This post was most recently updated on March 9th, 2022
Costa Rica is a beautiful country, and the most efficient way to see it is by car. But before you just “dive” right into driving in Costa Rica, you might want to educate yourself a little. Then you’ll be better prepared for a great visit!
1.GETTING A RENTAL CAR IN COSTA RICA
Unless you have a Costa Rican friend who will be your personal driver, you’re going to want to rent a car. On our recent trip, my husband and I rented from Alamo, but most rental car companies are available. We really appreciated how easy they made it for us to find the car rental counters at the airport, and how smoothly the process went.
Be sure to reserve your car ahead of time to ensure they have what you want. They will probably ask you if you want to upgrade to a 4-wheel drive. Depending on what you are planning to do, you may want to consider it, as there are a lot of poor quality roads. We were fine, however, with our Toyota Corolla rental.
Pay for Liability Insurance
Plan to pay for insurance because it’s actually required by law. At least the liability insurance is. The cost was about $25 per day. For another $20 per day, you get full coverage, which includes collision on the rental car and no deductible. I don’t usually do this when I’m renting a car anywhere, but this time we opted to pay it. It included free road service, trading out the vehicle for another if there were any problems, and absolutely no authorization deposit put on our credit card. Because we had receved our car rental free (through employee benefit points at my husband’s work), we were fine with just paying for the full coverage. You may want to spend some time researching what your credit cards offer in the way of rental car insurance.
Decide what to do about gas
I suggest you pay for a full tank of gas at the car rental agency — it’s actually sold at a discount compared to gas stations, and it means you can bring the car back on empty. No last-minute scrambles to find a gas station as you’re hurrying to return a car and catch a flight! If you do need to purchase gas, it is sold by the litre, and they pump the gas for you.
Do you need GPS?
You’re going to want to have GPS to guide your driving in Costa Rica. You can download Costa Rica maps from Google before you arrive to avoid paying for the car rental GPS ($10/day). Or you can buy a local SIM card (Kolbi has good coverage) for your phone and use your favorite navigation app. The Waze app is supposed to work well in Costa Rica.
2. DRIVING TIPS
These tips are based on our experiences in just one week in Costa Rica. It is not meant to be the “bible” on Costa Rican driving, but it is information that was helpful to us (or things we learned the hard way!) I found this list of driving tips to be a good additional resource.
Leave some space between vehicles
Always keep a distance of at least 30 yards between you and the car in front of you. We were told this is one way to avoid a scam where people cause a car accident by slamming on their brakes — and then steal your belongings when you get out of your car to deal with the accident.
But more importantly, it is just wise to keep a distance. You’ll never know what may make the car in front of you suddenly slam on their brakes. It could be a dog wandering onto the road, an unmarked speed bump, a deep pothole, a motorcyle cutting them off, or any number of things. Keeping an ample space in front of you wil prevent accidents.
Avoid driving during rush hour
It will be well worth it to lose an hour of sleep and get up earlier than most Costa Rican drivers. That extra hour of sleep could mean an extra two hours of time on the road — I am NOT exaggerating.
Avoid driving in cities like San Jose
There are just too many drivers and not enough space to drive in downtown San Jose. Cars stop in driving lanes, or even park there (not sure how they get away with this, but we saw it a lot!), causing a crowded street to get even worse. This means there is always congestion (except at 6:00 am). It took us 30 minutes to travel 2 miles in San Jose. It would have been easier to ditch the car and walk! (But I don’t suggest doing that).
Avoid driving at night
Remember the dogs and unmarked speed bumps I told you about? They’re much worse in the dark. There are no sidewalks or crosswalks outside the city. Nor are there many streetlights. You can’t see the pedestrians crossing or walking along the road. If you have no choice, driving behind another car will at least give you taillights to follow.
Don’t expect to go anywhere fast
In Costa Rica, they have a motto — “Pura Vida”. You see it on signs and souvenirs. Literally, it means ‘pure life’, but it seems to be a catch-all for ‘everything’s cool.’ It could also mean ‘don’t be in a hurry!’ And that is good advice because just about anything could force you to slow down as you are driving in Costa Rica — from wandering cattle to sleeping dogs, slow trucks and hidden speed bumps, one-lane bridges, toll booths, hairpin turns, roadside vendors, pedestrians, congestion, construction projects and giant potholes. Heck, they even have iguana crossing signs in Costa Rica!
The fact that you’ll often spend time stopped in traffic has created a whole new style of buskers and beggars in Costa Rica — those who step right out into traffic to ask for a hand-out or to entertain you for a donation. Check out this bold man juggling machetes!
Expect to average no more than 25-30 mph on any road trip, and figure that into your itinerary.
Be prepared for toll roads
Toll roads are plentiful, but they are not very expensive, so I wouldn’t try to avoid them. Some of the tolls were as low as 75 colones (13 cents USD), while the most expensive one we encountered was 750 colones ($1.30 USD). Tolls are paid with cash, and they will accept colones or US dollars; change is always given in colones. Lines move along faster than you might imagine, because the toll workers are quite adept at making change quickly. In fact, it actually takes longer to pay with exact change because the worker has to stop to count it.
You don’t have to wonder about when you are supposed to pay because the toll booths are obvious, and everyone is required to stop. Signs remind you to count your change before leaving the toll booth, but we never experienced any errors.
Parking in Costa Rica
We cannot pretend to be experts in Costa Rican parking rules. We did make sure to book hotels that provided free parking. At most attractions there will also be free parking lots. If not, there should be signs indicating the parking fee and how to pay it. We did not pay for parking at the Carara National Park or La Paz Waterfall Gardens, but we did pay 2,000 colones ($3.44 USD) to park at the Poas Volcano.
In the city of Cartago, the street parking stalls were marked with “con boleto” signs, meaning we needed to buy tickets for parking. We were able to buy the needed ‘boletos’ to display on the dashboard, at a nearby store on the street. Just look for a sign indicating boletos available for purchase.
Do be wise and don’t leave valuables in your car. If you have no choice, be sure they are completely hidden, and the car is locked. Remember that most rental cars in Costa Rica look alike*, so it will already be obvious you are a tourist.
*Seriously, rental cars are almost all the same gray or silver in color and the same make and model!
3. The pros of driving in Costa Rica
Costa Rica scenery is spectacular
You just can’t beat the scenery in Costa Rica, so be sure to count your blessings, even if you ARE in a trafic jam. I mean, if you have to drive slow, at least appreciate how beautiful it is, and how easy it is to take photos out of your window.
You can see so much! Drive to the beach, to the national parks, to a volcano, or to one or many of the gorgeous waterfalls.
Driving in Costa Rica can be entertaining
Where else might you find a machete-juggler in traffic? Or gorgeous views of waterfalls, lakes, volcanoes, beaches, valleys, and jungle that go on forever? You might happen across a cattle crossing or a pan-handler using humor to entice you to slip him a few colones.
You can stop when you want to
Compared to using tours or public transportation, driving in Costa Rica gives you the freedom to explore and stop when you want to. We made stops to…
- take photos of the beach
- see the crocodiles below Tarcoles Bridge
- eat at the Soda Campesino with stunning views of the river gorge
- search for sloths (didn’t find any but it was still fun looking!)
- buy food from street vendors
- visit the oldest church in Costa Rica
- enjoy a serendipitous moment at the Cafe Sal y Azucar, sipping hot chocolate on a cool foggy morning and listening to “Alone Again (Naturally)” by the Beatles, in Spanish
We found so many warm and welcoming people in Costa Rica, happy to answer our questions and eager for us to have a good experience in the country they love. Be sure to read about our Costa Rica highlights. You should definitely drive in Costa Rica to make the most of your time there. You won’t regret it!
Hard to keep my eyes on the road, so much beauty to behold!
Wow! You’ve put together quite a great resource for people looking to travel in Costa Rica! I especially appreciated the video of the waterfall right off the side of the road–what a beautiful view right from the comfort of your car!!
Fantastic tips. Costa Rica’s been on our bucket list for a very long time. Had hoped to visit last year but… Feel more confident booking a rental after reading your post. Good to know that a 4×4 isn’t required but not so happy about the mandatory liability insurance. Wow, the juggler had some serious skill.
I love the freedom of a car rental when travelling especially when there isn’t good infrastructure in place like Costa Rica. And it definitely means pulling over on a whim to check out beautiful sites or views. And navigation is key.
Costa Rica is very much a bucket list destination for me and reading this article has made me less nervous about potentially hiring a car. The tips are great as well – I wouldn’t have given much thought to driving at night but with context it is probably the tip that (to me) is the most important. Cafe Sal y Azucar looks so quirky and fun, exactly my kind of vibe.
That’s what I like about renting a car. You can always stop wherever you want. Driving in Costa Rica sounds like driving in Jakarta, Indonesia. 30-60 minutes drive just to get a place that is 2 miles away. It’s funny also about buying a parking sticker at the nearby store. But all in all it sounds a wonderful experience.
I am glad that I found this article because it will be helpful for me. I am planning a trip to Costa Rica. So many driving tips are very valuable. Good to know that I should avoid driving at night, driving in cities like San Jose, and more.
Hope you enjoy your trip!
I love how balanced this post is when it comes to sharing first-hand information. We can really get to make a decision and know the risks beforehand from your guide. Costa Rica’s natural resources are beautiful!
Thanks for all the tips. Thanks esp., for the details on gas. It is quite different in some countries where you pump gas yourself and like Costa Rica where they pump it for you. It is a good idea to buy the local sim to help in navigation as you mentioned. The views are incredibly stunning, so its definitely the best idea to drive. Thanks for the tips.
This is helpful. I like that they require liability insurance in that way, I have the peace of mind that things will be okay in case of accidents. Will take your advice to download maps from Google to avoid paying additional GPS rental. Thank you for the tips!
You’re welcome! Hope you get to enjoy exploring Costa Rica…
Super cool tips for driving across the land. I definitely am not a night driver anywhere and so would not be doing that in Costa Rica either. The insurance bit is a good tip and I would definitely take that one up. And good suggestions to avoid those extra GPS costs.