Car Rental Tips for Driving in Central America

First of all, I understand that renting a car in Central America is not for everyone. If you’re reading this, you must be interested in Central America car rentals and I’ve had experiences driving in Panama City, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. Here are some car rental tips for driving in Central America:

Why You Should Rent a Car in Central America
Car Rental Tips for Driving in Central America
5 Common Car Rental Scams in Central America

Pre-requisites for Driving in Central America

You must be a defensive driver at all times – When you’re on the road in Central America, you have to be on high alert that someone is going to hit you at all times. You never want to be in a car accident situation in Central America because all parties are assumed guilty until the police sort it out.

You must be alert and awake – Driving in Central America is no joke because road conditions are in terrible shape and there will be animals, livestock, potholes, and pedestrians that you must avoid hitting.


You must be confident – If you think you’re not a good driver in the United States, then you shouldn’t be renting a car in Central America. I’m from Los Angeles and I’ve seen it all. I believe if you can drive LA style, you can drive anywhere in the world. You must be able to adapt to certain situations that is constantly ever changing.

Central America Driving Tips

Traffic Changes – Don’t rely on your GPS because some roads “change directions” because of rush hour. It feels weird to drive down a road that is facing the wrong way, but that’s normal in Central America. You must be able to adapt to this situation.

Google Maps is not accurate – I’ve found that Google Maps is not accurate in terms of telling the correct time between two distances. It’s always assuming that you’re driving at 65 mph but that’s never the case in Central America. The traffic is ever changing and Google Maps real time traffic update doesn’t always factor into the estimated trip time. If Google Maps tells you that it’s going to take you 35 minutes from your hotel to the airport, assume that it’s going to take 10 to 15 minutes longer.

Road Signs – It’s very easy to miss road signs in Central America because they’re poorly signed. Some of the font sizes are tiny and some of the signs are small in size. I’ve found that some signs are partially covered by trees leaves or completely obscured by a foreign object.

Driving at night – Driving in Central America in general is not for the feint of heart and it’s not recommended. Driving during the night is another animal because roads won’t be lit and in most cases, you’ll need to use the high beam. With potential rain at night, you’ll have to be on your guard and look out for potholes and animals. Again, people will be walking on the side of the road so you’ll need to watch out for them as well.

Getting lost – One wrong turn will get you lost in Central America. Sometimes you’ll have to travel a few miles just to make a U-Turn which will burn up valuable time. You must use a reliable GPS either with a Garmin or Google Maps on your iPhone.

Passing lanes – Most roads in Central America only have two lanes, the one that you’re on and one for opposing traffic. In most cases, you’re going to encounter a slow car where you’ll have to go on the opposing traffic lane and ‘pass’ the other car. This is extremely dangerous if poorly timed and you must be skilled in this situation. The best advice is to only pass if it’s safe to overtake the car in front of you. Make sure you have ample amount of straight road where you can see oncoming traffic.

Which Car Rental Company Should I Use in Central America?

Use a reputable car rental company such as National, Alamo, Hertz, Sixt, and Avis. I would also trust budget car rental companies such as Thrifty, Dollar, and Budget. If there’s one car rental company you should avoid in Central America, it’s Economy Rental Car. I’ve heard many horror stories of people getting ripped off from Economy Car Rental.

Should I Get a Car with a 4 Wheel Drive in Central America?

An all-wheel drive is not necessary in most cases, but it is highly recommended if you know you’re going to be in rugged terrain. For example, in Costa Rica I was driving an SUV with a 4 wheel drive and it was a god send. I was driving through mountains in a torrential downpour situation and having the four wheel drive helped me a lot with road traction.


How much is Gas in Central America?

Regular gas can range from $3.82 a gallon up to $6.00 a gallon in Central America. Diesel fuel is always cheaper than regular gas. Be aware that the gas is not the same as in the United States where it’s clean efficient fuel. The gas is watered down with other chemicals agents that can mess up the car in the long run. Since you’re in a rental, it doesn’t matter that much. The price of gas also goes up two weeks before a major holiday.

Continue to 5 Common Car Rental Scams in Central America.


About the Author

Points Summary
My name is and I write the Points Summary travel blog.

4 Comments on "Car Rental Tips for Driving in Central America"

  1. @pointssummary
    -whats been your experience with the mandatory auto insurance? it can cost more than the actual rental.
    -this mandatory insurance covers damage to other property/people? liability?
    -do any credit cards replace this mandatory insurance?

    • I will talk more about that tomorrow on “Car Rental Scams in Central America”

      • ok. cool.
        i wonder why major rental agencies (hertz, alamo, etc.) arent transparent about this mandatory liability insurance at the time of booking.
        is mandatory liability insurance prevalent in other parts of the world?

  2. All excellent tips. When I drove in Nicaragua I didn’t have GPS and was so exasperated with the lack of signs that I hired a student guide just to navigate for me.

    Costa Rica I still shudder. I was in San Jose on business and a major bridge collapsed. I spent hours in traffic pounding the dash before eventually getting to my hotel, so many times I saw it and could not get a road there.

    Otherwise have had fun!

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