Adventures With Rental Cars In Mexico
I’m going to be back in Mexico this August for a Blogging Boot Camp with Marginal Boundaries in Palenque, then staying on for the TBEX Travel Blogging Conference in Cancun. In between I’m going to be researching in Cozumel in preparation for our move there next year. With all this moving around I considered renting a car, but previous experience makes me more inclined to take my chances on the bus.
On our last trip we rented cars in two different areas, with drastically different results. First we spent a week on the island of Cozumel with our children. We had considered renting a car but were not sure all five of us would fit, so we waited until we were there rather than reserving anything online. Jason and I like to keep our spending local whenever possible, so we talked with Ramon at Less Pay Car Rental on Avenida Rafael Melgar across from the Mega grocery store. We were hoping for one of the VW beetle convertibles that are so popular on the island, but they were all out.
When he offered a jeep wrangler instead my heart skipped a beat, but had 3 kids that would have to ride in the back. The cars were kept across the street at the Mega, so he brought one over to see if the girls would fit in between the wheel wells, and I was really surprised that they did. When hesitated because there were no seat belts, he pulled them out from under the seat; a solution for everything.
He asked where we were staying and offered to come pick the car up the day we left. Jason negotiated a price of $250 USD cash for the week-$35 per day. While we waited for him to bring out an agreement for us to sign I asked Jason if he had paid. Nope, not even a deposit. We had the keys in hand and all we had done was talk to the guy, no I.D., no money exchanging hands. We hadn’t even been inside the office. This is the kind of trust they put in you on the island, the assumption that of course you will come back later and pay, just stop in when you’re in the neighborhood, Amigo.
The jeep only had a bikini top but that was enough to keep the rain off. The radio didn’t work and there was a little bit of rust but it was fun to ride around the island with the wind blowing in our faces. Most cars are a manual transmission in Mexico, renting an automatic would cost more so I’m glad Jason and I both know how to drive a stick. We cruised all over the island, and twice we saw Ramon and he stopped to ask us how the jeep was, were we having fun? Yes we were. The only time it was too small was when we drove to the ferry terminal to leave for the mainland; it took two trips to get us and our luggage there.
In online forums I read that if you reserve a rental car and then someone else is standing there with cash in hand they will give your reserved vehicle away, so I didn’t reserve a car in Playa del Carmen either. We asked a few locals and were told that there were places to rent a car as soon as you got off the ferry; that it would be easy and we should make sure we check multiple places so they would lower their prices competing to get our business. It sounded like a good plan.
When we got off the ferry a little after 2pm we walked down the street behind the landing but only saw one small car rental kiosk. Thinking there must be more close by, the kids and I parked the luggage by the beach so they could play while Jason walked around to price-shop as we’d been instructed. We thought we had plenty of time to find a car and get to our rental house about 45 minutes South in Chan Chemyuil.
Once he called and let me know that he was talking with someone who had a suburban, but they wanted $70/day. We decided he should keep looking, thinking a mid-sized car would do fine, cost less and be more fuel efficient. The thing is there aren’t a lot of mid-sized cars, there are just small ones and huge ones.
As the sun got lower I sat trapped by the beach guarding our piles of luggage, watching Rory make sand angels and not caring that the fine grains getting into her clothes and hair would follow us for days. Jason had been gone for 3 hours looking for a place to rent a car that would hold all five of us and our luggage, and it would be getting dark soon. I had bought fruit cups and egg rolls (the only food within sight,) but we were hungry. The tourists were getting rowdier, gearing up for a night of dancing and partying, and I wanted to get my kids somewhere else before it really got going. I wished we had just driven the jeep across from the island.
Jason found a Hertz rental car and the salesman swore it would be big enough. He sent his assistant, a Swedish woman with blonde dreads wound into a huge bun, and she lead the children and I on a hike for several blocks, hauling the bags through the streets to a place where he would meet us with our car. As soon as I saw it I knew it was too small, about the size of a Ford Focus. June and Rory climbed into the back seat, exhausted from playing in the sand all afternoon. As Jason and the
determined salesman tried to force our bags into the trunk the back of the back seat jumped forward, bouncing the kids faces closer and closer to the front seats as the back seat pushed forward. With the trunk still unable to close the last large bag wouldn’t fit at all, so he said we could put it across the kids’ laps and wedge the carry-on in around them.
That was the last straw. My squished children would not be holding a 50-lb bag on their laps for the next 45 minutes, much less for the two-hour drive to the airport when we left in a week. I announced that we were done, get my bags out of this car, we’re taking a taxi van.
We got to Chan Chemuyil in the dark around 9pm and the kids fell into bed. Chan Chemuyil is a small community with no stores, only rental houses. The nearby village of Chemuyil has a few restaurants and small groceries, but we’d have to go further South to Tulum to find a car. The property manager, Patricio, said he would help us get it arranged the next day.
In the morning Jason got up at 7am and was met by Patricio’s wife, Elena, who spoke no English. She brought their neighbor, also Elena but from Canada instead of Mexico, as a translator, and they took Jason into Tulum to rent a car. Two hours later he came back still without a car, but with a reservation for one to be delivered later that afternoon. It seemed the end was in sight.
At 4pm the rental company called Patricio’s house, and he let us know that our car was ready to be picked up. Not delivered. Since there was no one available to drive Jason back to Tulum this time, Patricio instructed him on catching the local bus on the highway: walk out, stand by the highway with cars whizzing by and when you see a bus coming raise your hand and it will stop. Tell the driver where you want to be dropped off and he’ll tell you how much. This seemed crazy and amazing all at once, that you could just flag down a bus on the 80 kpm highway, but it works. Jason rode a nice air conditioned bus into Tulum, and when the driver accidentally forgot to stop one of the locals noticed and pointed out that they had missed the Hertz office for him. The bus turned around and went back to drop him off.
Jason had supposedly reserved a mid-sized car that someone was returning, but the clerk mentioned that someone had just returned a Jeep Patriot. For $455 USD ($65 per day) and an extra $50 cash on the spot Jason brought it back instead, much to my relief. I called that $50 our first Mexican bribe, and it was well spent. I felt a little bad for whoever had reserved the Jeep Patriot, but we were glad to have it after more than 24 hours of trying to rent a car. The engine was gutless, and the kids were confused by having to physically roll down the windows, but it was roomy and comfortable. When we left we were able to strap all our luggage on top for the drive to the airport.
The differences between how they do business on the island and on the mainland was a big part of Cozumel’s charm. It’s all casual and friendly, probably because it’s a small island, where are you going to go with their Jeep really? On the mainland it seemed a little more cutthroat, a little more ready to take advantage. It was my first time, though, so I’m willing to give people the benefit of the doubt when I return.
I’m really looking forward to being there for 3 weeks this August, experiencing more of Mexico and getting to know people who live there as well as other travelers from around the world. Who knows, maybe I’ll be sitting next to you on the bus!
How do you get around local areas when you travel?
Rental car? Bus? Walk? Bike? Hitchhike?