Driving in El Salvador isn’t the most common way to get around. At least not for travellers. This is understandable, of course, as driving in any unfamiliar territory can be intimidating — especially in a less-developed region like Central America.
That said, if you’re short on time and want to maximize your experience, renting a car in El Salvador is your best option. We’re here to help you navigate the process and experience of taking the wheel and driving in El Salvador.
Quick Facts about Driving in El Salvador
- In El Salvador, you drive on the right side of the road and pass/overtake on the left
- Insurance is not required by law but many rental agencies require you to purchase it.
- You must be 18 years old to drive in El Salvador.
- The minimum age to rent a car is 21, and most agencies charge an additional fee for those under 25.
- A valid driver’s permit from either El Salvador or your home country is required.
- The blood-alcohol limit is 0.05%.
Renting a Car in El Salvador
Hiring a car in El Salvador is a straightforward process. This is especially true if you’re flying into the country, as there are several car rental agencies at the airport. You can easily book ahead of time online. When you arrive at the rental agency, you simply sign a couple of forms and set a hold on your credit card. This is the equivalent of putting down a deposit.
For online booking, these are the four main car rental agencies in El Salvador:
Note: The minimum age to drive in El Salvador is 18. The minimum to hire a car is 21. And if you’re under 25, there will likely be an additional fee.
Costs of renting a car in El Salvador
Car rentals in El Salvador are relatively inexpensive compared with many other countries. And the vehicles are well-kept and in great condition.
Prices vary throughout the year, but are generally as follows (prices in USD per day):
- Economy: $12
- Compact: $16
- Midsize: $25
- Compact SUV: $45
- Fullsize: $50
- Truck: $60
- Van: $70
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What Kind of Car Should You Rent in El Salvador?
This depends entirely on what you plan on doing.
If your goal is simply getting from town to town along major roads, any small economy car will do just fine.
If you plan on driving more remote areas or visiting off-the-beaten-path destinations, your best option would be to spend the extra money on a 4-wheel drive.
Mudslides sometimes occur during the rainy season (April-October), and earthquakes can cause road issues year-round. This is especially true in higher elevations and remote areas. Having a 4×4 can greatly reduce your risk of getting stuck.
As with any rental, it’s important to check the car for any damages at the point of rental. We were almost held accountable for a tiny crack in the rear taillight that we hadn’t noticed at the time of pick-up. The only reason we avoided paying for a repair was that it was dark and raining when we picked it up and the agency let it slide. We were lucky.
Do You Need Car Insurance in El Salvador?
Unlike many countries, a lot of drivers in El Salvador go without insurance. Minor fender-benders are typically handled between the parties. As a foreigner, especially if lacking strong Spanish skills, this could be troublesome.
Any time we rent a car we spend the extra for insurance, just in case. At the very least it provides a little peace of mind. It’s important to note that the deductible is typically in the $3000.00 range. This means that for most minor issues, you’ll end up paying for any smaller damages you cause. But in a worst-case scenario — such as a large accident or a write-off — you won’t be held for the cost of the entire car.
In a country with an average of 60 reported car accidents daily, driving defensively is an absolute necessity.
Do You Need an International Driver’s License in El Salvador?
The short answer is no. In El Salvador, you do not need to bring an international driving permit to drive or even rent a car. The license from your home country is good enough, so long as the information is written in either Spanish or English.
If your license is not in either of these languages, an international permit is recommended. Having an international permit will help avoid any translation issues.
For the few dollars it costs, I bring one to every country I plan on driving in.
Is Driving in El Salvador Safe?
Despite some of the warnings that follow, driving in El Salvador is generally safe. Although it will likely be a different experience than you’re used to, it’s a fun and convenient way to get around.
Traffic in El Salvador
As with most countries, driving in cities is a very different experience than in rural areas. City drivers are often far more aggressive and traffic is much more chaotic. Traffic signals and rules in general seem nonexistent. This isn’t to say avoid cities altogether, but it’s not for the timid.
Alternatively, driving outside major cities like San Salvador, Santa Ana and San Miguel is a much more relaxed experience. There are always risks, which I’ll cover later, but most drivers won’t have issues with traffic in rural areas.
Over the last few years, road conditions have improved significantly in El Salvador. Especially on major highways like those leading to and from San Salvador, the airport and the Surf City region of La Libertad. Outside of these areas, however, expect some rough patches and potholes. We narrowly avoided a hold the size of our car during our last visit, just a few kilometres west of El Zonte.
Speed bumps, known as tumulos in Spanish, are everywhere — and often with little warning. Any time there’s a town or school zone, whether a small road or a main highway, there will be speed bumps. Expect them at all times.
Driving Hazards in El Salvador
- Animals are everywhere. Stray dogs and cats, goats, cows and chickens are regular features on the road. It’s an unfortunate sight but roadkill is frequent.
- Drunk drivers are a problem in El Salvador. Though the penalty can be severe, it doesn’t stop many people. This is especially the case on the weekends around places like El Tunco, where people spend their time partying on the coast.
- Lighting is limited, even in some cities. Unless necessary, avoid driving at night, especially if you aren’t sure of the area. Roads are rarely lit with street lighting, making the hazards listed above that much more of a risk.
- Crime is an issue in El Salvador. Unless you know where you’re heading, it’s best to stick to main roads. Gangs control territory all across the country, especially in San Salvador. You don’t want to end up someplace you shouldn’t be.
Road Rules in El Salvador
Driving is done on the right side of the road in El Salvador, overtaking is done on the left. Finding yourself stuck behind a bus or truck can be maddening, especially if you’re in a hurry. People pass each other everywhere, even around blind corners or with oncoming traffic.
Locals are skilled at going with the flow, moving in or out of a lane to accommodate others. “Lanes” in general are a questionable concept in El Salvador. Understand this and go with the flow.
El Salvador Speed Limit
The maximum speed on major highways is 80km/h. The majority of drivers respect this, many go far slower. In cities, it’s often 50km/h, although this is rarely observed.
In El Salvador, seat belts are required by law for both drivers and passengers. And while it occasionally goes unenforced, it goes without saying that you should always wear a seatbelt.
Drunk Driving in El Salvador
Driving under the influence of alcohol is illegal in El Salvador and can come with severe penalties. These range from fines and vehicle seizure to jail time.
The blood alcohol limit in El Salvador is 0.05%. Depending on your size and weight, this limit can be reached with a single drink.
And while random checks are almost non-existent, police will test you if they pull you over for anything else and have any suspicion that you’ve been drinking.
Finding Your Way
First things first: Forget Google Maps.
Google maps is a phenomenal app in most cases. Yet for some reason, it can be frustrating in El Salvador, especially outside cities.
For whatever reason, Google shows roads where there aren’t roads and often plans routes along them. This is incredibly frustrating and can lead you to places you don’t want to end up.
We’ve had better luck in El Salvador using Maps.me.
Despite the warnings above, driving in El Salvador is generally safe and a fun experience.