How to get the most out of your campervan in Chile

We really love the freedom that you get from wildcamping especially when you have no time restrictions & no real set plans. So far we have campervanned through a few countries including NZ, Ireland & Iceland and for almost 3 months in early 2018 we did it again in Chile!

Freedom camping in Chile gave us much more opportunity to be spontaneous, especially in the far south of Patagonia and it saved us a lot on accommodation & transportation costs. It also enriched our travel experience so much more by reaching lesser known places, spending more time soaking up green places and bumping into locals, sometimes multiple times!

We chose a Renault Dokker (23,000 CLP/Day) as it provided enough space for us to lie comfortably (172cm), it easily fit all of our camping gear, it was very modern, fuel efficient & it was a diesel.

Driving in Chile
As Australians we never got an International Drivers Licence between either of us & the car rental company (Chileanrentacar had no worries about it. Even their FAQ on their website says you don’t need one. Our Australian Drivers Licences are fine so long as they’re not expired. We even got pulled over by the Carabiñeros/Police for random checks, & they had no problems with our licences.

Fuel prices aren’t cheap. We had a diesel car which was much cheaper than Unleaded fuel. Diesel costs ranged from CLP520/L in Santiago to over CLP700/L in the far north. You can expect unleaded to be at least CLP200/L more.

Also be aware of your surroundings at all times as drivers in Chile, particularly taxi & bus drivers are notorious for speeding and cutting people off. We never saw an accident but there were plenty of near misses.

When parking in cities during the day, especially Santiago, be aware of unofficial, self-appointed parking “staff”. They go to places where parking is already free & offer/force drivers to pay them to watch your car while it’s parked. What they do is illegal but you don’t want them as your enemy either. Usually when we saw unofficial parking officers we just drove away & found other free parking.

In bigger towns there are also official/legit parking staff too. They will print out a parking ticket and put it on your windscreen to track your time of arrival & departure.

Driving in Patagonia
If you are going to pass through Argentina to reach Punta Arenas, Chile you will need to tell your rental company in advance of picking up your van & pay for extra insurance to cover you for the Argentinian roads (150,000 CLP). We did not do this trip as it wasn’t in our budget, but maybe we will in the future.

Our main concern when choosing our rental car was whether we needed a 4WD higher clearance vehicle or if a 2WD slightly lower car would be ok. We ended up getting a Renault Dokker van (like a small tradies van).

Judging by the conditions we put the car through we were lucky to get away with only 5 flat tyres. We never felt unsafe or limited driving in our 2WD van except after we got stranded in the desert for 24 hours only 170kms from the nearest town.

Things you need before you go
Good Offline Phone apps recommended for this trip include:

  • Maps.Me (download all of Chile before you even arrive)
  • iOverlander (a free database of places other freedom campers have stayed & recommended)
  • Spanish.Dict (offline translator for single words or simple phrases)
  • WhatsApp (super popular in Chile & South America) & unlimited use is included in most prepaid plans
  • DuoLingo to practice before you arrive, but this doesn’t work offline without a premium account
  • Some people recommend a weather app if you’re planning on doing long multiple day hikes
  • You may also like a budgeting app like TraveePocket for keeping track of expenses as Chile is a very expensive country for backpackers

We would also recommend getting a local SIM/”Chip” for your mobile once you arrive. Companies recommended for best coverage were Movistar, Entel, but there are also cheaper options such as Claro, Virgin & WOM.

It might cost you CLP2000 to buy the chip then CLP7000 for a few GB of data but you should look for an option that provides unlimited social network use if you just want to be able to message family back home & have occasional internet access on the road. Expect network black spots as you head south or into mountain regions.

Activating your Chip may require a face-to-face office visit as online activation requires a RUT number (Chilean Identification number). You may wish to download the company app too.

Our favourite places to stop along the way

  • Cerro Castillo (CHP10,000/person) but it is possible to enter for free via a different trail marked on iOverlander, however a 4×4 is recommended for reaching the free entry point.
  • The drive from Puerto Tranquillo to Chile Chico, the detour is worth the access to cheap cherries (CHP1,500 for 2kgs) & stone fruit & it is very easy to access Argentina if you have the insurance.
  • Capilla de Marmól (CHP10,000/person) is a great day trip from Puerto Tranquillo by boat to see these amazing natural rock formations. There is also a kayak option for CHP45,000/person.
  • San Pedro de Atacama & its surrounding attractions is much easier & more affordable to explore with your own car/van. Calama is the closest big town & the best spot to rent a car if you don’t want to drive from Santiago.
  • The drive from San Pedro town to the multiple Geyser fields is dotted with incredible stops for those insta pics with views of countless volcanoes, vicuñas & even flamingos. Don’t drink alcohol if staying at altitude near the geysers unless you want the worst hangover ever. Note cars freeze here overnight.
  • Lagunas Baltinache (CHP5000/person), only 20kms from San Pedro for some Dead Sea-style floating in the middle of a salar (salt flat). This one’s an insta moment that will bring out the kid in you. Get there well before 3pm to beat tour bus crowds.
  • Sandboarding (dune climbing) independently at the San Pedro sand dunes (CHP3,000 for 6 hours of board hire & CHP2,000/person for entry). We rented 1 board between the 2 of us & had 10 runs each which was plenty.
  • Camping on Lago Cochrane 20 minutes from Cochrane city was one of our favourite spots & we had it all to ourselves.
  • Parque Pumalín is a magical wonderland of free day & some multi-day hiking trails. Expect volcanoes (some still smouldering), waterfalls, crystal clear streams, glaciers, ancient forest.
  • Villa O’Higgins, a.k.a the end of the road if you’re on a summer pilgrimage through the Carretera Austral.
  • Puerto Varas, by day you can frolic in the chilly waters of the lake & by night you can camp your van on the side of a volcano. A spectacular sunset spot.

Cash vs card
Before we headed south we took out heaps of cash as the further you get from the main cities the less useful your credit card will be. You also need cash for all road tolls (more details below), & heaps of small businesses only accept cash such as restaurants & corner shops. We found that we could only use EFTPOS for fuel, supermarkets & ferries.

Getting cash out is expensive & banks will charge you from CLP2500 – 6500 for using their ATM. Considering the maximum you can withdraw in one transaction is CLP200,000, you really want to minimise your bank fees if possible. We are with Citibank & our cheapest ATM option in Santiago was BICE (CLP2500) & the most expensive was Banco de Chile (CLP6500).

Roadtrip essentials

We found the following items were essential for the long drives required to get from one spot to another in Chile:

  • Cigarette Lighter Car charger for your electronics (obvious, but important), & maybe a portable charger/battery too
  • A good roadtrip playlist & some way of connecting phone with car speakers (e.g. blue-tooth)
  • Travel insurance as accidents happen & paying the gap (CLP300,000) is not cheap. Read everything & make sure car rental is covered
  • Wind/rain proof jacket, waterproof hiking boots. There are so many opportunities for hiking in Patagonia that you will likely be out of your car more than in it. Wind can be fierce & the ground can be super muddy
  • Swimmers. While chilly, there’s still good, sunny days to enjoy lovely streams, lakes & thermal springs
  • A good camera, we bought a new phone with a good camera specifically for this trip

Freedom Camping in Chile
For camping locations & free parking tips use the iOverlander app & read the comments. They will tell you whether to expect a Carabiñero drive by, or if it’s a “romantic destination for locals”. Sometimes Maps.Me will also help.

We found that freedom camping in a car is much more accepted than in a tent. We often witnessed tent campers being moved along or charged for camping. This is most likely because campervans are currently so uncommon & will probably change in the next few years. This was particularly evident in Parque Pumalín.

For free toilets between Santiago & Puerto Varas use Petrol Stations (especially the Copec ones with Pronto restaurants as they often have free wifi too). Also use Maps.Me to search for “Area de Servicios” or “Area de Descanso” on the highway & bookmark them. They have free toilets, showers (cold or hot), picnic tables, bins & sometimes a hot/cold water dispenser to fill your thermos.

Some supermarkets like Lider also have customer toilets available. Some popular national parks have bathrooms for free, but usually it’s BYO paper. After Puerto Varas some fuel stations (incl. Copec) charge customers CLP500 to use banos.

Copec fuel stations between Santiago & Puerto Varas (the ones with Pronto restaurants) often have nice, modern hot shower facilities available for CLP800, and there’s also a freebie shower inside their girls bathrooms but it’s cold water only.

For free water we used just about anything unless it specifically said not-potable. In the south we drank from streams & lakes. We drank tap water in cities south of Santiago & so did the locals. This did not apply in the north & boiling water or purification tablets were essential or cheap vino.

Road tolls of Chile
Road tolls are abundant on highway 5 & between Santiago & Puerto Montt we paid a total of about CLP25,000 in cash. Hold onto your receipts as some have barcodes you need to scan in case you want to use your 1x “free” daily lateral exit, instead of paying the CLP600 fee.

Within Santiago on the Autopistas we did not need to pay these tolls as our rental company had installed a sensor on the dashboard which automatically got charged & we had a CLP2000 daily toll inclusion covered in our rental contract. Check your rental contract or just ask before finalising your payment.

North of Santiago the road tolls get more expensive (CLP7000 to use the tunnel), but there are side roads of varying quality that can be used to by pass them. Even when dodging as many as possible we still had to pay at least CLP25,000 in cash. Maps.Me usually has toll roads marked so you can do your best to avoid them.

Where to buy your camping gear
Chileans love the outdoors & camping so finding any camping equipment you need is much easier than you think. Doite stores, some Lider supermarkets, almost any shop in the super touristy town of Pucon, big department stores in Santiago all stock camping equipment. We borrowed most of our equipment & essentially only needed gas. However, Doite brand seemed to be the most popular throughout patagonia.

We stocked up (12 cans over 70 days) in Santiago, Pucon & Antofagasta. Price is CLP990/ 227g can no matter where we looked. Brands we have used include Doite & Providus+, Doite being the the better option.

The essential ferries of Patagonia
The Carratera Austral can only go so far, eventually you are going to have to take a ferry. There are two options for going South from Puerto Varas. Option 1 is to pass through Puerto Montt, then you will inevitably take some ferries from Caleta La Arena to Caleta Puelche, Hornopierèn to Raul Marin Balmacede.

The first ferry from Caleta La Arena is CLP9800/car, departs every 15mins & the ride is about 30mins. Look out for some penguins or seals swimming in the water.

The second ferry from Hornopirèn is about 5hrs & more expensive (CLP39,200/car). You are also supposed to pay extra for passengers, but sneaking somebody on is also possible we have been told. This ferry was very popular & we were not able to book at the Hornopirèn office the day before our crossing, instead we spent a good 2 days exploring the surrounding areas of Hornopirèn, which included hiking to glaciers & swimming in crystal blue streams.

It is possible to reserve online using the Transporte Austral Ferry website where you can pay & make your reservation at least a few days in advance. They usually run two ferries daily, but during our time in Chile only one was running at 12noon as their other boat was assisting further south due to road closures near Chaiten due to a landslide/flooding.

Start queuing for this ferry by 11am as cars start boarding the ferry by 10:45am & the ferry waits for nobody!

Due to the road closures around Chaiten, Transporte Austral was providing a free ferry from Chaiten to Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda. Email the company or ask at the office if this still exists when you visit.

Option 2 is to drive through Ensenada, Ladrillos, Ralún, Cululir, avoiding the first ferry, but essentially you will still take some ferries when the road ends.

Ferries to & from Chiloe also need preplanning/booking. Seek out the website for Naviera Austral It’s a different company than the other ferries & is much more expensive. From Chaiten to Quellon the ferry cost 84,000CLP/car + cost of passengers.

There is also an option available to get to Punta Arenas by ferry, however it is a long trip and cost over CLP150,000/car + passengers. It is cheaper to buy the extra insurance to cross into Argentina by car.

Camping groceries & eats
Getting your grocery list right is essential as eating out in Chile is expensive. Some innercity Santiago supermarkets neglect to stock cheap brand essentials (e.g. Tottus). Other shops seemed to offer greater price ranges for basic non perishables such as pasta & rice (Lider, ProviMart, UniMarc).

Fruit & veg are always cheaper from roadside stalls, but it means using your precious cash instead of credit card. Shopping in central Santiago is also more expensive than just outside of the city in smaller towns like Limache or Til Til.

Wherever you go you will always be able to find roadside stalls selling empanadas, completos, onces (pan amasado w/ ham, cheese, maybe avo).

In Chile you can get deliciously rich red wine (Camenere, Sav Blanc or Merlot) for very cheap (CLP2000/ 1.5L).

Our staples were pasta, tuna, parmesan, pasta sauces, oats, pancake mix, eggs, chorizo, marraqueta bread rolls, rice, stock cubes, oil, powder soup packets, hot choc, crackers/saltines, powdered milk, & instant mash potato.

Typical one pot dishes we made regularly included pasta, paella, porridge, creamed rice, shakshuka, eggs & choripan.

For us we found the best fruit/Veggies that kept ok without a fridge were tomato, zucchini, cucumber, banana, avo, orange, onion & carrot.

Unusual rules/customs in Chile
Chile seemed pretty lenient about freedom camping in a car compared to other countries. We were never approached by any police or authorities & weren’t overly discreet either. Sometimes police just drove in to check popular areas but soon moved on.

You cannot drink & drive in Chile, it’s zero tolerance, so ensure your camping spot is suitable before you crack open that wonderfully cheap bottle of vino.

You cannot smoke & drive simultaneously. Although nearly every taxi seems to get away with it but is still probably not worth the risk.

Every passenger needs a seat-belt & the maximum speed on highways is 120km/hr.

Most national parks request visitors to avoid making fires, but you will soon witness the local obsession with “Choripan”. Rangers prefer you use your Cocinilla gas stove.

We have seen every one of these rules being breached by locals, but we didn’t risk it… except for when we picked up hitchhikers. There aren’t many police in Patagonia to check the back of your van.

Service stations have attendants & there is no self service. Only tip (CLP100) if you want your window cleaned.

Supermarkets have bagging staff. Tipping small change is customary depending on how much you spent. You can also request no bag or to do it yourself.

Restaurant tipping is 10% & usually included in the bill.

Chile was an extremely easy & safe country to rent a campervan & freedom camp as we wanted. We enjoyed it so much that we extended our rental twice during our visit. We had very few issues during our 12000km of driving & would not hesitate to rent with Chilerentacar again.

If you really want to experience a different side of Chile a campervan is your best option not only for freedom but also for the opportunity it gives you to meet locals & understand Chilean culture.

For more photos from our time in Chile check out our Instagram page.

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