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Exploring Chile By Vehicle: Do I Need A 4x4?

A friend and his wife, invited us (my wife and I) along for a 3 day trip to Chiloe. We drove this Puegot 206 hatch all over the top 1/3rd of the island. Looking for some beautiful scenery and unique places. Even though this little car got us to a number of different places, if the trip had been much longer, I'm not so sure the little car's suspension, oil pan, transmission, motor, or floor pan could have handled much more of the gravel roads. LOL! While it made for some funny moments, I wouldn't suggest doing long term overlanding or exploration of Chile in a small 2wd vehicle of this kind.

It’s hard to pick out, the most frequently asked question that I get about Overlanding Chile. One of the most common, and probably the most important questions for organizing your trip that I get is; do I need a 4x4 to enjoy my Chilean Overlanding experience?

Short answer, no. You absolutely, do not need a 4x4 to enjoy the Chilean Overlanding experience. Exploring Chile by vehicle can be done, in almost any vehicle you choose. There are no “rules” that you need to follow about picking your travel vehicle. However, there are a few concepts that you will want to consider when choosing it.  

This is just one, of many, styles of beaches and vistas that you can find when you are able to access the remote Chilean areas. We actually got here via a Puegot 206 hatchback. However, if it had been a month later, you couldn't have gotten in here without 4x4 at all. Not to mention the fact, that that poor hatchback was put to it's limits. There were a few gravel hills on the road that led to this beach that we almost didn't get back up on the way out. If this trip had be longer than 3 days, we would have most definately broken a few parts. My guess is, the transmission, or cv axles would have gone pretty quickly. Photo Credit: Eric McGrew

Today in Chile, most of the main roads are paved (or are gravel). This facilitates your ability to enjoy much of what Chile has to offer. It’s easier than ever to get to many of the natural vistas of that Chile is famous for.

While miles and miles of asphalt roads help keep your vehicle in good running order, it also leads you to overpopulated “tourist traps”, and can make you feel like you are just another Sheeple in the flock. Unfortunately, this overcrowded sensation can take away from your overall experience. If you want to get away from these crowds, then you’ll need to get off the paved (and maintained gravel) roads, and hit the lesser beaten path.  

Volcano Osorno from the tourist center for Saltos de Petrohue with my wife in the foreground (being a tourist for the day). Centers all over Chile become extremely packed during the high session of tourism.

Tourism/Vacation session is expanding here in Chile. It's fairly common to see tourist all year round in the better known tourist towns/areas. Typically the tourist session becomes really active in Mid December, building up strength until February, when it is at it max for the year. During late January, until the beginning of March, places such as Saltos de Petrohue can make you feel a bit claustrophobic. If you come though, it's a must see! Having a 4x4 is a benefit though. Because, once you have had it with the crowds, you can hop in your 4x4 and go find a remote mountain area to enjoy by yourself. Photo Credit: Eric McGrew

Chile’s government has worked hard to make sure that people don’t make the coastal beaches exclusive. Meaning that beaches are “public access“. However, they never guaranteed that they would maintain the public access points. So, if you want to get to lesser visited (or lesser known beaches), especially in the winter seasons (end of May to the end of Nov.), you’ll most likely need a 4x4.

Many sectors in Chile also have small, remote, natural gems in the Andes Mountains. Some of these areas have decently maintained access routes. Others have routes that were once Ox trails. Then, one day, someone decided that driving their 4x4 up it and “blazing the trail” qualified as making the route vehicle accessible. So, you can imagine how well low clearance, 2wd vehicles will do. It’s not that they can’t make it. It’s more about how much you will tear up trying to get there and back.

While, honestly, a 2wd vehicle can get up to this point on Volcano Calbuco, I've known of at least one Nissan Sentra that busted it's oil pan trying. Actually, they were on their way down from here. So, just remember, while passenger cars and 2wd vehicles can make it to certain places, that doesn't mean that they will be able to get back out. Nor does it mean that it was good on the vehicles components to begin with. Photo Credit: Eric McGrew (quick shot with an iphone 4)

Having a 4wd isn’t just about getting to the most extreme places. It’s also about how well the vehicle deals with weight, rough terrains, and extensive gravel road driving. So, in many areas, while a passenger car is capable of being driven on the local terrain/roads, the innate design dictates the need for more frequent repairs. Where as, many 4x4’s will endure these harsh conditions considerably better.

 Frankly though, it’s all an averaging out of what you need, want, can afford, and what you know when selecting a vehicle. As I mentioned before, there are all kinds of vehicles that have crossed Chile in Overland fashion. Everything from VW buses to Ford Model A’s, and even a few Earth Roamer style rigs. So, do you need a 4x4…? No! However, you will have access to more unique places, and have a potentially more reliable vehicle for the travels that lay ahead!

Looking Southward from a high point on one of Valcano Calbucos lower hills. My 2" lift, and 32" approx tires, are more than capable to handle this road. I never need to use 4wd either. However, what is of importance about having a 4x4 in this case, is the ground clearance it provides. These roads are rarely, if ever maintained by the local municipality, and have a tendency to uncover (with time), large rocks and ruts that can cause bottoming out on lower sitting vehicles.


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