Argentina's long highways and fabulous scenery make it a great place for road trips. However, if you're only going to be staying in Buenos Aires and other big cities, renting a car isn't particularly useful; stick with a remis (hired car) or taxi; remises can be hired to take you around the countryside, too.
There are plenty of gas stations, called estaciones de servicio, in and near most towns and along major highways. Most are open 24 hours and usually include full service, convenience stores, snack bars, and sometimes ATMs. In rural areas, stations have small shops and toilets, but are few and far between and have reduced hours.
On long trips, fill your tank whenever you can, even if you've still got gas left, as the next station could be a long way away (signs at stations often tell you how far). Attendants always pump the gas and don't expect a tip, though most locals add a few pesos for a full tank. Credit cards aren't always accepted—look for signs saying tarjetas de crédito suspendidas (no credit cards).
The major service stations are YPF, Shell, Petrobras, and Esso. Locals say that YPF gas is the highest quality. It also tends to be the cheapest. Prices are often higher in the north of Argentina. South of an imaginary line between Bariloche and Puerto Madryn, gas is heavily subsidized and costs roughly half what it does elsewhere. There are three grades of unleaded fuels, as well as diesel and biodiesel. GNC is compressed natural gas, an alternative fuel. Stations with GNC signs may sell only this, or both this and regular gas.
On-street parking is limited in big cities. Some have meter systems or tickets that you buy from kiosks and display on the dashboard. In meter-free spots there's often an informal "caretaker" who guides you into your spot and charges 2-5 pesos to watch your car, which you pay when you leave. Although nothing will happen if you don't pay, most locals see not doing so as very mean.
Car theft is common, so many agencies insist that you park in a guarded lot. Many hotels have their own lots, and there are plenty in major cities: look for a circular blue sign with a white "E" (for estacionamiento [parking]). In downtown Buenos Aires, expect to pay 7–8 pesos per hour, or 28 pesos for 12 hours. Rates are much lower elsewhere. Illegally parked cars are towed only from restricted parking areas in city centers. Getting your car back is a bureaucratic nightmare and costs around 200 pesos.
City streets are notorious for potholes, uneven surfaces, and poorly marked lanes and turnoffs. Many major cities have a one-way system whereby parallel streets run in opposite directions: never going the wrong way along a street is one of the few rules that Argentines abide by. Where there are no traffic lights at an intersection, you give way to drivers coming from the right, but have priority over those coming from the left.
Two kinds of roads connect major cities: autopistas (two- or three-lane freeways) and rutas (single- or dual-carriageways) or rutas nacionales (main "national routes," usually indicated with an "RN" before the route number). Both types of roads are subject to regular tolls. Autopistas are well maintained, but the state of rutas varies hugely. In more remote locations, even rutas that look like major highways on maps may be narrow roads with no central division. Always travel with a map, as signposts for turnoffs are scarce.
Night driving can be hazardous: some highways and routes are poorly lighted, routes sometimes cut through the center of towns, cattle often get onto the roads, and in rural areas rastreros (old farm trucks) seldom have all their lights working. Outside of the city of Buenos Aires, be especially watchful at traffic lights, as crossing on red lights at night is common practice. Beware of guardaganados (cattle guards). They're often raised so that your car flies into the air if speeding. For highway-condition reports, updated daily, and basic routes in Spanish, contact La Dirección Nacional de Vialidad.
A useful road-trip Web site is www.ruta0.com, which calculates distances and tolls between places and offers several route options. There are basic maps and some highway-condition reports (in Spanish) on the Web site of the Dirección Nacional de Vialidad (National Highway Authority).
Dirección Nacional de Vialidad (11/4343–8520. www.vialidad.gov.ar.)
All rental car agencies have an emergency help line in case of breakdowns or accidents—some services take longer than others to arrive. The best roadside assistance is usually that of the Automóvil Club Argentina (ACA), which sends mechanics and tow trucks to members traveling anywhere in the country. If you have an accident on the highway, stay by your vehicle until the police arrive, which could take a while, depending on where you are. If your car is stolen, you should report it to the closest police station.
American Automobile Association (800/564–6222. www.aaa.com.)
Automóvil Club Argentino (11/4808–4000; 800/777–2894 emergencies. www.aca.org.ar.)
Rules of the Road
You drive on the right in Argentina, like in the United States. Seat belts are required by law for front-seat passengers. You must use your car lights on highways at all times. The use of cellular phones while driving is forbidden, and turning left on two-way avenues is prohibited unless there's a left-turn signal; likewise, there are no right turns on red. Traffic lights turn yellow before they turn red, but also before turning green, which is interpreted by drivers as an extra margin to get through the intersection, so take precautions.
The legal blood-alcohol limit is 500 mg of alcohol per liter of blood, but in practice breathalyzing is common only along the highways of the Atlantic coast during January and February. In towns and cities, a 40-kph (25-mph) speed limit applies on streets and a 60-kph (37-mph) limit is in effect on avenues. On autopistas (freeways) the limit is 130 kph (80 mph), and on rutas (highways) it ranges between 100 kph (62 mph) and 120 kph (75 mph). On smaller roads and highways out of town it's 80 kph (50 mph). However, locals take speed-limit signs, the ban on driving with cell phones, and drunk driving lightly, so drive very defensively indeed.
Police tend to be forgiving of foreigners' driving faults and often waive tickets and fines when they see your passport. If you do get a traffic ticket, don't argue. Most tickets aren't payable on the spot, but some police officers offer "reduced" on-the-spot fines in lieu of a ticket: it's bribery and you'd do best to insist on receiving the proper ticket.
In Buenos Aires, buses and taxis (which cruise slowly on the right-hand side to pick up passengers) often drive as though they have priority, and it's good to defer to them for your own safety. If you experience a small accident, jot down the other driver's information and supply your own, then go to the nearest police station in the area to file a report. Contact your rental agency immediately.
Paved highways run from Argentina to the Chilean, Bolivian, Paraguayan, and Brazilian borders. If you do cross the border by land you'll be required to present your passport, documentation of car ownership, and insurance paperwork at immigration and customs checkpoints. It's also common for cars and bags to be searched for contraband, such as food, livestock, and drugs.
Daily rates range from 190 pesos to 400 pesos, depending on the type of car and the distance you plan to travel. This generally includes tax and 200 free km (125 free mi) daily. Note that most cars have manual transmissions, so if you need an automatic, request one in advance.
Reputable firms don't rent to drivers under 21, and drivers under 23 often have to pay a daily surcharge of 10-15 pesos. Children's car seats are not compulsory, but are available for about 15 pesos per day. Some agencies charge a 10% surcharge for picking up a car from the airport.
Collision damage waiver (CDW) is mandatory and is usually included in standard rental prices. However, you're still responsible for a deductible fee—a maximum amount that you'll have to pay if damage occurs. The amount of this deductible is generally around 3,000 pesos for a car, and can be much higher for a four-wheel-drive vehicle. You can reduce the figure substantially by paying an insurance premium (usually 30–60 pesos per day); some companies have lower deductibles than others.
In general, you cannot cross the border in a rental car. Many rental companies don't insure you on unpaved roads. Discuss your itinerary with the agent to be certain you're always covered.
Alamo (810/999–25266; 11/4322–3320 in Buenos Aires. www.alamo.com.)
Avis (810/9991–2847; 11/4326–5542 in Buenos Aires. www.avis.com.)
Budget (810/999–2834; 11/4326–3825 in Buenos Aires. www.budget.com.ar.)
Dollar (800/555–3655; 11/4315–1670 in Buenos Aires. www.dollar.com.ar.)
Hertz (810/222–43789; 11/4816–8001 in Buenos Aires. www.hertz.com.)
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