In this post, we pick up where we left off in Part III our top tips for a quick look-see of Uruguay. This time we’ll focus on driving tactics in the country.
Driving in Uruguay can be easy and pleasant. But there’s the official rules of the road and then, there’s the behaviors drivers display every day that deviate from the rules. Here’s a few of the informal “rules of the road” we picked up during our visit in November 2017.
Part IV: Our Top tips list
Tip #11: There is no right-of-way
Imagine Yoda in your mind’s eye as you sit in your rental car in downtown Montevideo. See him as he stands in front of you waving his hand and saying there is no right-of-way. That’s because, literally, there is no right-of-way, in practice, in this country.
Uruguayan’s “take” right-of-way by just doing what they want to when they want to do so. We never saw a yield right-of-way sign anywhere. But even if there was one and we missed it, it wouldn’t matter. Uruguayan’s “take” right-of-way.
You’ll see this behavior at shopping malls, in the streets or on the roads. Uruguayans will simply cut you off, cut in line in front of you, or just jump into an elevator in front of you and take off. It’s all quite normal here.
If a car breezes through an intersection without stopping it’s because the driver presumes a “might makes right” means of passage. They presume their own right-of-way. It seems, from what we’ve seen, Uruguayan’s really don’t think of right-of-way in legal terms as drivers in North American or Europe might.
We don’t judge this behavior and label it as morally right or wrong. It’s just different — and you need to know about it if you plan to drive here.
Tip #12: Drivers run red lights
Stopping for red lights is a bit of a formality for many Uruguayan drivers. Outside the inner-city limits of Montevideo, many drivers seem to regard red lights as optional. Be prepared!
Tip #13: Lane splitting by two-wheelers
Lane splitting — that is —riding a bicycle or motorcycle between lanes or rows of slow moving or stopped traffic moving in the same direction on roads, is common in Uruguay. It is sometimes called lane sharing, white lining, filtering, or stripe-riding in other countries.
Lane splitting is a daily affair in Uruguay. It’s quite common to sit at a red light in the comfy quiet solitude of a rental car, only to feel the jolt of your senses arise as a two-wheel shock jockey blows by you and zips through a red light at an intersection. Beware!
Tip #14: Drivers may stop their vehicles suddenly in the middle of the road ahead of you for no obvious reason
We saw this behavior a lot in third world Southeast Asian countries. But in Uruguay? It makes no apparent sense. Along the expressway to Colonia, you’ll encounter slow moving vehicles in the left or passing lane. Sometimes they’ll just STOP. Beware!
Tip #15: Trees reduce visability at night in Montevideo
When you drive in Montevideo at night, the streets are quite dark. Akin to Buenos Aires, Argentina, Montevideo features large trees lining the sides of most city streets and confer shade. This is a welcome on days of bright sunlight. But it makes for dreary, eerie navigation on rainy days.
Combine these two conditions with those jet-black nights that occur several days each month, and you’ll find yourself in the middle of some potentially dangerous situations. It can be difficult to spot threatening conditions. Pedestrians will seem to pop out of nowhere at intersections or from in between cars — it happened to us a lot.
Tip #16: Pedestrians will walk in front of you without looking or yielding
Remember that right-of-way issue I mentioned earlier?
Pedestrians will walk across major city roads throwing all caution to the wind, right in front of you. They TAKE the right-of-way. It’s theirs! And they assume you see them: even in the dark of night, under those shady trees, and rainy conditions. It’s just your responsibility to stop! They’re not worried about you hitting them — as they presume they have the right-of-way — even though there is no right-of-way in practice.
Tip #17: Daylight running lights (DRL)
Remember that rental car we suggested back in Part I? Well, your rental agent may tell you DRL’s are mandatory in Uruguay. But that doesn’t mean that all rental cars run DRL’s automatically. On several occasions, we had other drivers flashing their lights at us or beeping their horns. Finally, we figured out we forgot to turn on our headlights. To her credit, our rental agent warned us about this requirement.
Tip #18: Backing Up Cars
We could write an entire short story on the practice of backing up cars in Uruguay. This is one of the weirdest phenomena we’ve seen in any country.
First, almost every car in the country, especially those in major cities like Montevideo, bear the nicks and scars of banging into other cars and objects. We presume this is from attempts to park cars.
Admittedly, parking spots are difficult to find especially in Montevideo. You’ll see drivers all over the city all-day long every day of the week trying to sandwich their cars into tiny spots. This accounts for some of the phenomena we’ve seen.
The Parking Assistant
Enter the “parking assistant”. This is a person, male or female, sometimes licensed and appointed by a town, in other cases simply self-appointed, who sits around in areas between roads and intersections looking for parking spots and candidate drivers he or she can direct to those parking spots.
Typically, this person will “hijack” or stand in the parking spot and hold it for a driver. They’ll halt other traffic by standing in the middle of the road with a hand up, and do anything necessary to earn a tip from the person trying to park his or her car — even if that means blocking you from taking spot even if you were there first.
A Worldwide Phenomenon?
The only other place we’ve seen this phenomenon is South Africa. Are we missing this in other parts of the world?
Being the independent Northern Americans that we are we laughed about this and simply ignored these people. But in truth, what they do is common in Uruguay. And on more than one occasion we nearly ran over one of these characters because we discount what we consider to be a silly practice that in fact is a standard in the country. Even more laughable were the looks of dismay on the faces of these people when they saw us back up into spaces without their help!
Park, Bash, and Gawk
Finally, and perhaps the strangest incident of all, we saw a group of middle age adults in a high-end Audi, take a parking space in front of our rental car, adjust the position of the Audi to “find the right distance”, and finally back up into our rental car! The driver and his passengers, all in their mid-40s and 50s, exited the Audi, looked at our rental car, and spent five minutes talking about backing up into our car!
We took pictures of their car and license plate and the bumpers of our rental car. No one at the rental car agency seem to care when we turned the car in. Clearly, banging the bumpers of cars in this country is the way of life.
Tip #19: One-way streets
How do you know what is a one-way street in Uruguay? There’s just two ways to solve this challenge.
One is to look for arrows painted on the side of buildings at the intersection of streets. The arrow on the side of the building displaying the arrow is the direction of the one-way street.
The second way to find out whether street is one-way or not is to look to see if you can drive through it. More than once we found ourselves backing up at an intersection because no arrows were in place. It was only when we saw cars coming at us or running in a one-way direction that alerted us to the fact it was a one-way street. Parked cars facing in only one direction is another dead giveaway.
Tip # 20: One-way loops
On expressways or major roads like the Ramblas that runs around downtown Montevideo along the Atlantic, you be hard-pressed to find an exit to get off the road when you want to. The solution is to keep driving and wait for a one-way loop. You’ll see signals or lanes on either the left or right-hand side of the road. Left hand loops usually feature a traffic light before you can reverse or direction.
Tip # 21: Speed bumps
Roads in Uruguay are chock full of speed bumps. They are especially common in cities. There are no warning signs about these bumps. Either you see them or you don’t. Make sure you rent an SUV that sits high off the ground. You’ll be glad you did.
Tip # 22: Low speed limits
If you’re used to zipping around roads at 70 miles an hour you’ll need to pay attention in this country. The national speed limit for expressways is 110 km/h or 62 miles per hour! It's 50 km/h in towns and between 70 and 90 km on two-way roads that aren’t expressways.
Generally, it seems like traffic is crawling around this country. Having said that, we’ve seen cars, many in fact, zip by us as if we were standing still.
Photo radar is all over the place. If you see taillights come in on while driving around for no obvious reason it’s because the locals know where the photo radar is running.
Tip # 23: Directional signals at road speed with no lane change
Ok, this is another weird practice and we’ve seen variants of it in other countries. Given the low speed limits in this country, it’s easy to overtake a slower moving vehicle in the left-hand or passing lane.
In Uruguay, it’s common to for slow moving cars in the passing lane to NOT MOVE over to the right-hand lane. Rather they invoke the right-hand turn signal and expect you to go around them.
Tip # 24: Crossing one-way bridges
It seems there’s an unwritten rule about right-of-way and one-way bridges in this country. Drivers waiting on the opposite side of one-way bridges expect you to stop and yield right-of-way. At first, this shouldn’t be surprising since we’ve already asserted no one honors right-of-way in Uruguay.
Thinking through it this phenomenon, it appears other drivers want you to flash your headlights to signal them it’s OK for them to cross a bridge first. We encountered this situation with a tractor-trailer driver on a small bridge outside Colonia.
Tip #24: Toll roads
Toll roads are on all major expressways. You need to pay in cash, preferably pesos, at a manual stop booth. Bills are okay — you won’t need change.
Tip # 25: GPS-Get one
Our rental GPS was hopelessly out-of-date. Often, we found our rental GPS to be of no help with one-way streets. But it’s still useful for getting around the country.
In our next post, we’ll pile on more useful, relevant practical tips for you, our colleague in roving travel. These tips are up-to-date from our Fall 2017 adventure through Uruguay — knowledge you can use right now if you travel to this country.
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