How a misguided GPS lead us to a good find, but bad luck

“BUT I CAN’T FIGURE OUT HOW TO GET OUT OF THE PARKING LOT!” I wailed, confused at how to even put the rental car into reverse.

“Dude, let’s ask PSY,” T suggested, and the site of a Gangnam-style doppleganger set me into a fit of giggles. Today was going to be a good day. After loads of back luck during 2012, I finally felt blessed, and that our trip would be  luck at the end of a bad streak.

I asked the car rental guy the easiest way to get out of Madrid, and he asked our destination.

Burgos, I said, as H responded with Logroño, our final destination.

The GPS navigated us out of Madrid and out towards Burgos. Being together outside of camp felt almost strange, but we chattered away to make the kilometres pass by as quickly as they got racked up on the dashboard.

Just past the border of Madrid and Segovia, the GPS spoke again to tell us to turn off the main road and onto a secondary highway.

“It’s probably just avoiding the toll roads or something,” H suggested when I told her that the Internet had suggested driving up past Burgos and veering off on the highway that stretches across the North, following the Ebro river that feeds the grapevines of La Rioja.

The mountain range that separates the two comunidades rolled out on the right side of the window as the vegas turned into golden-leafed forests. As we snaked into Soria – the most sparsely populated region of Spain – my eyes and brain begged for a coffee.

The GPS sounded, as if it read my brain. It directed us into a town on the banks of the Duero, San Esteban de Gormáz. I saw the town’s castle spires on our way in, and we drove as high as the rental car would take us into the town’s midget bodegas with cracked, wooden doors. The place felt a bit like Guadix with the homes carved into the walls, the creaky stairs and catwalks leading across the sides of the mountain. The ancient stones of the small town had lead the namesake to write El Cid Campeador, the famous novel of Spain’s chivalrous knights of the middle ages.

After a quick stop for coffee, we set out towards Soria, passing small towns not big enough for even a church. Coming around a bend in a small aldea, we came across a truck and a guardia civil car. The young office signaled us over to the shoulder and I gulped hard, stone silent in my fear.

Here’s the thing: I knew that the crime for driving without a license could be a 500€ fine and up to six months in prison. 

“Play STUPID!” T hissed as I rolled down the window and uttered hola with my best guiri accent. The cop asked for the car’s registration and my driver’s license. Kike had warned me something like this could happen not two days before, and to be extremely careful. I wasn’t breaking the law, but had been pulled over by a routine check on small country roads.

Using his iPhone as a translator, the cop told me I needed an international driver’s license to be able to rent a car and that we would be fined 100€ on the spot and get a “get out of jail” card until we made it to Logroño. I felt waves of nausea as I forked over two fifties and tried hard not to let onto the fact that I understood, even stifling a small shudder when his partner said, “Wasn’t it 500€ for driving without a license?”

As we drove away after a hurried buenos dias at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I felt my heart stop racing as we laughed nervously. Luckily, wine country was our destination, and it wasn’t long before I was taking the edge off with a glass of Rioja and cheap tapas. My friends were glad I was driving and that my guiri-speaking-Spanish impression was spot-on.

The rest of our weekend included me losing a cell phone, breaking a few wine glasses and having the worst wine hangovers of our lives, but there are few things I appreciate more than a good glass of tinto, my friends and new places.

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. Ughh, that’s horrible! You’ve been having some bad luck lately with driving! Thankfully, the cop didn’t ask you to fork over 500! BTW–loving you bio: “and a whole lotta canis.” Hahaha
    Christine in Spain recently posted..An Expat’s Guide to Surviving (and Enjoying!) the Holidays AbroadMy Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      You know just as well as I do that Seville is like that! Especially out where I live. Have a great Christmas, guapa!

  2. Oh wow. I’ve often wondered about that whole driving business….and yes, you’re lucky, it could have been much worse! Did you make it to Laguardia? If you’re still up that way try Cellars Terra!
    Reg of The Spain Scoop recently posted..A Local Twist On Christmas – TarifaMy Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      Our plan was to try a wine cellar, but it just could not be! Now that all has pased and I have a new phone, the bad feelings and the bad luck have seemed to melt away….thanksfully!

  3. Ah man,
    I was just wondering if I could get away with using my CA driver’s license here or if I need the silly international paper driver’s license. Your story is enough to change plans about renting an automatic with my mom when she visits. Darn…
    Lauren @ roamingtheworld recently posted..Exploring Salburua nature park in Vitoria-GasteizMy Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      I got away with it for five years, and the people at the the rental car company should have been more stringent when turning over the keys.

      I have a friend who’s a policia nacional and he wanred me about this just days before it happened. Have you mom get one if she can, then you’ll be fine!

  4. Chris Salvo says:

    What a great photo of you T & H.

    I got my Italian drivers license 2 years ago. It was hard and expensive. It did stop that awful sinking feeling every time I drove past a polizia!

    Are we going to hear the rest of the story??

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      Ask H! Out of respect to her and the others, I didn’t want to reveal tooooo much. Your Xmas card is in the mail, too!

  5. That sucks! We rented tons of cars the past 2 years w/o international licenses…you would think if it was so illegal, they just wouldn’t rent it to you at the rental place! Also…the fact that you weren’t speeding or anything would annoy me. However, my bf did receive a ticket in the mail (in all Basque, claro) from a speed control. Didn’t even know about it til it came to his American address!
    Liz recently posted..Minnesota Winter is HereMy Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      I recently got a speeding ticket from a radar, but I couldn’t believe that the first time I EVER rented a car abroad, I got caught! Just a routine check on a puente weekend, it looks like. It has prompted me to look into autoescuelas for February. Bah humbug!

  6. Woah you were lucky you didn’t get fined 500 euros! My friends and I got ticketed for speeding driving back from North Carolina to Philly after a friend’s wedding. I wasn’t driving and literally the speed limit changed twice within fifty feet, from 60 to 45 and then back to 60. The cops basically chose that spot to sneak up on people who didn’t realize the speed limit changed drastically so suddenly. My friend tried to get out of it but still got a ticket. After we drove away, not fifteen feet later we saw the speed go back up to 60 (the speed was reduced probably because of the traffic light at the intersection). My friend was SO pissed, especially because the cops pretended to pull the “southern charm” act since she knew they had targeted her specifically to get their speeding ticket quota.

  7. How funny! Well…not funny at the time, I suppose, but aren’t these the kind of tales that make you laugh when retelling them later? And think of it this way – that cop’s mistake means you actually SAVED 400 bucks. I mean, euros. :)
    Jennifer recently posted..This is 40 Movie Actor Interview and Romantic Weekend GetawaysMy Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      Exactly! Two weeks later, it seems funny, but that moment brought waves of fear! My mother-in-law told met hat had I not acted the way I did, I would have never been allowed to get a license and could have very likely faced jail time. Phew! Working on getting an EU license early next year.

  8. Whew, I’m very glad we picked up our international drivers permits before we left Canada! We’re planning to get a rental and drive through Southern Spain in the New Year. You make it sound like so much fun – well, besides for the almost being arrested part :)…
    Micki recently posted..Where’s Home for a Barefoot Nomad?My Profile

  9. 2 Digital Nomads says:

    So funny, i mean now it is :) waiting for your hangover one LOL
    2 Digital Nomads recently posted..On the road expenses and statistics, month 4My Profile

  10. I know this post is old, but I have an additional question! I am a Spanish resident with a California DL and an International Drivers Permit. I read that technically Spanish residents have a 3 month grace period to use their home country’s license with the IDP and then it is obligatory to get a Spanish license. Do you think it’s overly risky for me to drive with the IDP despite being a resident? I would only be driving once, maybe twice a month in my friends extra car. Thank you!

    • Mejor dicho, I am a temporary Spanish resident here on a student visa participating in the Auxiliares de Conversación program.

    • It is risky, but so is getting out of bed in the morning! You technically have to get a license after two years of legal residence, not six months, though the IDP really isn’t valid in Spain after three. I’m not a lawyer and cannot properly advise you (you know, moral issue), though I’d urge you to be extra careful, travel on highways when possible and know the basic rules of the road! Always carry your American DL when you go, too.


  1. […] a parking fine to my name in America. When I rented a car with some friends to drive to La Rioja, the GPS guided us right into a roadside check and a 100€ fine. My suegra proclaimed that getting a driving license was absolutely necessary, and that she would […]

  2. […] then I did get stopped and fined 100€ in a rental car. This sent my mother-in-law into a tailspin, and she told me I could be banned from driving should […]

  3. […] Remember that, as an American, your driver’s license is NOT valid in Spain. If you wish to own a car, you’ll have to get a Spanish driver’s license, or carné de conducir. COMO does not recommend driving without one (or a AAA Inertional Driver’s Permit for those on their 3-month Shengen visa and simply traveling through Spain), as fines can be steep. Trust us, we’ve been there. […]

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