Driving in Guatemala

By James “Earl” Gray

You’ll love driving in Guatemala.  At least when you’re not hating it.

The mobility and convenience of a car are great—especially the part about not waiting a half hour at Cuatro Caminos.  Unfortunately, navigating the country-sized obstacle course with thousands of drivers who bribed their way into a drivers license (no joke) can cause a headache or two.  I’ve had a car here in Xela for a while, and it is a love-hate thing.  Here is some auto wisdom I’ve accumulated to help you navigate those challenges.

1.) Watch, watch, watch: Road signs and signals are random, so either learn the traffic pattern or watch what locals do. Also, most vehicles should be impounded. At least 40% of vehicles going through fog at night have no taillights, and 90% of large trucks going uphill average 3 kph (1.8 mph).  Make sure to watch out for tumulos (speed bumps) which appear out of nowhere and are often questionably marked and for boulders which communicate everything from “Heads up! Construction crew at work!” to “Heads up! Falling Boulders!”

2. Cops. Avoid them if possible. Luckily, they’ll never stop you for speeding or driving while intoxicated. However, they may stop you at a traffic check.  If anything at all is out of order (like, say, a slightly torn registration), you’ll be asked to echar la mano (i.e. fork over cash) to make things easier for everyone.

3.) Caveat emptor. If you buy a car get ready to overpay, and be ready for anything. The Mazda I bought had a fuel pump and shocks for a Toyota and a paint job that lasted a month. Asking a local for a good garage is crucial before purchase. Few drivers have insurance and hit-and-runs are common. I got rammed from behind by a drunk weasel, who caused me run into the guy in front of me. I ended up paying for the damage my car caused, but then the weasel bolted on me. Very common.

So should you rent or buy a car in Guatemala?  I recommend renting only with the full insurance coverage because the chance of being liable for damage to the vehicle is high.  Buy a car only if you can imagine yourself trashing or walking away from it without shedding a tear.  And if you have that kind of cash then you certainly have enough to spot me for car repair, right?

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