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Renting a Car in Honduras by Ron Hay

I was planning a four week visit to Honduras and wanted to sample several areas of the country. I planned to at least see the Copan ruins, some of the Western colonial towns, Lake Yojoa; to do a sample river raft trip; go on into the Miskito region; and then continue on to dive on at least one of the Bay Islands. I thought that it would make sense to rent a car upon my arrival at the San Pedro Sula airport and then to use it to visit just the Western portion of my itinerary.

These Western Highland areas seemed rather spread out and, while riding the bus would have been totally acceptable to me, I just wanted a little more freedom to visit interesting areas and in less time than the bus travel would allow. So I started to plan for a one-week rental car trip. The information that I found in the Travel books was that “car rental is very expensive in Honduras”, that “driving is very dangerous”, “gasoline is more that $4.50 US per gallon” and in general, not so much useful information as to what to expect.

My Experience Driving in Honduras

Since I did not really plan to get into the rougher dirt and gravel roads in the country, I decided that a compact size car (not a four wheel drive) would be fine for my wife and I with about 100 pounds of luggage between us. We had used this type of vehicle for some rather lengthy previous trips into Mexico and Belize and it had suited us just fine.

I used a couple of web travel sites to get an idea of car costs and then went specifically to the site that looked promising as far as availability and price. I selected Avis as my choice rather than several of the other “local” companies. My choice of Avis was based upon my past experience with this company and my hope that their in-country service would be predictable and decent if I needed it. I web reserved a Chevrolet Optima (stick shift) at a rate of $172 per week with unlimited miles. This price included local taxes and airport fees.

Avis Experience Was Good

I arrived in Honduras on schedule and, in just about twenty steps after clearing customs and leaving the restricted area, found a line-up of a half dozen car rental booths inside the terminal. The Avis clerk was a friendly, and English speaking, Honduran girl. I was expected, my reservation was on file, and the car was ready.

Insurance?

At this point, a discussion of car insurance might be helpful. Naturally, my own US
home policy was of absolutely no value in Honduras. I also knew that my credit card company provided a collision insurance that I determined would protect me from paying for a car loss or damage as long as I charged the car on their card. I called and emailed my card company (Master Card) several times to determine if this coverage would extend to me in a different country and was satisfied that it would. This left the problem of Liability and Medical payments if I injured or killed someone.

I determined that almost no one in Honduras has any kind of car insurance and that in the event of an accident; the car would be confiscated until restitution can be made by the party deemed to be at fault. (Never even think of moving the car from an accident site before the police investigate!). Several US citizens who were living in Honduras told me that a settlement payment for a fatality is about $3000 US. But somewhere I also read that there were some lawyers in the country that might see a US citizen as cash cow and seek much bigger damages.

My decision was to opt for the Avis additional Liability insurance for an additional $5 US per day and that would provide me with $6000 total liability insurance. I decided that I would just have to accept the reality of the risk.

The Avis girl and I inspected the car for any prior visible damage and she marked down a lot of body scratches that I could not even see. I soon signed the document and was on my way.

Now for the Road

Now, do not even remotely begin think that because you are an experienced driver in your country that you will know how to drive in Honduras. Expect it to be different because it is. If you are a road rage type, take the bus. If honking horns mean something to you, take the bus. If you are used to good road signs and good road safety standards, take the bus. What you do need is a good map (bring it with you) and a good navigator.

The speed limits and mileages are all in the metric system and I have converted them here to the mileage system since I understand it better. Expect the main highways in the San Pedro Sula area and, in general, all of the other primary roads in the Western part of the country, to be in really good shape, even by big country standards. There will be some potholes and usually there are signs warning of fallen rocks and any broken pavements or washouts. (Yes, you need to be able to read some Spanish).

How are the Roads?

The primary roads are generally quite wide (at least 50 feet) including the paved berms but with only a centerline (usually), and no edge lines. The problem is that of the inexperienced driver going too fast and not looking much more that 100 feet ahead. I have a theory that while the locals are growing up, they never have to look farther ahead than their horse or their feet will move them. At 75 MPH, they still look ahead that short ingrained distance.

Drive Defensively

I experienced one incident when cattle were crossing the road. I saw them at a safe distance and slowed rapidly. But the driver behind me never even noticed them until he had passed me and had to swerve so violently in order to miss a cow that he almost rolled his vehicle. The drivers will pass you on any curve, site unseen, and I found that moving to the right would help a lot as long as there was no bicycle or horse in the right berm area. I felt that I could usually maintain a 50 MPH speed where I thought that there was a safe site distance ahead. The highway cars and large trucks! generally seemed to run at 60 MPH or a little more. Note that the car speedometer and the few speed limit signs erected are in Kilometers per hour.

Back Roads

The secondary road driving and the driving within the small towns (Copan Ruins included) would mean more potholes and some pretty bumpy spots. One had to pick the way carefully in order to avoid hitting bottom. Almost all city streets are really narrow with just enough room for two small cars to pass.

Gas Stations and Parking

Fuel stations are quite plentiful and generally well staffed and well run. Gasoline was usually just a little more that $3.10 US per gallon ($3.60 US for high grade) at the time of my travels.

When we stopped for the night, I always inquired about where to safely park the car for the night and was always assured that the area that I was shown would be secure.

General Tips

Generally, I averaged about 35 mph when traveling on the best of the highways and less than half that when using the secondary paved roads (don’t get behind a beer truck that is going up grade). Be careful in the cities that have traffic lights. They are not always in the same general location and may be nearly hidden at some lower level. The locals know where they are so the system usually works.

Make sure that your driver’s license is available to show along with the ownership paper provided by the rental company. I only had one police check point stop in seven days of driving and the National Policeman was courteous and efficient. There was never a hint of an improper solicitation by him of any money.

I drove about 492 miles in the week that I kept the car. I saw a couple of accidents and a few emergency vehicles working along the roads but I really never even had a close call. The car turn-back at the San Pedro Sula airport was easy and pleasant with no damages noted. For the rest of my travels I did jump a bus or used a taxi where walking was too far. The car rental venture thus ended as a total success for me.

 

Ron Hay is a retired Civil Engineer who enjoys traveling with his wife to just about anywhere in the world to explore ancient civilizations and to enjoy its natural beauty. He lives in Ohio, USA, and also has lived in Europe, Panama, and South East Asia. Their travels have taken them to spots on all of the Earth’s continents and they especially love the time that they can spend in Central and South America.

The Maya city of Copan brought them to Honduras for the first time and they were not surprised to find an entire country filled with opportunities for adventure. From the Western Highlands to the Miskito Coast they were warmed by the friendliness of the people, the beautiful scenery, the enjoyment of good fresh food, and the opportunity to just plain have fun.     
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