Chile's seasons are the reverse of the northern hemisphere, so go in the northern hemisphere winter for Chile's summer. However, be warned that mid-December to the end of February is also Chile's peak holiday season, so prices increase and accommodation gets booked up in advance.
The Atacama Desert is hot all year round, though the northern altiplano tends to see afternoon rain in the summer months.
Santiago and the Central Valley have an almost European climate, with warm, dry summers (November-April) and cool, wet winters (May-August). Go in spring (September-November) for the most verdant landscapes, or during the grape harvest (late February into April). Visit from June to August for skiing.
The Lake District is best from December to mid-March, when the sun is more likely to shine (although rain is still common) and temperatures are higher. Go in November/early December or March to avoid the main holiday crowds and the horseflies. Out of season many facilities are closed, although winter sports are increasingly featuring in the area.
The island of Chiloé has its own climate (rain for much of the year!). If you can, visit in February/March, when many towns and villages celebrate their annual fiestas and visitors can enjoy traditional foods like curanto, plus various sporting events and dancing.
Patagonia is best from December to March. The area south of Puerto Montt, including the Torres del Paine, has extreme winters, so avoid June-August. Spring is spectacular, as the mountains re-emerge from the winter freeze and the hillsides are ablaze with wildflowers.
HOLIDAYS / FESTIVALS
January 1 New Year’s Day. New Year's Eve is much 'bigger' than Christmas. Santiago and Valparaíso have impressive firework displays
March/April Semana Santa (Holy Week; the week before Easter, so exact dates vary)
May 1 Labour Day
May 21 Glorias Navales (or Navy Day), commemorating the Battle of Iquique
May 30 Corpus Christie
June 29 St Peter and St Paul’s day
August 15 Assumption
1st Monday in September Day of National Unity
September 18 National Independence Day - a very important holiday (everything closes!)
September 19 Armed Forces Day
October 12 Columbus Day
November 1 All Saints’ Day
December 8 Immaculate Conception
December 25 Christmas Day. The (rather muted) celebrations take place on the night of the 24th
Each village and town also has its yearly 'founder's day'. Celebrations usually include huge barbecues and dancing.
Note: flight, boat, train and bus timetables change constantly, and airlines come and go, so please do not rely solely on this information for your travel planning. Check with relevant companies, or a flight search engine like Skyscanner, first.
Santiago's Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International (SCL), 26km northwest of the city centre, is Chile's main air hub.
From the UK:
Currently there are no direct services to Chile from the UK, although British Airways will fly from London Heathrow to Santiago from January 2017. In the meantime, you'll need to go via a European city (see below), or via Buenos Aires in Argentina or São Paulo in Brazil.
From elsewhere in Europe:
LAN flies from Madrid daily, as well as from Frankfurt.
Iberia also flies from Madrid to Santiago daily, with connections from London.
Air France flies from Paris to Santiago, also with connecting flights from the UK.
Lufthansa flies from Frankfurt to Santiago via São Paulo.
KLM has services from Amsterdam, often with a stop in Buenos Aires.
From North America:
American Airlines and LAN fly daily from Miami, either direct or via Lima. The latter also offers services from New York and Los Angeles. From Canada, there are flights from Toronto (direct) or Vancouver (connect at one of the above US hubs) with LAN and Air Canada.
From Australia and New Zealand:
There are direct flights from Auckland and Sydney with LAN; Qantas also has services from Sydney, with connecting flights from other Australian cities. Other options from Australia include Aerolineas Argentinas (from Sydney, via Buenos Aires). Stopovers in Easter Island are also often a possibility when flying to Chile, but invariably carry a surcharge.
From other Latin American countries:
LAN has services to Santiago from most Latin American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay and Mexico.
From the Airport:
There are buses into the city centre, with the city’s 4 main bus terminals all located on Avenida O’Higgins, the main thoroughfare. These in turn are within relatively easy distance of metro line 1. If you take a taxi it's worth buying a voucher from the counters in the arrivals hall to avoid getting ripped off.
For sheer flexibility, car hire is probably unbeatable, but distances between regions can be huge, rural roads often in poor condition, and rental charges high. See our car rental recommendations. If driving off the main highways, a 4x4 is recommended.
Always check the insurance, in particular for third-party insurance. Additional cover is advisable, and be aware that most prices do not include VAT. When driving make sure you have at hand your passport, an international driving licence (obtained before you leave home) and all the documents issued by the hire company. One-way rentals are usually very expensive.
Due to Chile's length, internal flights are strongly recommended if you have limited time and plan to see more than one region.
There are several LAN flights daily from Santiago to Chile's other major towns and cities, including about 5 a day to Temuco and Puerto Montt (Lake District), daily to Punta Arenas (for Torres del Paine, some via Puerto Montt), to Puerto Natales (for more direct flights to Torres del Paine) and about 5 a day to Calama (near San Pedro and the Atacama Desert). LAN also flies from Santiago to the island of Chiloé, with a brief stop in Puerto Montt.
If you plan to take several internal flights consider buying a LAN Airpass. The pass can only be purchased abroad, so buy it in conjunction with your ticket to Chile - if you fly internationally on LAN, Iberia, British Airways or American Airlines you'll get a discount. You have to purchase a minimum of 3 coupons; the maximum allowed is 6. The coupons don't guarantee you a seat, so be sure to book well in advance for any internal flights you require (dates can be changed later without penalty). If you plan to take only 2 flights it normally works out cheaper to buy individual tickets.
Sky Airline also operates regular scheduled domestic services to Antofagasta, Arica, Concepción, Iquique, Puerto Montt, Balmaceda (Coyhaique), Puerto Natales (Patagonia) and Punta Arenas.
Long-distance buses operated by the likes of Tur Bus are frequent, punctual, comfortable and cheap (although as with all coaches avoid the seats near the loos, and take toilet paper with you!). There's usually no problem getting a seat, except on holidays; just go to the applicable terminal and buy an allocated ticket. Being able to speak some Spanish makes life easier. Bicycles can be taken for a small fee. For overnight trips, it's worth booking at least a semi-sleeper (semi cama) service. On full sleeper (cama completa) services you get flat-bed seats and are sometimes served a nightcap - we enjoyed several pisco sours!
The fragmented nature of southern Chile's Patagonia region makes going by ferry/air essential in many parts. There are 3 main routes:
Puerto Montt-Puerto Natales-Puerto Montt
If you plan to go to Torres del Paine in the far south, the best way to get there (if you have the time and money) is to take the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales, or catch a bus/plane down and then take the ferry back. It takes 3 nights/4 days. Buses operate from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine National Park. The journey is spectacular, passing fjords, glaciers and untouched islands, though weather conditions can often be foggy. If going in summer (December-March) you'll need to book well in advance.
Puerto Montt-Chaitén-Quellón-Chaitén-Puerto Montt
Navimag sails from Chaitén in northern Patagonia to Quellón on the island of Chiloé (summer only; a sailing time of 5 hours), and from Chaitén to Puerto Montt and vice versa once a week. Naviera Austral also operates a passenger ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaitén (via Ayacara).
Puerto Montt-Puerto Chacabuco-Laguna San Rafael-Puerto Montt
Ideal for those wishing to see the beautiful glacier at Laguna San Rafael, Navimag's round trip takes 5 days/4 nights (shorter trips can be taken from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco). Skorpios operates more deluxe 6-night round trips to the Laguna from Puerto Montt, and 4-night trips from Puerto Chacabuco.
Taxis operate in all major towns and cities. Black taxis with yellow roofs can be flagged down in the street, and all run on meters. They're more expensive after 9pm and on Sundays. Collective taxis (colectivos) have a fixed route and carry up to 5 passengers. The fare is displayed on the windshield. Tourist taxis are blue, don't run on a meter and are more expensive. Tips aren't generally expected. If using taxis for a long journey out of the city, agree a fare before departing.
British and US citizens don't require a visa to enter Chile, only a passport valid for at least 6 months and (in theory, although rarely requested) an onward ticket.
Upon arrival you'll be issued with a tourist card, which must be retained throughout your stay, and an entry stamp, valid for 90 days (and renewable at certain outlets, or by a quick trip across the Argentine border). For certain nationalities an entry fee applies; consult your Chilean embassy or consulate for details.
Citizens of New Zealand, Guyana, Kuwait and some communist, former communist and African countries do need a visa, and are likely to be turned away at the border without one. It's worth checking with the Chilean consul in your country before departing.
Dollars are without a doubt the preferred option throughout the country. If changing cash in Chile, try to do it in Santiago, where the exchange rate is more favourable than in rural areas, commissions are lower (if at all), and European currencies more likely to be accepted.
Note that VAT (currently 19%) isn't applied to hotel bills paid by tourists using dollars or credit card; it's only payable by local residents paying in pesos. Where not packaged together with the accommodation, VAT may also be payable on excursions, car hire and meal costs.
TIPPING / CUSTOMS
Approximately 10% in restaurants is the norm. Tipping in taxis isn't usual, but always welcome.