A Horror Story: Mistakenly Renting a Stolen Car in Central America

I’ve never rented a vehicle. I mean, my sister and I always get a rental wherever we go. But, I have never been of age to have anything in my name. This adventure was not dull in the slightest. From locating to returning the rental, the stories are too insane not to share.

The second the plane arrived, I should’ve known. I should’ve recognized that this would be an absolute disaster. Over a week in advance, my sister hired a small car through Hertz, our routine. In the email, directions were given to the location of the rental office. It was listed that the booth would be located immediately before the airport exit. Approaching my way out, I stumbled upon more than half a dozen companies, most of which I’m familiar with. Unluckily for me, Hertz was not one of them. Perplexed, I instantly put the car rental company in my Google Maps to see that the most proximal Hertz is located in an adjacent Central American country. I had terrible service, and the wifi wasn’t better, so I assumed that Google wasn’t providing me with accurate information. But, you know what they say about assuming. I pulled up a screenshot of our rate agreement and instructions to the office to ensure that I was in the correct spot, and I was. I asked various staff members at the kiosks for directions to Hertz. They, too, were confused. Following asking multiple individuals, including security, I was informed that there’s a small Hertz in the city, but nowhere near the airport. I was then made aware that there was previously a Hertz there years ago. It only went downhill from this point.

As the reservation clearly didn’t exist, I went around to the various rental booths inquiring about pricing. With the impression that one of the companies would be able to price match the rental agreement from Hertz, I showed each staff member at the kiosks what we intended to pay. Long story short, they laughed in my face. I acknowledge that no matter what the agreement states, there are always disguised fees. Obviously, I was prepared for that. Still, the cheapest amount my card would’ve been swiped for was roughly $1,000. And no, the bulk of it was not the security deposit. With experience renting vehicles, I knew better. The minute one of the companies provided a reasonable price, they ran out of automatic cars. My head did a complete 360.

The agents at the booths assembled to assist me, but it was more so just to mind my business. I started to be handled as if I was broke, which is not the case. I’m simply not dense. Slyly, the agent pretending to support me proposed that I go outside to one of the local rental companies. Vex, I did just that.

I stepped out of the air-conditioned facility to a humid exit filled with multiple individuals holding signs for affordable car rentals. I approached the only woman in a pool of men seeking to promote the small company. Compared to the ludicrous amount I heard before this interaction, I felt reassured. Thinking it was entirely too good to be true, I went for it regardless. Following listening to the rates and getting an estimated sum before taxes and other fees, I texted the chat to make them aware of the offer and get the okay. Of course, they were relieved as we were all splitting the expense. I agree with the car promoter and even scored us a discounted rate. As the signal around the airport is terrible, my translator struggled to assist me. The woman and I used the calculator to speak because money talks. She asked me to accompany her to the office, where I signed the paperwork and retrieved the vehicle. Boy, I didn’t apprehend what I was in for. It is certainly no overstatement when I say I’ve seen all of El Salvador International on foot. I hauled my overstuffed carry-on through the pavement, green, and all other types of materials below my feet.

It seemed as if it took half an hour to get to the rental agency after leaving the airport. But I did it, Joe. We arrived. A different woman presented me with the required agreement forms to complete. She wasn’t entirely too nice and didn’t appreciate my attempt to use my translator to effectively communicate with her. She wasn’t fond of me since my Spanish wasn’t up to par, but I wasn’t fond of her because this isn’t how a businesswoman behaves. But I was desperate, so I did what needed to be done. The forms were the standard forms you fill out when renting a vehicle. The only anomaly was there was no deposit required, so no paperwork was needed for that. As I wasn’t 25 just yet, I was apprehensive that I would run into problems as a result. Nope, they didn’t question a thing. I can’t say if it was because my birthday was just days away, or they really didn’t care and simply desired my business. I’m going to go with the latter. With forms filled and copies taken of my photo IDs, I felt comforted. 

I followed the woman with who I had initial contact to the rental vehicle. Clipboard in hand, we were prepared to mark the noticeable imperfections with the car. Together, we circled the small car approximately three times. The staff member noted the issues on a diagram while I took photos. She switched the car on to see the amount of gas in the tank and asked that it be returned the same way. We agreed on all the damages, and she handed over the key. After showing as much gratitude as possible in my broken Spanish, I sat in the driver’s seat and blasted the air conditioning. I let out multiple sighs of relief. Solo, in El Salvador, I felt ready to take on another country in Central America.

As if the process of retrieving the car wasn’t enough of a nuisance, things started to go amiss just moments following my departure from the airport. Let’s start a list.

1: Not even five minutes passed. It takes me a while, but I navigate how to exit this maze of an airport. As soon as I merge onto the active highway, the tire pressure symbol turns on. Unquestionably, in the two total minutes that I had the car at this point, I didn’t do anything to affect the tire pressure. I pull over on the side of a hectic freeway and check all four wheels. It’s apparent that they’re new, or at least shined. (I’m gonna go with shined, cause…) Attempting to make phone calls, I come to the conclusion that my phone still isn’t working. So here I am, on the side of the highway, anxious as all hell because my phone isn’t working, I don’t know where I’m going, and I don’t know if I should even continue driving this car. I shut the car off and on once more, and the sign disappears. Minutes after merging back onto the highway, the issue persists. I concluded that nothing was wrong with the tires (or maybe there was) and made my way.

2: I turned off the music. It was my fault. I wouldn’t have discovered the rattling or whatever was going on beneath the vehicle if I continued jamming. This should’ve been the ultimate straw, but I was stuck in traffic and running late as usual. I turned the music right back up, and that was my fault.

3: We got pulled over. Yup, pulled over by Salvadoran police. Transparently speaking, I’m still startled. I assumed it was the license plate indicating we were tourists in an area that doesn’t have many or perhaps the terribly DIY tinted windows. We weren’t speeding or attracting any attention to ourselves. The cop stood on the corner of the street and waved his hand for us to pull over. The filled car grew with anxiety. As he neared the rental, he checked it out thoroughly and glanced at each passenger. The officer asked my sister, who was driving, for her information, the registration, and insurance for the vehicle. She handed over her passport as I instructed my other sister to look for the documents. The policeman promptly returned her photo ID. He wasn’t as interested in that but more so the vehicle we were driving. I asked my sister to hand over the carbonless copy of the rental agreement as we continued searching for car documents. She handed it over and proceeded to examine the glove compartment and center console for the paperwork. Of course, this was nowhere to be seen. Panicked, we played the dumb American card. We knew what he was asking for. No translation was needed. Multiple apologies and many uncomfortable moments later, he returned the rental agreement. Frustrated, he commanded us to go.

4: Between us and the disastrous roads, we’re both to blame. I’m uncertain when we hit something below the hood, bad enough for it to begin dragging on the road as we drove, but it happened. I’m not even going to dive deeper here. It is what it is.

5: The car rental return process was memorable. Earlier that day, I communicated with the man who owned the business via WhatsApp. I notified him that my sister would be dropping the vehicle off as my flight was earlier than hers. After I was given the okay, I questioned if she could return the car later than anticipated. He called me at that point, which felt like a setup considering my Spanish was not up to par for as fast as he was talking. But we agreed that this worked with an additional fee associated. I was concerned as something was now visibly dangling from below the front of the vehicle. As I was traveling while the car was being returned, I was updated several hours later. Relieved, my sister let me know that he charged us $25 for the damage. Twenty-five. I’m exceedingly grateful. I don’t know anything regarding cars, but the damage looked expensive.

My first time renting a car was loaded with dramatics. My sister ended up bringing up the police stop to the owner and questioning why there was no paperwork in the vehicle. Little did we know, they stored it in the sun visor. So, was the car truly stolen? I’m gonna go with yes regardless.

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