Ah, Central America, an incredibly rich part of the world. With some of the highest density of volcanos on the planet, delectable cuisine across the board, fascinating culture and mind-blowing ruins, there are endless reasons to devote some time exploring this part of the earth.
And especially in 2021, this begs the question: just how do I see it all?
In normal times, shuttles, private buses, chicken buses, taxis, and TukTuks were a pretty good solution. Though not always the most efficient, they were a fairly reliable way to get around Central America.
But after Covid-19 decimated the tourism industry, especially in Central America, things have changed. And that leaves the traditionally more expensive and less favored option of renting cars more desirable.
How to rent a car…
- One-way car rental from Mexico to Guatemela (and vice versa)
- Belize to Guatemala
- Guatemala to Belize
- Best way to rent a car from Guatemala into Honduras and El Salvador
- Nicaragua to Costa Rica or Costa Rica to Nicaragua
- Panama to Costa Rica or Panama to Costa Rica
Why should I rent a car in Central America?
Though public transportation is a fun and more authentic way to get across Central America, renting a car can be just as rewarding. Here’s why.
- Rental cars give you easier and more thorough access to cuter, smaller towns more off the beaten path through most countries in Central America
- Public transportation usually requires much patience and energy due to excessive numbers of stops, connections, language barriers, delays, and changes in schedules due to Covid-19
- Less risk of being pick-pocketed
- Significantly quicker than any other method (except flying)
If you’re wondering: is it even possible to get through Central America by rental car, the answer is yes. It does come with its challenges, but here’s how you can do it.
Why shouldn’t I rent a car one-way in Central America?
There’s a reason why historically, people have mostly avoided one-way rentals in Central America. Here’s the biggest reason:
- It can be very expensive, especially if you need to include insurance
Ok, that’s an easy one. But there are other reasons to avoid renting a car one-way;
- There is a chance of being carjacked. Stay vigilant, avoid driving at night, and research your route ahead of time. We rented cars in Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica without ever feeling at risk.
- Parking may be difficult in some of the larger cities.
- There are sometimes added fees and difficult crossing borders with a car (such as fumigation fees, additional document checks, etc.) Though it does add hassle, thousands of people cross these borders by car everyday.
How do I drive all the way through Central America by renting a car?
We are big fans of rental cars. Why? Simply put, renting a car allows us to visit each country at our own pace and explore more off-the-beaten path places. So on our 2-month trip across Central America, we put one-way rentals to the test.
- We found that in some countries (such as Belize), it’s best to avoid one-way rentals. Instead, you can rent from one location with a company that allows you to cross into other countries. You visit a couple countries by rental car, return the car back to the original location, then take a bus, taxi, shuttle, or flight to your next city or country.
In other countries, rental car companies can arrange transfers at the border, making it super easy to continue your road trip through Central America. You simply drop off your car on one side, walk through the border, then pick up a different car on the other side of the border. We found this true in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Since this isn’t necessarily convenient for the rental car companies however, there is usually an additional fee on each side. This extra fee varies from $25 to $150 per border crossing.
In order to accomplish a seamless transfer across the border, you need to book directly with the car rental company rather than using a search engine (kayak, Hotwire, etc).
These one-way rentals combined with the cross-border rentals described above is definitely best combination of frugality, efficiency, and ease.
So yes, it is possible. Here’s a country-by-country explanation on how to get all the way across Central America by rental car:
Renting a car from Mexico to Guatemala or Guatemala to Mexico
The best way to rent a car from Mexico to Guatemala is to drop one off near the border and pick another one up on the other side.
Though it’s probably not the best idea to drive across Mexico (in terms of safety), you can:
- Rent a car one-way from most major locations in Mexico and drop off your car in Tapachula, close to the Guatemalan border. Europcar has a rental car location there.
- Another option is to hire a taxi or drive from Tapachula, Mexico to the border, cross over, then hire another taxi or driver to Malacatlan, Guatemala. There are local buses from there to mostly anywhere in Guatemala.
- You can do this in the other direction as well.
There are no rental car locations closer to the Mexican border in Guatemala than Antigua Guatemala – about a distance of 5 hours away.
As such, I would personally fly and rent cars individually in Mexico and Guatemala. But the option remains open for those a little more adventurous.
One-way rental cars between Mexico and Belize
If you fly into Cancun, you have:
- One-way rentals with Hertz, Enterprise, FireFly, or National to Chetumal (right on the Mexico-Belize border).
- From Chetumal, take a bus to Corozal or Belize City, from which you can rent another car.
- Or you can simply rent anywhere within Mexico, deposit your car in Cancun, then take a bus or flight from Cancun to Belize.
Please note that all land borders of Belize are closed as of July 2021.
Rental cars between Belize and Guatemala
I only know of one option to drive a rental car between Belize and Guatemala, and that is:
- Rent from Crystal Auto Rental in Belize. This is an amazing and convenient way to visit the world wonder of Tikal.
- You cannot drop off your car in Guatemala. You must return the car in Belize.
There are no rental car companies that offer crossings from Guatemala to Belize at this moment.
Please note that the land border between Guatemala and Belize is still closed as of July 2021.
Renting a car from Guatemala City/Antigua Guatemala to Belize
To travel between Guatemala and Belize via rental car, you can:
- Rent a car with Guatemala Renta Auto or Hertz one-way from Antigua Guatemala or Guatemala City to Peten, Flores (Near Tikal). Then, take a taxi or shuttle to the border with Belize. In Belize, you can rent a car in San Ignacio (20 minutes by taxi from the border) or continue via bus/shuttle/chicken bus to Belize City.
From Guatemala to El Salvador and Honduras
There aren’t any great options to rent across the borders between these countries. Instead, I recommend renting with Guatemala Rental Autos (Rent a car) as they have an option for cross border permits. This wouldn’t be a one way rental, but you would be able to drive across these fabulous countries for a more convenient and thorough trip.
After your trip, I recommend flying to Costa Rica as tickets on Volaris sell for as cheap as $90.
- You can also take a private bus (such as Tica Bus) to El Salvador or Honduras as we did on our 2-month Central America trip, but they are quite slow and tedious. It’s also possible, but even more strenuous via the local “chicken” buses.
- There are Tica Buses between San Salvador, El Salvador, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and cities in Nicaragua. You can rent cars individually in these 3 major cities for a full experience of these wonderful countries.
In normal times, there are also shuttles from Antigua Guatemala to beach locales in El Salvador, but none were available when we did our trip.
Picking up a rental car in Nicaragua headed to Costa Rica
After dropping off our rental car in Tegucigalpa, Honduras (we only rented within the country), we ended up taking a Tica Bus into Nicaragua.
- We started our rental in Nicaragua in Leon, a gorgeous colonial town which can also be used as a drop off location if you’re driving across Central America northbound. TicaBus conveniently has a stop here on their route to/from Nicaragua and Honduras/El Salvador.
We chose Sixt as our rental company in Nicaragua, since you could book directly with their website. But we ended up having a horrific experience with their general manager after suffering two flat tires. There are several other companies that offer pick-up/drop-off in Leon, typically at Hotel El Convento.
We were able to drop our car off at the Sixt location (Nicaragua & Costa Rica Border Peñas Blancas, Nicaragua) near the Costa Rica Border town of Penas Blancas. It was a painless experience (thankfully) – until walking across the border, where we had to pay made-up fees (about $8 per person) to exit Nicaragua.
If you wish to rent with Alamo, contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org for an estimate.
Pro Tip: Make sure to have cash on hand at the border to pay these fees. US Dollars work here.
You should read: Ometepe, Nicaragua: the best hidden gem in Central America (2021)
Switching rental cars at the Nicaragua to Costa Rica border (Penas Blancas)
Our experience dramatically improved after crossing the border in to Costa Rica. We found that Alamo was significantly more professional and easy to rent with than Sixt.
On the Nicaragua side at the Penas Blancas border, the rental cars for Sixt, Alamo, National, and Enterprise are located at:
There are plenty of signs as you approach the border for these rental locations. There was an employee waiting for us and we had no issues with the dropoff.
On the Costa Rica side at the Penas Blancas border, the rental cars for Alamo, National, and Enterprise are located at:
This location is actually located before Costa Rica border control. You’ll pick up your car, park it, then go through border control. This is awesome because it means less lugging around your baggages.
Note: You should rent directly with Alamo (email@example.com) to confirm you will be picking the car up on the Costa Rica side and dropping it off at your desired destination. You may be able to score a better deal and reduce cost by selecting only required insurance.
Switching rental cars at the border from Costa Rica to Panama (Paso Canoas)
This one is a bit more complicated as there are no official rental car locations on the Panama side of the border. As such, you need to arrange this at least 3 days ahead and pay a $150 transaction fee for someone to bring the car to you in Panama. See terms and conditions here.
The rental drop-off address for Alamo on the Costa Rica side is:
On the Panama side, you can expect to be picked up by a driver who brings you to the closest office (or arrange otherwise as you wish).
- You can also drop off your rental car in Granada, Nicaragua and take a bus to Panama, then rent from there.
As far as I know, there’s no way to drop off a car at the Panama – Colombia border and then take a boat.
We got around Central America by Tica Bus, but ultimately found it to be hassling. The buses were nice, but the rides always left late, took hours longer than planned (almost double at times), and were not as flexible on destinations.
In El Salvador, we couldn’t find a rental car and had to scramble to arrange private transport. This ended up being more expensive, laborious, and far more restricting than renting a car. But it is an option for those who aren’t as comfortable exploring Central America by themselves.