Argentina is a huge country with many out-of-the-way scenic areas that lend themselves to car travel, particularly in Patagonia, Mendoza‘s wine country, the Andean Northwest and throughout the pampas.
If staying in Puerto Madryn, the best way to visit the penguin reserve at Punta Tombo is by renting a car, in order to not be limited by the time constraints of a tour.
FAQ: Rules of the Road & Renting a Car in Argentina:
• What kind of driver’s license is required to rent a car in Argentina?
-Anyone with a valid license from their home country can rent or hire a car in Argentina, as long as they also hold a valid tourist visa and a credit card. Those who have overstayed their visa might encounter problems. You do NOT need an international driver’s license.
Almost all cars have a manual transmission, so those who don’t know how to drive a stick shift (or those from the U.K. not accustomed to shifting with the right hand) better learn quick — hopefully before you go.
Learning how to drive a shift for the first time in frenzied Buenos Aires would be quite a steep learning curve!
• Can you rent cars at the Buenos Aires airport?
-Yes, you can rent a car ready for pick up in Buenos Aires international airport, Ezeiza (EZE), or the domestic airport, Jorge Newbery (AEP) as well as at most other airports in major cities throughout Argentina.
Make sure to make your car rental reservation in advance in popular destinations or during high season, or there may not be cars available.
Be aware that Buenos Aires has pretty aggressive, or, if we’re being generous, chaotic driving. Any one who has been to Italy will recognize that many Argentines are Italian descendants who aren’t interested in formalities such as car lanes, and like to loudly express their life’s frustrations via gratuitous honking.
These daredevils, particularly in Buenos Aires, enjoy pretending they are ‘the maestro‘ Argentina’s most famous race car driver, Juan Manuel Fangio. (Interestingly, Fangio who people claim to see apparitions of in Chacarita cemetery, himself famously never had a driver’s license to drive on public streets his whole life — he said he was scared of the other drivers!)
Considering this, those thinking of renting a car at the airport should contemplate if they will feel comfortable driving from the international airport (32k from downtown Buenos Aires) after a long flight.
While it will be slightly more expensive, you can always get a ride to your hotel and pickup the rental car downtown the following day after a good night’s sleep. This option works out well because it is usually more expensive to pick up a rental car at the airport anyway.
If you do plan to rent a car in Buenos Aires, be sure that your hotel has parking, as finding a parking spot can be an exercise in frustration in the center of Buenos Aires, especially during the week.
Those parking on the street in Buenos Aires should also be aware that they will also likely be approached by trapitos, the less-than-savory characters who request tips to ‘guard’ your car. The general rule is you can throw them 50 pesos or, make like a local and tell them you have no change and you will give a tip when you return.
• What type of cars are available to rent in Argentina?
-Rental cars in the most popular destinations range from compact, low-budget options to sedans and, rarely SUV’s, almost exclusively with manual transmission (stick shift).
Those who don’t drive a standard will have to make a special request for automatic car, or better yet learn to drive a stick shift before coming. Automatic transmission cars are rare in Argentina and will cost more as a result.
• Is it safe to drive in Argentina?
-Driving always involves risks, and Argentina doesn’t have a great record of road safety.
Luckily, this is an area where Argentina is quickly improving. In 2009 Argentina had an average of 22 road accident fatalities per day throughout the country. Ten years later, that number fell to 15 fatalities per day in a country of 45 million. Most of the risk is mitigated simply by wearing a seat belt.
Enforcement and driving education has improved in Argentina in recent years too. But for all the inroads Argentina has made in public education about the importance of seat belts and the dangers of drunk driving, it’s been overshadowed by the alarming number of drivers who use their cellphones while on the road.
The most challenging driving in Argentina is in the capital, Buenos Aires, where driving is rather aggressive, such as in New York City or Rome.
In Buenos Aires particularly, it is important to be aware of reckless drivers — often on motorcycles — and distracted pedestrians crossing the road.
In other regions of the country far from the capital, driving tend to be less stressful. In relaxed Patagonia people are more civilized drivers, but the curvy mountain roads can be a bit tricky and it is important to look out for wildlife.
In some provinces such as Salta and Chubut, the drivers are mellower than those in the capital, but some roads may have potholes or flying gravel. While highways throughout the country are generally in decent condition, driving on two-lane highways at night requires extra care.
• Are there any special laws about driving in Argentina?
Argentina doesn’t have any particularly unusual laws regarding driving but low beams need to be on at all times. All passengers are required to wear seat belts at all times.
Children under five require a car seat. All children under 12 are required to sit in the rear of the car. As of 2018, kids between the ages of five and twelve also need a booster seat. This inflatable travel booster seat is a good compact travel option for those traveling with kids under 12.
Turning left on a two lane road can only be done at a light with a green turn arrow, which virtually don’t exist. This is why even passengers in Buenos Aires will notice taxis or Uber drivers take three right turns to go around the whole block to reach the destination.
Taking a right turn at a red light is also prohibited.
Drive with care when approaching intersections with a four-way stop signs. Generally no one stops — at most they may slow down for a ‘California roll.’ Crossing the intersection becomes a game of chicken, with whomever has the biggest vehicle ‘winning,’ so it pays to drive defensively.
Also be aware that — even though it is law — no one seems to pay attention to the fact that the person on the right has the right-of-way at a four way stop.
Blood alcohol levels allowed permissible for driving in Argentina are quite low. The level to pass a sobriety test is .02% for motorcycles and .05% for car drivers, which is equal to about one drink for an average-size person.
• Which side of the road do they drive on in Argentina?
The driver’s seat is on the left-hand side of the car in Argentina, so any British weirdos 😀 used to driving on the right-hand side and using a stick shift with their left hand will need to adjust quickly.
Only on the Falkland (Malvinas) islands, a British overseas territory, do they drive on the left. (As an aside, make sure to never use the ‘F word’, Falklands, when speaking to an Argentine — it’s a touchy subject, as our Porteño Corner interviewee Air Force pilot, Facha Martel explains.)
• Can I leave the country with the car to visit neighboring countries?
-Not likely, but you can discuss this with the rental agency in their office. If possible at all, this will most likely involve a lot of extra fees. To avoid headaches and huge fees, it makes more sense to cross the border and then rent another car.
• Why is renting a car in Argentina more expensive than other places relative to cost of living?
-Just like air travel, car rental is on the expensive side in Argentina because it is not common for locals to rent a car and vehicles are expensive here due to the country’s protectionist policies.
Those who have the time often take flights or long distance buses to various destination and then rent a car locally in the area they are visiting.
Renting a car on vacation provides a way to get off the beaten track, gain some flexibility, and to accommodate time constraints.
• What if I get pulled over? Do the police bribe in Argentina?
If you are decent driver it is unlikely you will get pulled over in Argentina (especially since many locals drive like maniacs), but there are police checkpoints along some roads.
When getting pulled over or stopped at a checkpoint, it is necessary to provide your driver license, insurance papers and the legal documents for the car provided by the rental car company, usually kept in the glove compartment.
It is not likely, but it is certainly possible, to cross paths with a police officer trying to supplement their inadequate income by requesting a bribe.
Generally they will hint or suggest you pay a fine on the spot or they will have to write you a ticket. If you are sure you did nothing wrong, you can stick to your guns, ‘play dumb’ or lament aloud that don’t have any cash on you.
If it begins to seem like a corrupt officer is dead set on ruining your vacation and you just want to go on your way, slipping a bill that’s enough for an asado (barbecue) into the paperwork is how some locals choose to get out of the situation.
While this is crazy talk for people who are from countries without much low-level corruption or a culture of bribery, some say it is a ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ situation. Others may choose to stick to their guns, which would most likely result in the officer hemming and hawing to waste some time because you called his bluff and he doesn’t actually want to write a ticket. Again, it’s an unlikely scenario for a tourist, but forewarned is forearmed.
*Some of the links below are affiliate links, by using the our link you get 15% off your car rental and also help Wander Argentina to continue to provide free travel information. Thanks!
• What else should I know about renting a car in Argentina?
The companies that work with rental car network are well-established and credible international companies but experiences can still depend on the individual franchisers.
Before driving off, check the interior and exterior of the car and make a note, or better yet take photos, of any dings or damage to ensure there are no disputes upon returning the car.
Because of the limited availability of cars in some areas, it’s best to make reservations in advance, especially in the high travel season. It’s recommended to get the full liability insurance, especially if you don’t have travel insurance.
Argentina Driving Tips Roundup
• Low-beam headlights are required to be on at all times — day or night, in a city or rural area.
• Seat belts must be worn at all times. All children under 12 must travel in the backseat. All children under 12 need a booster seat (this travel booster seat is pretty nifty for travel) and all children under four-years-old must be secured in a car seat.
• A license from your home country will work fine to drive and rent a car — there is no need to have an international driver’s license.
• The driver’s seat is on the left in Argentina and the vast majority of cars have a manual transmission.
• The acceptable blood alcohol content level to not be considered an impaired driver is .02% for motorcycles and .05% for non-commercial car drivers, which is lower than the U.K. and most of North America. There are occasional alcohol checkpoints, most notably on holidays.
• Use of a mobile phone while driving is strictly prohibited, aside from a hands-free system.
• You must be 18 years-old to drive in Argentina and some rental agencies may only rent cars to those 21 and older.
• Highways are often privately owned and have tolls, so make sure to have smaller bills and change on hand when on the road in Argentina.