Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Transportation in Santiago and Chile

The Baquedano Metro station, the busiest in the Santiago
system, located at Plaza Italia
Chile has an excellent transportation infrastructure. Use it instead of renting a car and you'll save lots of money, waste only a little more time, and probably end up enjoying your travelling experiences more. Below are alternatives for getting around Chile in general with tips on getting around Santiago noted below that.

Getting Around Chile


Chile is a long and thin country. While in some places one can get from the sea to the border with Argentina in about three hours, it could take over a week to get from the border with Peru in the north to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego. Obviously flying is the quickest way to get from one place to the next over large distances, but South Americans in general, and Chileans are no different, tend to take buses instead due to their relative value over planes. Also, departure and arrival times make busing convenient as well. And let's be clear, the quality of buses in Chile blow North American and European buses out of the water. It's not even close, folks. For US$40 one can take an overnight bus from Santiago to Pucon and eat and sleep better than with a first class ticket on a plane. Yes, it's a nine-hour ride, but if it leaves at 11pm and arrives 8am and you slept in a seat better than a bed in a hostel then does it really matter? For some, it might, but trust me when I say that it is easy to get a good night's sleep on these buses and it will save a lot of money, too.

The most popular bus companies in Chile are Pullman Bus and Turbus. There are many other companies (such as AndesMar and Cruz del Sur, among others), and these other companies may offer better prices for only a slightly lower level of comfort, but be aware that this lower level of comfort may a big difference on a 30-hour trip from Santiago to Arica, for instance.

Landmark: The Entel Tower on the Alameda
Regarding which seat to buy, the type of seat varies according to the distance and the company. The names of the types of seats vary from company to company, but in general below are what you can expect to see:
  • Semi-cama: A standard seat, usually used for short distances. A lesser version of this may be called Classico on some buses and it usually has a slightly smaller reclination degree. Semi-cama seats are the same as a typical Greyhound seat in the US. They are the only types of seats you'll be able to buy for trips from Santiago to Valparaiso, for instance, which is only about an hour's ride. They improve in quality the longer the distance, however, so a Semi-cama seat on the six-hour ride from Santiago to La Serena may only be slightly better than those on the Valparaiso trip (maybe the difference between Classico and Semi-cama). However, a Semi-cama seat on the 24-hour trip to Buenos Aires will be much more comfortable than the one to Valparaiso. I know friends who have taken this seat to Buenos Aires and have said it was fine, but I wouldn't do it myself. I did take the Semi-cama seat from Santiago to La Serena, however, and was more than comfortable. A Semi-cama seat will be on the second level of a two-story bus.
  • Cama: These are the "Lazy-boys." Cama seats don't recline all the way into a bed, but they recline well enough to get comfortable (if you can take a nap in a Lazy-boy at home then you're good to go). They are also considerably wider than a Semi-cama seat. Most buses will put four or five seats to a row in the Semi-cama section upstairs and only three to a row in the Cama section downstairs. Cama seats also come with a meal and usually only have about nine people in the section (three rows of three) whereas the Semi-cama section upstairs may have as many as 40 people packed in. These are more commonly used for the shorter over-night stays. I took one from Santiago to Pucon and again from Osorno to Santiago and slept fine. 
  • Premium / Executivo: The "beds." These recline all the way and are great for those long trips that last over twenty hours. I've never taken a trip long enough to require one of these, but I know people who have and they say they are worth it. Thirty hours is a long time on a bus, so you might as well relax.
Shorter Trips:

Getting out into the countryside from the main towns isn't that difficult either, though one may need to ask a few questions to ensure one gets the proper bus. Microbuses run just about everywhere fairly frequently, even to the smallest towns three hours away where the nicer buses noted above may not go. And they are fairly cheap, too. Don't be surprised, however, to stand for three hours if you're going to a popular weekend destination if you get to the bus stop late. For instance, it may only cost US$6.00 to get from Santiago to Banos Morales in Cajon de Maipo, but if you get to the stop at 7:50 for the 8am bus then you'll likely not get a seat...and the final 90 minutes of the three-hour trip is on a bumpy dirt road (albeit the trip is damn worth it).

Still, unless you want more freedom, a car is not needed in Chile. Between the microbuses, taxis, and collectivos (more on these last two under the "Santiago" section), you should be able to get around easily, cheaply, and efficiently. Even if you don't know where to get off, just ask the driver in advance and (s)he'll stop there. All of these methods of transportation stop and pick up anywhere along the road (i.e. - not necessarily at bus stops only). Even the long-distance buses seem to stop and pick up passengers in the middle of nowhere, so don't worry too much if you're stranded. Something will come along.


Landmark: Cerro San Cristobal (without the virgin
Mary in view)
First the standard warning: Hitchhiking is generally not considered safe and should be avoided unless you are desperate or you really know what you're doing. Having said that, hitchhiking in Chile, particularly in the country (not really recommended in Santiago), is pretty safe, even if one doesn't speak Spanish. While knowing Spanish will certainly get you to where you need to go more effectively, people in the countryside are really friendly and willing to pick up travelers. I've hitched three times (twice on the same road on the same day) without issue each time. However, I really only recommend hitchhiking if you're desperate to get back into town by a certain hour and you're not sure when the next bus, taxi, or collectivo will come along.


Santiago is a metropolitan area of over six million people spread out over several municipalities and neighborhoods. While walking is easy to do once one knows the city, there are various transportation options available to get around more quickly. 

Firstly, it important to note the more important streets in Santiago. All the road noted below essentially intersect at Plaza Italia, where Santiago and Providencia meet. The major road named Bernard O'Higgins is never called that, even though all the street signs say Bernard O'Higgins on them. Instead, it is known as the Alameda, and it is the major thoroughfare in Santiago Centro. It runs east-west from Plaza Italia. Merced also runs east-west from Plaza Italia in the same direction as the Alameda, but they form a sort of triangle between them, so they aren't perfectly parallel. Merced follows Parque Forestal along the river. Providencia, which later splits in the city of Providencia, into both Providencia in one direction and September 11 in the other direction (not in memory of 2001), runs east-west on the other side of Plaza Italia along Parque Forestal from the Alameda, and Vicuna Mackenna runs north-south from Plaza Italia away from the river.

Landmark: The Movistar Building
as seen from Plaza Italia
One of the most frustrating things people will say to you when giving directions is to head north, south, east, or west. One would think this would be easy to do since the Andes to the east are so close and recognizable, but the problem is that Santiago has a lot of skyscrapers. Get the inconvenience? Yeah, what good is knowing where you are in relation to the mountains if you can't see them?

As of 2011, there are three main landmarks that I've picked out for knowing where you are. Another landmark, the to-be tallest building in the area currently being built in Providencia, should be added in a year or so once construction finishes. While there are many other landmarks (the Bayer Asperin sign on the Alameda, the Canon advertisement in Plaza Italia, Santa Lucia between Parque Forestal and the Alameda, the neon Claro sign near Plaza Italia, and La Moneda and the flag pole on the Alemeda, for instance), one of these three noted below are generally easy to spot from just about anywhere in the city.

The Entel Tower is the tall, thin, round communications tower with the neon signs just off the Alemeda. It kind of looks like the Space Needle in Seattle and the CN Tower in Toronto (not quite, but close enough). If you're near the tower then you're near La Moneda and just beyond the Centro area of Santiago heading toward Barrio Brasil.

The Movistar building is the tall, glass, modern building with a communications spike sticking out the top. It sits in Plaza Italia (near the Canon and Claro signs) and is next to the Baquedano subway stop (the busiest station in the Metro system). If you're standing below this tower then you are right between Providencia and Santiago. The main roads that surround it are Merced, the Alameda, and Providencia, and both Parque Forestal and Parque Bustamante are nearby.

Finally, Cerro San Cristobal is the tall hill with the statue of the virgin Mary on top in the neighborhood of Bella Vista, which is split between Providencia to the east and Recoleta to the west. While it may seem redundant to mention the Movistar building and Cristobal as separate landmarks due to their proximity to each other, Cristobal is actually much easier to see in certain parts of the city and vice-versa with the Movistar building in other parts.


Recharge your BIP Card here
(and your cell phone, too)
The BIP card is a small blue card that is required on all Transantiago buses. It can be used on the subway, too, and when used to transfer between the subway and buses, or between buses and other buses, within one hour, the transfer is free. The cost of the BIP is approximately US$2.50, and unfortunately that money does not go toward your travel. The good side is that many people do have spare BIP cards that they are often willing to give you for free.

BIP cards can be recharged in many different ways. The obvious place to recharge it is at a subway station either at the ticket booth or the automatic machines. You can recharge with cash or a credit card at either place. Alternatively, many small convenience stores around town can charge your card, too. Just look for the recharge BIP card signs in the windows. By the way, you can also often recharge your phones at these stores, too.


The Santiago Metro system is easy, cheap, and fast. It will get you to just about any of the major areas with little effort. A couple of things to note, however: 1) it is swelteringly hot in the summer, especially during rush hour when the subway is insanely packed; 2) there are different prices for different times of day (it costs more at rush hour, for instance) and; 3) the damn thing stops running at 11pm (seriously?!?!).

The good thing is that the maps are easy to use and the stops are well marked. They are also easy to find on the streets, too. Just look for the three red triangles that denote the entrances. One annoying thing about the residents of Santiago, however, is that they will crowd the doors, so be ready to push your way through to the doors as you near your stop. The word "permiso" combined with a polite push usually does the trick.

The subway systems accepts cash, credit card, and the BIP card.

A Transantiago Bus (BIP cards only)
There are generally two types of buses in and around Santiago: the microbuses and the Transantiago buses. The microbuses are more regional and generally take people from Santiago to the outskirts where the subway and the Transantiago buses don't go. The microbuses take cash only, but they aren't that expensive. They are also much older and adventurously rickety.

The Transantiago buses, on the other, only take the BIP card and DO NOT accept cash. A real bummer? Maybe, but not really. For one, the BIP card not only saves time by allowing the passengers to "beep"-and-go, but they allow for free transfers within an hour from bus to bus, bus to subway, and from the subway to the bus, so getting to where you need to go regardless of transportation method is pretty cheap (costing a bit more than US$1.00).

The buses run 24 hours, so it is worth it to get your hands on a BIP card, especially since the subway closes at 11pm and taxis like to take the "long way" around if one's Spanish isn't up to snuff.


A taxi, notice the yellow roof
Taxis are pretty easy to use in Santiago (and in Chile in general). They have yellow roofs, and they are the quickest mode of transportation because they can go anywhere. However, the downside is that they are obviously more expensive (though still cheap by North American and European standards). The other downside is that if you don't know where you're going exactly, and if they smell that, then they aren't the quickest method, if you catch my drift. Many a foreigner have taken the city tour, so watch out. If you know where you're going, however, don't be afraid to ask him to pull over. What you do after this is up to you. Some people refuse to pay. Others will pay. If you don't pay, and if the driver calls the Carabinero's (the police - green uniforms), then don't expect the police to necessarily side with you. Even still, you may be able to argue enough to just walk away without anyone chasing you down. Caution is obviously required, though.

Having said that, about the only thing dangerous regarding Chilean taxi drivers is that they like to rip you off. This is actually an unfortunate cultural element common in Chile in general; merchants generally think it is acceptable to charge foreigners more money because they think the foreigner can simply afford it, or at least that's the attitude. Otherwise, the people in Chile are very friendly and non-violent. I would be very surprised to hear that a person was ever mugged or held at knife or gunpoint by a taxi driver (this isn't Buenos Aires). Really, the only transgression will the be the extra street or two. Otherwise, they'll be very friendly and helpful.

A collectivo: notice the sign describing
the fixed route
Collectivos are a mix between buses and taxis. They are cars, but they follow fixed routes for a set price, and they are easily identifiable by their signs on the roof depicting the route they travel. The set price isn't always noted or published, however, so don't be surprised to pay a different price for the same trip on different days. Generally speaking, however, collectivos are a good method of transportation. They will stop and pick people up along the way (they may get crowded), but with a crowd of people in the car it is obviously much harder for them to charge you more. They are also much quicker than buses, particularly when heading out of the larger cities and towns to the smaller villages. It took me a while to trust taxis in Santiago, but collectivos were a different story. They are easy to use and I recommend using them if you know they will save you time.

Travel to and from the Airport

The taxis at the airport are notorious for raising the prices on foreigners. A reasonable taxi ride without the meter between the airport and Santiago is about US$24. With the meter it is actually about US$18, depending on where you're going, but again, if you make them turn on the meter then they're probably going to get that extra money by driving you around anyway, so pick your poison.

However, you'll find the taxi drivers there, despite being the most aggressive you've probably ever encountered, are actually really friendly. If you simply tell them you want to take the bus (or the "Blue Bus") then they'll happily show you where to pick it up. They may ask you a few more times in fluent English if you're sure you want the bus, but if you're polite they are actually really friendly and will show you the way without expecting a tip.

The Blue Blue, as it is known, is a very convenient and cheap way to travel between the airport and Santiago. It costs about US$3.00 and takes about 45 minutes, only about 20 minutes longer than a taxi at a fraction of the price. It picks up on the right-hand side of the departures area every 15 minutes or so. It stops at various stops along the way, but the first subway stop is Pajaritos on the way to Santiago. From there it stops at several subway stops along the way mostly on the Alameda until it stops for good at the Los Heroes subway stop and near the La Moneda subway stop. The Blue Bus takes cash only and does not take the BIP card.

If your flight is an early one, and since the Blue Bus doesn't start running until 6am, there is another option other than a taxi: TransVIP. TransVIP is one of those van / shuttle services that charges only about US$12 for a ride to the airport, and it runs 24 hours. You need to contact them (ask your hostel or hotel to make a reservation) and you may need to leave for the airport much earlier than you would have with the bus or a taxi (because they will drive around the city picking other passengers up, too), but for the price, it's a safe and reliable method of getting out to the airport. It's also much cheaper than a taxi.

So that's for getting around Chile and Santiago. Hopefully this helps. Be sure to click on the links for the Metro and the Transantiago buses. You'll find maps there as well as helpful route-finding features that allow you enter your start point and destination. Once you do that, the websites will tell you which bus and subway to take. It's pretty easy once you get the hang of it.

And if you're looking for maps, the airport, the tourism offices, and most hostels and hotels have excellent maps of Santiago. Outside the city, well, be prepared for a little adventure and to meet some really nice people.


  1. Wow! This is incredibly helpful! Muchas gracias for taking the time to write and post! We're taking a 3 month trip in Chile soon and have been fretting over the high cost of rental cars. This has certainly changed our views on using buses, etc., instead. Awesome information, thanks!

  2. Hey Geoff, sorry for the late response. Glad this helped you. Good luck in Chile. It's a great country.


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