As an airline pilot who often faces short layovers, I don’t usually have the time to negotiate public transportation. And more often than not, a rental car is not only the quickest way around – it’s often the cheapest, especially if you’re carpooling. And renting a car in Guatemala is probably a lot easier than you think, even in 2021.
I found that renting a car in Guatemala in early 2021 was far more convenient than struggling with post-covid, lackluster shuttle schedules and taking crowded chicken buses. Though I overall had a great experience, I did encounter some surprises.
So here’s what I learned from renting a car in Guatemala, in the form of the 15 best tips I wish I would have known before leaving.
1) Choose a reputable rental car company in Guatemala.
In terms of rental car companies in Guatemala, I found that Hertz was most reliable. I really liked that the offer, at a very modest additional charge, the ability to drive across the borders into El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, and Mexico. This gives you great flexibility if you want to explore some of the incredible sites in Belize from across the border in Flores/Tikal.
They also offer a variety of selection; trucks, SUVS, small hatchbacks, etc. And they have locations all around the country so you can maximize your time in Guatemala.
2) Research your route before getting a rental car in Guatemala.
Many roads, even major highways, in Guatemala are dirt roads – sometimes for miles and miles.
Some routes may take you through rougher comunas/neighborhoods in Guatemala City.
In our experience, Google Maps takes you on the dirt roads. Waze avoids them, but this adds as much as 5+ hours to the trip time.
3) Consider renting a 4×4 rental car/truck in Guatemala.
Some of the main highways in Guatemala are gravel roads. And not just average gravel roads, really rough ones.
A higher car with good clearance and a 4×4, especially when it rains, will make your life easier.
That being said, we did see normal cars and even TukTuks making it through these terrible roads, so it is possible. It’s just very, very demanding.
4) Use Waze in Guatemala city.
Not only does Waze alert you to speed cameras, red light cameras, road hazards, and traffic jams, its routing is phenomenal in the city. Twice, we witnessed Waze route us through excellent, safe alternate routes that cut valuable time off our trips.
5) Confirm your rental car’s transmission choice before renting in Guatemala.
If you’ve never driven manual, Guatemala might not be the best place to learn. For one, it’s hilly/mountainous/full of volcanos. Two, the traffic is bad. Really bad.
So spend the extra couple bucks to rent an automatic. If you’re savvy and can drive manual, that’s great too!
6) Watch out for speed bumps all over the roads of Guatemala.
Have you driven anywhere in Central America before? You may have noticed the speed bumps. They’re super erratic; different sizes, shapes, random locations, etc. But the worst part is that they can blend in and be really hard to see, especially in the bright daylight.
7) Traffic in and out of Guatemala City is usually a nightmare.
You think LA traffic is bad? I mean it is… but Guatemala City can be just as bad, plus a LOT of pollution. I’m not even sure how these trucks can emit THAT much smoke, but they do. It’s suffocating.
In our experience, getting in and out of the city was tougher than actually driving within the city limits.
8) Parking your rental car generally isn’t an issue in Guatemala – but consider paid parking.
We never had issues finding street parking anywhere in the country, but that doesn’t mean you should park anywhere.
Consider using a paid or secured parking lot if you’re planning to park somewhere overnight. Private hotel parking lots are fine – we used these aplenty.
9) Use a credit card that includes primary rental car insurance in Guatemala.
As an airline pilot who rents cars all over the world, credit card renter’s insurance has saved me countless of thousands of dollars.
What I loved about the Chase line of credit cards is that unlike other credit cards with rental car insurance, they primary insurance. This means that, in case you need to use the insurance, you won’t have to scramble to go through the rental car company’s insurance before creating a claim with your credit card provider. Instead, you can directly file a claim with Chase and have it dealt with quickly and painlessly.
I had no issues declining any of the rental car company insurances by using my own credit card rental insurance.
10) Wait for a gas attendant before filling your rental car in Guatemala.
Just like in New Jersey, you cannot fill up your own gas in Guatemala. Make sure to wait for a gas attendant.
Thought it’s never happened to me, I’ve always been told to be careful and make sure they start filling up the gas at zero dollars. Normally the pumps automatically reset between fillings, but you never know.
11) Avoid driving your rental car at night in Guatemala.
As a general rule-of-thumb, avoid driving anywhere in Central America at night. It’s not like the wolves come out as soon as the sun sets, but it’s just not worth the risk.
However, nighttime is when the drunk drivers come out. It’s a well-known and unfortunate fact in Latin America, including Guatemala.
Even if there are no human-induced dangers, there are so many hidden potholes all over the place. It’s not worth popping a tire and having to stop somewhere sketchy along the way.
12) Stop at road blocks – but be careful.
If you encounter a road block in Guatemala, even if unattended, make sure to stop. Sometimes, these road blocks are hand made by people demanding compensation for “road work” they’ve done.
Other times, it can be something worse. It’s extremely rare, but if you do encounter a mugging/carjacking/hijacking of any kind, do NOT resist. Nothing is worth your life.
That being said, I’ve driven for weeks in Central America, even at night (I know I know, do as I say, not as I do), and I’ve never had any problems. But still, be careful.
13) Keep your windows up in Guatemala City at low speeds.
It’s common in the big Latin American cities for thieves to reach into stopped cars to grab phones, wallets, etc. Use your judgement, but I recommend keeping your windows up while traversing big cities.
The thieves are known to arrive on motorbikes for quick entry and exit. They usually arrive in pairs – one drives, one steals.
This happens all over the world, not just Guatemala. Just be aware.
14) Watch out for overtaking traffic in Guatemala.
I’ve also seen this in every country – even our good ol’ United States of America. That being said, it’s more common in Guatemala.
Drivers will overtake just about anywhere. Guatemala is not the worst I’ve seen, but just be cautious. You might see a pair of headlights headed your way around a blind corner.
Drive attentively, and never text and drive.
15) Make sure your rental car in Guatemala has a spare tire AND tools.
Last year, one of my worst worries came into existence. I was running late for my flight home from Belize when I was checking out from the hotel. Can you guess what I saw when I got to the car? A flat tire.
Luckily, I had rented with Hertz. The spare tire and the tools were intact, and I had the spare tire on in minutes
I was very glad that I hadn’t rented from a lesser-well-known rental car company. Some of these in Guatemala are known to occasionally skimp on the required safety gear.
You should check your trunk and/or ask about seeing the spare tire AND tools. You don’t want to get completely handicapped by a simple pothole.
16) One-way rental cars in Guatemala are SUPER expensive – avoid them if you can.
As far as I’ve seen and negotiated, one-way rentals in Guatemala tend to add a surcharge of about $200-$250. This may be worth it if it gets you out of more expensive plane tickets, but it typically becomes more economical to take a bus and/or shuttle to your destination.
Often times, the rental car company will even require a driver to accompany you so he/she can bring the car back to base.
Hertz offers this with their “Hertz Taxi” service, but it’s very expensive.