By Car or Motorycle
Driving in Argentina, especially in Buenos Aires, is not for the timid. In the words of Buenos Aires Herald columnist Martín Gambarotta, this is a country “where pedestrians and not cars have to stop at a zebra crossing.” According to United Nations statistics, the traffic death rate of 25 per 100,000 is South America’s highest, nearly twice that of Chile and the United States, and almost three times that of Germany.
In 2002, Buenos Aires provincial governor Felipe Solá named RN 2, the Buenos Aires–Mar del Plata freeway, in honor of Fangio, and the YPF oil company has named its highest-octane fuel for the famous racer.
Argentine highways are divided into rutas nacionales (abbreviated here as RN, for which the federal government is responsible), and rutas provinciales (RP, which each province maintains). Generally, but not necessarily, the federal highways are better maintained; the exception is prosperous provinces like Santa Cruz, which has large oil royalty revenues.
Speed limits on most highways are generally around 100 kilometers per hour, but 120 kilometers per hour on four-lane divided roads. Officially, helmets are obligatory for motorcyclists, but enforcement is lax. The most thickheaded riders appear to believe their skulls are strong enough—some even hook their helmets over their elbows—but emergency-room results have proved them wrong.
Vehicle Documents, Driver’s License, and Equipment
Most South American countries, including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil, have dispensed with the cumbersome Carnet de Passage en Douanes that required depositing a large bond in order to import a motor vehicle. Officials at the port of arrival or border post will usually issue a 90- or 180-day permit on presentation of the vehicle title, registration, bill of lading (if the vehicle is being shipped), and your passport. For shipped vehicles, there are some fairly substantial port charges (which rise rapidly if the vehicle has been stored more than a few days).
Argentine police generally recognize foreign drivers’ licenses, but theoretically visitors should have an International or Interamerican Driving Permit (visitors to Uruguay should note that that country officially recognizes only the latter, though in practice they’re more flexible). These permits are available through the American Automobile Association (AAA) or its counterpart in your home country, and are normally valid for one calendar year from date of issue. Strictly speaking, they are not valid without a state or national driver’s license. Legally, another form of identification, such as national ID card or passport, is also necessary.
The police, though, pay close attention to vehicle documents—tarjeta verde (green card) registration for Argentine vehicles, customs permission for foreign ones. Vehicles without registration may be impounded on the spot. Argentine vehicles should have proof of a verificación técnica (safety inspection).
Though many Argentines drive without liability insurance, foreign vehicles cannot clear customs without coverage. Policies from neighboring countries except Chile may be valid in Argentina; it is now possible, though, to purchase short-term Argentine policies in Chile, often near the border.
At roadside checkpoints, Argentine police are also rigid about obligatory equipment such as headrests for the driver and each passenger, valizas (triangular emergency reflectors), and matafuegos (one-kilogram fire extinguishers). Provincial police may threaten excessive fines for document irregularities or minor equipment violations, but they’re usually soliciting coimas (bribes). A firm but calm suggestion that you intend to call your consulate may help overcome any difficulty.
Argentine traffic is fast and ruthless, many roads are narrow with little or no shoulder, and others are poorly surfaced or potholed. Heavy truck traffic can make all these routes dangerous, and not just because of excess speed—impatient Argentine drivers will often try to pass in dangerous situations, and head-on crashes—even between passenger buses—are disturbingly common.
Porteño drivers in Buenos Aires and stray cattle in the countryside might seem to be enough to deal with, but the 2001–2002 economic crisis led to a major increase of piquetes (roadblock demonstrators) protesting unemployment and other issues, which has not abated. Piqueteros (pickets), though they tend to focus on stopping commercial traffic, manage to slow down everything else as well; never try to run one of these roadblocks, which can raise their wrath. Rather, try to show solidarity and, in all likelihood, you’ll pass without incident. The poor northern provinces of Jujuy and Salta have been hotbeds of picket activity.
Note that members of the American Automobile Association (AAA), Britain’s Automobile Association (AA), and similar foreign automobile clubs are often eligible for limited roadside assistance and towing through the Automóvil Club Argentina (www.aca.org.ar), which has offices throughout the country.
Unleaded fuel is available everywhere, though some older vehicles still use leaded. In remote areas where gas stations are few, carry additional fuel.
Prior to devaluation, Argentina had some of the most expensive gasoline in the Americas except for Uruguay, but prices have fallen in dollar terms—at least temporarily, even as they rose in peso terms. Prices are about US$0.85 per liter for regular, US$0.96 for super, and US$1.05 for Fangio. Gasoil (diesel) is typically cheaper than most gasolines, about US$0.87 per liter, but the differential is shrinking.
Because gasoline prices are unregulated, they may rise quickly.
Note, however, that so-called “Patagonian prices” south of Sierra Grande on RN 3 and El Bolsón on RN 40 are more than one-third cheaper for gasoline; there is no price differential for diesel. Fortunately, the government has eliminated the decree that made vehicles with foreign license plates pay across-the-border prices—much higher in Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay—while Argentine vehicles continued to pay local prices.
Repairs are cheap in terms of labor but can be expensive in terms of parts, many of which must be imported and, in provincial cities, often brought by special order from Buenos Aires. Fortunately, Argentine mechanics are skilled at rehabilitating virtually any salvageable part.
Aggressive drivers, traffic congestion, and limited parking make driving in Buenos Aires inadvisable, but beyond the capital a vehicle can be useful, especially in the wide-open spaces of northwestern Argentina or Patagonia. To rent a car, you must show a valid driver’s license and credit card, and be at least 21 years old.
Both local and international agencies maintain offices in Buenos Aires, where rental costs are typically lower than elsewhere in the country but higher than in North America. Since the 2002 devaluation, prices are more volatile, but they usually involve a fixed daily amount plus a per-kilometer charge; unlimited-mileage deals are normally for weekly or longer periods. Insurance is additional.
It is also possible to rent campers and motor homes through Gaibu Motorhome Time (Avenida Maipú 2517, Oficina 11, Olivos, Vicente López, tel. 011/5368-1544, www.gaibu.com), in the northern suburbs of Buenos Aires.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition