The Beginner’s Guide To Backpacking In Chile

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Everything you need to know about backpacking in Chile, including costs, itineraries and places to visit.

By Christopher Michel (Torres del Paine National Park) [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

It might have been voted South America’s leading adventure travel destination for the past two years running in the World Travel Awards, but few travellers actually make it to Chile.

One of the biggest barriers to backpacking in Chile is the price tag; there’s no escaping the fact that it’s one of the most expensive countries to visit in the continent, leading many budget-conscious travellers to head to other destinations.

But with attractions ranging from volcano-laced desert plateaus in the far north to hiking in world-famous national parks and even hitchhiking through barely-habited lands in Patagonia, Chile is the soul mate of anyone seeking an adventure (so much so that I’ve written a whole post about why it shouldn’t be missed off your adventure travel itinerary).

Backpacking In Chile

Unlike in many of its neighbouring countries, backpacking in Chile is relatively straightforward, thanks to a well-developed (and fairly reliable) system of buses, modern facilities and a greater proportion of English-speakers, particularly in cities around the capital.

Bear in mind that Chile is a crazily long country with over 4,000 km of coastline and distances between destinations are far and often involve either an overnight bus or a short flight.

But those who travel the length and breadth of this (albeit very skinny) land are rewarded with incredible natural places and unique and unforgettable adventures.

General Advice For Backpacking In Chile

Languages

  • Like most of the rest of South America, Spanish is the official language and while you’ll likely encounter English speakers in Santiago, knowing at least the basics of Spanish is essential.
  • That said, the Chileans are renowned for having the most difficult Spanish to understand in all of South America, littered as it is with slang phrases such as ¿cachai? (get it?), ¿cómo estai? (how are you?) and a liberal use of po (yeh?) at the end of every sentence.
  • Further south of the capital and into Patagonia you’ll meet few people with more than a basic grasp of English, so take a good phrasebook or spend time studying before you go.

Staying Healthy

  • Tap water in most places in Chile is safe to drink, just double check with your hostel before you do.
  • I’ve personally not been ill in eight months of living in Chile (which has been a real treat after my bout of salmonella in Bolivia). Street food and restaurants generally have better levels of hygiene than in other South American countries, but always choose a stall or a restaurant with plenty of other customers as your best guarantee against getting sick.

Food And Accommodation

  • Food is expensive in Chile, even if you decide to self-cater. In the capital, groceries in supermarkets cost as much as in Europe or the US and traditional markets are few and far between. In small towns and cities, you’re more likely to find markets where fruit and vegetables can be bought for a cheaper price.
  • Expect to pay between 5.000 CLP and 8.000 CLP for a main meal in a restaurant, with prices around 20% higher in Patagonia. (Note: As of February 2017 US$1 = 640 CLP)
  • You can also get street food, such as empanadas – pastry casings filled with meat and potatoes (empanadas de pino), cheese (empanada de queso) or seafood (empanada de mariscos) 
  • Accommodation prices range from between 6.000 CLP and 15.000 CLP for a bed in a hostel dorm. Luckily, hostels normally do have fully-equipped kitchens.
  • It’s not uncommon to find hospedajesalojamientos and cabañas in more rural parts of Chile. Hospedajes and alojamientos are family homes that rent out private bedrooms at a lower fee than most hostels. Cabañas are small cabins, often with space for between four and six people and with a kitchen and facilities included. These are very cheap if you are sharing with a group of people.
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