Written by Jose Kevo on 10 Jan, 2006
Numerous years had passed since bothering with a rental car, and apprehensions were mounting while listening to others in the pick-up van sharing horror stories regarding mishaps on the road. This, coupled with rental agencies seeming to require all but signing your life away, was…Read More
Numerous years had passed since bothering with a rental car, and apprehensions were mounting while listening to others in the pick-up van sharing horror stories regarding mishaps on the road. This, coupled with rental agencies seeming to require all but signing your life away, was enough to question my entire travel plan, but fear not! Having access to a rental car in Puerto Rico is an inexpensive splurge, and the best way for leisurely exploring the 100 by 35-mile island beyond San Juan's growing public transportation system, expensive taxis, and organized group excursions. Here's a Road Warrior's Guide to maximizing driving experiences while minimizing costs and risks.
Bilingual agents help wade through all the paperwork and fine print. They accept no cash; major credit cards only. I probably should've checked about hidden fees when making reservations. Insurance coverage from using my credit card does not include Thrifty's liability insurance of $5.95 per day. This raised the base-rate from $20.19 to $26.14, not including taxes and fees, and ended up costing more than other listings which may, or may not have had other hidden costs. Total daily rate was $29.11.
Toyotas are built for punishment and endurance, and the Echo handled well bouncing along off-road, or heading up steep mountain inclines. Compact size was a real bonus with fuel effeciency and for squeezing into tight parking spaces. The basic stereo came with a cd-player, and a sound system that proved to be as Puerto Rican as the license plate! Most won't likely care for the musty smell which permeates everything in the tropical humidity; cars especially stale from air-conditioning moisture. Scents disappeared within a couple of minutes; especially if opting to drive with windows down to maximize island breezes while conserving fuel. Otherwise, consider bringing an auto air freshener.
There was plenty of leg room in front, but backseat passengers will be cramped; especially if riding long distances. For such a small car, the trunk space was huge for accommodating luggage. When stopping anywhere, make sure to put all items in the trunk to prevent auto break-ins said to be common.
Fortunately, the Toyota Echo didn't even use a tank of gas after driving around for five days. Gulf stations were the cheapest before and after price hikes. A full tank of gas, at .78 a liter/$2.95 a gallon, cost $27.75. Make sure to refuel before returning the rental. The car was issued with an additional $100.95 refundable charge on the bill for fuel valued at $4.35 a gallon.
Lesser roads often deteriorate with pot-holes, and entire low-level sections flood during significant rains in rural or city settings. Off major highways, San Juan's suburbs beyond the Condado-Isla Verde tourist strip are a maze of unmarked streets, older highways, and new transportation construction projects. At one point it took over an hour driving from Río Piedras back to the nearby airport, and while never considering myself lost, I certainly had no idea where I was.
Be sure to familiarize yourself with appropriate Spanish-related driving terms that appear on highway signs/markers which will help make finding your way around much easier. Traffic waiting for exits, especially in the San Juan metro area, often backs-up in multiple lanes, and locals consider it nothing to try and race ahead in outside lanes before cutting over at the last minute. Puerto Ricans drive more agressively than recklessly, and definitely expect others to share the road!
Take note that law enforcement vehicles drive with their visabar lights on. There was quite the panic when a squad car appeared on my tail with lights flashing. Fumbling with seat-belt (law requires you wear them) and drivers license while pulling over, the officer went racing by to my relief. Should you receive any type of driving citation or parking ticket, make sure to track down how to pay them before returning the rental car. Any unpaid fine that resurfaces to your license plate will be automatically billed to your credit card, with a hefty processing fee.
Street-side parking, along the narrow, congested passageways, saved the minimum $4.50 per hour that parking garages charge. At no point was I ever forced to park more than two blocks from the Guesthouse, but it's more luck than anything. Locals seem to park everywhere regardless of yellow/blue paints on curbs, or numerous No Parking signs designated for loading areas or government dignitaries. Best I could surmise, most parking rules applied only from 8:00am-5:00pm on weekdays, but it never hurt to ask the merchant about regulations in front of their business.
Leaving before 8:00, and not returning until after 5:00, made for quick exits/re-entries, and parking. Yet the one weekday I returned around 2:00pm, a needed bathroom break interrupted the hopeless search for parking, and I headed back towards the suburbs. Streetside parking was readily available later that afternoon, but here's another tip for major consideration. Especially Friday-Sunday, have a spot and be prepared to stay for the night! By 7:00pm, police began blocking off streets preparing to receive what appear's to be the entire island which invades Old San Juan on weekends.
If you're staying in the area and can't find parking, there's a pair of garages on Calle San Francisco that offer a $4.50 overnight rate given to local residents; again provided you're gone by 8:00am the following morning. Otherwise, the largest cluster of parking garages are across from the cruiseship port along Calle la Marina.
When heading towards Old San Juan, an endless construction project on the Condado Lagoon Bridges only adds to congestion and confusion. Once coming through the jumbled intersection, an immediate left along Highway 1 leads to the cruiseship port and parking garages. Highway 25 heads toward the cluster of hotels before clipping left to run along the northern rim, feeding into Old San Juan's Calle San Francisco along the northern border of Plaza de Colón.