How big is Chile?
On a map, Chile appears as a long, thin sliver at the western edge of South America, running 2,653 miles long and a mere 110 miles wide. The famous Andes Mountains run throughout the entire length of Chile, rising dramatically out of the ground and forming a sort of spine for the continent. You can follow these mountains all the way from Patagonia in the far south of the country to the arid deserts of the extreme north. The country's population of just over 18 million people is smaller than most other South American nations, due to Chile's relatively small size and vast expanses of unspoiled wilderness (especially in the south).
How do I get to Chile?
The most practical way to arrive in Chile is by air. The country's somewhat remote location on the southwestern edge of South America means travelers can expect flights to be long, sometimes over 14 hours depending on the route. That said, there are direct international flights to Aeropuerto Arturo Merino Benítez, located 16 miles (26 km) outside of Chile's capital of Santiago.
Major airlines that offer direct flights from the US include LATAM, LAN, American, and Delta, with services from Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, New York, and Dallas Fort Worth. British Airways began operating direct flights to Santiago from London in 2016, and Iberia offers non-stop flights from Madrid. Aeromexico has direct services from Mexico City, with Avianca offering non-stop flights via major Latin American hubs. Air Canada offers non-stop services from Toronto, and Qantas offers direct flights from Sydney, Australia.
Air travel aside, a number of cruise ships run excursions to Chile. Depending on the package, these cruises visit a number of beautiful locales including the northern deserts, the port city of Valparaiso, the fjords of Patagonia, and even down to Cape Horn and the end of the continent.
You can also get to Chile overland from Argentina—here's an article on your 3 Options for Crossing the Border.
When should I go to Chile?
The very high season in Chile, particularly for tourist-heavy spots such as Patagonia, is from about December through mid-January. There's also another high season during Chile's winter from around July-September, which is another popular time to visit Patagonia. This is also when the ski resorts in central Chile's are open. If you choose to travel during these times, expect higher prices and more crowds. For these reasons traveling in the shoulder seasons such as autumn and spring are recommended. The temperatures during these times are mild, and you'll still be able to enjoy the iconic snow-capped peaks of Chile's southern national parks.
What should I pack?
If you're planning on visiting the far north and the Atacama Desert, you'll certainly want to pack sunscreen regardless of whether you're traveling in summer or winter. Also recommended are light layers for daytime wear as well as long sleeves and heavier layers for the colder night temperatures. The same goes for Patagonia, except the further you venture south, the temps drop considerably. In summer months in this region you can expect averages of 72°F (22°C), but in the winter months they often drop to 32°F (0°C) at night. Be sure to pack the appropriate heavy, all-weather clothing as well as any camping and trekking equipment you might require.
How do I get around Chile?
If you have limited time and would like to see as much of Chile as possible, then air travel is the most practical way to do so. Chile has a top-notch budget airline called Sky, and you can find flights all around the country from Santiago for less than 100 US dollars. It's so efficient, in fact, that you could design an itinerary that allows you to visit the northern Atacama desert, the central wine country, and the far south of Patagonia all in just a few days.
The famous Pan-American Highway runs through most of the country, and that should spell pure joy for road-tripping travelers everywhere. Overland bus journeys can be long and tedious, and services become more sporadic the further south you get into Patagonia. However, if you rent a car, motorcycle, or even recreational vehicle, you can travel at your own pace and see the entire country if you so choose.
Most of Chile's roads and highways are well-maintained but once you reach the southern Lake District and begin driving the 1,240-km (770-mile) Carretera Austral (highway Route 7), you'll find that some sections are unpaved ripio (gravel) road. This is particularly true around the Patagonian city of Coyhaique (although plans to fully pave this highway are perpetually in the works), located in the Aysén region of Patagonia. If you do venture down here, make sure any vehicle you bring is durable enough to endure these rougher patches.
Are there restrictions where I can travel?
Chile is basically a wide-open country for travelers, and it's easy to get around anywhere by air, whether that's the far north or the furthest reaches of Patagonia. That said, certain regional areas might close due to weather and safety conditions. For example, in Chile's Lake District, at the doorstep to Patagonia, volcano hikes are a popular excursion, none more so than the 1,575-meter (5,167-foot) Villarrica Volcano. This is a tough and exhilarating trek, but you'll want to check beforehand if it's open, as oftentimes harsh weather means it's prohibited to ascend the volcano.
Also, on rare occasions, it's possible for certain national parks, like Torres del Paine, to close some hiking trails due to extreme weather. Again, if you're planning multi-day hikes in any national park in Chile, check beforehand to see if all access points are open.
What is the food like?
Chile's long coastline ensures that you'll be able to enjoy fresh and delectable seafood almost anywhere in the country. There's a wide variety of shellfish here, including centolla (king crab), jaiba (crab), locos (Chilean sea snails), and many types of mussels, oysters, and clams. There are also regional seafood dishes like curanto (popular in the Lake District and island of Chiloé), which is a mix of shellfish, sausage, and potatoes, typically baked underground. There are many types of tasty fish throughout the country, too, including corvina (whitefish similar to sea bass), merluza (whitefish similar to cod), congrio (white eel), tuna, and salmon.
There's some good street food in Chile as well, and popular staples include empanadas, churros, sopapillas (fried pumpkin dough), anticuchos (grilled meat skewers), mate con huesillo (a syrupy peach juice with bits of cracked wheat), pastel de choclo (a small beef and corn casserole), and the ubiquitous completo, a take on the hot dog that's slathered in palta (avocado) and mayonnaise and enjoyed throughout the country.
Where and when should I tip?
It isn't mandatory, but a 10% gratuity in sit-down, non-counter-service restaurants is appreciated. Some nicer restaurants may automatically add a 10% service charge to the restaurant bill, so always check beforehand if this is the case. It's not required to tip taxi drivers.
Do I need a visa?
Visa regulations and fees can and often do change frequently in Chile. However, at the time of this writing, citizens of the UK, EU, USA, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa require only a passport, valid for at least 6 months, and a tourist card (which is handed out at major border crossings and at Chilean airports) to obtain a 90-day tourist visa. Australians are required to pay a US$117 reciprocity fee upon entry to Chile.
There is an airport departure tax for international flights of US$26, as well as smaller fees for domestic flights, but these should be included in the cost of your airline ticket.
Is Chile safe?
You can rest easy in the knowledge that, when compared to some other Latin American nations, Chile is relatively safe. In fact, the US State Department has Chile listed as a Level 1, which is the lowest threat level.
Even so, if you're planning on visiting Chile's delightful cities, like Santiago and Valparaiso, or Arica, Antofagasta, and Iquique, in the north, then you'll want to exercise the same caution you would in any other large metropolis frequented by tourists. Petty crime can be an issue (especially at large bus stations) but you should be fine if you practice discretion and vigilance, keep an eye on your belongings, and refrain from overt displays of wealth.
Can I bring my children?
You'd be remiss not to. Like in most other Latin American nations, Chileans are family oriented as a people, and most establishments happily accommodate children. Also, the natural treasures in the northern deserts and Patagonian regions of the country offer enough incredible sites, activities, and adventures to stimulate any developing mind and foster memories that will last a lifetime.
Younger kids may not be able to tackle the bigger hikes and excursions, such as the multi-day treks in Torres del Paine National Park, but the Andes Mountains of central Chile (perfect for a ski vacation), and the calm lakes and temperate forest of the southern Lake District, make for a great summertime outing for the whole family.
Do I need to speak Spanish?
It's actually no guarantee that it would be of use even if you did. Chile is a unique Latin American country with a unique culture. This reveals itself in an accent unlike anything else on the continent. Throughout the country, Chileans deliver quick bursts of rapid-fire sentences, often cutting off the ends of words.
Then there's the slang—entire dictionaries have been compiled to translate Chilean slang for befuddled outsiders. You'll know it when you hear locals singing the praises of a particularly bacán chela (great beer), and using countless other unique expressions, phrases, and idioms.
Of course, it's still wise to learn basic Spanish phrases before your trip. Many locals in bigger cities will be happy to practice their English with you, but in smaller towns, villages, and rural settings expect no English at all. And if you do find yourself getting discombobulated by a fast-talking local, just respond with the most crucial Spanish phrase for visitors to Chile, "Mas despacio, por favor." ("Slower, please").
What currency do they use in Chile?
The country is on the Chilean Peso. As of this writing, the peso was trading at 661 to the US dollar.
Is Chile expensive?
Chile has one of the stronger economies in South America, and this is due to a number of thriving sectors including hydroelectric power (generated by the rivers in the south), and the copper/gold/silver mines in the north (remember those famous Chilean miners?). The mines are particularly prominent around the northern cities of Antofagasta and Calama, which are both jumping-off points for excursions into the Atacama Desert. Expect to pay much more for lodging and food in these industrial parts of the north when compared to other cities.
That aside, prices throughout chile will be more than what you will pay in other countries like Colombia, Brazil, and Peru. Still, general costs are not exorbitant; expect prices in the capital of Santiago to be comparable to a typical major city in the midwestern United States. One undeniable perk is that you'll be able to choose from a wide variety of top-quality Chilean wines at budget prices.
Are credit cards widely accepted?
In big cities and even in most smaller towns you'll find that major credit cards are readily accepted. Moreover, EMV (Europay, Mastercard and Visa) chip technology not only makes paying with cards quick and easy but also secure. However, the further you go into the rural areas of the north and south, the less likely places are to accept credit and debit cards. In the northern desert village of San Pedro de Atacama, for example, you will find that some high-end hotels and restaurants take cards, but any of the villages outside of town most certainly will not.
The same can be said for Chilean Patagonia. In the bigger cities and towns, like Coyhaique, Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas, Valdivia, and Puerto Montt, most places will accept cards. However, the majority of establishments in smaller villages and outposts, like Puerto Williams, Tortel, Balmaceda, and Villa O'Higgins, will not. And because ATMs are scarce in these smaller towns (and often even non-existent), we recommend stocking up on cash at the last major city on your itinerary before heading into rural Chile.
What inoculations do I need?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that all travelers be up to date on routine vaccinations, including Hepatitis A and Typhoid. There is currently no evidence of Zika virus transmission in Chile, but rabies is present in bats within the country. This won't affect most travelers, but if you are planning a caving trip or other activities in areas with bat populations, it's best to get a rabies vaccine.
Ready to start planning your trip? Check out these great Chile Tours and Itineraries.