The Dumbest Thing We Did to a Rental Car on Our Gap Year

Originally published in the February 2024 edition of the newsletter.

I know the risks. Butterflies swarm my insides when I think about how easy it would be to wreck a rental. Even an Ecuadorian tourist who lived most of his adult life in France thought we were crazy. What about the road conditions? Theft? The narrow roads? Then there are the motorcyclists who follow only one rule: if it fits, go for it.

When we took our yearlong family adventure through South America, we considered the downsides of car rentals. But the freedom, the charming roadside stands, and the bargain basement prices (that made you question how companies turned a profit) lured us into taking the gamble. The ability to pull over at a moment’s notice and pee into a ditch—no small benefit when traveling with three little boys—was probably the clincher.

Road Conditions in South America

Driving in South America, like just about anything, is something you get used to. But it requires a level of attentiveness that is rare for American drivers. A friend of mine who grew up in Ecuador claims that actually makes them better drivers. If a motorist with a habit of texting while driving (or reading a book behind the wheel, as I heard of somebody doing) found themselves doing so in South America, they would promptly be eliminated from the gene pool.

The extent to which this is true varies depending on where you go. Some stretches are more harrowing than others, like the times we passed through the transition zone between the Andes and the flatlands where we dodged landslides in blinding fog. But a few hazards were nearly universal:

Speed bumps: 

I’m not talking about rumble strips. Speed bumps are the big concrete humps that are typically found only in front of schools and painted bright yellow in the States. Double the height, remove the paint half the time, and place them everywhere—sometimes for no other reason than to see if you’re awake—and you get a sense of what driving is like in South America. The cheap compact cars we always rented struggled to get over some of them without bottoming out. If you ever hit one at full speed (which I nearly did a couple times), God help you.

Different design standards: 

While there are certainly well-built and maintained highways in every country, I noticed a pattern. A road that would merit pavement here (meaning almost all of them) often did not down there. And the roads were often so narrow that you wondered how you and the oncoming truck were going to get by each other, but you always somehow did. Sometimes we had to abandon a route because it was impassible with a compact car (but not without a valiant attempt!).

As I look out my window to the quiet suburban street below, which is paved, curbed and wide enough to fit three cars side-by-side, I can imagine its southern equivalent—cobblestone or dirt and a tight squeeze for two oncoming vehicles.

Also, I can’t fail to mention those narrow one-lane wooden bridges with no guardrails. Nothing like a little danger to bring your senses into the present moment.

Motorcycles

Motorcyclists do not heed traffic lights, right of way, or any other rule that we four-wheeling chumps have to follow. This can lead to unanticipated hazards for those who have learned to expect that everybody follows the rules.

So with all those hazards, and all that time on the road, something had to go wrong. Right?

A fruit stand in Ecuador between Shell and Baños. Getting to stop wherever you like is a huge perk.
To an American used to paved roads, this Brazilian street made me think twice about continuing. The shiny black car in the distance is ours.
A traffic jam in the countryside near Salento, Colombia.
A landslide covering most of an otherwise-good highway in Ecuador. We were almost out of the fog at this point.

No Visible Damage (Well, Except Once)

Most of us consider it common sense to not take the rental off-roading. In South America, it’s practically unavoidable.

Thankfully, they don’t check for scrapes in the undercarriage, so we never got cited for damage, except for an incident in Colombia. We returned our car with a nearly two foot scrape over the rear wheel well.

It happened as we were leaving our Airbnb after a short stay in Salento. The narrow entrance, a steep ramp to the street, a van that parked directly across from the driveway making the narrow alley even narrower, and bolts that inexplicably protruded several inches from the open wooden gate left me no margin for error. I heard the sickening rub of metal against plastic. I wanted to back up and reapproach the turn to minimize the damage. But doing so with a manual transmission on a steep incline while also making a sharp turn proved impossible. I had to endure the long nauseating scrape until it ran its course.

The cost to us in the end? Nothing. The contract covered that sort of damage, the agent informed us. Two weeks fretfully anticipating the final bill was our only penance. But that wasn’t our worst car return.

I tried getting the scratch out by rubbing it with toothpaste, which someone on the internet suggested. Unfortunately, this one was just too deep.
We got the rental car stuck near in the bull pasture one rainy night in Brazil. That’s me walking down to clean the mud off the tires so we can give it another go. You can read all about it here.

Embarrassing

We rented our first car in Brazil where we started our family gap year. Monthly cost in the off-season, $320. A steal!

Our month in Teresópolis passed without incident. Then we extended our rental for a second month. The car felt like it was practically ours.

For month two we drove to the coastal town of Paraty. The dirt road by our river-side cabin was under construction. This contributed a considerable amount of dust and mud to the exterior even before we added our fair share.

Then, every so often we visited a beach. It’s hard enough for two conscientious adults to keep sand out of the car after a beach day. But with three boys, it was a lost cause.

One day, after a big grocery run, we came home to a newly-laid curb in front of our driveway. The concrete was fresh, and in any case I wasn’t sure our Fiat Mobi could clear it. We parked off on an unlit side road nearby (less likely for someone to see it and try to break in, I reasoned) and lugged the groceries back to the cabin.

It was several days before we used the car again. I was happy to see no one had stolen or damaged it while outside the confines of our gated property. But when I opened the door I nearly retched from the stench. “I think something died in here!” I exclaimed to Liuan.

We opened all the windows and searched under and between the seats for a dead rodent. Then we opened the trunk. Aha! That will do it. A bag of once-frozen shrimp moldered in the corner. It must have slipped out and we overlooked it in the dark. Despite being zip-locked, it was a juicy mess.

Several rounds of baking soda didn’t eliminate the stink, but it took the edge off. One doesn’t typically miss cleaning supplies while traveling, but I would have given anything for a shop-vac and a shelf of heavy duty chemical cleaners at the hardware store. Instead, we settled for a small bristle brush. I borrowed a spatula from our kitchen to use as a shovel.

Hours of painstaking work, sweeping and scooping mounds of sand out of the interior and baking soda out of the trunk, produced a noticeable difference. Not bad, Liuan and the boys commented when they saw the result.

Unfortunately, the lady at the rental office processing our return didn’t think so. I couldn’t exactly follow the torrent of Portuguese directed at me, but I had no trouble interpreting the exasperation and a word she kept repeating: sujo—filthy.

The fine for the extra cleaning? A mere $40. The tax on my dignity? Steep.

  • Matt

    Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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Matt

Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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