The Joy of Driving in Buenos Aires

I’ve recently had an entirely new experience in Buenos Aires – the pleasure of having a car and driving around the city.  When I was first here, I was limited to the subway and taxis as my only means of getting around. (Yes, I never figured out the bus routes.)  Somehow, I have now become the designated driver and Laura has give me full control of her Toyota Corolla.

Now, when I say pleasure, I’m obviously being a bit sarcastic. I’ve driven extensively in NYC, so that helped to prepare me for Buenos Aires. Helped, I said, not fully prepared me.  I know how to weave in and out of traffic, but in Buenos Aires, the transit laws are quite a bit looser than even New York.  Here’s some of my observations from a few weeks on the roads here:

“Lanes are just suggestions.”
Like most places, Buenos Aires usually has lanes painted on the road. I say usually, because after some recent repaving on the highway near the local airport, it took a few weeks to actually paint the lanes back in. That made freeway driving a lot of fun in that area.  And, there are many places around the city where the lines have completely faded away and never been repainted.

However, unlike most places, those lanes tend to be taken as “suggestions” as to where to drive rather than actual fact. People weave in and out like I’ve never seen before. I’ve seen many places where there were three lanes painted on the road, yet there’s six cars across. When pulling up to a red light, people will try and squeeze their car in wherever there is space in order to be first when the light turns green.

“The horn is your friend.”
I’ve never been a serious horn user, even in NYC, but here using the horn is a daily event. Plain and simple – a lot of people drive like crap.  There is usually someone coming into my lane on a daily basis. They stop unexpectedly. They go slow unexpectedly. The horn just reminds them that there is actually another driver on the road.

“Never follow a taxi in the right lane. (or at all if possible)”
I should have known this from NYC, but it seems to be even worse here for some reason. Taxis in the right lane are generally looking for fares to pick up. They stop suddenly, accelerate suddenly, and pay no attention to anyone around them.  You’ll get really frustrated following them.

“At intersections with no lights or stop signs, the vehicle on the right has the right-of-way (usually).”
Like many other things, I’ve found that the rules of driving here tend to have a lot of exceptions. This is another one.  Most smaller intersections here, do not have lights or stop signs.  So, when you have two cars approaching from opposite directions, the general rule is that the car to the right has the right-of-way.  However, I’ve found that what is actually the case is that whatever way traffic is flowing has the right of way, and the other person has to wait for their chance to dart across.  This has been one of the most interesting experiences of driving here because it is so unlike anything back in the States. You quickly realize that if the other person has a nicer car, they are more hesitant to make the first move, so you also have an opening.

“Stop signs are really yield signs.”
Stop signs do actually exist here, but they seem to mean “yield” rather than “stop.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone come to a full stop.

“Red lights usually mean stop.”
At busy intersections, people obey the traffic signals. At less busy intersections, this is not so much the case. It is even less true if you are on a motorcycle.  Late at night, people tend to run red lights even more. I was told that this is a security precaution as people do not want to be held-up while stopped alone at a dark intersection.

“Lights turn yellow before turning green, giving drivers a chance to start going early.”
In addition to lights turning yellow before they turn from green to red, in Buenos Aires, lights also turn yellow before they go from red to green. This serves to let everyone know that a green light is coming and gives them a chance to really start accelerating before the light actually turns green.

“Pedestrians do not have the right-of-way.”
I’ve probably mentioned this before from the point of view of being a pedestrian, but as a driver, I’ve found that people are often confused when you wave them to go ahead, even when they do have the right-of-way. They’re so used to almost being run down when crossing the street that they’re very cautious and skeptical. So, now I’ve come to assume that I have the right-of-way as a driver, I won’t run anyone down, but I’m not stopping if there is space either.

“Gas is not cheap.”
While some things in Buenos Aires are still relatively inexpensive (though inflation is rising rapidly), gasoline is not one of them. Filling the tank of a Toyota Corolla costs about $180 pesos (US $46). Recent prices at the Shell station here were from $3.779 per liter (US $3.655 per gallon) for regular to $4.469 per liter (US $4.323 per gallon) for premium. I’ve come to dread having to refill the tank.

“Emergency vehicles leave their lights flashing, but you only have to move when the siren is also on.”
When I had the first ambulance behind me with its lights on, I looked around frantically trying to get out of the way. Laura asked me what I was doing, and then told me that they often leave their lights on, and that it only really mattered when the siren was also on. Good thing to know.

“My U.S. GPS works great.”
I should say that after a $99 upgrade to add the Argentine and Uruguayan maps, my TomTom GPS is working fine. I’ve noticed that the map is not as updated as the US version and it sometimes lists streets as open that have been closed or tells you to make a turn where turning is not possible. Still, it has been a life-saver and makes getting around the city a lot easier.

“You can’t make left turns across double yellow lines.”
This is one that took me a bit by surprise. In the States, I’m used to being able to make a left turn as long as there is not a sign saying no left turn. In Buenos Aires, you can only make left turns when you have an arrow or sign allowing it. Also, you’re not “technically” allowed to pull out of a parking lot and cross the double yellow line to go in the opposite direction.

“About 10% of the cars here have Apple stickers or red streamers on them.”
I was really amazed to see the number of cars that have the Apple logo stuck on the back of them. Yes, this is the sticker that Apple includes in the box with all their products. It seems to be a status symbol here – potentially because the cost of Apple products are double what they are in the States.

A lot of cars also have a red tape streamer off their bumpers.  I can only assume this is to catch the attention of the person behind them to make sure they are not rear-ended.

“Every time you drive downtown, you’ll hit two things: traffic and protests.”
Driving downtown during the weekdays inevitably means two things – traffic and protests.  Like any major city, Buenos Aires has some major traffic problems. Add to that the fact that porteños seem to love to protest and you have major gridlock. A favorite tactic of the protestors is to block lanes of traffic to make their point.  The police will never disperse them either. They simply wait for them to leave on their own. I cannot remember any day when we drove downtown and did not see a protest march at some point.

So, that pretty much sums up my first few weeks of driving in Buenos Aires. It’s nice to know that there are always more new things to experience here…

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  • Kirk

    Great post. I thought the colectivos would have factored into your list of road hazards. Every time I open the paper there's a photo of one shredded or on fire in the middle of an intersection.

    • Good point. I can't believe I forgot to add them. Not to mention the fact that they pretty much just go whenever they want and it's up to the driver to look out for them!

  • Kirk

    Jajaja. My friends tell me about the days when they didn't have change machines on board and the driver would be driving, working the front door and making change for multiple pasajeros simultaneously. There's a recipe for disaster. Again very colorful post. I will refer to it every time I start thinking about driving here. Saludos.

  • Khara

    Dave, I love driving here. I have a theory of the driving here..since everything else in Argentina requires numbers or cues or lines..driving is the one area that you can break those rules; therefore, Argies use it to their advantage.

  • Good article! So true! I linked it to my blog 🙂

    I am surprised you didn't mention the motorcyclers-without-lights, that come out or nowhere 🙂

    • DaVe

      Thanks for the link! I don't think I've had the pleasure of motorcycles without lights yet, but I do like how they cross the double yellow lines to get to the front at a red light.

  • Joyce

    I believe the "streamer" hanging from the rear bumper is a "colita rutera" – it is supposed to discharge static electricity into the ground. Have no idea where the idea came from, but it seems to keep dogs from getting car sick…!

    • DaVe

      Really? That's crazy. I've never heard of that.

      I have also noticed a lot of cars with a chain lock hanging from underneath. I assume that is to protect the spare tire from getting stolen…

  • Elsa Ferraro

    Hi Dave, thank you so much for posting this link. I do have a question, do I need an international licence to drive in Buenos Aires? and is it safe to park the car on the street overnight? I'm staying with my family in Lanus Oeste near Valentin Alsina.

    I'm actually from Argentina living in Canada for 32 yrs, so I don't remember much, and I'm a bit hesitant to drive there. I do speak castellano.

    Thank you for your useful tips

    • DaVe

      Hey Elsa,

      You do need an international driver's license to drive here legally. I do not know that area, but things can happen anywhere. I think it all depends on the car and it's contents as well as a bit of luck. If it is not a rental car, then you will need a "cedula azul" to legally drive someone else's car whether they are with you or not.

      The castellano should help, but driving is an experience! Good luck.

  • Scotty

    I am from the UK where driving laws are very strict so the Buenos Aires experience is a real shocker. I find that a little patience goes a long way and allows the Porteno drivers to do as they please.The red streamers are for the Patron Saint for the gauchos who is called Gauchito

  • AJC

    You'll be able to make the same observations in Manila, plus a little bit more problems. Man I thought traffic here was unique

  • Tao

    About to move to BA and wondering about cars. What do other people drive? Would a Range Rover (2008) stand out?

    • DaVe

      It depends a lot on the neighborhood you live in. In Belgrano, I see Audi, BWM, Mercedes, etc. on a daily basis. I am not sure I have seen many (any?) Range Rovers. Did you look into import laws? It is very hard to bring a car into Argentina. They have a list of approved vehicles for import as well as ridiculous taxes – up to 80% of the car's value. Good luck…

  • Alex

    Hey Dave,

    What about parking on streets in BA. Is it legal and free of cost. I see the "expensive" parking spots in BA everywhere. I was intrigued about the street parking options. is it free? If we have to pay, where and how?

    • DaVe

      Parking on the streets in residential neighborhoods tends to be legal and free. In business areas, there may be electronic meters. You're taking a risk leaving your car on the streets though as it will probably get broken into at some point. This is why most people tend to have a garage.

  • mariano

    I just want to add that you can make a left turn across double yellow lines. you has to have a turn signal with a red or green light like you mention. or you can turn left if is not trafic signal at all.

    • DaVe

      Oh yeah? My wife swears that is illegal to turn left where there is no arrow…

  • Fairplay

    How much time should I anticipate by taxi between the airport and Darsena Norte (Ferry terminal to Montevideo) on a Monday evening, leaving the airport at about 5:45 pm ? Also any idea how long does it typically take to clear immigration and customs in Buenos Aires at the airport ? I arrive at 5:05 pm and the last ferry leaves to Colonia leaves at 6:45 pm. Is this sufficient time ? We will not be carrying much heavy luggage.

    • I would guess at least an hour and that depends on traffic, which can be heavy at that time of day. Clearing customs, getting bags and exiting through the x-ray screening can easily take more than an hour, especially if you have checked luggage. I do not think you will make it.

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