As great as Mexico’s public transportation system is, a car is an excellent way to tour Chiapas . Many of the sights—ruins, indigenous villages, waterfalls, beaches, wildlife—are well outside of the region’s cities, down long access roads, or on the way from one town to the next. Having a car also saves you the time and effort of walking or the cost of hiring a driver to get to all those “missing links”; it allows you to enjoy the sights for as much or as little time as you choose.
If you’re here for a short time—a week or less—consider renting a car for the simple reason that you’ll have the option of seeing and doing twice as much. While a car isn’t necessary to visit Palenque , San Cristóbal de las Casas , or Tuxtla Gutiérrez  themselves, consider renting one for select trips, like Aguacero and Sima de las Cotorras  outside Tuxtla, the indigenous villages outside San Cristóbal , or the less-accessible parts of the Lakes Region .
Note: Though driving in Chiapas during the daytime is safe, not to mention incredibly beautiful, driving at night is not recommended due to the possibility of roadside robberies. This is especially a concern on the Palenque–San Cristóbal and Palenque–Frontera Corozal roads. (The far eastern elbow of the Carretera Fronteriza  should be avoided at all times due to drug trafficking; take the Chajul–Pico de Oro cutoff instead.)
Even late-night buses should be avoided whenever possible, as they are occasionally targeted as well. In the unlikely event you are stopped by bandits, do not resist. Give them whatever they ask for—usually any cash you have on hand—and they’ll typically send you on your way.
International car rental chains like Europcar, Thrifty, and Hertz have a limited presence in Chiapas , mostly in Tuxtla  plus a couple in Tapachula . They occasionally have online specials but otherwise tend to be expensive (US$50–90 per day). Mexican car rental agencies are few and far between—there’s one in San Cristóbal —and often have older cars and similar rates to the international chains. Be aware that there are no car rental agencies in Palenque ; the nearest ones are in Villahermosa, Tabasco, and one local agency in San Cristóbal.
Most credit cards offer free international car insurance; however, at the time of research, only Europcar offered lower prices for declining the company coverage. If you do use the agency’s insurance, be sure to get the details: Is it partial or full coverage? How much is the deductible? Does it offer a zero-deductible plan? Note: You will be asked to leave a blank credit card imprint, ostensibly to cover the deductible if there is any damage. Be sure that this is returned to you when you bring back the car.
Before renting, have the attendant review the car for existing damage—definitely accompany him on this part and don’t be shy about pointing out every nick, scratch, and ding. Other things to confirm before driving off include:
If you break down or run out of gas on a main road during daylight hours, stay with your car. Los Ángeles Verdes (The Green Angels, toll-free Mex. tel. 078 or 800/903-9200), a government-sponsored tow truck and repair service, cruise many of these roads on the lookout for drivers in trouble. They carry a CB radio, gas, and small parts, and are prepared to fix tires. If you have a cellular phone—or happen to be near a pay phone—call your car rental agency; the Ángeles Verdes are a great backup. If you are on a remote road and don’t have a phone, you’re better off walking or hitching a ride to the nearest town.
Most travelers have heard horror stories about Mexican police and worry about being taken for all their money or being trundled off to jail without reason. In Chiapas , while there is certainly corruption among the police, they don’t typically target tourists. As long as you are a careful and defensive driver, it is very unlikely you’ll have any interaction with the police at all. Most travelers who are pulled over actually have done something wrong—speeding, running a stop sign, turning on red. In those situations, remain calm and polite. If you have an explanation, definitely give it; it is not uncommon to discuss a given situation with an officer. Who knows, you may even convince him you’re right—it’s happened to us!
Of real concern are gas station attendants. Full service is the norm here—you pull up, tell the person how much you want, and he or she does the rest. A common scam is for one attendant to distract you with questions about wiper fluid or gas additives while another starts the pump at 50 or 100 pesos. Before you answer any questions, be sure the attendant “zeroes” the pump before starting it.