Car rental services are widely available in most large cities, but not in small towns. In general, a credit card, a valid driver’s licence and a passport, all issued to the same person, are required to rent a car. If your driving licence is not in Spanish, you will also need an International Driving Permit (IDP). Many car rental companies do not ask for an ID card, but it is a good idea to have one in case you run into the police. Rental prices in Santiago are very similar to those in the US, but prices in other cities can be much higher. If you wish to cross the borders of South America with a rental car (as part of a road trip), you will need to inform the rental company in advance, pay an additional fee and obtain additional documentation to prove that you are authorised by the company to drive its vehicles across the borders. Rental cars in South America are all fitted with hidden GPS transponders (even if there is no navigation system in the car), so the company will know if you are trying to take the vehicle out of the country without their knowledge or if you are driving too many kilometres a day (if your vehicle has a daily limit).
Car parks and traffic lanes are narrower than in the United States, so it makes sense to buy a small vehicle. However, like most Latin Americans, Chileans prefer vehicles with manual transmissions to save fuel. Therefore, the smallest vehicles available with automatic transmissions are usually standard sedans, which are also more expensive. North American drivers who can only drive automatic transmissions (and who also wish to carry mandatory and additional liability insurance, and reduce their personal liability for vehicle damage to zero) should be prepared to pay up to US$100 per day to rent such vehicles.
You must be able to present to the police, on request, certain important vehicle documents, such as the Permiso de Circulation (proof of payment of vehicle registration fees to the local jurisdiction where the vehicle is regularly parked) and proof of Chilean car insurance. The car rental company usually keeps these documents somewhere in the car. Avis Budget Group, for example, places them in a folder small enough to fit in the glove compartment. Make sure you know where these documents are so that if you encounter the police, you can immediately produce the vehicle documents as well as your passport, driver’s licence, IDP and rental agreement.
Traffic signs and markings
All road signs and markings are in Spanish only. They are an interesting mix of European and North American influences. The European influence is more evident in areas such as speed limit signs and graphic symbols, while the North American influence is more evident in areas such as warning signs (yellow and diamond-shaped) and fonts (Chile uses the FHWA font, which is standard in the US). Most road signs are self-explanatory, but some are not. If you cannot read or speak Spanish, you should take the time to memorise the meaning of the most common signs and markings so that you do not accidentally break traffic laws and attract the attention of the police.
As in European countries, but unlike most North and South American countries, white lines are used on Chilean roads to divide traffic going in the same direction and traffic going in the opposite direction. These are complemented by arrows on the ground and arrows on road signs.
Chile does not use the “DO NOT ENTER” sign used in English speaking countries. Instead, Chile uses the Latin American version: the international prohibition symbol (a red circle with a slash) above an arrow pointing straight up.
Chilean signs on ordinary roads are generally green. Signs on expressways (autopistas) are usually blue, except for signs at highway exits, which are usually (but not always) green.
Rules of the road
Speed limits are generally 60 km/h in cities, 100 km/h on interurban roads and some urban motorways, and 120 km/h on the best interurban roads. Dangerous stretches of road are often marked with lower speed limits, for example on hilltops, blind bends, tunnels, busy streets and narrow urban roads. The last two are usually marked at 30 km/h.
There is no such thing as a right turn on red, except for signs (which are rarely seen) that specifically allow you to turn right on red with caution after making an emergency stop.
Santiago and other cities have reversible lanes and roads. There are also bus lanes (also used by taxis) that private vehicles are not allowed to enter and which are monitored by photo and video. If you enter the bus lanes and drive straight for several blocks without turning or entering the regular lanes, don’t be surprised if the car rental company tells you that you have received a ticket.
As in many other countries, Chile uses priority or right-of-way signs whenever possible, and stop signs (“PARE”) only when absolutely necessary (usually because it is a blind intersection and someone has been killed there). If there are no visible signs or markings regulating the right of way and two vehicles enter an intersection at the same time, the vehicle coming from the right has the right of way.
Traffic lights are usually equipped with a timer without a detection loop, so you have to wait, even in the middle of the night. Unlike most Latin American countries, car theft is relatively rare, so running red lights and stop signs late at night is not tolerated by the police.
Chileans generally obey red lights, stop signs and other traffic control devices, and their driving behaviour is much more reasonable than in most Latin American countries. However, visitors from the US and Canada will still find driving more aggressive than at home. This is particularly evident when merging traffic, especially when several lanes have to merge to avoid road closures or accidents. Similarly, when parking, Chileans sometimes approach other vehicles slowly, following the European model, in order to squeeze into very tight spaces. As a result, many Chilean vehicles have chipped or scratched paint due to these close encounters.
Despite the high fines and the frequent use of radar guns, radar pictures and radar traps, speeding is very common. When driving on interurban roads, you often encounter the well-known German ‘autobahn’ problem, where you can drive in the right lane behind a truck or small car that barely reaches 80 km/h, and then have to wait patiently for the opportunity to move to the left lane, which is dominated by normal vehicles travelling at a maximum speed of 120 km/h, as well as by occasional speeders exceeding 140 km/h.
State of the roads
Chilean roads are generally excellent compared to most Latin American countries. Highways are almost always well maintained, paved, painted, signed and largely free of potholes, cracks, litter and debris. However, many older urban roads are in poor condition, and drivers must be vigilant to avoid cracks, depressions, run-off and potholes. Rural roads are also sometimes in poor condition; they are not paved to the same thickness as in other countries, and even slight deterioration can reveal the underlying soil layer.
In large cities, it is advisable to avoid the peak hours between 7 and 9 a.m. and between 5 and 8 p.m.
Since the early 20th century, Chile has relied on privatised toll concessions to build and maintain major highways. If you plan to drive through Chile, expect to pay a lot of tolls. Many toll concessions have increased their prices on major holidays and weekends. Tariffs (‘tarifas’) for all types of vehicles are always displayed on large signs in front of the toll booths, and if you miss the tariff sign, the tariff in force that day for standard cars is always displayed on a sign in front of each toll booth. Chilean highways generally use barrier toll booths at difficult to bypass locations (e.g. near steep mountain ranges and rivers) and do not use distance-based tolls followed by tickets.
If you are renting in Santiago, be aware that the city has implemented a mandatory electronic toll system (“TAG”) for the use of all privatized toll roads in the city; even the airport access road is a toll road. There are no toll booths on Santiago’s toll roads, only toll bridges, so driving on toll roads without a TAG transponder can result in a heavy fine. All car rental companies in Santiago are required to install TAG transponders in their vehicles and to include the TAG fee in their car rental rates. Once you have rented a car in Santiago, you should feel free to use Santiago’s toll roads (which can save you a lot of time), as you will have to pay for it.
Unfortunately, Chile has not yet imposed full automatic interoperability between TAG and the various Televia transponders used on interurban toll roads such as Route 68, which links Santiago to Valparaiso. There are now programs that allow users of transponders in one system to obtain temporary interoperability, but this access must be requested manually before each use and is very cumbersome. And many toll booths still do not accept credit cards. So if you rent in Santiago but plan to drive to other cities, you will need to get enough Chilean pesos to pay the tolls before leaving the city and go through the cash (“manual”) lanes at the toll booths. Similarly, if you rent a car in another Chilean city and drive to Santiago, you should study the city maps first and avoid toll booths that require a JOURNAL.
Many private car parks in Chile are similar to car parks around the world. You take a bar-coded ticket at the entrance, pay at a machine before returning to your vehicle, and then insert the ticket into a reader at the exit door. In Santiago, the car park dealer Saba uses orange RFID “ChipCoins” for the same purpose, as well as to control access to the car parks (so that only people who have already received ChipCoins when getting into the vehicle can enter the underground garages).
Otherwise, public parking on the streets and in some surface lots is more complicated because there are no parking meters in Chile. Instead, you will see signs indicating that a certain pavement (or car park) has been given to a certain person or business at certain times for so and so many pesos per 30 minutes. If you don’t see anyone, you can usually park there (unless the sign says you can’t), but if the concessionaire is there, they will print a receipt on a handheld device and stick it under your windscreen wiper so they know when you have arrived. You then pay the parking fee when you return.
In some public parking areas, even if there is no sign indicating that a particular street is paid for, you may see self-appointed car guards asking for tips to watch your car in your absence (and sometimes help you in and out of parking spaces). This is a racket (and quite annoying for people from places where car guards are not tolerated), but it is usually a good idea to cooperate; 500 CLP is usually more than enough to get their cooperation. You don’t usually see guards in private car parks, as private security guards patrol there and are paid by the parking fees.
Petrol in Chile is generally unleaded and available in 93, 95 and 97 octane. Diesel is also available at many service stations. Due to high taxes and the remoteness of the main oil fields, you can expect to pay 1.5 times the average US price for the same fuel in Chile (but still less than in most Western European countries). Self-service is illegal, so you’ll need to know enough Spanish to ask for the correct octane rating and tell the attendant on duty to fill up.