Most people don’t know what bad, dangerous driving is until they have an experience driving through Argentina. We took a 5,000 km road trip from Buenos Aires, through San Antonio de Areco, Cordoba, La Cumbre, Alta Gracia, Mendoza, Neuquen, Peninsula Valdez, Siera de la Ventana, and back to BsAs, completing a full loop of roads without using a GPS system. We know what we are talking about. So many lessons learned, and some truly great, instructional moments.
Truth be told, we had some near misses, but I never truly felt our lives were 100% in danger – though close. I have some of those memorable moments to share here, hoping that I won’t channel any of those stereotypical paranoid people who share horror stories in order to dissuade and warn other travelers from visiting some “remote” third-world country. In fact, Argentina is in our “must-return-to” list of countries – fun people, amazing food, great wine, spectacular landscapes, and roads full of adventure!
The roads to nowhere and everywhere.
At the time we hit the road from Buenos Aires, the news were reporting massive flooding and road closures – full towns under water, rivers rising beyond historical limits, thousands homeless and evacuated. I was surprised to see there were signs for roadblocks and flooded areas, and detours set up – many times very improvised, but still effective. Consequently, most of the roads we chose were in even more horrible shape than the usual highways. We used a really good resource for checking the routes, ruta0.com, a web site that offers information about road conditions, tolls, lodging, and even “quality” of the scenery. Frequently there were multiple route options to get from one point to another; and also often the roads cut right through some minuscule town and there were no proper signs indicating how to reconnect to the highway. And then sometimes the road turned to some unmarked dirt and/or gravel path. We had a few circumstances where we did get lost and had to stop and ask for directions – thank God for our Latin language roots! So if you are used to a sheltered perception of quality of roads and signage, beware!
Warning: Tarantulas crossing.
Argentina has some dazzling, vast landscapes – this should be no surprise to any traveler; green Pampas change into rolling hills and then to richly textured sierras. There are long, long stretches of roads cutting through deserted areas, particularly through the edge of Patagonia. And sometimes animals cross. Animals like donkeys, emus… and tarantulas - huge, big-as-a- hand hairy tarantulas. I came across four such monsters – big enough that you could see them crossing even from several meters away, like puppet hands, fingers mimicking legs, crawling purposefully through the pavement. The first time I was so incredulous that I actually ran right over it. And felt the bump. I never had the courage to stop for pictures.
As a driver, one of the most important things to pay attention to (particularly on a road trip across a foreign country you are unfamiliar with) is your car. It is wise to stop from time to time to maintain your gas tank full (again, it’s a different country and the rules and conditions for gas stations are very different; it may be hundreds of miles before you can find a gas station in Argentina.) Checking all the fluids and the tires is a must for safety. You must keep the variables to a minimum. Several hundred miles later, when we hit Mendoza, we stopped at a large gas station with about a quarter tank – it had several pumps, a convenience store and a small mechanics shop. Gas stations in South America are NOT self-service. So I asked the smiling attendant to please check oil, coolant, brake and transmission fluids. He checked the oil stick up three times before pulling me aside and showing me the absolute dry tip. There wasn’t a single drop of oil in the engine! I had asked the rental car company agent before leaving Buenos Aires if the car was in good condition to endure a road trip – and I erroneously assumed that it included all fluids capped. Never assume anything in a foreign country.
Pass me if you can.
I grew up in Brazil and consider myself a really good driver. I learned how to drive a stick (a must outside of the US, people) and rather than strictly following the “lawful rules”, I instead choose to pay attention to my surroundings and embrace each place’s unique set of “rules of engagement.” Go with the flow is the first and best advice I give anyone driving in a foreign country. Because something “should” be a certain way, it doesn’t mean it necessarily “is” that way. And this is so very true in Argentina. Aside from the unpredictability of road conditions and route options, the biggest concern while driving in that country is the actual Argentinian driver, a really unique specimen. Argentinian drivers don’t seem to follow the laws of physics, let alone the laws, period. Physics rules, such as “two bodies of mass cannot occupy the same area in space”, and “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” are completely and frequently ignored by all. This is much aggravated by the fact that most highways do not have passing lanes and/or shoulders. But I suppose those drivers think that it’s easier to fly over bathtub sized potholes instead of hitting them; and that their need to get ahead a few meters surpasses the need to stay alive for the duration of the route. Forget blinkers. At least in Italy they flash their lights at you to let you know you need to get the hell out of their way. I am glad to report that we survived to tell this tale, but it took some clever maneuvering and quick thinking to avoid head-on collisions and unplanned off road driving.
Moral of the story: when on the road in Argentina, avoid what the Argentinians do.