Driving and Renting a Car in South America — What You Need to Know!

View of green trail through car window

Travelling through South America is an epic adventure in its own right. But driving yourself around the continent is even more exciting. We’re often asked if renting a car in South America is possible as a foreigner. And the answer is an unequivocal yes! 

Hiring a car in South America gives you the freedom to visit busy attractions before busloads of tourists arrive. It means you don’t need to spend hours waiting in bus terminals and makes planning your trip easier. Plus, driving in a foreign country always makes for a good story! 

These tips for hiring a car and driving in South America allow you to plan that once-in-a-lifetime road trip and demystify the car hire process. 

This article contains affiliate links. Booking/buying through links you find on this site is a great way of supporting the work we do at no extra cost to you.

Best Car Hire Agencies in South America: Quick Answers!

Well Priced for Hiring Cars in South America
  • Excellent prices
  • Upgrades are common for repeat customers
  • Not a huge variety of vehicles 
Excellent Range of Cars Available
  • Great range of vehicles on offer
  • Amazing loyalty scheme that is free to join
  • Often try to upsell insurance and additional extras 
Best Hire Car Price Comparison Site
  • Compare prices from loads of companies
  • Easy to find the type of car you want
  • Options for vehicles all over the world

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Pros and Cons of Hiring a Car in South America

  • Freedom
  • Experience more
  • A well-serviced vehicle
  • Control of the music 
  • Costs
  • Fuel
  • Parking
  • It's not the same as having your own car

Pros of Hiring a Car in South America

Hiring a car in South America offers you the freedom to explore at your own pace. You can travel when you want, stop when you want and detour at any time. When you’ve got your own car, you’re no longer a passive presence moving across the landscape. Instead, you become an active participant in local life which opens up a world of experiences. 

Hiring a car in South America is much simpler than trying to buy one and much cheaper than shipping one from home. Plus, if you hire a vehicle from a reputable company, it’s likely to be well maintained and should anything go wrong, they’ll be able to help you out – assuming you have the right insurance and haven’t broken any terms and conditions.

South America road trip
Good luck getting off the beaten track in a bus!

Being in control of your vehicle means you’re also in control of the music. South American buses, taxis and collectivos tend to blast reggaeton at a painful volume over tinny speakers, which for fans of the above must be a treat, but for the rest of us… 🙉

Finally, hiring a car for South America gives you much more space to store your stuff as you travel. Why try and cram everything into your 40-litre backpack when you can just throw it all in the trunk?!

Cons of Hiring a Car in South America

The most obvious downside of hiring a car in South America is the cost. Clocking in at least $40USD per day, it adds up over a long stint. However, if you have enough people with you (at least four), hiring a car can be cheaper than relying on public transport – make some friends and get driving! 

You also need to be aware of the terms and conditions you’ve agreed to when hiring the car. It’s not like having your own vehicle. Many companies forbid you from taking their vehicles on certain roads or into other countries. Always be open with the company about your route. There’s no point lying, then having to phone them for help after you’ve smashed the suspension on a road you shouldn’t even be on. 

80 Best Road Trip Quotes
Check with your hire company before getting THIS off the beaten track though!

Some companies will let you take the car across borders but there’s usually a fee of around $200USD for the correct paperwork – you need to arrange this in advance as the administration side of things can take weeks. 

Don’t forget to factor in fuel and parking costs too… 

Where to Hire a Car in South America

Knowing where to hire a car in South America is a challenge in its own right. There are a ton of small local rental agencies but unless you’re fluent in Spanish and very experienced in South America (or are South American), avoid these. They’re not suitable for tourists. 

The safest way of hiring a car in South America is to go through a large, international hire company. They’re well set up for visitors, can provide information in English (or your chosen language) and help you choose the right insurance for your hire car. 

These are some of the best hire companies in South America:

If you’re on the hunt for the best deal but can’t be bothered to search through multiple agencies, use a comparison site like Rentalcars.com  to speed up your search!

Tips for Hiring a Car in South America


When hiring a car in South America, you’ll need to leave a credit card on file to cover the deposit should anything go wrong. Ensure the credit card has a large enough balance for this – the hire agency will check. 

Debit card being held out towards the camera
Be prepared to leave a card on file in case of damage to the vehicle!


Getting the right insurance is as important as choosing the right car. If you hire a vehicle from a reputable agency, this should all be arranged and explained to you. If you speak limited Spanish or have no idea what insurance you need, hiring a car from one of the large international agencies is your best bet. 

Different roads and routes throughout South America will require different levels of cover. Let the hire company know where you’re going, so they can provide the best insurance. It might feel like a con if you have to opt for the more expensive package but you’ll be grateful if something happens to the car! 

Check your travel insurance or credit cards to see if overseas hire vehicle cover is included. You’re paying for it already, so you may as well make the most of it! 


As mentioned above, crossing country borders with a hire car isn’t as easy as you’d expect. Most hire firms won’t let you take their vehicles out of the country. And those that do, charge around $200USD for the correct paperwork. If you plan to cross a border, let the hire company know as far in advance as you can – the paperwork can take weeks to arrange!

Crossing borders can be a mission if you haven’t planned ahead!

Check for Damage

When hiring a car anywhere in the world, not just in South America, always check the vehicle for damage before getting in. Preferably with an employee of the agency. Take photos of any issues to prove it wasn’t you. 

Return the Vehicle on Time

Just like library books, cars have late return fees – and these can be extortionate! Always return a hire vehicle on, or before, the agreed time. And if you really can’t make it back on time, let the agency know as soon as possible! 

Return the Vehicle to Where It Came From

While it’s possible to pick a hire car up from one location and drop it off at another, this tends to add a big chunk to your total bill. It can sometimes be as much as double! Always try to return a vehicle to the same place you got it from. 

La Paz city
Return the car to where you picked it up to avoid paying stupid fees!


If you’ve never driven a manual car before, it’s time to learn a new skill. While automatic cars are available in South America, they’re much less common than their stick-shift counterparts, leaving you with two options:

  • Learn how to drive a manual quickly
  • Book your car very far in advance

We don’t recommend picking up a manual car and driving straight out into the city if you’ve not driven one before, that’s a recipe for disaster. Booking in advance is likely the best option but you may need to plan months ahead, especially in peak season.

Booking in Advance

Even if you don’t need an automatic, booking your hire vehicle in advance is a good idea. If you try to hire a car last minute somewhere busy, peak season in Patagonia for example, you’ll either end up disappointed or have to pay stupid money for a premium vehicle that’s totally unnecessary. 

Patagonian Desert Argentina
Want to drive in Patagonia? Book as far in advance as you can!

Shop Around

Hire car costs can vary wildly depending on the agency, vehicle and route you have planned. Shopping around is the best way to save money but bear in mind that the cheapest deals might not always be the best. Check how many miles you’re allowed to drive and what insurance/breakdown cover is included with the vehicle. 

Local companies may have the cheapest rates but if you can’t speak Spanish, you may struggle to get the right package. Price comparison sites such as Rentalcars.com give you a good overview of what is available and include English language support if you need help. 

Age Limits 

Renting a car is cheapest for those aged 30-60. Outside this age bracket, you’ll face additional fees, or may be unable to hire a vehicle from certain companies. Keep this in mind when shopping around. 

Check Reviews

The internet is a wonderful place. When hiring a car from any company, always find reviews from other travellers to see if they had any issues. Reviews from locals aren’t always the most useful as their experience is likely to be very different to yours.

More Tips for Driving in South America


While South America generally has a very good infrastructure for driving, this begins to change if you stray off the beaten track. Gas stations, shops and restaurants can be few are far between. Top up with food and water whenever possible and ensure the tank is brimmed when taking on a long drive. 

It’s also worth noting that some petrol stations in more remote regions may only accept cash. Make sure you have a supply of local currency for these occasions. 

Shell Petrol Station, Argentina
Don’t expect every gas station in South America to be part of a big chain!

Toll Roads

If there’s a profit to be made, someone will be doing it. Toll roads are relatively common in parts of South America. Ensure you have some local currency, so you can pay the fees if necessary. 

Carry a Decoy Wallet

South America is a safe place to travel and drive. But there’s always a chance something can go wrong. Carrying a decoy wallet with just a few notes and some old cards is a good way of protecting your money. If you get unlucky and are robbed, you can hand over this fake wallet and lose very little. 

 This can also help when dealing with corrupt police officers who like to issue small ‘on the spot fines’ to make bigger (and often made up) problems go away. If the fuzz see you have a lot of cash, the fines always tend to be larger. But if they can only see $15USD, that’s likely all the fine will be. 

Road Conditions

Road conditions in South America might not be what you’re used to. Sure, there are thousands of miles of well-paved highways but these can deteriorate without notice. Long stretches of gravel tracks are common and old roads aren’t always well maintained. Journey times always tend to be longer than you’d expect so prepare for this when planning your route. 

Bolivian road
Prepare for crumbling roads and potholes deep enough to swallow you!

International Driving Permits (IDPs)

International driving permits are required for foreign nationals to drive in over 140 countries across the world. Unless you are South American, chances are you will need one to drive on the continent. The rules are often changing around IDPs so can be hard to keep up with. This Wiki page is a good place to start, then move on to check with the relevant authorities for the most accurate information on IDPs. 

The Darien Gap

People often ask whether it’s possible to buy a car in the USA and then simply drive south. Whilst it’s possible for a foreigner to buy a car in the USA, it’s not possible to drive it into South America thanks to the Darien Gap.

This 160 km area of Panama is nothing but forest and swampland. It’s used by drug cartels and paramilitary groups as a safe zone between the Americas. No road that goes through it and attempting to cross it by any means is foolhardy at best.

It’s possible to ship vehicles around the Darien Gap, from Panama to Colombia, or vice versa. However, it’s costly and the ferries are inconsistent.

Almost Every South America Country Drives on the Right

When driving in South America, prepare to drive on the right-hand side of the road. For most travellers, this will be second nature but if you come from a country that drives on the left, this can take some getting used to. 

The only exceptions to this are Guyana and Suriname who both drive on the left. 

Alternatives to Hiring a Car in South America

Buying a Car in South America 

Buying a car in South America is very difficult for a foreign tourist. But it’s possible in some countries. The easiest place to buy a car is in Chile, where companies like Suzi Santiago can help prepare all the paperwork for a smooth transaction. 

Camper Van South America
Buying your own car in South America is complicated but rewarding!

It’s also possible to buy a car in Colombia or Argentina as this is where many overlanders end their trips, although it’s a little more complicated than in Chile. Pan Americana Forum and Horizons Unlimited are both good sites for finding second-hand vehicles from overlanders. Normally sellers will help with the legal paperwork as part of the deal.

Shipping a Car to South America 

As we’ve already mentioned, driving a car into South America is impossible but plenty of road trippers will ship cars from abroad. Shipping can be costly starting at around $1000USD and rising to more than $6000USD at times. 

Shipping containers
Shipping a car to South America is costly but often easier than buying one!

There are plenty of shipping companies offering this service, some of which allow you to stay on the boat too. Travelling on what is essentially a cargo ship is an adventure in itself! The easiest way to ship a vehicle into South America is to arrange everything with an agent like those over at IVSS. They’ll navigate all the complicated stuff, so you don’t have to. There’s a fee for the service but it’s well worth paying! 

For more information on shipping a vehicle check out this article from Drive The Americas.

Hitchhiking in South America 

If you don’t want to drive but still want an up-close experience with local people in South America, hitchhiking is the best option. It’s relatively common across much of the continent, especially in Patagonia. Riding with locals going about their daily lives gives you a much better insight than sitting on an air-conditioned bus watching films for eight hours at a time!

Man hitchhiking into Chile
If you’ve never hitchhiked before, South America could be the place to start!

Remember to keep your wits about you and follow these South American hitchhiking tips for the best experience! 

Round Up of Driving and Renting a Car in South America

Travelling around South America is an adventure in itself but renting a car and driving yourself around the continent allows you to get off the beaten track and explore at your own pace! 

Ensure you have the correct IDP and insurance. Know when you need to return the vehicle and make sure you sort out any paperwork well in advance – especially if you plan on crossing international borders in your hire car! 

And most importantly, enjoy your travels!

Got questions about hiring a car in South America? Let us know in the comments!

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