The convenience of having a rental car at one's disposal is undeniably attractive. When the locale, however, is the congested byways of a major Latin American city or the vast network of inter-city highways in countries from Argentina to Mexico, being behind the wheel can be trying.
Driving in much of Latin America - a challenge even for many local motorists - poses a range of potential problems for foreign visitors. Here are five things to ponder before deciding whether to rent a car.
1. Do other options make more sense?
If there's one thing that most Latin American cities have an abundance of it's taxis. Hailing a cab just about anywhere in the core urban areas of many cities is easy, and typical fares can be quite inexpensive.
In Panama City, for instance, a ride to just about anywhere in the metropolitan area is seldom more than US$3 - sometimes even less. Taxis are often operated by independent drivers and can also be hired for an extended period of time, from a few hours to a day, for a fee that might be even less than what a rental car would cost.
If personal security is an overriding concern, it is always advisable to consult your hotel's concierge. Most first-class hotels have private cars and drivers on standby to provide safe and expedient service.
2. Traffic law violations can carry stiff penalties and be time-consuming.
The days of offering a traffic officer a cash bribe to get off the hook are long past. Don't attempt it under any circumstance.
In recent years, most countries in the region have taken steps to professionalize their public security forces. Efforts to bribe an officer will almost certainly lead to an even more dire situation.
Many countries have also begun to utilize state-of-the-art electronic surveillance techniques to snag violators. In Brazil, once known for the devil-may-care attitude of its drivers, motorists are today among the most docile in all of South America. That's because those who dare to exceed speed limits are quickly tracked down and levied heft fines. Multiple offenders have their vehicles impounded. Even so much as a bumper protruding into a crosswalk zone can produce a fine.
3. Road conditions and lack of signage can be challenging.
Urban and rural traffic situations place their own demands on drivers.
The rapid pace of development in many cities means disrupted traffic flow and increased congestion and travel time. A paucity of street signs makes knowing where you are at any given times a perplexing reality.
Travel beyond the limits of urban expanses and into rural reaches introduces other problems. Narrow or non-existent shoulders, poor lighting and the presence of pedestrians, cyclists, horses and other animals all complicate driving, particularly at night. Those who do venture into the hinterland will quickly discover that the majority of vehicles on the road are not personal cars but cargo trucks and passenger buses. The drivers of these commercial vehicles have little patience for naïve motorists who end up in the wrong lane or who drive at less than the suggested speed limit.
4. Parking woes and car return difficulties.
The first dilemma a driver may face is a seemingly simple one: where to park? Travel from one hotel to another, where valet parking is available, is one thing. Driving to a business appointment in a downtown office building or to a lunch meeting, however, is another. Finding a safe and secure place to park can be all but impossible, but near popular restaurants you may be able to work with unauthorized parking attendants who direct cars into vacant spaces and, for a tip, promise to stand guard until the driver returns.
The routine task of returning a car can also be problematic. The bayside Bella Vista district of Panama City, for instance, is home to a number of five star hotels and guests may be attracted to the nearby office of a major car rental agency. However, due to remodeling underway in the agency's building and difficult-to-navigate one-way traffic patterns, returning a car to this site is next to impossible. Always double check to make sure access to the agency is convenient before selecting a car rental firm.
5. Sometimes, a rental car is the best way of getting around - or the most convenient way to reach your destination.
Throughout Chile, for example, driving your self is problem-free. Most inter-city travel in the country is on a controlled access expressway operated by a concession. Every few miles, well-illuminated signs update the driver as to the speed limit and the distance to the next exit. There are also excellent hassle-free stretches of roadway in Brazil, Argentina and in other countries.
Before making a final decision on whether or not to rent a vehicle, seek advice from a colleague familiar with traffic particulars where you plan to travel. Give their candid advice high consideration before deciding whether it makes sense to rent your own vehicle.