Stretching from the Peruvian border to Puerto Montt  and the Isla Grande de Chiloé , the Panamericana (Ruta 5) is Chile’s main transport artery, though the shorter and more scenic coastal Ruta 1 has superseded it between Iquique and Antofagasta. The Panamericana is entirely paved; from La Serena south to Puerto Montt , it is a four-lane divided highway. Even so, despite the presence of call boxes, rest areas, and peajes (toll booths), there are occasionally loose livestock, wandering pedestrians, and even vendors hawking items ranging from sweets and ice cream to fresh produce and cheese to dressed kid goat, ready for barbecue.
Many more roads are paved or smoothly graded, though the Aisén region’s Ruta 7, the Carretera Austral (Southern Highway), is often narrow, mostly gravel, and occasionally precarious (the author has wrecked two four-wheel-drive vehicles on it, with extenuating circumstances). Heavy truck traffic can make all these routes dangerous, but most Chileans are courteous and cautious drivers despite isolated Santiago road rage incidents. Watch for Argentine license plates, as many trans-Andean visitors drive far more aggressively.
Congested Santiago can be a madhouse, the routes out of the capital can be difficult for drivers without local experience, and there’s a complex toll system that penalizes drivers who stumble into it without electronic tags. It’s better to park the car, preferably in a guarded lot, and use public transport. Avoid leaving conspicuous valuables in the car.
In both the city and the countryside, watch for lomas de burro (speed bumps, also known as pacos acostados, sleeping policemen). Night driving is inadvisable in some rural areas, as domestic livestock and inebriated campesinos may roam freely.
Police checkpoints are less common than under the dictatorship, but always stop when the Carabineros police signal you to do so; this is usually a routine document check. Carabineros have been trained to refuse bribes, so don’t even think about offering one, which can get you in serious trouble; if you’ve committed an infracción (traffic violation), try to reason with them and you may get off unless your offense is flagrant or truly dangerous. Note that the slang term paco is widely considered an insult—never use it to a cop’s face.
Speed limits are generally around 100 kilometers per hour, but the maximum is 120 kilometers per hour on four-lane divided roads. Carabineros with radar guns are common sights along all highways.
In remote areas where gas stations are few, such as Aisén or the altiplano east of Arica and Iquique, carry additional fuel. Note that members of the American Automobile Association (AAA), Britain’s Automobile Association (AA), and other similar clubs are often eligible for limited roadside assistance and towing through the Automóvil Club de Chile (Acchi, Av. Andrés Bello 1863, Providencia, Santiago, tel. 02/4311000). It has affiliates in the larger cities.
Most South American countries have dispensed with the cumbersome Carnet de Passage en Douanes, which required depositing a large bond to import a motor vehicle. Officials at Chilean ports of arrival issue a 90- to 180-day Título de Importación Temporal de Vehículos on presentation of the title, registration, bill of lading, and your passport. There may be relatively small port charges (which grow if the vehicle has been stored more than a few days).
It’s not possible for the vehicle owner to leave the country without the vehicle except by transferring responsibility to a legal Chilean resident. Nor is it possible to sell a used vehicle except in the Zona Franca (duty-free zone) of either Iquique or Punta Arenas , where vehicles are so abundant that prices are depressed.
Some visitors obtain an International or Interamerican Driving Permit, available through the American Automobile Association (AAA) or its counterpart in your home country; these are normally valid for one calendar year from date of issue. Chilean police normally acknowledge other national or state drivers’ licenses, however.
Rental cars are widely available in Santiago and other major cities and tourist centers; rates start around US$29 per day or US$175 per week for the smallest vehicles and around US$46 per day or US$310 per week or up for twin-cab pickups. More expensive are four-wheel-drive vehicles, commonly referred to as doble tracción or cuatro por cuatro (usually written “4X4”). On the other hand, if shared among a group, they can be fairly reasonable.
Local agencies are usually cheaper than major international franchises, and monthly rates can be relative bargains. All car rentals pay 18 percent IVA. Taking a Chilean vehicle into Argentina involves additional paperwork and a surcharge, as well as supplementary insurance. Returning a vehicle to an office other than the one you rented from, which is impossible with the cheapest local companies, costs a hefty surcharge.
To rent a vehicle, you must have a valid driver’s license and a credit card, and be at least 25 years old. Rental insurance may not completely cover you against losses—there is almost always a substantial deductible (higher in case of serious damage, total destruction, or vehicle theft).
In Santiago, RVs ranging from camper pickups to fully equipped motor homes are available through Holiday Rent (Suecia 734, Providencia, tel. 02/2582000, fax 02/2324975, www.chile-travel.com/holiday.htm ).