English is spoken everywhere in the world you may have a few disappointing situations. Each’n’every day. Or you limit your trip to the hostel bubble and its tours.

Need to Get Rid of Your Money – Chile Is THE Place for That

Just be aware that the level of cost in Chile is comparable to Europe. So, it’s easy – just calculate the bucks the same way you would need for a trip to Europe. Having stated that just be ready to pay for accommodation – the lousiest camping, or the lousiest sleepery – quite some money. And make sure they don’t make you pay the VAT in your sleepery if they provide a bill. If you can show them this little slip you got from immigration and you pay the amount in $ (cash or CC) you’re exempted from the tax. Just many of the cheaper places don’t know how to handle it. So, some marvelous opportunities to practice your Spanish skills.

In supermarkets and gas stations you will also wonder how the Chilis can pay such high prices.  Still, for you, there’s a small way out. At least occasionally: probably you’ll cross many times to Argentina and back. Simply buy everything you can with Chili’s neighbors. Use the Argi’s blue dollar rate – and you’re saved. For foodstuff, beverages to fuel – it’s less than half in Argentina. Just be aware – no bananas or raw chicken wings if returning to Chile. But most things somehow processed are fine.

Enough complaints. Now to the real thing concerning your funds.

To avoid starving you need to get the hell a lot of Chilean Pesos. Of course, that applies even to US citizens who are convinced that the greenback is the only real thing. 

So you have to think about how to get these Pesos. Maybe you’re bank at home has a few of them left. Probably not. To make it easier just go to an ATM in Chile to withdraw a few 100 000 Pesos. Make sure that you choose tarjeta extranjera on the ATM’s menu. And avoid the ATM converting the amount into the currency of your card. The rate will be extremely bad – you lose 10 – 15%. 

Still, be aware that most Chilean bank managers also want to earn their living. Thus, they add a quite heavy fee to each withdrawal. Especially if considering the limit of 200 000 Pesos with most ATMs. You can avoid this with most cards. Just go to an ATM of Scotia Bank. Normally they’re free. And you can withdraw 3 times consequently with the same card. Great. Just in a few places frequented by hordes of tourists they also charge a hefty fee.

Of course, you can also pay for most things with your credit card. Just, these bank managers …. Be aware that you pay a flat charge of 1000 to 2500 Pesos on most transactions. Sometimes they’re free. No idea why.

Another issue: you can book quite a lot of things on Internet. Just be aware that many local websites are not ready to handle foreign CC. The worst we’ve lived was with Navimag. With them, we finally had to pay the passage thru their banking account in Miami. Great isn’t it?

You Need to Go to Mum’s Birthday Party – You’re Car Won’t

You just need to leave Chile for a few days and you’re back before the car’s TIP expires. Not sure if that works. On this small slip, they give you when entering the country the number plate of your car is mentioned. No idea how they handle this on departure. 

Still, there are rumors that you can leave your car when leaving. Even for a longer period. You would have to check it out with customs. We never heard about anybody doing so. 

Normally overlanders just cross to Argentina, or even better to Uruguay to leave their cars for a longer period.

Your Grandma Wants to Have a Daily Report on Your Boyfriend’s Behaviour

Rich girls roam. All the other girls use their money for beer and wine and buy a local SIM card. It’s easy to get 1. In any shop. You even don’t need to register. Just pay a few bucks for the card and some credit that’s it. Probably the best network is Movistar. But even that doesn’t work everywhere along Carretera Austral.

If you spend less than a month in Chile everything is ok. But, should you need more time to discover the country, or return from a side trip to Argentina you’ll wake up on your 31st day and realize that your cellphone is dead. 

You go to a shop. Be quite sure they don’t know anything. Then you go to your provider. They tell you that the Government has just blocked the IMEI of your cellphone. That you can never use it again. And that’s it.

Well, it’s true government of Chile blocked your cell phone – probably a heritage of their grim history. Still, it’s not a real problem. Just go to this website for more information about registering your cellphone. Send the necessary documents to 1 of the certification companies, and a day or two later it’ll work again. Should your brand not be on the list just choose any other, they will do it as well – at least they did it with us. Or, even better do that before the 30 days are over. And you never have trouble with the bureaucrat’s infamous behavior. And be aware, the 30 days start when you insert the Chilean sim card and continue counting even if you take it out on a sidetrip to Argentina.

National Parks in Chile – Surely They’re on Your Bucket List

Chile converted large parts of its territory into national parks. Mainly in the south. A number of them pretty easy to visit. Many of them so isolated that it gets pretty difficult and/or expensive to visit. 

All national parks less visited you just enter by paying a small fee, or they are free of charge. 

A little different for the famous parks. In those places, you’ll feel definitely discriminated by Chile’s fee policy.  They charge foreigners considerably more – difficult to avoid this feeling of being ripped off. Even if you would tolerate this practice in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s difficult to understand in a country like Chile. And an opportunity for many foreign tourists for serious but useless discussions with the poor park rangers.

If you head for areas with a significant problem of over-tourism like the W-Trek in Torres de Paine National Park they even charge you more for accommodation and food on the trek. Definitely not a very friendly approach.

We also encountered parks where you have to register your entry online: Queulat Hanging Glacier and Torres del Paine NP.  Both an extended fight with a badly designed website. For Torres del Paine NP you have to register and also pay online. We didn’t get the tickets as promised by email. Hence, we had to go to the park office in Puerto Natales to pick them up. They seemed to be quite accustomed to this routine. Not sure whether they let you enter the parks without previous registration – so better check it out.

Last But Most Important – Beer in Chile

A tragedy. It’s extremely expensive by South American standards. In bars and restaurants often above the European level.

There are the usual no-frills industrial beers like Escudo or Cristal. Not really the 1s you’re looking for, but pretty cheap in Supermarkets. Then there’s the upmarket Cerveza Austral or Kunstman. Especially Kunstman’s Torobayo. Still industrial, but a better alternative – and at its cost.

Finally, there are numerous artisanal brews in every place. Unfortunately, they do not always keep their promises. Despite their price. Don’t despair – in Argentina the situation will be much better.

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