You don’t have to jump through many bureaucratic hoops to enter Chile. Tourists can generally stay for up to 90 days, and hopping across the border to Argentina and returning a day or two later is tolerated if not done too often. Visas are required for most Asian nations except Japan, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand; and for all African nations except South Africa. Visas are not required for citizens of Russia, Israel, Indonesia, Turkey, Ukraine, UAE or Vietnam.
Chile takes the illegal import of restricted goods very seriously, including various agricultural or food stuffs. Fruit, dairy products, honey, etc, are all prohibited and this is strictly enforced at all airports and to varying extents at land borders. If in doubt, openly ask the border guards – they are generally relaxed if you are honest, and will allow you to eat any apples or sandwiches in their office before entering Chile.
There are 72 embassies in Santiago. Of the countries without a full embassy, Bolivia has a Consulate-General, the European Union has a Delegation, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has a Mission, and Taiwan has a Trade Office. Argentina has a Consulate in Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas.
For a full and regularly updated list of embassies and consulates, visit embassypages.com/chile.
Getting there and away
Santiago has one international airport – Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez. International airlines flying to/from Santiago include: Aerolíneas Argentinas, Aeroméxico, Air Canada, Air Europa and Air France.
From the UK, British Airways flies direct to Buenos Aires and Santiago. From the USA, there are daily direct flights to Santiago from Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York (JFK) and Miami.
The relevant Argentine airports for accessing the Carretera Austral are Bariloche and El Calafate, both of which are served by Latam and Aerolíneas Argentinas from Buenos Aires. Aerolíneas Argentinas also has a flight between Bariloche and El Calafate in high season, and regular flights from Buenos Aires to Esquel. It is a member of Sky Team. Latam is in an alliance with Delta. Flybondi and JetSmart fly between El Palomar (close to Buenos Aires) and Bariloche.
Ferries are generally no slower than travelling by land; for example, the direct ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales takes four days (without delays), and it is a challenge to beat this travelling overland, even via Argentina.
Unless opting for a private cabin, prices tend to be reasonable for passengers; cars and motorbikes incur an additional fee, very roughly approximate to the cost of a person.
As it is impossible to fly directly from Argentina to any point along the Carretera Austral, it is cheaper and quicker to take a bus between southern Argentina and southern Chile.
Within Chile it is certainly convenient to fly to Puerto Montt, and flights are not substantially more expensive than buses if booked in advance.
Several border crossings are only possible on foot: from Villa O’Higgins to El Chaltén (also by bicycle); from El Bolsón (Argentina) to Cochamó (Chile); from Lago Puelo (Argentina) to Río Puelo (Chile; via Paso Río Puelo); and from Cochamó to Argentina at the more northern Río Manso crossing.
A rarely used trail, ‘Ruta de los Jesuitos’, connects Ralún, just north of Cochamó, with Bariloche via the Vuriloche border crossing. Although not recommended, the Río Mayer border crossing northeast of Villa O’Higgins is also only possible on foot.
There is public transport to almost every inhabited community, but the frequency and reliability is subject to wide variation. Public transport between Coyhaique and Puerto Aysén is abundant, Puerto Cisnes and Balmaceda airport are well served, while Lago Verde, the Levicán Peninsula and Villa La Tapera are probably the hardest places to reach by public transport.
Less frequent are buses to/from Chile Chico and Raúl Marín Balmaceda, and there is currently no public transport to Paso Roballos, Paso Puesto Viejo or Bahía Exploradores.
By private vehicle
Private vehicle is by far the most common form of transport. Renting a car is a viable option, and as the road conditions improve it is not necessary to hire a 4×4 to reach most parts of the Carretera Austral.
Most car-hire companies require a minimum age of 22–24 years, a valid driver’s licence in the country of origin or a valid international driver’s licence, valid passport and a credit-card guarantee of between US$500 and US$1,000. It is important to consider the following factors.
First, much of the Carretera Austral south of Coyhaique is unpaved, meaning that a small car with low clearance will not traverse some sections, particularly when wet, and most vehicles have an excess for damages. If considering the more remote sections of the Carretera Austral, get a car that is suitable for the terrain.
Second, one-way rentals tend to be expensive, so it is generally wise to plan a loop or round trip, or to return to Puerto Montt on the Navimag.
Third, you will need the vehicle registration to book a ferry ticket; this can be provided at a later date.
Finally, if intending to pass through Argentina, ensure the car can be taken out of the country and that you have the required paperwork, including insurance.
In high season buses fill up quickly (particularly the international bus from Coyhaique to Río Mayo in Argentina), and in low season the frequency diminishes yet further; departure and arrival times are ‘flexible’. Some buses deliberately synchronise with connecting boats or buses from other regions, adding an inevitable element of volatility into the timetables.
It is wise to arrange public transport in advance wherever possible, arrive early and be prepared to wait – when staying in a village for a few days consider buying your departing bus ticket as soon as you arrive. Often it is possible to make a change for a small fee, or cancel with relatively little penalty if done in advance. However, many routes are served only once per day.
Hitchhiking is a viable alternative to public transport. Certain stretches are reportedly harder than others, in particular from Chile Chico to the main Carretera and from Puerto Río Tranquilo. Security concerns associated with hitchhiking seem non-existent along the Carretera.
The ferry crossings are the single biggest logistical hurdle in the entire region. After long-haul flights this is probably the most important element to arrange in advance.
Once organised, be sure to get to the ferry on time, and check the updated time at least one day before departure. A missed ferry can have dire consequences: detours via Argentina can add hundreds of kilometres to the journey and days of additional travel.