Driving in Central America

If you are planning a trip to Central America as a family, I strongly suggest renting a car. Having a car gives your family comfort, flexibility and security you wouldn’t otherwise have.

driving in central america

After our recent family adventure across Central America, we learned a thing or two about driving around the region. Here is everything you need to know about driving in Central America.

Why Should I rent a car?

First and foremost, we loved having the flexibility to go where we wanted, when we wanted. While we had a general itinerary mapped out, we didn’t have every excursion or restaurant planned in advance.

And that’s perfectly ok when you have a car at your disposal.

driving in central america

You’ll also save money. If you have to book a group transfer or take taxis everywhere, those are all going to add up.

Expect to pay about $500 per week for a decent vehicle rental. We booked our rental car in Costa Rica well in advance and paid about $900 for two weeks. We booked a car at the Managua airport in Nicaragua when we arrived, and paid just under $400 for one week.

We found the best prices, and the best customer service, with Auto Europe. They give you a local number to call in case you have any problems while you’re on the road. Use their online booking engine to search options and pricing for multiple rental companies located at the airport.

driving in central america

Finally, it’s just more comfortable to have a car. Having access to a clean, dry place while it was rainy, or the blasting air conditioning after a hot, humid nights in an eco-lodge were reasons enough to have a rental car.  Our kids enjoyed having plenty of space to spread out while we were on long drives.

What Kind of Car Will I get?

We rented cars in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Be sure to rent a 4×4/ 4 wheel drive vehicle of some sort. While the paved roads are generally well-maintained and very easy to navigate, the side roads can have potholes and especially in Costa Rica many side roads can be on very steep grades.

driving in central america

In Costa Rica we had a Rav 4, and in Nicaragua we had a SsangYong truck. This is kind of like the Hilux truck, which I’d never heard of before but you’ll see everywhere in Nicaragua, with plenty of room for 4 people. The only difference between the SUV and the truck is there is no trunk in the truck, only the bed in back. So when we had our packs and luggage in the back of the truck things were a little tight.

But the bonus for the kids was getting to ride in the back while at Guacalito de la Isla and Rancho Santana!

driving in central america

Keep in mind that gasoline in Central America is actually pretty expensive. We spent on average $70 per tank when we filled it up.

Mobile Hotspot + Waze = Mandatory

Central America is home to a mix of well-maintained, heavily-trafficked paved roads and highways, and a web of pot-holed, dirt roads. But no matter where you’re headed or how small the road me be, the Google-owned travel app Waze will get you there in the quickest, most efficient way.

When driving around Central America, we used our Xcom Global hotspot to connect a mobile phone to Waze. Because both device batteries would drain quickly, we kept them plugged in at all times using a cigarette lighter adaptor system.

driving in central america

The Xcom Global WiFi Hopspot general worked about 80% of the time, which was far better than relying on my international roaming plan on my phone, which worked about 20% of the time. In Costa Rica we had a back up map, and in Nicaragua we made sure to look over routes before leaving hotels with Wifi.

But overall having the hotspot was really the only way were able to get around.

A bonus to using Waze is that it typically takes you on the most efficient route. In Nicaragua, there are only a few main highways. These routes, though longer in distance, are typically the most suggested ways to travel. However, thanks to Waze, we took a more direct, yet dirt road route from Granada to the coast.

driving in central america

This proved to not only be more scenic, but gave us an opportunity to really see the countryside off the beaten path.

We even discovered a playground mid way which made for a most excellent rest stop.

Interested in learning more about traveling in Central America? Contact me today! Just looking for some ideas? get instant access to several of my favorite, custom designed itineraries for Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and beyond.

  • Public transportation takes FOREVER and you miss so much! We owned a car when we were living in Panama. That said, the Panamanians are loco on the roads. My heart was in my throat the first time I navigated through Panama City traffic. Once I got the hang of how to drive like a local though, I was fine.

    • Panama Transfers

      That;s right ‘The Panamanians are loco on the roads” and continues the Panama city streets.