In general, it's not a great idea to rent a car in Peru. Driving is a heart-stopping experience, as most Peruvians see traffic laws as suggestions rather than rules. That said, there are a few places in Peru where having a car is a benefit, such as between Lima and points south on the Pan-American Highway. The highway follows the Pacific Ocean coastline before it cuts in through the desert, and stops can be made along the way for a picnic and a swim at the popular beaches around Asia at Kilometer 100. The highway is good, and although there isn't too much to see along the way, it's nice to have the freedom a car affords once you get to your destination.
If you do rent one, keep these tips in mind: outside cities, drive only during daylight hours, fill your gas tank whenever possible, make sure your spare tire is in good repair, and pay extra attention on mountain roads. In some areas, drivers caught using a cell phone receive a hefty fine.
Massive road-building programs have improved highways. Nevertheless, even in some parts of Lima, roads are littered with potholes. Beyond the urban centers, street signs are rare, lighting is nonexistent, and lanes are unmarked. Roads are straight along the coast, but in the mountains they snake around enough to make even the steadiest driver a little queasy. Fuel is pricey in Peru, with a gallon costing upward of $6 USD.
Then there are the drivers: when they get behind the wheel, Peruvians are very assertive. Expect lots of honking and last-minute lane switching when you're in a city. On highways you'll encounter constant tailgating and passing on blind curves. And remember the ancient car you sold five years ago? Chances are it is now plying Peru’s roads. All things considered, it’s best to leave the driving to someone else if you can. One option is to hire a car and driver through your hotel; making a deal with a taxi driver for some extended sightseeing is another. Drivers often charge an hourly rate regardless of the distance traveled. You'll have to pay cash, but you'll likely spend less than you would for a rental car.
The major highways in Peru are the Pan-American Highway, which runs down the entire coast, the Carretera Central, which runs from Lima to Huancayo, and the Interoceánica, which runs from Lima to Cerro de Pasco and on to Pucallpa before crossing through Brazil to the Atlantic Ocean. Most highways have no names or numbers; they're referred to by destination.
If you plan to rent a car, it's best to shop around online for a good deal and make your booking before you leave home. If you plan to rent during a holiday period, reserve early.
The minimum age for renting a car in Peru is 25, although some agencies offer rentals to younger drivers for an additional fee. All major car-rental agencies have branches in downtown Lima as well as at Jorge Chávez International Airport that are open 24 hours. You can also rent vehicles in Arequipa, Chiclayo, Cusco, Tacna, and Trujillo.
The cost of rental cars varies widely, but is generally between $40 and $60 USD for a compact, $80 to $100 USD for a full-size car or small SUV. A daily $10–$20 USD collision damage waiver is usually added to your bill. Always make sure to check the fine print, as some companies give you unlimited mileage, whereas others give you between 200 and 240 km (124 and 150 miles) free, then charge you a hefty 25 to 60 cents for every kilometer you drive above that. Many rental firms include in your contract a statement saying you may not take the vehicle on unpaved roads, of which there are many in Peru. Many also forbid mountain driving for certain types of vehicles in their fleets.
Always give the rental car a once-over to make sure that the headlights, jack, and tires (including the spare) are in working condition. Note any existing damage to the car and get a signature acknowledging the damage, no matter how slight.
Gas stations are less plentiful in Peru than in the United States or Europe. In Lima gas stations should be easy to locate, but in Cusco, Arequipa, or smaller cities they may be on the outskirts and are often difficult to find. Make sure to ask your rental company where they're located. Stations along the highways are rare, so don't pass up on the chance to gas up. Many are now open 24 hours.
If you have a rental car, make sure your hotel has its own parking lot. If it doesn’t, ask about nearby lots. In the cities guarded parking lots that charge about $1 USD an hour are common. Don’t park cars on the street, as theft is common.
The Touring y Automóvil Club del Perú will provide 24-hour emergency road service for members of the American Automobile Association (AAA) and affiliates upon presentation of their membership cards. (Towing is free within 30 km [18 miles] of several urban areas.) Members of AAA can purchase good maps there at low prices.
Touring y Automóvil Club del Perú. Trinidad Morán 698, Lince, Lima, Lima, 14. 01/611–9999; 01/615-9315; www.touringperu.com.pe.
Rules of the Road
In Peru your own driver's license is acceptable identification, but an international driving permit is good to have. They're available from the American and Canadian automobile associations and, in the United Kingdom, from the Automobile Association and Royal Automobile Club. These international permits, valid only in conjunction with your regular driver's license, are universally recognized; having one may save you headaches with local authorities.
Speed limits are 25 kph–35 kph (15 mph–20 mph) in residential areas, 85 kph–100 kph (50 mph–60 mph) on highways. Traffic tickets range from a minimum of $4 USD to a maximum of $100 USD. The police and military routinely check drivers at roadblocks, so make sure your papers are easily accessible. Peruvian law makes it a crime to drive while intoxicated, although many Peruvians ignore that prohibition.