Although it's easy to get around Guatemala without a car, it's much easier to visit small villages and explore the countryside if you have one. Taking to Guatemala's roads requires some courage, however. Local drivers pay scant attention to speed limits or traffic rules. Outside the big cities potholed road surfaces are common, and mountain roads are often bordered by sheer drops. If you are not used to driving very defensively, taking buses or private shuttles may be a better idea. Always allow extra travel time for unpredictable events, making sure to bring along snacks and drinks.
It's possible to enter Guatemala by land from Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. The Pan-American Highway, which passes through most major cities, connects the country with Mexico at La Mesilla and with El Salvador at San Cristóbal. It's also possible to travel to El Salvador via the coastal highway, crossing at Pedro de Alvarado or Valle Nuevo. Pacific routes to Mexico pass through Tecún Umán and El Carmen–Talismán.
To reach Belize, take the highway east from Flores, passing El Cruce before reaching the border town of Melchor de Mencos. There are also two routes into Honduras, through El Florido or Cinchado.
Travelers often get harassed or swindled at border towns. There is no entry fee, although you may be asked for a bribe. Rental agencies sometimes allow you to cross the border with their car, but you usually have to pay a fee to do so.
You can drive in Guatemala with a valid U.S. license for up to 30 days. Get an international driver's license if you plan to drive longer. Most roads leading to larger towns and cities are paved; those leading to small towns and villages are generally dirt roads. Doble-tracción, or four-wheel drive, is a necessity in many remote areas, especially at the height of the rainy season. Gas stations can also be scarce, so be sure to fill up before heading into rural areas. Consider bringing some extra fuel along with you. Don't count on finding repair shops outside the major towns.
Many locals ignore traffic laws, so you should be on your guard. Alto means "stop" and Frene con motor ("use engine to break" or downshift) means that a steep descent lies ahead. Travel only by day, especially if you are driving alone. Keep your eyes peeled for children or animals on the road. If you arrive at a roadblock such as a downed tree, do not attempt to remove the roadblock, simply turn around. Highway robbers often deliberately fell trees to ensnare drivers.
There are plenty of gas stations in and near big cities in Guatemala. On long trips, fill your tank whenever you can, even if you've still got gas left, as the next station could be a long way away. An attendant always pumps the gas and doesn't expect a tip, though a small one is always appreciated. Plan to use cash, as credit cards are rarely accepted.
Most rental cars require premium unleaded gas, called súper, which costs about Q22 per galón. A growing number of autoservicio (self-service) pumps knock a quetzal off the gallon price.
On-street parking generally isn't a good idea in Guatemala, as car theft is very common. Instead, park in a guarded parking lot. Many hotels have their own guarded parking lots.
For safaris into the mountains, or for exploring smaller roads in areas like Petén, a doble tracción or cuatro por cuatro (four-wheel-drive vehicle) stands you in good stead. If money isn't an object, consider renting one no matter where you go: unpaved roads, mud slides in rainy season, and a general off-the-beaten-path landscape are status quo here. Note that most Belize agencies do not permit you to take their vehicles over the border into Guatemala or Mexico, and vice versa.
Compact cars like a Kia Picanto or VW Fox start at around $40 a day; for $50 to $60 you can rent a Mitsubishi Lancer, a VW Golf, or a Polo. Four-wheel-drive pickups start at $70 a day, though for a full cabin you pay up to $120. International agencies sometimes have cheaper per-day rates, but locals undercut them on longer rentals. Stick shifts are the norm in Guatemala, so check with the rental agency if you only drive automatics.
Alamo. 800/522–9696; 2362–2701 in Guatemala.
Avis. 800/331–1084; 2331–2750 in Guatemala.
Budget. 800/472–3325; 2332–7744 in Guatemala.
Hertz. 800/654–3001; 2470–3800 in Guatemala.
National Car Rental. 800/227–7368; 2362–2701 in Guatemala.
Immense improvements have been made to Guatemala's ravaged roads, and the primary highway network is in great shape. Potholed and unpaved surfaces are common when you get off main roads. Mountain roads are peppered with hairpin bends, and often don't have guardrails; conditions are particularly tough in the rainy season. Always pick a four-wheel-drive vehicle for travel off the beaten path.
Ongoing roadworks and the sheer volume of traffic can double journey times between major cities. Don't count on going any faster than 50 mph on paved roads; 15 to 20 mph is more normal on dirt roads.
Guatemalan road signage is far from perfect. There are usually signs pointing to large towns, but routes to smaller towns may not be clearly marked. Look for intersections where people seem to be waiting for a bus—that's a good sign that there's an important turnoff nearby. Markers on major highways designate distances in kilometers from Guatemala City, which, itself, is usually denoted on signs as "Guatemala".
Guatemala has no private roadside assistance clubs—ask rental agencies carefully about what you should do if you break down. You can also call the police or Provial, the state roadside assistance team, but expect both to take a long time to arrive. Operators on both lines usually speak only Spanish.
Guatemalan National Police. 110.
Rules of the Road
Drivers in Guatemala stick to the right. Seat belts are required, and the law is enforced. Using a cellular phone while you are driving is not permitted. There are few speed-limit signs, and police sometimes ignore speeders, though enforcement of all traffic laws is becoming more routine. As you approach small towns, watch out for túmulos, the local name for speed bumps.
Guatemala's highways are an adventure, especially when they run along the edges of cliffs soaring high above a valley. Trucks and buses drive unbelievably fast along these routes; if you don't feel comfortable keeping up the pace, pull over periodically to let them pass. The narrow roads mean you can be stuck motionless on the road for an hour while a construction crew stands around a hole in the ground. If you observe the rules you follow at home, you should be fine. Just don't expect everyone else to follow them.