Not so long ago, the least painful way of changing money for visitors to the Southern Cone countries was the ATM at the corner bank. It’s still the simplest but, as banks began to impose transaction fees about two years ago, it’s no longer painless--in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, charges of US$3--7.50 per withdrawal have become commonplace.
In fact, in Argentina and Uruguay, they’ve been universal for some time, but in Chile a handful of banks have held out against the trend. Recently, though, Corpbanca and Scotiabank have joined the stampede, leaving only two banks in the country that do not collect the fees: Banco Security, which has only five branches outside Santiago, and BancoEstado, the state-run bank that is often the only bank in small communities that otherwise would have no banking services whatsoever. Fortunately, that means BancoEstado has probably the widest network of ATMs in the country.
BancoEstado is now my default option when I need to withdraw money from my accounts in the US, but some expats have complained that Chilean banks have recently reduced the maximum withdrawal per transaction from 390,000 pesos (about US$830) to 200,000 pesos (about US$425). My feeling is that this is more significant for those resident foreigners, who may make large household purchases or other payments, than it is to short-term visitors, who will pay many of their expenses by credit card. Still, the fewer transactions you have to make, the lower your transaction fees will be.
Ferry Update: the Carretera Austral
Meanwhile, according to my friend Hans Liechti of Travelaid in Pucón, Navimag has backed off its plan to withdraw service between Puerto Montt and Puerto Chacabuco, and will continue to operate the passenger and cargo ferry Puerto Edén (pictured above) until at least mid-February. At the same, Naviera Austral’s connections to the northern Carretera Austral port of Chaitén continue to be in flux or even disorder - in January, for instance, the ferry Don Baldo will sail weekly from the insular Chiloé port of Castro to Chaitén, but modifications underway on the ferry dock have meant that only passengers and bicycles - not automobiles or even motorcycles - have been able to use it. Fortunately, those works appear to have been completed and Naviera (whose abandoned Chaitén office appears below) is once again accepting vehicle reservations for the Don Baldo.
On the other hand, Naviera’s other ferry Pincoya has been able to use the dock as it exists now, and will still sail from Puerto Montt to Chaitén at least twice weekly, carrying both automobiles and passengers - I’m scheduled to go on the evening of the 28th, arriving in Chaitén early the next morning. Space is limited, though, and I managed to snag one of the last vehicle spots on board.
The best way to approach the Carretera Austral has been Naviera’s summer service from Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo, the gateway to Parque Pumalín. After the 2008 eruption of Volcán Chaitén damaged the road south of Caleta Gonzalo, though, that service has not operated for the last two seasons. After sending an email to Naviera about this season’s service, I received an ambiguous reply: “We are waiting for approval from the Ministry of Transportation to see if we will be able to operate this route and, whenever we have information, we will let you know.” Given that this service normally runs only in January and February, and the holidays are a major distraction, time is growing short.