Road Conditions During Your Drive to South America

Some road conditions to consider during your drive to South America.

Driving at Night

DO NOT DRIVE AT NIGHT. This is for several reasons.

  1. There are no street lights. Combination of that and
  2. No lane dividers make your life miserable as oncoming truckers blind you. Also,
  3. Being in the tropical area, your windshield will kill several bugs, which will further hinder your vision.
  4. You can’t always make out potholes and such even at daytime. It’s much worse at night. If you HAVE to drive at night and are not in a rush to find a hotel, I would do it in Panama. Their main roads are in great shape, save for the road from Panama City to Colon.

IF YOU DO DRIVE AT NIGHT: 
Of course you will drive at night, no matter what anyone tells you. I would consider the following:

  1. Slow down. You shouldn’t be going too fast during the day anyway, so slow down.
  2. Follow a car that seems to be going at a decent pace. His actions will tell you whether you need to slow down or swerve left and right.
  3. Try and clean the windshield at some point.

Latin America

  • Latin American country highways do not indicate which direction the road is taking you. Rather, it will indicate the name of the town in that particular direction. This could be a large city hundreds of miles away or a much smaller town in the next few miles.
  • Latin American highways do not consist of elaborate bridges and exits like the States. Instead, they will drive through every city and town. Be careful at this point, as speed limits change dramatically.
  • Honking means several things. It could mean thank you, passing you from the left, sorry, and of course, screw you. Don’t take all the honkings too seriously. Don’t forget to honk around the blind mountain passes.
  • Cuota means cost and Libre means free. Usually, there are libre highways leading to the same town as the cuato highways. It might take a little while longer to get there. I met a guy who spent 3.5 months traveling to Panama and back to California on his motorcycle. He never paid toll.
  • Mexico is in love with bumps. Be careful as some of them are not marked. Other Latin American countries do not share the same passion. If Mexico has a hundred bumps, Latin America in its entirety must have ten.

Mexico

  • A left turn signal doesn’t necessarily mean that the vehicle is turning left. If on a highway, a left turn signal indicates that it’s safe for you to pass. A right turn or a emergency blinker signal indicates that it’s not safe to pass or there is limited visibility for the car in front of you to tell. It appears this system is employed only by Mexicans and not in other Central American countries.
  • Beware of Topes (Bumps). There are at least 2 in every village, even the smallest ones, one in the front and one in the end. You WILL go through hundreds of them.
  • Not all topes are marked. A good general rule to follow is to follow a car whose pace you feel comfortable with. He/she would know the roads better than you and their actions will warn you of impending topes.
  • People like to use the Topes as opportunities to sell items such as food, water, and simple toys. On very rare occasions, they employ a rope to completely block off the road, and once stopped, will ask for you to buy their merchandise. Politely refuse, and they’ll drop the rope to let you through.
  • A few roads in Mexico do not have any speed limits. However, do not simply drive as fast as you desire. This is usually preceded by either crappy and/or windy roads.
  • If you are in Oaxaca State and driving along the coast heading towards San Cristobal, you may be stopped by the military for inspection. Be polite, tell them you don’t speak spanish, and they will do a short check of your trunk.

Guatemala

  • Roads are generally in as good if not better condition than Mexico. There are a lot less bumps, called tumulos here. Not every village has one like Mexico does, but some villages seem to be building new ones. But they don’t seem to be as high or as great in quantity.
  • The CA1 down the mountains are going through an overhaul right now. It appears Guatemala is very aggressive with upgrading their roads They seem to be expanding the 1 lane highway (each direction) into a two lane highway through the mountain pass to Lake Atitlan and Antigua. I imagine they’ll all be complete within the next 3-4 years.
  • Be careful while driving in Guatemala. This country sometimes has deep ditches on the right hand side of the streets.
  • Cobbled streets of Antigua will violently shake your car.
  • If you are climbing a Volcano, wear gloves. You can thank me later because no guide book seems to think those are important.
  • Chicken buses are much more vibrant in color and in popularity. They are also much more aggressive than the buses in Mexico.

Honduras

  • Honduras has the best highway roads in Central America.
  • The roads will make you feel as though you were in United States. That’s because apparently, the country hired American contractors to overhaul their major highway infrastructure in the mid-90s.
  • However, the roads don’t seem to have been maintained since then. Therefore, be careful when driving through towns. There are quite a few deep potholes on the highways there.
  • If going to Copan going southeast from Guatemala, be on the lookout for the signs (Copan or Copan Ruinas). One sign will tell you to turn left immediately at an intersection. After that turn, the signs will disappear, but do not panic. Follow the road all the way down. When you hit the T intersection (meaning an intersection where you have to turn left or right) turn left and make an immediate right. Follow this road until you see Copan Ruins to your right.

Nicaragua

  • The border crossing will frustrate you, both going in and out of the country. Remember, this is the 2nd Poorest country in America.
  • If crossing from Choluteca and El Guasaule, Honduras to Somotillo, Nicaragua, the first 15 miles or so will violently shake your vehicle. It’s not just unpaved. It’s rocky as hell. Be careful as some kids will try and make their own bumps by piling dirt in the middle of the highway and ask you for money.
  • If you do decide to venture to San Juan del Sur, be aware that the roads will alternate in its degree of quality. 100 meters of great highway will turn itself over to a 100 meters of rocky roads filled with potholes and mud. If you’re not a surfer, nothing but black sands and expensive hotels will await you after this tumulous ride.
  • Taking the ferry to Ometepe in Lago de Nicaragua (Nicaraguan Lake, the biggest fresh body of water in the world) seems to be fairly easy thing to do. However, I wouldn’t necessarily blindly commit to venture out there. Do take a visit, but it might not be what you expect.

Costa Rica

  • The PanAmericana is in good shape, but prepare to be frustrated by 1 lane (in each direction) highways going up and down the mountains.
  • What really helps with driving in Costa Rica is the location of the cities in respect to the highway. Instead of making you drive through every little village like the other Central American countries, most towns and cities are located outside of the main highway. You will have to go through San Jose, however.
  • The road between Paso Real and Palmar Norte may seem very counterintuitive considering how the road seems to zig zag unnecessarily from heading Southeast to West/Northwest and back to Southeast again. However, physically being on that road will make you reconsider your gripes; it is the most scenic route of the entire Pan-America Central American highways. I began to appreciate Costa Rica not at their beaches or volcanoes, but at this particular road.

Panama

  • The roads are in excellent shape. It contains the only major highway in Central America (Mexico included) where the major highway has 2 lanes for each direction and are in top shape.
  • Be careful if you plan to ride from Panama City to Colon. There are several potholes on this particular 1 lane road.
  • Be careful while driving in Panama City. I haven’t been to Mexico city, but this city is much more crowded, smogged, and aggressive than Guatemala City or local roads of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Tierra del Fuego

  • The last 200 miles to Ushuaia requires you to cross from Argentina to Chile, cross a channel on a ferry, and cross back into Argentina. Make sure you have your papers handy at all times, including the Argentinean Vehicle Insurance.
  • The ferry takes about 20 minutes to cross (3.2 miles in 18 minutes and 19 seconds, 10 mph on average). You need to wait for the cars to empty out of the ferry and for a sign from the workers telling you it’s ok to board. As soon as everyone’s aboard, the doors will close and it will head off. Go inside to the ‘Caja’ where you pay your toll, which was $23 for me. You can pay in US$, Chile Peso or Argentinean Peso. When the doors open, simply drive out.

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