Chile’s Pacific Coast, Atacama Desert and Altiplano [high plateau] are beautiful regions to explore independently. They offer plenty of possibilities for bush camping and independent travel gives the freedom to take in the views or sights wherever and whenever one wants. In order to explore the fabulous landscape of north Chile it is easiest to rent a car in Iquique or Arica. Following below are some tips for car rental requirements in Chile and for driving in north Chile.
Car Rental Requirements in Chile
Iquique and Arica both have a number of car rental agencies, small local ones as well as large, international ones. Whichever agency one chooses, these are some of the general requirements to rent a car in Chile and questions to ask before signing a contract:
Depending on agency, the minimum age for renting a car is between 22 and 25. Most of them demand a two-year-old driver’s license.
An international driver’s license may be required. Even if this is not the case, it is better to carry one to facilitate procedures in case of an accident.
Note that in general it is not allowed to cross the border into Peru and Bolivia.
Because of the vast distances ask about the options of a one-way rental, e.g. rent a car in Arica and drop it off in Iquique [or Antofagasta]. In general a one-way fee is charged, depending on distance and car model.
Check whether the car rental rate includes unlimited mileage.
Check the details of third party insurance and decide if additional insurance is desired.
Ask about the terms of payment [cash, pesos or US dollars, visa or MasterCard]. Note that prices may be quoted in US dollars and not in pesos!
Compare car rental agencies as to their support service in case of a breakdown or an accident; a workshop may be hundreds of miles away.
Most major agencies have a website that includes a page with frequently asked questions, specifics on their car rental, etc.
Specific Car Rental Tips for Northern Chile
The Atacama Desert is endless, and lifeless; the roads of the Altiplano wind along mountain slopes seemingly forever without any civilisation in sight. Of course this is the charm of off-roading and of independent travel. However, ending up there with a car problem is not exactly an attractive prospect, so when renting a car to visit these remote areas, pay special attention to the following aspects: When interested in off-road travel it is best to rent a 4WD or a camioneta.
Make sure the rental car is equipped with a spare tyre and the tools to change one. Also check for the presence of a first-aid kit.
Ask if they rent a gps and check overlanders’ websites for gps waypoints.
When the focus is on travelling the Altiplano, ask the car rental company to adjust the engine for driving at high altitudes.
Determine a route and calculate the kilometres. There are few petrol stations. At the time of writing there were only petrol stations in Iquique, Porto Almonte, Arica and Pica. It is easy to underestimate the distances [all those lovely winding roads, and don’t forget that the engine needs more fuel at high altitudes] and ending up without fuel may result in a long walk back.
The best times to travel the Altiplano are March-April and September-December. During the winter months [June-August] nights may be freezing cold, and during the summer months roads may be washed away due to rain. Having said that, a good preparation may help coping with these obstacles, of course.
Especially along the border, the CONAF [Forest Management] and carabineros [police] ask travellers to register when passing. They are connected by radio and are a good source of information on road conditions.
Always have a supply of drinking water and some snacks. In case of a breakdown stay near the car or follow the road. Note that especially the Atacama Desert is treacherous to walk through since there are no water points along the way.
For tips on off-roading in the Atacama Desert, check this article.
Car Rental in north Chile
The Tarapacá Region is fabulous and diverse. It’s a great region to explore by car which can easily be rented in Iquique or Arica. Be well prepared in terms of fuel, water and food because distances can be vast and deceptive.