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Certain areas of Chile are most enjoyable when explored on your own in a car, such as the beaches of the Central Coast, the wineries of the Central Valley, the ski areas east of Santiago, and the Lake District in the south. Some regions, such as parts of the Atacama Desert, are impossible to explore without your own wheels.
Drivers in Chile are not particularly aggressive, but neither are they particularly polite. Some common sense rules of the road: Before you set out, establish an itinerary. Be sure to plan your daily driving distance conservatively, as distances are always longer than they appear on maps. Pick up a CHILETUR guide to the part of Chile to which you are traveling (North, Center or South) before departing. The guides have excellent maps indicating gas stations along the major highways, as well as recommendations for different routes and car trips for each region of Chile. You can buy CHILETUR guides (Spanish only) at gas stations affiliated with COPEC and at bookstores in Chile. More information about the CHILETUR guides, including prices and content, is available at www.chileturcopec.cl. Bring enough change to pay tolls on highways. Obey posted speed limits and traffic regulations. And above all, if you get a traffic ticket, don't argue—and plan to spend longer than you want settling it.
Most service stations are operated by an attendant and accept credit cards. They are open 24 hours a day along the Pan-American Highway and in most major cities, but not in small towns and villages. Attendants will often ask you to glance at the zero reading on the gas pump to show that you are not being cheated. A small tip is expected if attendants clean your windows or check your oil level.
You can park on the street, in parking lots, or in parking garages in Santiago and large cities in Chile. Expect to pay anywhere from 500 to 3,000 pesos approximately, depending on the length of time. For street parking, a parking attendant (either official or unofficial) will be there to direct and charge you. You should tip the unofficial parking attendants, called cuidadores de autos; 1,000 pesos is a reasonable tip for two to three hours.
Between May and September, roads and underpasses can flood when it rains. It's very dangerous, especially for drivers who don't know their way around. Avoid driving if it has been raining for several hours.
The Pan-American Highway runs from Arica in the far north down to Puerto Montt and Chiloé, in the Lake District. Much of it is now two-lane and bypasses most large cities. The Carretera Austral, a mostly unpaved road that runs for 1,240 km (770 mi) as far as Villa O'Higgins in Patagonia, starts just south of Puerto Montt. A few stretches of the road are broken by water and are linked only by car ferries (check ferry schedules before departing, as schedules may change depending on the time of year). Some parts of the Carretera can be washed away in heavy rain; it is wise to consult local police for details.
Many cyclists ride without lights in rural areas, so be careful when driving at night, particularly on roads without street lighting. This also applies to horse- and bull-drawn carts.
El Automóvil Club de Chile offers low-cost road service and towing in and around the main cities to members of the Automobile Association of America (AAA). But if you don't speak Spanish, you're probably better off contacting your rental agency, or having your hotel concierge communicate with the automobile club or your rental agency.
El Automóvil Club de Chile (600/464–4040. www.automovilclub.cl.)
Keep in mind that the speed limit is 60 kph (37 mph) in cities and 120 kph (75 mph) on highways unless otherwise posted. The police regularly enforce the speed limit, handing out partes (tickets) to speeders.
Right-hand turns are prohibited at red lights unless otherwise posted. Seat belts are mandatory in the front and back of the car, and police give on-the-spot fines for not wearing them. If the police find you with more than 0.5 milligrams of alcohol in your blood (lower than the legal limit in the U.S. and the U.K.), you will be considered to be driving under the influence and arrested.
Plan to rent snow chains for driving on the road up to the ski resorts outside Santiago. Police will stop you and ask if you have them—if you don't, you will be forced to turn back.
On average it costs 25,000 pesos (about US$50) a day to rent the cheapest type of car with unlimited mileage. Vehicles with automatic transmissions tend to be more luxurious and can cost twice as much as the basic rental with manual transmission. Many companies list higher rates (about 20%) for the high season (December-February). Hertz, Avis, and Budget have locations at Santiago's airport and elsewhere around the country.
To access some of Chile's more remote regions, it may be necessary to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle, which can cost 80,000 pesos (about $165) a day. You can often get a discounted weekly rate. The rate you are quoted usually includes insurance, but make sure to find out exactly what the insurance covers and to ask whether there is a deductible you will have to pay in case of an accident. You can usually pay slightly more and have no deductible. An obligatory extra that all companies charge for rentals out of or returning to Santiago is for TAG, an electronic toll-collection system used in that city. This charge is currently about 5,000 pesos (about $10) per day. If you don't want to drive yourself, consider hiring a car and driver through your hotel concierge, or make a deal with a taxi driver for some extended sightseeing at a longer-term rate.
Major international rental companies (Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz, National) operate in Chile, but local companies are sometimes a cheaper option. Rosselot, Bengolea, and Chilean are reputable local companies with offices in Santiago and other cities.
To drive legally in Chile you need an international driver's license as well as your valid national license, although car rental companies and police do not often enforce this regulation. The minimum age for driving is 18, but to rent a car you have to be 22.
Alamo (786/231–5053 in U.S.; 2/2655–5255 in Chile. www.alamo.com.)
Avis (800/633–3469 in U.S.; 2/2795–3932 in Chile. www.avis.com.)
Budget (800/218–7992 in U.S.; 2/2795–3952 in Chile. www.budget.com.)
Hertz (800/654–3131 in U.S.; 2/2360–8600 in Chile. www.hertz.com.)
National Car Rental (877/222–9058 in U.S.; 2/2228–7637 in Chile. www.nationalcar.com.)
Bengolea (Av. Francisco Bilbao 1047, Providencia, Santiago, 8320000. 2/2204–9021.)
Chilean (Bellavista 0183, Bellavista, Santiago, 8320000. 2/2963–8760. www.chileanrentacar.cl.)
Rosselot (Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, Santiago, 8320000. 2/2690–1374. www.rosselot.cl. Av. Francisco Bilbao 2032, Providencia, 8320000. 2/2381–3692.)