Latin America Road Travel

A Brief Guide to Road Travel in Latin America

On January 31, 2022, the drivers education site Zutobi.com published a report of the best and worst countries to drive in as a tourist. It analyzed 42 countries and took into consideration variables such as road quality, safety and congestion, the cost of hiring a car per day, the average fuel price, the number of attractions per 100.000 people and—interestingly—the number of Instagram posts per location. The United States, Italy and Spain came out on top. What struck me the most, though, was that the only Latin American countries that appeared on the list were all in the bottom third.

According to the study, the United States enjoys one of the lowest congestion ratings (at least outside big, busy cities) and the highest popularity on Instagram and Google. Italy and Spain, aside from being two of the most visited European destinations, have relatively low road traffic deaths, pointing to the safety and quality of the roads in the continent. The same applies to Portugal, Slovenia, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.

Even though Latin American countries received lower scores on road trip searches and urban congestion, there were still factors that, if put into consideration, could definitely convince visitors—and locals—to see for themselves some of the most beautiful landscapes of the continent. One of those factors is fuel prices, which is actually lower in Argentina and Colombia than in the United States. While renting a car is a much more common practice in North America, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Brazil have considerably cheaper options. Additionally, street parking costs per hour across Europe are more expensive (averaging over €3) than in Latin America (€2).

What options do we have to take a road trip in Latin America? It would be unfair, and impossible, to choose “the best” ride in every country, so my goal is to highlight just a few of many interesting—and perhaps overlooked—sights in the countries on the list. Let us, then, travel North to South through each one of them.

 


 

Mexico

 

Agave fields in Tequila, Jalisco. Image via Theculturetrip.com.

 

While many are drawn by the crystal-clear beaches of Cancún, the Mexican State of Jalisco, on the other side of the country, has much to offer in a relatively small area. Known as the birthplace of tequila, tourists can take a quick ride to the homonymous town (Tequila) just one and a half hours west of Guadalajara, the state capital. There you can admire the agave fields (the plant where tequila comes from) or visit the traditional distilleries.

 

 

The Pacific pier of Puerto Vallarta.

 

Puerto Vallarta, on the Pacific coast, is also a perfect destination for families, friendly or romantic getaways and even business trips. Embraced by the Sierra Madre mountains, you will find authentic examples of Mexican culture, gastronomy and traditions. And while the ride from Guadalajara would take approximately five hours, you could make a stop in Tequila or enjoy the trip through the mountainous regions of Jalisco.

 

Sunny day in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Image by hotels.com.

 


 

Colombia

 

Jeeps are the traditional means of transportation for Colombian coffee growers. Image via Olecolombia.com.

 

The Coffee Growing Axis has been a popular destination in recent years. The area comprises the departments of Quindío, Caldas and Risaralda. The region has an altitude of around 1,300-2,200m and its average yearly weather cycles between 17-23°C, which guarantees the perfect conditions for coffee production. One important fact to keep in mind is that Manizales, Pereira and Armenia—the cities from which this region is most accessible—are no more than two hours away from each other by car. In fact, you can hire a driver and their traditional coffee-grower’s old Jeep to take you around the small villages of the Coffee Region.

 

 

Another interesting trip in this region is visiting the town of Salento and the Cocora Valley. Salento is the typical Colombian village with colorful streets and abundant greenery. After wandering through its streets, you can take a thirty-minute drive to the Cocora Valley, where the world’s tallest palm trees grow. The Quindio Wax Palm, with the lush Andes mountains as a backdrop, can be seen as soon as you enter the valley. If you’re short on time but full of energy, all these rewarding sights of the Coffee Axis can be visited in one day.

 

The quaint town of Salento, Colombia, sits in the heart of the Coffee Region. Image via justapack.com.

 


Peru

 

Sunset in the Pacific coast of Peru.

 

While Lima, Arequipa and Cusco are reasonably distant from each other, it is definitely possible to drive to some of Peru’s most incredible sights. The first itinerary goes from Lima to the famous Nazca lines. Although traffic might be an issue in Lima, the six-hour coastal drive South to the ancient lines should not be one. There are also many options along the way: the Pachacamac Ruins, one hour into the trip, and Paracas, halfway between Lima and Nazca. Upon reaching the Nazca lines, though, a car might not suffice, so it is ideal to take a ninety-minute flyover to really appreciate the 2,000 year-old drawings.

 

 

Road between Lima and Paracas.

 

The second itinerary takes you to Machu Picchu, one of Peru’s greatest sights. Although trains are more common, it is definitely possible to get close by car. From Cusco, the starting point, it would take approximately six hours to reach Central Hidroeléctrica, the closest town to the Incan ruins, and park your car there. The only downside? After this point, Machu Picchu is at least a two-and-a-half hour walk going up. While this trip might only sound feasible to the adventurous, it is recommended to make stops, or even spend the night, in Ollantaytambo or Aguas Calientes for about $16 a night.

 

Road near Cusco, Peru. Image by Nicolas Castermans.

 


 

Brazil 

 

Sand dunes and lagoons at the Lençois Maranhenses National Park. By Pakawat Thongcharoen/Getty Images.

 

Brazil is so huge that it could be a whole continent by itself; thus, the possibilities are endless. We could narrow it down to two: a road trip along the northern coast and one in the southeast. Beginning in São Luís, the capital of the northern state of Maranhão, you can drive four hours east and then hire a 4×4 Jeep to explore the Lençóis Maranhenses (literally bedsheets from Maranhão). Almost half the area of this national park is made up of thousands of sky-blue lagoons formed by the rainwater that accumulates in the sand dunes during the wet season. The oasis-like scenery spans hundreds of miles along the northern Atlantic coast, but going eastward you will find the popular resort town of Jericoacoara and the bustling city of Fortaleza, where you could finish the trip. 

 

 

 

The Sudeste region, where the second itinerary would take place, is home to Brazil’s biggest cities. Here, road BR-101 would take you along the Costa Verde, another stretch of Brazil’s coastline between the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The almost twelve-hour ride is definitely worth the effort, as a mix of mountains, beaches and even colonial towns are all throughout the way. You can make a stop in Angra dos Reis and take a ferry to Ilha Grande, a beautiful, former-prison island. You can also visit the town of Paraty, filled with colonial architecture and cobbled streets. Alternatively, if bigger cities are preferred, São Paulo and Rio’s metro area offer countless options for entertainment and sightseeing, especially if you have a car. However, both areas go well beyond the 10-million people mark, so traffic delays are to be expected. Still, the Região Sudeste, whether in the cities or outside, is certainly a must-see for anyone traveling in Brazil.

 

A street of Paraty, in Southeast Brazil. Image via Theculturetrip.com.

 


 

Chile 

 

Houses “on top of each other” in Valparaíso. Image by Pablo Rodríguez.

 

Stretching along the Pacific and the Andes for so long gives Chile a huge variety of landscapes and climates that could be suitable for any type of traveler. Santiago, the capital, is perhaps the easiest place to start a road journey. From there, you could drive about 1:30 hours west to the cities of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. The road takes you through the Casablanca Valley, home of many Chilean wineries, but also rewards you with incredible views of the Pacific ocean and Valparaíso’s homes almost perched on the hills. During the winter time (May-August), I highly recommend traveling eastward to Valle Nevado, a popular ski resort 1:30 hours away from the capital. Whether you like to ski or not, the winding roads through the snow and the breathtaking winter scenery at the top are, without a doubt, worth the day trip.

 

The road to Valle Nevado in Chile. Image via Vallenevado.com.

 

 

Another option is to plan for the summer time (November-February) and travel South—really South—to the Torres del Paine National Park. Almost at the tip of the Southern Cone, this huge park encompasses mountains, rivers, lakes and glaciers. Paine means blue in Tehuelche, the native Patagonian language, which very likely refers to the almost turquoise-colored lakes around the park. While Torres del Paine might be one of Chile’s most sought-after hiking destinations, a good amount of people rent a car to explore most of it on their own. One of the exceptions, though, is the Grey Glacier, a must-see landmark that is only accessible by boat. A more complete itinerary would actually start by flying from Santiago to Punta Arenas, one of the most southerly cities of the world, on the notable Strait of Magellan, see the penguins in the nearby Magdalena Island and then drive north for 3:30 hours until reaching Torres del Paine. Although location and extreme weather make this an arduous trip, seeing the marvelous scenes of the Chilean Patagonia in person should be a trip on your bucket list.

 

 

One of the stops along the road to Torres del Paine National Park.

 

 

Penguins in Magdalena Island, near Punta Arenas, Chile. Image via Cascada.travel.

 


 

Argentina

 

 

Quebrada de Cafayate in Northwestern Argentina. Image via Pixabay.com.

 

Ruta 40 stretches all the way from Argentina’s northern border with Bolivia down to Cape Vírgenes, in the southern tip of mainland Argentina. Over 3.000 miles long, Ruta 40 is one of the longest roads in the world, with sights reminiscent of those along the United States Route 66 or the Trans-Canada Highway. The northern part of the road passes nearby cities like Salta or Cafayate, where one can appreciate the red-colored mountains of the Andes. In the middle, you can explore Mendoza and its surrounding vineyards. Further South, the alpine-like city of San Carlos de Bariloche is probably the best gateway to the Argentinian Patagonia. El Calafate, even further South, will reward you with access to the most visited glaciers in the country. Finally, Ushuaia—nicknamed “the End of the World”—lies almost at the very tip of the continent and can be accessed by car with only one ferry crossing.

 

Argentina’s Ruta 40 near El Chaltén. Image by Evelyn Proimos.

 

On the other side of the spectrum—and the country—, you might enjoy bigger cities, so Buenos Aires could be a better option. Even though public transportation is widely available, you can certainly rent your own car and explore the top spots inside and on the outskirts of the capital.  inclined to travel around Buenos Aires. The Japanese gardens in the Palermo neighborhood, driving along the 9 de Julio Avenue in downtown and visiting La Bombonera, Boca Juniors’ home stadium in La Boca neighborhood are only a few of Buenos Aires’ best attractions. Drive one hour South away from the bustle and explore La Plata’s renowned Museum of Natural History and some of its distinctive buildings, like its famous Neo-Gothic cathedral.

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There are, of course, many more sights and road trips in each country. In fact, the list would be even longer had we included the other Latin American countries that did not appear on the study. Just to name a few, the three-hour journey from San José to the Arenal Volcano National Park in Costa Rica, crossing Puerto Rico from the coast to coast along the Ruta Panorámica, or driving a 4×4 on the mirror-like flats of the Uyuni salt lake in Bolivia, these are all trips that involve some type of land transportation. I have also tried to find a balance between rural and urban settings for each country, which hopefully will convince people on either end. True, the “instagrammabilty” of places like Europe or the United States cannot be denied, but the immense amount of landscapes, historical landmarks and attractions in Latin America are sure hard to beat.

 

Views from Supay Beach in Paracas, Peru. Image via theculturetrip.com.

 


Javier Cataño García | University of South Florida, Tampa

My name is Javier Cataño García and I am pursuing a M.A. in Spanish, with focus on linguistics and literature, at the University of South Florida, Tampa, where I also teach undergraduate Spanish courses. I was born and raised in Colombia, but I have lived in the United States since August 2021. I have always had a special interest in foreign languages and geography, and I am looking to channel that interest through Latina Republic. I also have some training and experience in English-Spanish translation and interpretation. Although my professional career has been centered in teaching, I enjoy delving into other areas such as music, cooking and journalism. I hope to find new directions in my career through Latina Republic.