How is it to drive in South America?
(Updated until Santiago del Chile)
We have had several people asking us how it is to drive in all the places we have been and so we put together this post that we will keep updating until the end of our journey.
Here are some answers to some of the questions you might have:
So far, Rio de Janeiro is the city where driving was most aggressive. Drivers, especially bikers are constantly honking the horn for to get noticed, to protest or maybe to see if it is still working? Some road rules are more a suggestion than something you must obey but other than that we did not feel it was too bad or risky. You also notice that in major cities drivers are more aggressive and less patient but for a Portuguese who has driven in Morocco, it was very manageable. I believe the rule is to always be on the defence without being afraid.
Traffic can get pretty bad in major cities but usually, for a self-driving tourist there are ways around this issue:
- We avoid driving as much as possible and use public transports as much as possible in major cities. For example, we only drove in Rio de Janeiro to test drive the car and to leave. We never actually during our stay in Sao Paulo or Buenos Aires.
- We enter major cities with time to spare and never at the beginning of the day (to go against the traffic.
- We try to leave on Sunday mornings when traffic is at its lowest.
- We use googlemaps or waze to guide our route into the cities.
The situations where we could not avoid getting in traffic have actually been out of the city:
- Arriving in Ushuaia, local protesters cut the only access road to the city for 4 hours
- On the highway to Santiago an accident forced us to stop for 1 hour
- On the road to Iguazu construction works and a lot of trucks delayed our drive for 2hours
In general, roads are well identified and getting from A to B is not very difficult if you use logic or have some sense of direction. However, in cities or in less travelled roads navigation can get a bit tricky.
In cities we have been able to use googlemaps (or waze) on the iPhone to guide us. The trick is either to download the city map before-hand or to have a local pre-paid sim-card that loads the map as you go along.
In less travelled roads (like Torres del Paine or Tierra del Fuego) where there is no phone signal and/or are too remote to be downloaded or show in googlemaps we have used local tourist office maps.
Finally, for more deserted areas like route 40 in Argentina and Patagonia we have also bought the more traditional road maps.
We these tricks we have not had major mistakes nor need to correct course. Of course we have had small mistakes but nothing that was not solved by taking the next turn or asking someone (if you speak the language!). (The biggest mistake was actually in Uruguay where we arrived at a toll without any Uruguayan pesos which forced us to go back to the closest town with an ATM 50 kms away).
Contrary to our own expectations and possibly some common beliefs, lots of roads are good and meet all the best standards (especially true for some major highways). Of course there are some dirt and pebble roads and a few of those would probably more suited for a 4x4, but these are the exceptions. Therefore, having a car that is not too low and not too much love for it, is sufficient to drive in 99% of the roads.
In sum, there are roads for every taste and from A to B you can actually get them all. The trick is to plan in advance the routes you will take, leave enough time for setbacks or slower driving and be ready to adjust (if possible) to avoid the worst parts. In order to plan the routes check timings we have used googlemaps and ruta0 (a tourism site with input from many people driving in South America). Also, checking the tires pressure regularly is a good measure and be ready to use one of the many tire repair shops along the way.
Lack of gas stations or other car maintenance areas
Patagonia and Argentina in general are known for the long desolate areas where you can expect to be pretty much alone for a large part of your drive. This being said, we were expecting this to be much worse that it was. It is true that you can go for 100 kms straight without seeing another car and you can go for 200 kms without a gas station and 300 kms without a place to eat, but in general, this is limited to certain regions and stretches of road. Again, if you plan correctly, you will most certainly be alright.
We have yet to have a major problem with the car but to stay out of trouble my recommendations are:
- Always top up the gas tank before hitting the road and once the tank gets close to half
- Know where the next fuel stations are
- Drive only during the day
- Slow down until the next gas station if you feel something is not right
If you follow this and still have a problem, you will probably not wait long until someone shows up to help.
We will continue to update this post as we go along. If you have any other questions or curiosities feel free to ask and we will add them to the list as soon as we can!