Driving Belize’s handful of highways gives you the most independence when traveling throughout the country, but it is also the most expensive. Rental fees were running US$75–125 per day and gasoline was approaching US$6 per gallon at press time. You’ll also have to be adept at avoiding careless drivers and the occasional obstacles like pedestrians, farm animals, cyclists, iguanas, and moped-riding cruise ship passengers.
In some areas, like the Mountain Pine Ridge  and other hinterlands, there is no public transportation, and a sturdy rental car is a good way to go if you’re into traveling on your own schedule.
One of the first things you’ll see upon walking out of the arrival lounge at the international airport is a strip of about a dozen car rental offices offering small, midsize, and four-wheel-drive vehicles. Vans and passenger cars are also available, some with air-conditioning. Insurance is mandatory but (like taxes) not always included in the quoted rates. If you know exactly when you want the car, it’s helpful (and often cheaper) to make reservations. Note the hour you pick up the car and try to return it before that time: A few minutes over could cost you another full day’s rental fee. Also take the vehicle inspection seriously to make sure you don’t get charged for someone else’s dings. And don’t forget to fill the tank up before giving it back.
Crystal Auto Rental (tel. 501/223-1600, www.crystal-belize.com ) has the largest, newest, most reliable fleet of cars in Belize. It is also the only company that will allow you to drive across the border into Guatemala or Mexico, but you won’t be insured. Jabiru Auto Rental (tel. 501/224-4680, www.jabiruautorental.bz ) is also reliable and has low Internet rates. Budget Rent a Car (tel. 501/223-2435, www.budget-belize.com ) offers new cars that are well maintained. You’ll find a few other international brands with local Belizean branches, including Avis.
If you plan on traveling in the Cayo region, it’s cheaper to use one of the San Ignacio –based car rental options. Start with Cayo Rentals (at Texaco station at top of hill, tel. 501/824-2222, cayorentals [at] btl [dot] net); US$75 per 24 hours includes taxes and insurance. Also in Cayo, Matus Car Rentals (tel. 501/663-4702 or 501/824-2089, matuscarrental [at] yahoo [dot] com) is another option with a handful of sturdy cars, and there is a Land Rover rental place in Central Farm, just east of San Ignacio (tel. 501/824-2523), if you really planning on going off-road.
Rule number one: Drive defensively! Expect everyone out there to make stupid passes and unexpected turns — they probably will and it’s your job to stay out of their way (especially when they are bigger than you, like the buses and oil trucks that speed crazily around blind curves and over one-lane bridges).
Valid U.S. (or other nationality) driver’s licenses and international driving permits are accepted in Belize for a period of three months after entering the country. Try not to drive at night if you can avoid it. Besides the additional hazards of night driving in general, some Belizean drivers overuse their high beams and many vehicles have no taillights. Watch out for unmarked speed bumps. Driving rules are U.S.–style with one very strange exception: Sometimes a vehicle making a left-hand turn is expected to pull over to the right, let traffic behind pass, and then execute the turn. This practice is being phased out, but you can still get a ticket — or rear-ended — so be careful.
Tires frequently pop, so make sure you have a good spare to get you to the nearest used-tire dealer. New tires may be hard to come by, but Belizeans are geniuses with a patch kit. A decent used spare can be had for around US$30, a patch job about US$5. If you plan on traveling during the rainy season and/or without a four-wheel-drive vehicle, make sure you are prepared in the event you get stuck in the mud. In general, road conditions may dictate where you can and cannot go, and it is always best to ask around town if you plan to go off the beaten path. Watch out for speed bumps, even on the highways — no matter how slow you drive, on some, you may bottom out. If you’re going to the cayes and leaving a vehicle on the mainland, be sure to seek out a secure pay parking lot in your city of departure, especially if it’s Belize City (the municipal airport is probably the best choice).
Expect police checkpoints anywhere around the country: They’ll check your seat belt (US$25 fine), car papers, and driver’s license, and, courtesy of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, dogs will sniff for that dime bag of weed in your shaving kit (apparently, these small busts are as big a priority as the tons of cocaine flowing northward through the country).