The sight of all those steep hills that Valparaiso is built on is rather daunting - but climbing up is not a problem. There are 15 ascensores dotted around the city - some have been operating since the 1880s and all are at least 50 years old. How many thousands and thousands of times must the little cars made the journey up and down those steep tracks? Do take a ride on at least two or three - the views from the top are fantastic, and the funiculars themselves are so quirky. You'll see signs pointing to the terminii that are mostly tucked away in back streets. It only costs a few cents for each ride. You can come down in the ascensores (do they become decensores then?), usually for a few pesos less than going up, but finding your way down the steep stairways and narrow alleys is fun too and can lead you to some really interesting spots - we found the studio of an artist and her glass-worker husband quite accidentally that way, and ended up buying a painting.
A great way to get a good look at the hills of Valaparaiso is to hop on the green "O" bus and ride it all the way to the end of the route at Vina del Mar and back into town. It costs next to nothing and takes you for miles all around the city, way away from the centre.
If you are planning on renting a car and driving around Santiago, be aware that the direction of traffic on a street can change throughout the day. In the morning, it may be going towards the center of Santiago, mid-day it could be a two-way street, and evening going away from the center. Make sure you are aware of things like this and what time it is.
It is not necessary to rent a car if you are just going to be going around Santiago. There is plenty of public transportation that it would be more a hastle than helpful.
The two best and cheapest ways to get around Santiago are to use either the Metro or the Micros (buses).
The Metro: easier to understand, cleaner and safer, it is definitely the way to travel to feel comfortable.
The Micros: confusing (although they will be more streamlines starting in 2006) and a bit scary, the micros are the best way to get oriented to the city. Just make sure you pay attention. Especially later at night, sit as close to the driver as possible and on the aisle side to avoid dangerous situations, try to get your money ready ahead of time (350 pesos), HOLD ON!! and pay attention to where you're going. If you're in doubt, ask the driver, they are usually very nice about telling you if this is the right bus for where you're going and also notifying you once the bus is at your stop.
I would recommend using the micros as much as possible, when you have the time to figure them out and soon enough you will be more than comfortable with the city.
The main roads are all in a very good state of repair and you can drive to most of the country without special vehicles. In the remote areas you would need caution, some of those roads can be dirt or gravel.
There is adequate food and petrol/benzine/gasoline and diesel available on the main roads but do not bypass a station if you are low on fuel in the North.
I know that lot of people that came to chile in winter time want to go to skiing near Santiago, the problem is that there is no good transportation or is too expensive.
the best way is to rent a car so this itp is for it.
the price is reasonable, and good service, very secure and very reiable.
Although there are more buses in Santiago than NYC, I suggest either taking Taxis (if your Spanish is good enough to point at a map) or simply rent a car. Avis will happily rent a car to Americans, even if they don't speak Spanish. With a car, you're able to see much much more.
If you book through a travel agent, your transfers will be pre-arranged for you. A driver will be waiting at the Arrivals door with your name on a sign. Make sure to get your voucher for the ride, and get a phone number from the driver to confirm your return transfer from Valle Nevado back to Santiago.
If you have to make your own arrangements, I found the following company to be reliable:
Chilean Travel Services
Take a taxi or bus....very cheap and easy!!!! The metro is easy and cheap aswell, and not so polluting.
We stayed in Santiago last Nov, for our first night and our last night (before a morning departure)....more
The best hotel in all of Santiago! Very Cool place with unique architecture. The restaurants on the...more
Although small, this hotel is excelent and has everything you need to have a great visit to Santiago...more