Uruguay has a great bus system, but there are times that having access to a vehicle would make traveling around this small country much easier. Over the seven weeks that I spent in Uruguay I witnessed some traffic conditions that I would never want to drive in, but found myself behind the wheel once in Punta del Diablo. I have been told that driving in South America is risky business and this certainly applies in some areas of Uruguay.
Vehicle rentals are very expensive in Uruguay and you don’t get much for your money. All cars are expensive in Uruguay because of the high VAT on imported goods. You will probably end up with a run down subcompact that’s doors are held on by broken off screw drivers. Things in Uruguay are sometimes fixed with improvised parts or “MacGyver’ed” for those familiar with the hit 80′s TV show. If you can’t drive standard forget about it all together. I don’t think I saw a single automatic car while in Uruguay.
If you are headed up the coast or towards the interior to smaller towns, which is probably the only reason to rent a car, try to get a truck that’s four wheel drive if possible. The roads in most coastal towns are sand. I got stuck in said sand more than once with a truck that wasn’t four wheel drive.
If you do rent a car beware of dogs they are every where and the repair costs will stagger you.
I would advise against visitors driving in Montevideo. Not only are the streets here confusing, but there are plenty of easier and cheaper ways of getting around. The inter and intra-city bus systems are quite good and taxis are cheap. Many intersections lack signs or traffic lights. You are just expected to know which street has the right of way.
The closer you get to Montevideo the more lane lines become suggestions. Once in the capital city they are pretty much ignored all together. Traffic changes lanes with out notice and is often two wide in single lanes. Drivers are usually shifting, talking, sipping mate, and popping between lanes all while keeping a maximum distance of 4 or 5 inches from the car in front of them.
Bottom line: I don’t suggest driving in Montevideo. If you have to drive through Montevideo the safest route is along “la Rambla.” This road which runs along the ocean has no cross roads and is two lanes with a median. It is by far the safest patch of asphalt to drive on in Montevideo.
While hanging out in Punta del Diablo and the surrounding towns I had access to Chevy pickup. I got to know it fairly well. The back left door had to be pulled in then pushed out while pulling the handle in order to open. The front doors where held on by broken off screwdrivers and had to be slammed with considerable force to close. The tailgate hinges were broken and the tailgate was liable to come unattached while trying to close it.
The roads in most coastal towns are sand and are constantly being washed away. Craters and ditches open up large enough to swallow compact cars. This is why I suggest a 4×4. The best way to drive in these areas is by swerving around all of the holes in the road; this usually means driving around intersections. Fortunately there is not much traffic in these areas in the winter. I can’t imagine driving there in the summer when many of the coastal towns swell with beach goers.
The highways are good; far better than what I have heard awaits the foreign driver in other South American countries. There are no multi-lane highways in Uruguay and the maximum speed limit is 110 Km/h. There are short on/off ramp like circles for exiting and entering the highways. These make things much safer.
Speed limits seemed to be taken as a maximum and not at all a suggested speed like they are else where. I often came upon cars traveling half the speed limit and this causes huge problems as Uruguayan drivers will pass regardless of oncoming traffic. The oncoming driver is expected to use the shoulder to avoid a head on. You will also see people with small motor bikes pulling carts traveling around 1/3 of the speed limit in the center of your lane. You have to stay on your toes and expect the worst.
If you decide to drive in Uruguay be cautious. There is no reason why you can’t have a safe driving expirience as long as you pay attention. However, I still advise against driving in Montevideo.