10 tips on Driving in Latin America – Navigating Chaos
The rumor is that people in countries like Peru, Bolivia and Colombia are poor drivers, not really paying attention to road rules and that the road conditions are chaotic, but is this really true? Absolutely!
Ask any local taxi driver and you will always hear the same thing, “Don’t drive here, it’s a nightmare!” If you don’t want to heed this advice and want to run the gauntlet I have listed 10 tips for staying out of trouble while driving in my favorite country; Peru.
1. Simple rule – the bigger your vehicle, the more priority you have. In urban areas, and especially in the capital Lima, it is very common for people to turn left when they are in the extreme right hand lane (or vice versa), completely cutting across the traffic with no signaling. Public buses and cargo trucks are particularly good at this and no one raises an eyebrow. Just let them go!
2. Many of the cars are in very poor condition and often none of the lights or signals will be working, or they can´t be turned off at all! You may be waiting at a junction and a car is signaling to turn in front of you – do not move! The turn signal is probably broken, stuck on, or the driver too lazy or distracted to turn it off. Likewise don’t drive too close to the car in front (although the locals always do) as the brake lights are probably broken or have no bulbs.
3. Don't rely on your mirrors……other drivers don’t, and the system seems to work.
4. Get to know and love your horn! Not only when the traffic lights have changed to green one hundredth of a second ago, but also because all sorts of people just step into the street at any time and cars come out of side streets without looking.
5. It's worth mentioning the horn again…always be ready to honk the horn when driving in rural areas as absolutely anything can happen. At around 5pm all sorts of animals can invade the highway as they get herded back to the farm. Bulls, cows, llamas, alpacas, goats, dogs, guinea pigs, donkeys, ducks and small children are just some of the random hazards. Children tend to play football and volleyball across main roads in the countryside, so be aware when you go around a curve that you may drive right through a game!
6. Although road quality is much better than 10 years ago, there are many places where there will be huge potholes that you could lose an Inca down, speed ramps that you can’t see until you do a Dukes of Hazard maneuver, and dangerous “hidden” obstacles such as piles of rocks or construction materials in the road which you could easily hit at night, as there is frequently no warning.
7. Driving at night means that the problems multiply and tourists should try to drive only during daylight hours. Many cars are old and the angle of the old, battered headlights means that you will often be dazzled making you very tired, let alone frequently blinded. Driving at night also means you will get lost as maps of rural areas are poor and signs often misleading. A working knowledge of Spanish could be helpful, but then again it could confuse you further as people trying to be polite and send you down the wrong road rather than admit they don’t know the way!
8. Lane marking doesn’t mean anything! You will often have people cut you off, change lanes without signaling, weaving all over the place and trying to get 5 cars into 3 lanes etc. It can be chaotic to say the least but just go with it without losing your side mirrors (remember tip number 3!).
9. Make sure you know the distances and terrain before you commit to driving somewhere. The travel time from Cusco to Lima is around 60 minutes by airplane but at least 20 hours by road for example. Check the geography and road conditions before you set off. Ask a local expert or you could end up sleeping in the car.
10. There are probably 3 old radar speed guns and 10 traffic cameras in the whole of the country and they are most likely broken, so speeding has to be really blatant to become penalized. However, don't do it due to all of the reasons listed.
After saying all of the above, the strange thing is that there are fewer traffic accidents and road rage incidents than in the developed world as people don’t get irate if someone cuts them off for example, and as they are expecting to be cut off they don’t often crash into them.
I am not saying that you should never drive in Latin America; it can be a fantastic (and character-forming) experience in a beautiful region, but if you decide to leave the driving to a tour or transport company then you can just relax, sit back and smile at some of the crazy antics you see along the way, rather than adding an unnecessary dose of stress to your vacation.
Do you have any crazy driving stories from your trip to Latin America? Are there any tips that you can add to this list?