There are a few similarities and several significant differences between driving in Argentina and the U.S. Drivers drive on the right side of the road, and many road signs are easily understandable, even though they are all in Spanish. However, drivers in Argentina are known to be aggressive, and true defensive driving must be practiced. Some laws are enforced laxly (such as right of way laws and paying tolls) while others, like driving under the influence or using one's headlights, are heavily enforced.
Regardless, it's best to have all the documented paperwork and required car safety tools with you before you hit the road. Do a bit of research and see if you really need a car, or can rely on mass transit and taxis for the duration of your trip. If you must rent a car, beware of trapitos (informal workers who charge to watch your car in public spaces) and crooked cops asking for on the spot fines.
To drive in Argentina, you will need to have a valid driver's license from your home country. It is not necessary to obtain an international driving permit. You will need to have the registration and proof of insurance. You can purchase insurance from your rental agency or use your travel credit card's coverage. However, you will probably need to deny the rental agency's protection to use your travel credit card's insurance. Check with your credit card company before your trip.
It's also a good idea to carry a copy of your rental contract. Legally, you will need several tools and other equipment with you when driving.
You can rent a car if you are over 21 and a motorcycle if you are over 25. If you are 18 to 24, some companies will rent you a vehicle but require you to pay an additional fee.
Checklist for Driving in Argentina
- Valid driver's license (required)
- Vehicle registration document (required)
- Proof of insurance (required)
- First aid kit, fire extinguisher, two warning triangles, lug wrench, and a tire jack (required)
- A contract from the rental company (recommended)
Rules of the Road
Be vigilant and remain calm while driving. Tailgating is standard, as is road rage. Familiarize yourself with the laws and how strictly (or not) they are enforced to give you a better idea of what to expect on the road.
- Speed limits: Speed limits vary. In urban areas, it is generally 40 to 60 kph (25 to 37 mph). In rural areas, it is 110 kph (68 mph), and on highways, it is 120 to 130 kph (74.5 to 81 mph).
- Headlights: You must keep your lights on when driving at all times. If they are off, even during the day time, it is illegal.
- Right of way: In built-up areas, many intersections (except for the main ones) do not have traffic control signs. You might see an occasional stop sign, but in most cases, there won't be one. Who has the right of way won't be apparent. At the intersection of a bigger road with a smaller road, those coming from the bigger road usually assume right of way. At some intersections, the car on the right has the right of way in theory, but generally, it is the car that gets there first and keeps going, which goes first. If you hesitate, most drivers will take that as a sign they have the right of way. Frankly, the most aggressive tend to go first. Drive defensively to avoid an accident.
- Left turns: Left turns are not allowed on main roads unless explicitly stated.
- Toll roads: Many of the main highways in and around cities are toll roads. Tolls can be paid with cash at toll booths along the roads. If there is a significant backup at toll booths (and considerable honking from waiting motorists), sometimes attendants will open the barrier for cars to pass for free.
- Road signs: Many of the road signs are internationally used pictograms (such as an octagonal, red stop sign). All road signs are in Spanish.
- Seat belts: Everyone in the car must be wearing a seat belt by law. Children under 12 must be suitably restrained in vehicles (with car seats or booster cushions if need be), and only those aged 12 and up and can ride in the front seat.
- Cellphones: Only hands-free talking on a cell phone is permitted while driving.
- Drinking and driving: The legal blood alcohol limit is 50 milligrams per 100 milligrams of blood (0.05 percent BAC level) for those driving a car. For those driving a motorcycle, it is 20 milligrams (0.02 percent BAC level).
- Gas stations: If you are asking for gas in Argentina, say "nafta" and not "gasolina." Gas stations are plentiful in cities like Buenos Aires, Mendoza, and Cordoba. However, if you are driving through remote stretches, especially in the Patagonian countryside, carry extra gas with you, as stations are sparse.
- On the spot fines: It is illegal for a police officer to ask you for an on the spot fine. If there is a reason for you to be fined, the officer should issue you a ticket which you will be able to pay at a police station or bank. The northeast of the country (particularly Entre Rios) is known for traffic scams. Even if an officer claims the ticket will be more expensive, and your vehicle will be towed if you do not pay on the spot, insist you be issued a formal ticket. You might end up not having a ticket after all.
- In an emergency: If you need to reach emergency services in Argentina for any reason, call 911. Service-specific numbers are 101 for the police, 100 for the fire department, and 107 for an ambulance. In an emergency, place the warning triangles 30 meters (98.5 feet) in front of and behind the vehicle and turn on the hazard lights. If you get in a crash, consider calling your hotel or host for help to assist with towing. Many times, a local connection will save you from being taken advantage of as a tourist.
Should You Rent A Car?
If you are planning on being in predominately cities, especially in Buenos Aires, it is not advisable to rent a car. Most times, public transit, taxis, or walking will be far cheaper, efficient, and less stressful than renting a car. However, if you are traveling between cities or driving through Patagonia in particular, renting a car is advisable. Some activities, such as the Route of the Seven Lakes just outside Bariloche would be hard to do without a car. Renting a car also gives you time to explore at your own pace and go on treks that might be hard to get to otherwise.
Most rental cars are stick shifts in Argentina. If you only drive automatic, book your car in well in advance. Be aware that automatics generally cost more than stick shifts to rent. Also, if you’ll be going through particularly hairy stretches of backcountry terrain, request a four-wheel drive. Some backcountry roads are mostly gravel and tend to get muddy fairly quickly when it starts raining.
To park in a parking garage, look for a giant "E" sign and the words "estacionamiento," meaning parking garage in Spanish. These parking garages have set fees for different periods and can be paid in cash. There is free parking on streets in cities, although some roads have specific hours when parking is not allowed. It is illegal to park the opposite way on a one-way street.
Trapitos, mostly informal workers who charge drivers money to "watch" their cars in public spaces, can be encountered on free parking streets. When drives refuse to pay for this service, they might return to their vehicle to find it keyed or damaged in some other way. Trapitos are mostly illegal unless they have an identification card on their chest. Should you find yourself approached by one and unable to leave, the best course of action is to give them a small sum of money. Many times, it can be negotiated down, around the peso equivalent of $0.75.
Driving Across the Border to Chile
If you want to drive across the border to Chile, be aware that not all rental companies allow this, but it is possible. The paperwork should take about four days for the company to process. You will also have to drive the car back across the border to Argentina, as companies don’t allow for drop off in Chile. Also, this whole process is somewhat easier the other way round, as in driving Chile-Argentina-Chile, rather than Argentina-Chile-Argentina. The border crossing itself can be arduous as well, with reported wait times of up to six hours. It is not advisable to cross towards the end of a holiday, as lines tend to be longer. Also, crossing in the morning instead of the afternoon can save a few hours.