Driving Me Mad: Surviving the Streets of Paraguay

Driving in Paraguay cannot be described as a calm and relaxing experience. Getting behind the wheel is almost inevitably overwhelming for newcomers on Paraguayan streets.

Let's be honest, I'm aware that there are worse places to drive than Paraguay. Compared to other parts of the world I am sure that Paraguayan drivers are quite civilized.

However, Paraguay is definitely is the worst place I have driven.—and to be fair, not all drivers in Paraguay are terrible. That said, a large proportion of them could use a driving lesson or two.

Here are a few things we here at Why Paraguay have learned as foreigners driving in Paraguay.  

Note: the examples given are all anecdotal from our personal experience.

Defensive driving is not the norm

Many Paraguayans are aggressive, rather than defensive, drivers. They don’t seem to be afraid of blocking oncoming traffic or breaking rules in order to get to their intended destination.

If you are from a country where defensive driving is taught, you may need to change your driving style a bit. You are going to need to start driving more assertively, or else you’ll never get to your destination.

As aggravating as driving here can be, the drivers out there are not going to change. It is you who must adapt.

Use your horn! Cut people off! Squeak yourself into lanes that don't exist. Everyone else does, and they're expecting you to do so as well. On the plus side, it's a good way to release some of that built-up road rage (especially if you are trying not to swear in front of children riding with you).

Traffic signs and road rules are just a ‘suggestion’

Stop signs and right of ways are more often than not ignored. Cars running stop signs and red lights is commonplace. So be careful!

For instance, when the traffic light turns green wait a good three seconds to see if anyone is going to run the perpendicular street’s red light. 

It’s wise to learn the right of way rules before getting behind the wheel of a car in Paraguay but remember even if you know the rules, others may not. Actually, most don't.

The only bonus of being familiar with the road rules is in the worst case that someone wrongs you, you'll know who is actually at fault. Whether they have stronger connections than you when it comes to traffic court is another issue entirely. However, in the heat of the moment, at least in your heart you will know that you were in the right and there's some satisfaction in that.

For more information about the rules of the road here in Paraguay you can purchase a manual Touring Automovil Club de Paraguay.              

You can do almost anything you want as long as you use your hazard lights

Slowly driving with hazards lights flashing is excruciatingly common on Paraguayan streets. Instead of helpfully signalling that the car ahead is having issues that others need to be aware of, a Paraguayan driver uses hazard lights to indicate that they're either looking for something, talking on the phone, texting or about to go in reverse down a busy street.

We like to think that perhaps these hazard lights are in fact being used appropriately because they indicate that the drivers are about to do something hazardous. What they may not understand is that having hazard lights on your vehicle does not give one a licence to be a hazard on the road. Or maybe in Paraguay it actually does?

There is always room to park

Whether it’s double parking (“Don't mind me, I’ll only be a minute!”), parking so close that rearview mirrors are clipped, or parking on a busy street turning lane to pop into a store you’ll soon learn that it’s not only moving cars that will drive you crazy.

If your car that blocked by another, you may be lucky enough to have a highly-skilled parking attendant help you maneuver your way out of the jam. If so, make sure you give that person a big tip!

If you're not so lucky, you may be able to find the guilty driver and get them to move their car. In our experience, the drivers are usually very happy to move their cars as long as you don’t give them too much grief.  

Turn signals are either not used or used improperly

It is often hard to guess what your fellow drivers are about to do on the road. Who needs signals? Why would you want to give other drivers notice to your turning?

In Paraguay it's not uncommon to see someone have their signal light on and not actually turn. Or it can be the other way around, where they do turn, but don't give you a heads up first—this can be dangerous when on a busy street and the driver is in front of you.

Now an even trickier deception is when the driver signals to turn in one direction, but goes the other way.

To be fair, we can forgive some of these turn signal foibles, as we've committed them ourselves in the past. Since so many of the cars on the road here were converted from right hand drive to left hand drive (Japanese imports coming in through Chile), the position of where the turn signal is next to the steering wheel is also off. I've been a culprit of intending to signal a turn, and accidentally turned on my wipers instead... more often than I'd like to admit.

Bad signal users can be found around the world, but here in Paraguay they outnumber the good ones by a long shot.

Turning can be initiated from any lane (done with or without signals)

Someone needs to turn left? Apparently they can do it from the right lane! Need to turn right? Do it from the left lane!

Always keep your head on a swivel, and assume the worst. Be aware that at anytime, cars in front of you can and will do something stupid. Doesn't matter if they're civilian cars, police cars, buses, or motorcycles... always be alert!

Green lights mean two way streets turn into one way streets

Remember, driving in Paraguay isn't just about getting from point A to point B. You're going to need to use your psychic powers to assess everyone around you to guess what they're going to do next. So with that in mind, you may need to think ahead to guess where other drivers might be, even if you can't see them.

On certain roads with or without staggered lights, impatient drivers will turn the oncoming traffic lane into a free-for-all mad dash to make it through the light.

Basically, if there are no cars coming in the oncoming lane (or if they are a certain distance away), drivers will zip into the oncoming lane and try to pass the suckers who stayed in their assigned lane on the left. The result is a rush to make it through the green light to make their left turn or simply get ahead of the cars in front of them.

At times, these cars rushing the green light have misjudged their opportunity and meet head-on with a car and have to quickly re-enter their appropriate lane. That said, we've never actually seen an accident result from this type of green light game of chicken... but they're inevitable.

Driving on sidewalks or shoulders can get you to your destination faster

Any time you leave what you believe to be a safe amount of space around your car, you are in danger of being passed.

Even if going a reasonable speed down a single-lane, pothole-filled road, you are not going to be traveling fast enough for some drivers.

Even if there is no space ahead of you, someone may try to edge themselves in front.

What we've yet to fully understand is why for these impatient drivers getting to their destination 10 seconds early makes any difference at all. Given the amount of times we've been made to wait by Paraguayans, we can't put our finger on what these dangerous liberties being taken by scary drivers actually achieves.  

Colectivos (buses) always have the right of way... even when they don't

One of the first things that newcomer will notice when they come to Paraguay are the ornately decorated buses that fill the streets. The second thing they'll notice, are all the scratches and dents on those same buses.

Sadly, just because the drivers have obtained a licence to drive these 10-tonne machines, does not mean that they are good drivers or that they care about keeping their bus in good condition.

In an almost insane act of defiance, these buses will constantly and spontaneously change lanes, stop, pull over, cross intersections, and run red lights, and always without checking to see if there are cars in their way.

And we don't use the term insane lightly here; Some of these colectivo drivers were disturbed enough to literally crucify themselves for their job. 

If you find yourself driving near one of these beasts, just get out of their way as fast as you can. When on driving on major thoroughfares like Avenida Eusebio Ayala, you will likely find yourself boxed in at some point by multiple buses. Best plan is to just wait for your opportunity and get the hell out of their way as soon as possible. Or better yet, use side streets.

Motos have the unique ability to make new traffic lanes

As long as there is space, either between you and another car or between you and the shoulder, a moto will find its way there. Utilize your mirrors and shoulder checks, as you never know when a moto will sneak up on you.

Watch out for drivers of Hillux trucks and new Mercedes SUVs

And finally, beware these makes of cars. Drivers of these vehicles just seem to be the worst offenders. Driving too fast, passing on residential streets and, in general, a complete disregard for anyone else on the road. Seriously... be on your toes.