Renting a car in Honduras allows you to explore large areas of the country accessed only with difficulty by public transportation. Foreign driver’s licenses are sufficient for renting; International Driver’s Licenses are not required.
Driving in Honduras is a bit of mixed bag, and road conditions change with the seasons, as heavy rains not only wash out dirt roads and weaker bridges, but also create massive potholes. Ruts on back roads can be so deep at times that only high-riding SUVs like Land Rovers can pass.
When driving in cities, keep a close eye on signs indicating one-way streets. Most large towns and cities are not difficult to navigate, except Tegucigalpa. The traffic in downtown and in the Comayagüela district can be horrific and the streets confusing. Better to leave your car at a hotel and get around downtown by taxi or on foot during your stay.
It’s absolutely essential that foreign drivers drive very defensively, not expecting anyone else on the road to obey the laws or even act logically. Trucks in particular take positive glee in passing around blind curves on Honduras’s many mountain highways, so don’t take your eyes off the road and always be ready to dodge out of the way. Keep a close eye on pedestrians and bicyclists, as they seem to be so fatalistic as to actually take delight in meandering around in the road and forcing cars to get out of their way.
Particular items that highway drivers should watch out for, which may indicate trouble ahead, are oncoming cars flashing their lights at you (usually an indication of trouble on the road ahead), a pile of sticks or a cone in the road (usually to signal a car stuck in the road), a large branch sticking straight up in the middle of the road (to indicate a large pothole), or anyone in another car or on the side of the road waving a hand up and down, palm facing down, indicating “slow down!” And, of course, it goes without saying to be always on the lookout for random livestock crossings, axle-eating potholes, or stray objects on the pavement.
Be prepared for very reckless passing techniques on mountain roads, including passing on blind curves, and the improvisational invention of third lanes in the middle of the highway to avoid collisions.
Driving at night is not recommended in any part of the country. As in Mexico and the rest of Central America, there are just too many potential hazards to make it worth risking, in particular drunk drivers, cars that don’t use headlights, and those pesky potholes. If you absolutely must drive for some reason, watch closely for cattle, potholes, and other random obstacles in the road. Keep an eye out for signs warning of upcoming túmulos (speed bumps). Driving Honduran highways in the rain can be treacherous as well and is not for the faint of heart.
The great majority of roads in Honduras are dirt, and anyone who wants to get out to rural areas will find themselves spending a lot of time bumping along unpaved roads of widely varying quality. Many roads are passable only with four-wheel-drive.
Police checkpoints—little yellow-and-gray shacks on the side of the road, usually with a police officer sitting in a chair out front, watching the day pass by—are common throughout Honduras. Slow down as you pass—usually, you will be waved through or ignored entirely. But sometimes the officer will make it clear you should stop. Do so without hesitation, and break out your papers. Your car permit, driver’s license (a foreign one will do), and passport must always, always be with you. If not, expect hassles and fines, and possibly the retention of your driver’s license. (You will be given a slip of paper in return, to take with you when you pay the fine, in order to get your license back.) It is rare to have problems if everything is order, but if you are still asked to pay some kind of fine on the spot, asking to see the police officer’s badge and writing down his name can be an effective way for the fine to suddenly become a “voluntary contribution,” which you can then decline to make. While most of these checkpoints are pro forma, it seems like every week or so they will suddenly stop every car coming and thoroughly check your papers, and maybe even examine your car. This can be either due to a stolen car the police have been alerted to look for, or merely an effort to make their presence felt.
Rules of the Road
Traffic rules in Honduras are fairly self-explanatory and similar to rules in the United States. Speed limits are not obeyed, but if you want to be safe, follow them anyway. Seat belts are mandatory, and police are increasingly cracking down on their use. It is illegal to talk on a cell phone while driving, and police don’t hesitate to pull you over for that infraction. Turning right on a red light is sometimes allowed and sometimes not, so don’t risk it. One oddity is that no left turns are permitted at any stoplight that does not have a left-turn arrow indicator. Another is that no smoking is allowed while driving.
If you are pulled over for a traffic offense, your license will be taken. You can try to pay a bribe to get it back, but remember, the official fines are usually cheaper than a bribe. If you ask for a ticket, you will be given one, and then you have 72 hours to go to the tránsito (traffic police) office to pay the fine and reclaim your license. In Tegucigalpa, the office is the Dirección General de Tránsito in Colonia Miraflores. Usually, the officer who takes your license will turn it in the same day, and by the next morning you can go to tránsito, pay your fine, and pick up your license again—a remarkably painless process. If you are on the move and don’t want to stick around for a day, you may try to pay a bribe, but keep in mind that not all Honduran police officers are corrupt, and encouraging corruption is not the most moral way to behave as a tourist.
In Case of Accident
If you have an accident with another car, tell someone to get tránsito, the traffic police. Don’t move your vehicle or leave the scene of an accident before tránsito arrives—if you do, you will automatically be considered partly at fault for the accident. It does not matter if your accident blocks the entire street or highway. While waiting, get all information possible about the other driver. When tránsito arrives, the officers will talk to both drivers separately, then write out a description of events for both to sign and date.
An appointment will then be assigned at the Juzgado de Tránsito (Traffic Court), where a monetary arrangement will be made. Few people carry insurance in Honduras, so the judge will arbitrate between the two parties to arrive at an agreement. If no agreement is reached, either party can sue.
In the case of an accident involving a pedestrian, again, call the police immediately and do not leave the scene. You may have to spend up to a week in jail, but no more. It’s very likely you will be forced to pay all medical bills, as well as a fine to the victim in case of injury, or to the family of the victim in case of death, regardless of who was at fault.
Do not even consider fleeing the scene of an accident. This only creates more serious trouble for you. It’s best to follow the process through to its conclusion.
Fuel and Repairs
Regular (leaded) gas is no longer available in Honduras. Gas stations, including many U.S. chains like Texaco and Shell, are common throughout the country, and in places with no gas stations, gas is sometimes sold out of barrels. Be sure to fill up whenever you’re planning a trip into rural Honduras. It is not uncommon to be overcharged for gas, so be sure to check that the reader is reset to zero before the gas starts flowing, and take a second to look at the pump at the end before paying, to verify the total.
Mechanical help is relatively inexpensive, but parts can be costly depending on your vehicle. Toyota is the unquestioned king of the road here, particularly the four-door, four-wheel-drive diesel pickups. There are also plenty of Mitsubishis, Nissans, Hondas, and Kias.
Be sure to get your vehicle thoroughly checked before leaving for Honduras, and consider bringing a few basic spare parts such as filters (gas, air, and oil), fan belts, spark plugs and spark-plug wires, two spare tires (instead of one), fuses, and radiator hoses. Recommended emergency gear for vehicles includes a tow rope, extra gas cans, water containers, jumper cables, and, of course, a jack and tire iron. According to Honduran law, you are required to have a fire extinguisher and reflective triangles in your car at all times, and the police will occasionally ask at their checkpoints if you have them.
Many drivers in Honduras do not have insurance, which makes driving defensively that much more important.
Renting a car in Honduras is not cheap. Expect to pay at least US$45 per day minimum with unlimited mileage, more with insurance. About a dozen different agencies, including several international companies like Hertz (U.S. tel. 800/654-3001, www.hertz.com), Budget (U.S. tel. 800/472-3325, www.budget.com), Avis (U.S. tel. 800/331-1212, www.avis.com), and others operate in Honduras. The best rates can usually be obtained by booking through the company’s website. Note that it is impossible to get full-coverage insurance with rental companies. The best you can get is a policy that will leave you, the renter, fully covered for other cars and passengers, but liable for the first US$3,000 of damage to the rented car.
If your credit card has insurance for cars reserved and paid for with the card, you may be able to save yourself US$12 a day on insurance—check your credit card policy before you leave home. Whether you scratched up the car through bad driving, or whether some malevolent passerby keyed it, it doesn’t matter—you pay. So make sure you always find safe parking for a rental car. Car-rental agencies of course have extensive and expensive insurance available. Also, many car rental agencies, including reputable international companies, operate with a prepay system that does not allow for refunds on cars returned early.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition