Travelers checks are the safest way to carry money, since they’re refundable in case of loss or theft, but banks keep limited hours and in some remote areas they’re simply nonexistent. Because ATMs are open 24 hours, many visitors prefer this alternative, but the same problem holds for remote destinations.
International credit cards are widely accepted except again in remote areas, so it makes sense to carry Chilean cash and an emergency cash reserve in U.S. dollars, preferably hidden in an inconspicuous leg pouch or money belt (not the bulky kind that fits around the waist, which thieves or robbers easily recognize, but a zippered leather belt that looks like any other).
Chile’s currency is the peso (Ch$). Coins with denominations of Ch$5, Ch$10, and Ch$50 all display profiles of liberator Bernardo O’Higgins. Ch$100 coins issued by the former dictatorship, with the inscription “Libertad” (Freedom) breaking chains and the coup date of September 11, 1973, are still in circulation, but newer coins are gradually replacing them. The most recent contains an image of a Mapuche woman. The Ch$500 coin honors the late Cardinal Raúl Henríquez Silva, one of the country’s most beloved religious figures.
Banknotes come in values of Ch$1,000 (with a portrait of Ignacio Carrera Pinto), Ch$2,000 (Manuel Rodríguez), Ch$5,000 (Gabriela Mistral), Ch$10,000 (Arturo Prat), and Ch$20,000 (Andrés Bello).
In October 2006, rates for the U.S. dollar, the benchmark foreign currency, were around Ch$540. Rates tend to be higher in Santiago and lower in the regions, but this is less meaningful than it once was because of ATM access. There is no black market.
For the most up-to-date exchange rates, consult the business section of your daily newspaper or an online currency converter such as www.oanda.com; in Chile, the best source on exchange rate trends is the financial daily Estrategia.
Money can be changed at banks and casas de cambio (exchange houses), though not every bank cashes travelers checks. ATMs, universal except in a few remote areas, match the best bank rates and are accessible 24/7.
Before heading into the countryside, where many smaller villages do not even have banks, change enough money to get you to the next major town. At the same time, carry plenty of smaller bills—for a small shopkeeper with limited resources, changing a Ch$5,000 note may be impossible.
Travelers Checks and Refunds
Travelers checks are still the safest means of carrying money, though changing them at banks can be exasperating. Banks and cambios also pay lower rates for travelers checks than for cash.
For assistance in replacing lost or stolen American Express checks, contact its local representative, Turismo Cocha (Av. Bosque Norte 0430, Las Condes, Santiago, tel. 02/4641242). The Thomas Cook affiliate is Turismo Tajamar (Orrego Luco 023, Providencia, Santiago, tel. 02/2315112).
It’s fairly simple to send money from overseas because many exchange houses are affiliated with Western Union (www.westernunion.com), whose website lists Chilean affiliates.
In an emergency, it’s also possible to forward money to U.S. citizens via Santiago’s U.S. embassy by establishing a Department of State trust account through its Overseas Citizens Services, Washington, D.C. 20520, tel. 202/647-5225; there is a US$20 service charge for setting up the account. It is possible to arrange this as a wire or overnight mail transfer through Western Union (tel. 800/325-6000); for details see the Department of State’s website (www.travel.state.gov).
Credit and Debit Cards
Credit cards are widely accepted in the capital and major tourist centers but less so in the remote countryside. The mostly reliably used are Visa and MasterCard, though American Express is possible in some areas. Many banks provide cash advances on either Visa or MasterCard.
Services such as hotels, restaurants, and car rental agencies rarely, but occasionally, impose a recargo (surcharge) on credit card purchases; ask before paying.
For lost or stolen credit cards there are local contacts for Visa and MasterCard (tel. 02/6317003; Diner’s Club (tel. 02/2320000); and American Express (tel. 800/201022 toll-free).
By global standards, Chilean travel is moderately priced, but much depends on the traveler’s expectations and where in the country he or she goes. There are suitable services for everyone, from bare-bones budget backpackers to pampered international business travelers.
The countryside is cheaper than the cities, and truly disciplined travelers in rural areas might get away with as little as US$15 or less per day by staying in the cheapest basic accommodations, buying groceries and cooking for themselves, or eating market food. Public transportation is moderately priced, especially given the long distances on some routes, but the fact that Chile imports nearly all its oil makes the sector vulnerable to fluctuations.
In the capital, the cities, and main tourist areas, however, costs are higher. Budget travelers will find beds or bunks under US$10 per person scarce, though there are some excellent values for just a little more money. Hotels and resorts of international stature, such as the Hyatt and Sheraton chains, charge corresponding prices. Likewise, meals are a couple dollars or even less at the simplest comedores, but restaurants with sophisticated international cuisine can charge a lot more; even the latter, however, often serve moderately priced lunchtime specials.
Chile imposes an 18 percent impuesto de valor agregado (IVA, value added tax or VAT) on goods and services, though this is normally included in the advertised price; if in doubt, ask for clarification (¿Incluye los impuestos?). Most midrange to upscale hotels can legally discount IVA for foreign visitors who receive a factura de exportación (export receipt) along with their hotel bill.
In restaurants with table service, a 10 percent gratuity is customary, but in family-run comedores the practice is rare. Taxi drivers are customarily not tipped, but rounding off the fare to the next highest convenient number is appropriate. Where there is no meter, this is not an issue.
Bargaining is not the way of life that it is in some other countries, but in crafts markets the vendor may start at a higher price than he or she expects to receive—avoid insultingly low offers, or such a high offer that the vendor will think you a fool. Depending on your language and bargaining skills, you should achieve a compromise that satisfies everybody.
Student and Senior Discounts
Student discounts are few, and prices are so low for most services that it’s rarely worth arguing the point. In the case of foreign travel, though, students may be eligible for discount airfares. Senior discounts may be available for those over 60 years of age, but some providers grant these only to Chilean nationals and residents.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition