Visitors to Salta often ask if they should rent a car to see the area instead of going on a pre-arranged tour. My answer: Why not? If you share the car with others, it'll cost the same or less. You can stop to see many things tours don't cover, and best of all, you can go at your own pace (a particular boon if you're traveling with a little one who is easily carsick). But there are a couple things you might want to know before getting behind the wheel.
It's nutty out there. The roads of Salta City during the day are packed. You share lanes with buses, cars, taxis, motorcycles, bikes, produce pushcarts, pedestrians and the occasional horse drawn cart. Many intersections have lights, which eases the crossing, but many, you navigate with your wits and guts.
The US State Department offers the following advice on driving in Argentina
Traffic accidents are the primary threat to life and limb in Argentina. Pedestrians and drivers should exercise caution. Drivers frequently ignore traffic laws and vehicles often travel at excessive speeds. The rate and toll of traffic accidents has been a topic of much media attention over the past year. The Institute of Road Safety and Education, a private Buenos Aires organization dedicated to transportation safety issues, reports that Argentina has the highest traffic mortality rate in South America per 100,000 inhabitants.
I guess not exactly helpful advice as much as a warning, really, but as with anything in life, a cool head, a bit of attention and the ability to ignore constant honking will serve you well. The following few tips may also come in handy.
Who Has Right of Way?
Right of way, I find, belongs to the largest vehicle. As you approach an intersection, look in the direction of traffic. I would normally say use caution, but if you move too slowly, the cars driving toward you perpendicularly will not slow down to allow you to pass. In six months of driving here, not one person has given me the go ahead.
At first, I just waited until the street cleared enough to allow safe passage, but during busy times, this left me sitting with no hope of ever getting through. Meanwhile, cars behind me would beep, honk and even yell out their windows. While I've never seen the middle finger -- perhaps more of a New York-ism -- I have been offered many a various hand gesture that clearly means the same thing.
Noah says he's found a rhythm to the passage of cars through such intersections. I have yet to find the same music. Instead, I white-knuckle my way across with the mantra "Hit the gas. I'm gonna make it!"
Bus Drivers Scare Me Most
Bus drivers are notoriously angry. To quote a Salteño friend: Ellos comen malhumor para desayunar. It doesn't sound anywhere near as poetic in translation, but basically They eat bad mood for breakfast.
After a few rather unpleasant experiences while living in the center of town, I even began walking everywhere just to avoid getting on a bus. While driving, though, you can't escape them. They push up right behind your bumper blowing horn if they think you're moving too slowly. And they always think you're moving to slowly.
There are ways, though, to use buses to your advantage.
Using Larger Vehicles To Shield You
Let's say you're trying to cross an intersection, and there's a bus or anything larger than you in the lane beside you. Allow the bus to move ahead, then keep pace with the bus allowing it to protect you from oncoming cars. Only the craziest driver will tangle with a bus, so you're pretty much free to pass. If that unlikely crazy driver does try to beat the bus through, he will undoubtedly lose and hit into the bus instead of you.
How To Use Your Hazard Lights
Lila's school is in the center of town, and the space in front of school as well as the streets surrounding are strict no parking zones. This is when hazard lights come in handy. Instead of parking far away and walking, you simply find an empty space, stop the car and turn on the hazard. Then you're free to leave the car for a short period of time.
This tip does not come intuitively to North American drivers for whom such action would immediately lead to a ticket and a big fine. Yet, people do it every day here.
Parents line up in front of the school two lanes deep, cars, SUVs and even a few HILUXes empty with lights a-blinking. Squeezing into these two waiting lanes, though, requires you to parallel park which becomes complicated when you still have a third lane of moving traffic on the other side. (I am always amazed that three lanes of traffic can even fit on these streets really meant for two small cars.)
Instead, I park around the corner where it's completely empty, well, except for a few lanes of moving traffic, but the sides of the street are clear. Just watch out for vehicles as you get out of the car.
How Long Can You Park With Hazards?
You can't stay forever, but there's no need to rush.
I have enough time to walk around the corner, let someone at the school know I'm there. Then, they contact Lila's classroom. I chat with the other parents milling about outside school while Lila gathers her things, says goodbye to her friends and makes her way out the door. Sometimes, we detour to a nearby bakery to pick up a snack for her ride home.
Pedestrians and Peatonales
Remember the old rule: Look Both Ways Before Crossing the Street?
Based on the way people cross streets here, I'm guessing there's no Spanish equivalent. People hurl themselves into the road regardless of whose path they're crossing. They do not look where they're going. They do not worry about who may be barreling toward them. They seem to have an innate perhaps even religious belief that they will find the other side in safety or conversely they simply don't care
It's your job to make sure no one gets hurt.
Streets that cross the pedestrian shopping areas -- peatonales -- are particularly tricky, because you tend to face large groups of people all crossing at the same time. The flow of pedestrians from peatonales will not slow down during busy times, so you have no choice but to move slowly, slowly ahead, inch by inch, until you've passed through the crowd.
The advice I give here applies equally well in many other Latin American countries as well as other places in the world. Panama, Costa Rica, Israel and Italy for sure.
One Caveat: This information has been culled through experience driving the streets in Salta and not from any knowledge I have of actual law. If you want to know that, I suggest checking the Argentina tourism website or national roadways website.
There is some good news!
Outside of Salta city, the roads miraculously mellow, even when traveling short distances to San Lorenzo and Castellanos, where we live. Roads leading to Cafayate, Cachi, San Antonio de los Cobres or any of the other towns nearby are smaller, easier and are rarely busy. Even bus drivers seem to calm down once they leave Salta city limits.
So should you drive in Salta? That's ultimately your choice. I can say, though, it took surprisingly less time than I thought to get used to it, and I, for one, always prefer finding my way around on my own instead of by tour bus.