Road trips in the Southern Cone of South America
Some practical tips for cars, RVs & recommended routes
Welcome avatar! Road trips in Latam are the absolute bomb. It is the best way to discover more about a country and also visit the smaller towns that usually aren’t included on the general tourist agenda.
Over the years I’ve done quite a few road trips, mainly in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay. Some countries that are still high on my list are Colombia and Mexico (did go to Mexico, but travelled everything by bus, not the same).
In this article I will briefly go over the different options for transportation and the pros and cons for each. At the end I will give some recommendations for great routes / road trips that I am familiar with.
If you’re planning on doing a simple round trip for a week or a few weeks, I would recommend just renting a car at the nearest airport. If you don’t plan on returning to point A, it might be harder to rent a car in some airports (depending on the company they will not always let you return the car at a different airport).
Also, like I mentioned in my previous post about moving to Argentina, you have to keep in mind that you generally cannot take a rental car across borders here.
Travelling by bus is an excellent option to get from A to B, but the limiting factor is that you cannot stop in the middle, or whenever you want. Also it makes excursions to surrounding areas harder, since you always depend on third party transportation.
I still wanted to mention it because you do see a lot more versus just flying everywhere and it is also a great way to get an impression of the insane distances in these countries (and the lack of humans in most places).
RV / Motorhome
So what about RVs and motorhomes? New and used motorhomes tend to be very expensive in Argentina (see here) and in these countries in general. After the pandemic, there has definitely been an increase in people starting to build their own or buying new motorhomes. This Instagram tag is a good overview for motorhome posts in Argentina.
Perhaps in Chile you would be able to find better price tags, and it would also be the only country where you can legally buy one as a foreigner.
Autist note: See some examples of pricing in Chile here for motorhomes and RVs (don’t mind the “arriendo” posts, which is a towing service, and divide prices by 945 to get US token price).
What if you want to import your own RV/Motorhome? This is another option. Just make sure you have enough spare parts in case stuff breaks down (especially with foreign cars, it might be harder to find spare parts).
Tourists can enter most South American countries without a carnet on a temporary import permit. Most countries allow temporary imports for 1 to 3 months, with some allowing longer.
I would recommend to find a company that takes care of all the shipping and paperwork for you, which I can imagine will be hell on earth, knowing local bureaucracy. Looks like this company specializes in vehicle shipping, and it’s not the only one (note: can’t vouch for this company since I haven’t used their services, but wanted to include so you get a breakdown of prices they charge).
Santiago de Chile - Mendoza - Salta (Chile, Argentina) 1623 km / 1008 mi
So I am starting off with Chile, because depending on your means of transport, this is the only country in the south that will allow foreigners to buy a car.
In none of the other countries this is possible (except maybe for Paraguay, but I would have to double check), and you will have to have at least local ID to be able to purchase a vehicle.
Remember that you can’t cross borders with a rental car, so unless you ship in your own car (very expensive), buying a car in Chile is going to be your only option.
The pass of the Aconcagua (see below), is a bit lower than the top, the road and Cristo Redentor tunnel are at about 3,200m above sea level. But driving across these massive mountains already makes the trip worth it.
Once you’re on the other side in Argentina, Mendoza is one of the best cities for wine tours, and with a car it is very easy to get to the bodegas that are located farther out. Keep in mind that you’ll be tasting a lot of wine, so it might be better to just grab a taxi.
San Rafael is another city in the Mendoza province that is worth a visit. After that, Tucumán and Salta (with Cafayate in the middle), are absolute must visits. Tucumán has a pre-Andes track that is almost jungle-like, before getting higher up into the classical reddish mountain ranges of Salta and Cafayate. Wines are also excellent in these regions.
Ruta 40 (Argentina) - 5194 km / 3227 mi
National Route 40 "Libertador General Don José de San Martín"1 is a highway in Argentina whose route extends from Cabo Vírgenes, Santa Cruz to the border with Bolivia in the city of La Quiaca, in Jujuy.
The Ruta 40 is for Argentina what Route 66 is for the US. It crosses eleven provinces and you will cross many different climate zones, from arid / dry zones in the north, to wine country and eventually lakes and snowy mountain tops and glaciers in the south.
I only did the first part (from Jujuy to Tucumán), but will be back for more. The gravel/dirt roads on some parts are absolutely awesome to drive on, and there is no civilization in sight for most of the route outside of the main cities and towns.
You can pick any starting and ending point on this route and you’ll be seeing some amazing scenery, followed by great cities and cute small towns.
Buenos Aires - São Paulo / Rio (Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil) 2795 km / 1736 mi
This is a road trip I only did by car once, and about 8-10 times by bus, at the start of my Latam journey when I was still living in between Buenos Aires and São Paulo. By bus it’s about 36 hours one way, so those trips were pretty die hard (wouldn’t do that again).
Doing this by car and stopping along the way is a lot better, so much to see along the way: the Entre Ríos province in Argentina, the amazing park of Esteros del Iberá in Corrientes if you have the time, and of course the Iguazú falls at the Brazil-Paraguay-Argentina border.
Once in Brazil I can recommend stopping at Curitiba as well, and some of the smaller towns up until São Paulo.
Once you get there you might as well drive another 6 hours to Rio, which is another gem in terms of vegetation and scenery along the way.
Buenos Aires - Montevideo - Florianópolis (Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil) 1535 km / 935 mi
This is more of a “flat” road trip, with few mountains but more coastline. After crossing the border with Uruguay at the height of Gualeguaychú in Argentina, you can drive down to Colonia.
Colonia is one of the oldest cities in Uruguay, vastly disputed territory between Brazil and Argentina. Colonia is the place where this struggle is most visible, with a museum dedicated to the Portuguese settlement and general history.
Remember that Uruguay was created as a “buffer state” between these two power houses. That’s why up until today, both Argentines and Brazilians still joke about Uruguay not being a country, but a province of their respective countries.
Montevideo is a great visit, and after that some beaches that are worth mentioning in Uruguay are San Ignacio, Cabo Polonio and Punta del Diablo.
Afterwards in Brazil, Porto Alegre is a nice city to visit, and once you go along the coast a little further north towards Florianópolis you will be stunned by the beaches in this area, like Bombinhas and Praia da Ferrugem (and many, many more). If you’re into partying, in Florianópolis you can do that non-stop, especially during carnival season (Feb-Mar).
If you want to get into a Latam road trip mood, I recommend watching The Motorcycle Diaries (2014) if you haven’t yet.
The soundtrack by Gustavo Santaolalla makes for the perfect road trip music, by the way (most of his instrumental work is excellent), he has also been also a producer for most of the better Latam rock albums in the past 3 decades. He also did the soundtrack for one of my favorite movies of all time, Amores Perros (2000), and so many more.
See you in the jungle, frens!
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