In February 2007, Santiago went through a complete overhaul of its public transportation system transantiago. The transition during the following years to a more modern and environmentally friendly fleet has gone a long way to improve not only the image of Santiago as a first world city but to eliminate the horrible belching clouds of dirty exhaust that used to tarnish the city.
This article will help you get around the Chilean megalopolis using public transit. Riding on transantiago (Santiago’s public transit system) is pretty safe and efficient, even for foreigners. I get around the city almost exclusively on micros (buses) and the Metro (subway). The only times I ever take a taxi are if it’s late at night (past 11), and even then I’ll still take a bus after midnight if I’m with friends (the Metro closes around 10:30). However, I don’t recommend doing so if you don’t feel comfortable with the system nor speak Spanish. Taxis at night are pretty cheap since there is little traffic.
If you’re going to spend much time in Santiago you will benefit from getting a tarjeta bip! You can purchase a card at any Metro station or any of the Centros bip! around town. You can buy Metro rides as you go but you need a tarjeta bip to ride the micros. This card allows you to get on the Metro, micro or combination for $720 CLP at peak hours ($1.15 USD). You can transfer from the Metro to a micro or vice versa at little to no extra cost up to 90 minutes from your first point of entry. The card itself costs $1,500 CLP ($2.40 USD) and can be re-charged (with a minimum of $1,000 CLP) in any metro station or any corner store where you see the bip! logo. Sometimes when I go out at night, the only things I carry are cash and my tarjeta bip!
Tip: you can scan your card for multiple passengers but if you’re transferring you will only get the discount for one rider, if you’re planning on using micros and Metro combinations a lot during your trip consider buying a tarjeta bip! for each of you.
There is a Google Maps website for Santiago but an alert to Google, Avenida Kennedy is not called Costanera Norte. If you don’t have access to the internet then the equivalent is a great little book that sells at newpaper/magazine stands anywhere in the city for $3990 CLP ($8 USD). Just ask at any kiosk if they sell “MapCity” (pronounced “map see-tee”) and they’ll understand. In both English and Spanish, the booklet itself (pictured) has 576 pages of city maps, a metro plan, and a list of all the streets in the city (like any road atlas) so you can do your own analog Google map search. The book is really better than any tourist map you can buy because it has all of the metro stops displayed clearly on the maps, and you can get to a lot of sites of interest by metro. Unfortunately, the information on using the buses (known as “micros”) in Mapcity is less than adequate, and getting to certain sites such as Plaza Ñuñoa, Estadio Nacional, and Parque Arauco will require the use of buses (see “Getting on a micro” below). Do note the book is quite heavy to carry around, if you have a smartphone we suggest getting a local SIM with internet, it’s quite inexpensive and you can easily utilize the online apps to help you navigate the city!
Transantiago app, map, and website
To help you navigate transantiago you can utilize their website, download one of the free apps, pick up or print out a free paper map to plan your trips in Santiago. You can download the app for your iPhone, or you can use Moovit for your iPhone, android phone or tablet.
The map lists all the bus routes and metro lines and is super user friendly. I get around exclusively by using the MapCity book and the Transantiago paper map, which I keep posted on my wall. The map can be picked up at any Transantiago information center in the city (note that they all close 6pm weekdays, 4pm Saturdays, and aren’t open on Sundays) or online.
Planning a trip using public transit can be done on the Transantiago website although if you don’t speak a bit of Spanish, it could be a bit challenging. The site works just like getting driving directions on Google maps: you can list a starting point and destination, and the site will tell you how to get there via public transit. To use this feature, go to the Transantiago website and then use, Planifica tu viaje (plan your trip). Tip: It’s helpful to know the comuna (municipality) you are heading to, to ensure you map the correct address, there are many duplicated street names in the city. Also do note if the address is 902 or 0902 as the 0 indicates the exact same street but in a different comuna, so you could wind up many blocks away from your intended destination.
The Santiago Metro is very clean, efficient, and packed like sardines during rush hours. If you are planning on going by metro between 7-9am or 6-8pm, you may have to wait for a few trains to pass because of the dense conditions. The good thing is that trains run very often so wait times are minimal. Nevertheless, you may need to be aggressive if you want to get on. Most other times are fine, just keep it in mind if you are traveling during those hours.
When you walk into a metro station, there are generally maps of the entire metro network (as shown above) very clearly displayed. The lines are named by the last station that they reach in a given direction, so for example, Line 1 east is named Los Dominicos, and Line 1 west is named San Pablo. So once you know where you are going, just swipe your tarjeta bip! and head toward the line you want to get on. Transferring is easy enough. When you get off a train in a transfer station, you will see a sign that says something like Cambiar a Linea 4 –La Cisterna (change to line 4 to La Cisterna). Make sure you check the direction you need to go in or else you might end up on the wrong side of the platform.
Getting on a micro
The Santiago micros can take a while to master, but if you’re going to be in Santiago for a while riding them is a skill worth having as they provide access to the parts of the city that the metro doesn’t. The main micros that you will be using are the inter-communal buses (go to more than one zone as defined by the transantiago map), which can be discerned by their color: white with a green diagonal stripe (see photo). The local buses (those that stay within one zone) are painted the color of that zone on the map. Thus buses in Ñuñoa (zone D) are yellow, but depending on where you are staying in the city, you may not need to have to bother with the local buses. At each metro stop there is a placard that says which buses should stop there. When a bus pulls up, it has its route # and a list of the main streets it runs posted in its front window in the lower right. If the bus stops, don’t be shy to step one foot on and ask the driver “a metro Baquedano?” or “a Parque O’Higgins?” (to X destination), if he understood you he should let you know if you are on the right line, but if there is a problem communicating, you may just have to wing it… Buena suerte! (Good Luck!).
Some taxi drivers in Santiago are notorious for ripping off foreigners, so you have to be careful. If you have local friends with you, have them direct the driver. Radiotaxis are the safest, they come right to your door after a quick phone call. You can also download the EasyTaxi App and request a cab that way. They start the fare at $1,000 CLP ($2 USD) and then start charging you at the same rate as a normal taxi, which starts the fare at $200 CLP. The normal taxis are the ones that you see everywhere, yellow on top and black on the bottom. The other day it cost me $3,000 CLP ($6 USD) to get from Plaza Ñuñoa to Cerro Santa Lucia (in El Centro), so if you start seeing anything more than that on a short ride, start suspecting something. I’ve heard of tourists getting charged between $10,000 and $20,000 CLP ($20-40 USD) for short rides, but I think if your smart and agreeable, you shouldn’t run into too many problems.
If you’ve made it this far, you are now ready to tackle the mean streets of Santiago. I hope you enjoy, and please, let me know if this guide helped you or if you feel it’s missing anything.
Note: This story was accurate when published. Please be sure to confirm all details directly with the sites in question.