Buying Your Dream Kayak Vehicle in Chile

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Buying Your Dream Kayak Vehicle in Chile

One of the most often questions asked is, “how hard is it to buy a vehicle?” This article is designed to offer trip saving tips, a step by step how to buy guide, what to do and not do, and horror stories of past kayak nomads.

The Achibueno has a rugged Andes shuttle known for killing vehicles.

So your crew has decided to do the extended kayak tour of Chile this year. Your biggest challenge becomes transportation. “Oh… we’ll just buy a beater vehicle and it’ll be awesome!” Your vehicle will ultimately make or break your kayak adventure.

Below is a Facebook thread that arrived Nov 30, 2011 after Colorado crew Chris Baer, Casey Tango and Gordon Klco spent their first week buying a van, breaking down 3 times, returning the van to the dealer at a loss of over $US3,000, renting another vehicle, and losing a week of their trip.

  • Gordon Klco
  • hey david,
    we have had a brutal start to this trip. the van we bought is a piece of shit and we have been broken down for the last week. monday we are headed to santiago again for the 3rd time to get rid of the van and start over with a rental. we should be coming back to the claro after that….hopefully mid week. Also, i was wondering if it was possible to stay at your place for some of the time we are down south. We would just want to tent camp and use the bathroom/kitchen/maybe one boat locker if possible. do you think that is an option? let me know what your thoughts are. looking forward to seeing you!

November 27, 2011

David Hughes

  • Gordon… bummer to hear about your start. Welcome to Chile… hope you have a couple of good stories. Yeah… I’ll do what I can to get you guys up and running and ask of you guys to post some blogs for the hostel.
    Good luck.

November 27, 2011

Gordon Klco

  • Awesome! We can defintely get you some content. I have some good stories to tell…and great lessons learned. I will see you soon!

The Colorado crew ended up renting a 4 door pickup truck for about $US60/day. That is super cheap and hard to find.

Read Gordon Kclo’s, “Chilean Misadventure Part I.” 

Step 1-  Research vehicles online and get a sense of what you want.

Pucon Kayak Hostel offers a shuttle service that gets kayakers on the water at an economical price. Rack stack was staged. 

Google:  Chile autos, rental cars Chile…  Use a Spanish translator to get more results.

Check out for online classified autos.

Things to Research

  • Gas or diesel? At 900 pesos/liter that’s about $US7/gal. Diesel is cheaper and will be an easier to sell vehicle. But costs more to buy the auto.
  • Buy common models. Finding parts for rare vehicles is costly and timely. Some common brands are Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Kia, and Hyundai.
  • Racks- Use to you would bring rain gutter rack mounts/straps. Now rain gutters are rare. You may have to pay a shop to build a rack.
  • Remember straps. Or you can buy ropes.

Step 2-  Get a RUT number first thing.

A Chilean RUT number is a temporary social security number you must have before purchasing a vehicle. It’s an easy process that costs about $US20 and a couple of hours time. You should do this on the day you arrive to Chile.

Link to “How to get your Chilean RUT Number.” 

Step 3- Have a reliable mechanic check your vehicle.

In 2005 I found the perfect diesel 12 seat van to buy for Huge Experiences group. At $12,000 I opted to pay a Chilean friend’s mechanic to check it out. Alex discovered that the motor was bad and would break down in no time. Alex told the mechanic and the mechanic offered Alex $1,000 to, “help me sell to this gringo.” The small mechanic investment saved thousands of dollars and weeks of stress.

Breaking down gets old and expensive quick. Hire a reliable mechanic before you buy.

If you plan on riding ripio (gravel) roads best to make sure you have off road treads and do not head out with bald tires. Also make sure you have a jack and good spare, as you will use them on a long trip. If you do get a flat most towns have a Vulcanizadora (tire repair). Number one things that fail on Chilean vehicles are terminales and rotulas (tie rods and ball joints) so check them well when buying used.  In old days four wheel drive was needed for lots of runs but today most runs are accessible without 4 wheel. – Kurt Casey

Step 4- Revisiones Tecnicas and Permiso de Circulacion

Annually, vehicles need a Permiso de Circulacion from the Revisiones Tecnicas stating its road worthy, passes emissions test… Check that your vehicle is up to date. If your auto does not then you’ll have to spend a half-day getting it checked at the Registro Civil and they may give you a list of expensive checkpoints.  Revisiones Tecnicas… you’ll also need to go by this office to get another stamp.

 Step 5- Tax and Santiago Toll Checks

Is your vehicle clear of taxes and Santiago toll fees? Toll fees can accumulate in Santiago and like taxes they follow the vehicle. This is an easy to check process for any Chilean. It’d bum you out if you went to sell your vehicle and found out it owed over $1,000 in tolls and taxes.

Step 6- Paying and Getting Your Padron (owner’s card) Registration at Registro Civil

This is the paying and transferring of title and registration to your name. Go with the owner to a Notario (notary’s are in most towns) to legally sign and process the trade. Padron and Registration papers will be applied for with intent of transfer to your name and address.

Leaving the Country:  You cannot leave the country without title or notarized permission from the owner. Since, titles can take months to arrive in the mail it is a good forethought to get the notarized permission at point of sale.

Experts Note

If buying and selling to or from foreigners you can make your deal in foreign currency and even do payments outside of country. It is not mandatory to pay in Chilean pesos as long as buyer and seller agree. This is important because it can be very long and slow process to open a bank account in country so wiring in foreign currency and switching into pesos can be a problem. -Kurt Casey

Step 7- Buy Auto Insurance

As soon as you purchase the vehicle go purchase insurance. Insurance is cheaper than in the US. Make sure and get a tow policy, which could save you hundreds if you break down. Pucon Kayak Hostel uses Falabella. Falabella is a large department store usually in malls. You can drive your vehicle with papers to Falabella and purchase on the spot. You can also buy insurance on-line.

More Helpful Tips

  • “Theft! There is petty crime in Chile so think about that when buying a vehicle. Do not leave stuff in back of trucks unattended. Also many a window has been broken and cameras, computers, money, etc stolen.” –Kurt Casey
  • Consider renting. Due to challenges and time involved in finding and buying a vehicle it might be best to rent. The big companies are expensive but options exist for renting from private boaters (like Robbie Dastin), Pucon Kayak Hostel, or even hiring a vehicle with a driver. Then you never have to walk, hitch or bike a shuttle. –Kurt Casey
  • Hire a Chilean to help you through the process. Pucon Kayak Hostel annually upgrades autos and always hires out to help with the paperwork and mechanical checkpoints. PKH pays $US100/day for the service.
  • Consider a shuttle service. Pucon Kayak Hostel began offering shuttles to guests due to the demand for kayaker transportation.


Dave fishes too.

By David Hughes


Directions to Pucon Chile.

You are invited to the warm hospitality of Pucon Kayak Hostel.

Best Selling Programs:

47 Year Old Kurt Casey Notches 15 First Descents in One Year

Directions to Pucon Chile.

You are invited to the warm hospitality of Pucon Kayak Hostel.

Best Selling Programs:

November House Rent Rates for Class V Boaters $100/week

Advanced Intermediate Tour de Pucon

Reserve Now.

 47 Year Old Kurt Casey Notches 15 First Descents in One Year

The goal of this interview is to pick the brain of one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject of first descents.

Kurt Casey has mastered the art of finding, researching and notching first descents.

If you are a serious whitewater seeker in Chile or Peru there are few names more knowledgable when you need expert advice on the regions, first descents, put-in directions, and river knowledge. At the top of that list is 47-year old whitewater life-styler Kurt Casey. It’s widely known throughout South American whitewater that Kurt Casey “knows his shit” when it comes to researching, planning and executing first descents.  Remarkably at 47 Kurt notched 15 first D’s in one year with 6 of those being within an impressive four-day stretch.

Kurt is father of two kayakers Pablo age 11 and Luna age 9 and husband of Eva Luna, a whitewater legend of her own right. As I began leading commercial trips and purchased land for Pucon Kayak Hostel I kept hearing, “Do you know Kurt?” Or you might hear, “Kurt went up there a few years ago,” or “Ask Kurt… he’s done it.”

Seven year old Pablo Casey runs his first cascade on Pucon Chile's Rio Desague. Pucon still offers annual first descents and exploration.

Pizza Cala, a Pucon regular kayaker’s watering hole, has a soccer game on the plasma screen, a warm wood fed giant oven and Pablo is hopping around outside on the street whilst Kurt and I share a beer.  Kurt explains the art of first descents in between watching the soccer game and explaining why Argentina’s President recently screwed the national economy.

Kurt begins, “OK. Why explore rivers and first descents?”

“First it’s a challenge to just find one, a challenge to know when to go, where to get in, where to get out, and who to go with.” That’s a stacked sentence illustrating Kurt’s experience but he continues. “ If all the other aforementioned stuff works out then the actual getting down the river part can be easy. You know there’s information out there. As long as there’s not an epic, which there can be.”

What constitutes an epic?

Epics happen! Above a boat is pinned in a hard to reach place on Chile's remote Rio Polcura.

Oh… there are a lot of possibilities. Wrong water levels, rockslides, trees, dam sites… hmm dam sites that’s kind of a new one. It’s not generally an issue but there could be unfriendly landowners more like in the old days with some rivers up north (referring to Chile). You plan everything, drive into a road, and there’s a locked gate… that sucks. Ughh, the Lontue was always tough to get through.

Where do you start?

How do you find a river? Next, you have to ask how do you know it’s a first descent? I hear people say, ‘I think I got a first descent.’ And I answer, ‘in ’87 that was done like 15 times.’ First you might catch a glimpse of a river or a valley when you’re paddling something. You see a tributary and think where did that come from? In the old days you’d spot something from the window of a plane.

Now, Google Earth has changed everything. Cause you can have a satellite view of Earth. Historical images from other months plus hydrological data can give you an idea of flows: rising, falling, high/low times of year. You can use G.E. to find your put-ins and take-outs, measure distances, and if you have to go up and over a mountain you get an idea of the elevation change. Then, if it’s available, go get a topo map with a usable scale 1:50,000 scale or better. That signifies each topo line with an interval of 50 m. Anything beyond that is not really useful.

Depending what country you are in… in Chile, for example you can visit Instituto Geografica Military in Santiago to see the maps, or view small images online, purchase them, provide a shipping address and you will have them within 2 days. I have even had success having them mailed to overseas address.

On the RiversofChile(.com) and PeruWhitewater(.com) websites there is a page with the history of the first descents.  That idea came from Lars Holbeck who kept that info for his California guidebooks.  He was one of the pioneer explorers that opened up a lot of runs in Chile and other countries.

RiversofChile(.com) site kind of picked up on all the work that John Foss did before his untimely death.  “What happened?”  He died on a trip I was doing with him and Franz Helfenstein. It was on an incredible first descent of the Huallabamba in Peru in 1998 that in an instant turned into a nightmare.  He was doing a lot of first descents in Chile at the time and was in process of writing a guidebook.

 Tell us more about getting to and from the river.

Many Chilean runs like the Upper Palguin are clean and safe for those wanting to try their first cascades.

It can be as simple as driving to it.  More likely these days one has to shoulder the boat and hike in, use animals, or perhaps even a motorboat, plane to a lake start or even heli support for the sponsored paddlers who have resources. Then it’s water levels.  It seems to always be easier to work with a river that flows due to snowmelt as fluctuations are more consistent over time.  Rain fed rivers can give you a sustained period of storms that result in excessive flows or to the contrary be bone dry when you arrive. Both possibilities make finding ideal flow a hard target to plan or accomplish.

Then you have to find the right people that can and want to go:

A.  Do they have the time? And B.  More importantly they don’t mind the potential of not having a successful trip.

Usually when you go boating on a known run someone in your group knows or has at least read about the put-in, takeout, gradient, water levels, rapids, etc…  But when you don’t have any of that shit you might spend a few days and not get on the water or put-on, get your ass kicked and crawl out of there.

Kurt on Topo Maps

Topo maps are good because you can get the average gradients.  If you know the average gradients and you have some idea of the flow you can usually make a solid guess to what you’re going to find.

A rule of thumb we still use is that if you get into a river that is over 20m/km avg. gradient and over 1,000 CFS you are probably looking at class V.  We, as a general rule, learned through experience that

“We’ll avg. no more than 1 KM/hr down the river at those conditions.¨

Those are just generalizations but you have to go in there with something as a basis for planning the time of your trip.  Remember that many rivers are not day trips. Some of the big Canyons in Peru can be 10-day stretches without resupply or good chances to bail out.

What about hazards?

In 2010 Steve Fisher is the first to descend Salto Palguin. Ever since the 85 footer is ran annually by a handful of the world's best kayakers. One of every six stay in their boat.

Hazards as part of the river… it depends a lot on where you are.  Could be poison ivy in one place, other places could be insects or snakes.  In Chile it’s impenetrable bamboo called Colihue or just slippery rocks in the canyon and steep cliffs.  Other cases could be just super cold, rapidly transitioning water levels.  (Example Rio Volcan in Chile, which is a dam release.)

It seems like if you do hit a new river in a certain area, you kind of start looking around that area and you often find more runs.  For some reason it’s regional… some regions just get overlooked.  And some surprise you like here in Pucon, one of the world’s epicenters of kayaking for November to March.  If you just get here a month or two earlier the first D’s are still there within a 100 km radius.

There are so many rivers.  Some might be short, but there’s still runs like the Polcura that are 25 KM hike in with 27 KM of good volume river that had simply been overlooked until Nov 2011.

For example this past January we found a pretty high volume river with road access… Rio Hueinahue.  Unbelievable no one ever explored it is close by to Nilahue, Curringue, Florin and several other popular runs.

Tell us more about the people you paddle with.

Everyone is different, some people their goal is to run every single drop.  That probably works if you’re a really good kayaker and you’ve got a lot of time. Sometimes, what we do on these first exploratory river descents… is you kind of do what you can to get to the end safely.  Then you plan maybe a different type of crew to return and attempt to clean some of the portages and other marginal drops.

People tend to focus on exploring a region whether it was California in the old days, today Columbia is a big one, while Nepal, New Zealand are traditional favorites. Since many people boat there, kayakers heading to those zones usually have a sense of what’s going on. Today with Internet access you can usually figure it out through blogs, chat rooms, search engines, GE, etc if someone has done a particular river and find some Beta.

Great example of that is our backyard run on the Nevado.  Myself and a group consisting of Daniel DeLavergn, Nate Elliot, Polk Deters, and Riley Cartwright did not first descend it until 2004.  Local Pucon ex pat legend Robby Dastin found it and helped figure out how to scout it, as back then there were no trails into the canyon.  But the now infamous Demshitz drop didn’t get run until years later.

Another example is, perhaps the most run creek in South America, the Palguin.  John Foss ran it in ‘89 but only ran three drops.  We went back in ‘91 and started regularly running the Upper section and portaging the falls in the Middle section but for some unexplained reason never ventured onto the lower section mistakenly thinking there was nothing worthwhile.  Then a few years later they started running not only the Lower Palguin but also all drops on the Middle including, Stout Ten, the 26-meter falls affectionately called the MP, Boof to Swim, and La Portage.  Four years ago Steve Fisher showed up and ran Salto Palguin so now everything has been run.

In recent years Pucon's Rio Nevado has become the local favorite run with two sections ranging from creeker to stout creeker. The Cali slide begins the Upper Canyon.

Focusing on one particular rapid shows how things change over time. “Boof to Swim.” In the old days that’s what it did… you thought you had a good boof but you’d get beat down and swim.  Now with modern creek boats designs most people style the drop plus it’s no longer this crazy ass wilderness run.  Now, local kayaker Ben May’s house is there, you park at the takeout.  Used to be you bashed through the woods. And had a hard time scouting. Now there are trails to and from every drop.

A lot has changed in Chile, Peru and elsewhere in the world of kayaking but the fact remains that you can still find as yet un-run rivers. It might take quite a bit of research, complicated logistics to get to and from the river, and an  element of luck (as in being in the right place during the perfect storm), but for the persistent adventurer the rewards of finding a new chunk of paradise make all efforts worthwhile.

By David Hughes

Owner Pucon Kayak Hostel

Founder/Director New River Academy

Director Patagonia Study Abroad

Directions to Pucon Chile.

You are invited to the warm hospitality of Pucon Kayak Hostel.

Best Selling Programs:

November House Rent Rates for Class V Boaters $100/week

Advanced Intermediate Tour de Pucon

Reserve Now.