Santiago may have been chosen by The New York Times as the top international destination for 2011, but it’s also only the beginning of what there is to explore in Chile. Within two hours of the city center you can reach the high mountains and the coast, pastoral vineyards and the ‘Jewel of the Pacific’, Valparaíso. Farther afield you can reach lush, temperate rainforests, volcanoes and lakes, or deserts, lunar landscapes and deserted beaches—if you know how to make use of Chile’s bus system, that is. Below we offer a handful of tips on how to get out of Santiago by bus.
It can be difficult for foreigners to buy their bus tickets online with many of the many major bus companies as they require RUT numbers (a Chilean identification number). While other systems within Chile allow non-natives to use passport numbers, bus websites rarely do. Nevertheless, checking online schedules for major carriers like TurBus and Pullman can give you a better idea of costs, schedules and departure terminals.
2-Pick a company
Chile has a huge number of bus companies, and though there is variance between carriers, most of them are in fact owned by the same handful of operators. While buying your tickets—something you will likely do in person anyway—you can wander through the station to see what sort of fleet different companies run. While shopping around for prices, don’t hesitate to try what appears to be a slightly smaller company. That said, when in doubt know that major buslines like TurBus, Pullman and JAC are always a safe bet.
3-Pick a station
Possibly the most difficult thing about getting out of Santiago is figuring out where to do it. The city’s four major bus terminals never cease to be vexing so be sure to double check on your departure location. Here is an overview of common departure points for popular tourist destinations:
For the South, including the Lakes District, surf town Pichilemu, adventure center Pucón and Puerto Montt (for access to Chiloé and Patagonia), you’ll need Terminal Santiago or Terminal Alameda. Terminal Santiago is also known as Estación Central, and can be found at the Line 1 Metro stop of the same name. Terminal Alameda is nearby and located at the Universidad de Santiago Metro station, also on Line 1. Alameda is also the primary base for Chile’s largest bus companies: TurBus and Pullman.
For the North, including the altiplano, the Atacama, La Serena and the Elqui Valley, buses usually go from Terminal Alameda, San Borja or Los Heroes. Technically a separate station, San Borja is essentially part of Terminal Santiago. Arrive there on the same Metro and follow the signs through the large mall and up the escalators to where the buses and ticket offices are. Los Heroes is a small station near the Los Heroes stop on the Metro Line 1. From the Metro, walk back east (toward the mountains) along Alameda and turn left on Tucapel Jiménez.
There are a handful of other smaller terminals scattered around the city, but for most destinations these will be the most useful.
4-Buy your tickets
As mentioned above, it can be difficult to buy your tickets online, which leaves little choice but to buy them in person. It’s easiest to do this ahead of time by showing up at Terminal San Borja, where most bus lines have offices. To buy tickets on TurBus or Pullman, the two largest companies, go to the many ticket windows at Terminal Alameda. Going ahead allows you to shop around for the best price and most convenient time. When you purchase your ticket you will be told from which station your bus leaves.
5-Picking a bus
There are three types of seat you are likely to encounter when choosing your ticket: ‘Clásico’, ‘Semi-Cama’ and ‘Cama’, which translate as ‘Classic,’ ‘Semi-bed’ and ‘Bed.’ The first of these is a standard bus seat, and perfectly comfortable for any shorter bus ride-similar to a seat on a plane, though they recline somewhat less.
For longer bus trips, and particularly overnight journeys, ‘Semi-Cama’ is a better choice. These seats recline about 45 degrees and include footrests that flip up. Semi-Cama buses will mostly be two-deckers. ‘Cama’ frequently costs twice as much as ‘Semi-Cama’ service and buys a seat that reclines fully, a pillow and blanket. If you’re hoping for a full night’s sleep this may be worth it, but for most people, ‘Semi-Cama’ is more than sufficient.
6-What to expect
The roads in Chile are modern, well-policed and in good condition, making Chilean bus journeys some of the most secure you’ll encounter in Latin America – or indeed anywhere in the world.
The buses themselves are generally new, comfortable and well maintained. Still, even the longest trips offer little in the way of services. You may be given a small snack in the morning (consisting of a pack of cookies and some extraordinarily sweet fruit drink), but generally you should plan to supply your own sustenance. For long haul buses—and in a country this long, a great many of them are—you should plan to bring plenty of snacks and water on board to get through the night.
When choosing a departure time, it’s best to avoid Friday evenings, particularly in the summer, or over long weekends, when Santiaguinos flee to the countryside. Many locations farther afield (anything from six hours on up to the 30-plus hour trip north to Arica) are best reached by overnight bus, allowing a solid night’s sleep through 13 otherwise-tedious hours.
Lastly, despite the fact that Chileans tend to be very relaxed about time and punctuality (to put it generously) most buses tend to leave exactly on time, so don’t take for granted that Chilean Standard Time will work in your favor. Plan to arrive at least 15 minutes before your scheduled departure.
7-The border hop
If heading for the Argentine city of Mendoza over the border, your bus will probably leave from Terminal Santiago (though some also leave from Los Heroes). Buses leave throughout the day, but avoid long customs delays at the border you may want to take the earliest bus possible. Also, when possible aim for the mini-buses that make the trip rather than the full-size carriers. They may look slightly less luxurious, but with fewer people passing inspection, they will also make it across the border much faster.
8-When buses won’t do
Though buses are a great way to get around the majority of Chile, some destinations may prove too far if time is a concern, while some in the far south actually cannot be reached directly by bus. For internal flights, to destinations like Arica in the far north, or Punta Arenas in the far south (cut off from road traffic by the 9 million acres of Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins), check LAN, or for a budget option, Sky Airlines.