Overlanding in Chile: dare2go Experience Over 14 Months
For Pan-American travellers, Chile is a popular country for overlanding. In most parts, you can easily find places to camp overnight. The country has well-developed infrastructure; it’s uncomplicated to find supplies, like vehicle spare parts; and it also has decent internet access.
South from around La Serena, Chile is fairly densely populated. Despite that, its main attractions are the various landscapes you will encounter. It’s also a favoured place for travellers to start their Pan-American overlanding trip in reverse, because it is relatively easy to buy a vehicle in Chile, and to fit it out.
Our Travels in Chile
Chile was the first country this trip, and we really explored it. We had visited parts of Chile’s north and south during our first visit in 2008/9, but at that time it was the end of our trip and this time it was at the beginning. This fact brings a completely different energy to overland travel.
First, Yasha taught English in Santiago for 10 months. She actually arrived in South America 2 months earlier than me and our truck Berta. I met up with her there, and spent parts of her contract time with her, in and around Santiago. But I also spent time out of the city, exploring nearby areas. Take all this into account, and our actual real travel time together comes to around 5 months.
When her work ended, we headed slowly south, exploring the coast and some inland areas, as far as the Lake District around Osorno. From there we crossed over into Argentina. This was our first of many border crossings into and out of Chile. Nearly every time we left, we thought it was the last, but somehow we kept finding ourselves back in Chile.
The shortest time we left for was 1 day – the longest, more than a year! Our final visit lasted only one night! We crossed from Peru in order to get a new visa and vehicle permit for that country. Driving into Arica for a day was the easiest solution.
The Sights in Chile
Compared with its neighbour, Peru to the North, it doesn’t offer many well-preserved historic sights of interest. Chile is more about nature! From the barren, yet colourful Atacama Desert around San Pedro to the countless glaciers covering many of its mountain peaks.
Surfers will find umpteen beaches with good breaks along the over 4,000 kilometres of coastline. Some tourists visit during the southern winter for Chile’s excellent ski slopes. The far south is characterised by large wilderness regions along the Carretera Austral, which we experienced overlanding in Chile in 2009. The most popular area in the south is the “Torres del Paine” National Park.
Road Conditions in Chile
Most roads, even secondary roads, in Chile are good. One thing we hated, with our wide overland truck, is that many secondary rural roads are really narrow. There aren’t any road reserves; all fences go right up to the road edge. Then people plant trees along the fence line and the branches of these jut far out into the road, making it difficult for taller vehicles to get through without damage.
Unpaved roads seem to be regularly maintained. In the Lake District we drove one, which was compacted with old engine oil (a dubious environmental solution); in the north, most dirt roads are hardened by spraying salt water on the surface and rolling them. You can drive these salt-hardened roads like any sealed surface, but remember to wash the undercarriage of your vehicle afterwards!
Streets in smaller towns are often very narrow, and not always suitable for wider vehicles. Parking is even more difficult, as almost every town has paid parking with attendants, who really aren’t willing to let you park anything bigger than an ordinary car.
Road tolls in Chile are expensive. If you’re driving anything larger than a smallish van, your vehicle is usually classified as a truck, and then it gets really expensive. For some inexplicable reason, small trucks often pay more than twice the rate of buses; our overland truck is actually smaller and lighter than any small 20-seat passenger bus, but I never had much luck arguing this point.
Wherever possible, we tried to avoid toll roads in Chile, although the going can then be really slow. In the far north and south there isn’t any alternative to Ruta 5 – so you have to pay. To find our way around ‘peajes’ (toll booths) we used the small map booklet, which can be bought cheaply at COPEC fuel stations. It’s a good little map – well worth looking for when overlanding in Chile.
Border Crossings into Chile
Many overlanders believe that Chile’s borders are difficult. We never really had this experience. Yes, they are usually thorough but, at the same time, reasonably efficient and organised – something we cannot say about all South American borders. We never had to unpack our camper, but inspectors came into it and usually opened the most obvious cupboards, and always the fridge.
The main issue when overlanding into Chile, will be carrying food across borders. Chile’s quarantine is strict – almost as bad as we’re used to from Australia. You cannot bring any fresh fruit and vegetables, no meat or sausages, and certainly no honey. We also heard of travellers who had bags of dog food confiscated.
But, on the other hand, I managed to bring milk products (butter, yoghurt, cheese) from Argentina on my various ‘visa runs’. During my second such ‘visa run’, the agricultural inspector explained to me that dairy products were okay as long as the original packaging wasn’t opened or damaged and had proper labelling, which showed that the product was made from pasteurised milk. My tip for those who think, like me, that cheese in Argentina is more tasty…
Shops & Services
In Santiago you can literally buy everything – except maybe a specific brand and model of a computer, camera (our experience), or other electronics. I even found a solar panel to replace a shattered one, for the same price I had paid in Germany a year before.
There are Supermarkets in every major town, often 2 or 3 competing chains. Jumbo is the most expensive, but it stocks many imported goods that foreigners like so much. Lider is Walmart-owned, so US-Americans will either love or hate it. Look out for wine specials in either Santa Isabel (sister company of Jumbo), Lider or Unimarc: 3 bottles for CLP 3990, CLP 6990, or CLP 9990 – they are usually worth it!
For anything fresh (fruit or vegetables, even bread, butter, and cheese), it’s worthwhile visiting the local markets . You can often save 50% or more!
Many fuel stations along major highways in Chile cater for truck drivers, so they are also good for travellers overlanding. They often have clean showers and good, free WiFi; one that we know of even has washing machines. Again, the above mentioned COPEC map booklet lists all these facilities. Fuel in larger cities is usually slightly more expensive than on the highways.
Overnight Places in Chile
The middle of Chile is probably the most difficult to find a place to camp wild. Let me define our idea of the middle: from around La Ligua, north of Santiago, down to Osorno in the south. Free camping is easier along the coast and the mountains than anywhere near Ruta 5. This is the main agricultural region of Chile, dominated by large wineries and farms. Most of Chile’s export crops are grown here, and the land is usually fenced in – right up to the road edge.
In Cachagua, on the coast, we were sent away by the village’s private security guards – within 5 minutes of arrival. Still, every day we managed to find somewhere to park for the night; occasionally not the most picturesque places, because Chile has the same problem with rubbish scattered in the country side as most of its neighbouring countries.
A second issue, we encountered a few too many times, at quiet looking beaches near towns, was that young people come to the beach, in the middle of the night, to continue their party after the nightclubs closed down. So unexpected loud music, and excessive drunk behaviour, might wake you up way after midnight.
On the other hand, Chile has many camping places. These are mostly for families camping in tents, and not necessarily suitable for any big overland camper or tall vehicles with a roof top tent. Some even have the parking away from the camping shelters, so you would have to carry all gear in.
You can find recommended overland camping spots on iOverlander or on our dare2go camping list , which we stopped updating (reason: everybody seems to be using iOverlander by now).
Safety in Chile
It’s sad to say, but Chile isn’t the safest country to travel in. We know of more overlanders, who have been robbed in this country, which appears so orderly and safe on the surface, than in any other countries. We weren’t robbed, but our worst experience overlanding also happened in Chile.
In Santiago and Valparaiso it can be pickpockets; along the beaches in the north, and many towns throughout the country, it’s people breaking into cars – often smashing the glass in the process. The most dangerous cities seem to be Antofagasta and Iquique. So be cautious!
There are some problems with the native Mapuches in the central and far south of Chile. The Mapuches feel cheated out of their land rights, so it frequently comes to violent demonstrations. We also drove through large wild fires – reportedly lit by the Mapuche people.
But, in contrast, you don’t have to deal with as much corruption as in other Latin American countries. We have never heard of anyone overlanding in Chile, who has been stopped by the police and asked for a bribe.
Country Specific Observations
Chile is one of the few countries where travel in RVs and the idea of overlanding is gaining real popularity. As a matter of fact, it is the only South-American country where you can legally sell a camper van or RV – providing it is registered as such (a special use vehicle). We travelled with an American truck camper on our first trip, which we advertised and sold in Chile. Our buyer still owns it, and uses it quite frequently; one year he drove it all the way to Ushuaia.
Because RVs aren’t an unusual sight in Chile, overlanding vehicles don’t attract as much attention as in countries further north; except, of course, by people who admire the lifestyle and want to know more about your journey.
Santiago seems to be one of the few places, where many overlanders arrive to buy a four-wheel-drive vehicle or a van and fit it out for a Pan-Americana trip. Prices for used vehicles are comparatively low and the bureaucratic hurdles are manageable, although regulations seem to change frequently. We don’t have personal experience of this, so we don’t have any detailed advice to give.
If you want to explore for a shorter period, like a few weeks, you can also rent camping vehicles in Chile. There are numerous companies renting them, from basic vans, like Wicked Campers from Australia, to small pick-up campers. Search the internet for offers, as we have noticed that some companies don’t stay in the market for long.
Chile is considered the ‘richest’ of all South American countries, and it shows in many ways. The life in the cities is quite sophisticated, as is the shopping. You don’t see many homeless people (only abandoned former pet dogs), and the police aren’t as corrupt as elsewhere.
For outdoor enthusiasts, the country has a lot to offer. In more remote areas (where outdoorsy people like to go) it’s normally easy to find a quiet and often picturesque place to camp for a night or two. We are sure you will enjoy your time, overlanding in Chile!
Read our individual posts about places in Chile .