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9 Things that You Need To Know If You Are A “Gringo” Driving in Costa Rica

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Are you intimidated by the thought of driving in Costa Rica?  Maybe you wonder, “Is driving in Costa Rica safe?” You have maybe heard horror stories about the Costa Rica roads being flooded or otherwise impassable. 

Renting a car and driving in Costa Rica is one of the most flexible methods for getting around Costa Rica.  It also presents some challenges and additional stresses that you should be aware of. Here is our honest, rookie, account of driving in Costa Rica with all of the good, bad and in between.  

I am also going to present some compelling reasons why driving in Costa Rica might not be right for you.  We have visited Costa Rica twice. One trip we were driving in Costa Rica. The other trip we used Costa Rica shuttle services.   Both were very good trips. I hope that this information will help you in figuring out whether a Costa Rica road trip is the right fit for you.  

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If you have questions or want to pick my brain about our experience renting a car in Costa Rica or to help you decide if you should drive or take a shuttle, please feel free to visit on Facebook and shoot me a message!

1) Driving in Costa Rica is GENERALLY Safe

We have visited Costa Rica twice now.  One time we rented a car and drove, and one time we hired shuttle transportation. On the time that we rented a car, we drove from San Jose six hours down the Caribbean coast to Puerto Viejo on our last trip, then back to San Jose.  At the end of the trip we drove and ALL THE WAY across to end our trip in Liberia (that was due to a crazy standby travel adventure).

While not experts by any means, I feel like driving across the country basically from one end to the other on our last trip has given us a good basic understanding of Costa Rica driving.

Overall, we generally felt safe driving in Costa Rica.  The driving conditions are a little more chaotic than we are sometimes used to in the US, as is true in many countries in Central America.  To be honest, you really need to feel comfortable being a bit of an aggressive driver (think aggressive like driving in New York City).  

2) Some General Tips for Driving in Costa Rica

Our dashboard while driving in Costa Rica
Costa Rica gas station pump
A general rule of driving in Costa Rica – never let your tank below half.

There are a few general safety precautions and driving tips that you should always follow when Getting around Costa Rica by car.

  • NEVER leave anything in your vehicle unattended.  
  • Don’t drive late at night away from people.  
  • It gets dark in Costa Rica by about 5:30pm year round. Plan to be back before this.
  • If you see a gas station, fill up!  While you are at it, get everybody out for a potty break.  You never know when the next one will come.
  • If you are driving in or out of San Jose, there will be traffic and lots of it. Period.

3) Costa Rica Roads are Better and Worse than You Think They Will Be

One cannot answer the question of, “How is driving in Costa Rica” without paying due attention to the condition of Costa Rica roads.

The good news about this is that MANY of the roads that you will encounter on your Costa Rica road trip are not nearly as bad as you fear.  

From our experience, the main Costa Rica roads and highways were usually in good condition.  The difference was that they are just not as big as we are used to.

Major highways between big cities (Route 1 between San Jose and Liberia, for example) are not generally the big divided highways that we are used to as our main roadways in The US.  They are two lane roads, not much bigger than the county roads here in the US.

This means that you can easily get stuck behind a slow moving vehicle and be unable to pass (or that construction frequently shuts down one lane bringing a main road between two large cities to a abrupt stop.)  Plan for extra snacks and water in the car if you have kids, and have a backup plan if someone needs a potty break!

Driving from San Jose to Puerto Viejo - passing through beautiful Braulio Carrillo National Park
The drive from San Jose to Puerto Viejo is really quite beautiful. You pass right through the heart of Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Driving in Costa Rica - Traffic Jam
This was one of the many traffic jams that we hit while driving in Costa Rica. You can see the vendor on the side of the road selling snacks to stopped cars. This is a common occurrence – I think these guys make a living doing this!

When considering how to get around in Costa Rica, it is the smaller roads that you should put more thought into, especially during the rainy season (generally from April to December).  These roads are small, and can get quite muddy in high rains or even wash out all together. Again, we have no experience in driving during rainy season, but I have heard that it can really make many roads impassable and four wheel drive a necessity.  

In addition, signage on these smaller roads is TERRIBLE.  You need to make sure you have a GPS or have downloaded offline directions in Google Maps or another map program.  We hired a driver to take us between Samara (on the west coast) and the Arenal area on one of our trip and BOY, are we glad we did.  He navigated a twisty labyrinth of unmarked dirt roads for us that I am unsure that we would have been able to navigate (even if we had a GPS).

I don’t want to make you too worried, but there are also additional safety concerns to factor in if you are waaaay out in the middle of nowhere, particularly if you get lost and it gets dark. 

4) Renting a Car in Costa Rica Gives You Added Flexibility

We have done it both ways.  We had a lovely trip where we hired shuttles to get us where we needed to get where we wanted to go, and booked a few tours to fill in the gaps.  We have also taken a lovely trip to Costa Rica where we drove to our destination. We really liked it both ways, and there are pros and cons to both.  The question of “How to get around in Costa Rica” depends on a number of factors.

Driving in Costa Rica gave us added flexibilty
Driving in Costa Rica gave us the added flexibility to stop where we wanted to – like this deserted beach for a picnic lunch!
  • When deciding about Costa Rica driving, you really need to evaluate your destination.  Are you staying on the beaten path, on main highways? Or are you really heading off the beaten path where roads and signage might not be as good?  
  • Are you going to feel frustrated by not being able to explore every nook and cranny along the way?  Or is reducing stress by having someone else do the driving and navigating really going to make your vacation extra enjoyable?

There is no doubt that driving in Costa Rica gives you flexibility.  You can stop whenever it suits your fancy. You will also save money because you won’t need to book tours to go everywhere.  You have freedom to stop wherever you want to, whereas when you have booked a Costa Rica shuttle or bus, there are less opportunities to stop and explore along the way.

5) There are Also Some Goods Reasons Why you Shouldn’t Drive in Costa Rica

Most travel blogs will lead you believe that you MUST rent a car and drive in Costa Rica in order to enjoy your Costa Rica vacation adventure.   Because we have used both rental cars and shuttles in Costa Rica, I can share with you that there are some compelling reasons why you shouldn’t drive in Costa Rica.

Driving in Costa Rica can add to the stress levels, especially for the person behind the wheel.  Roads in Costa Rica require much more attention than the roads that we are used to here in the United States. 

Passengers relaxing while driving in Costa Rica
A moment of comic relief…here is a somewhat embarrasing photo of me sleeping in the back seat. Whiel driving in Costa Rica is great for the passengers who get to sleep and see the scenery, and driver and navigator have to work harder.

Even good roads can be riddled with potholes, one lane bridges and there are many bikes (both motorized and not) to pay attention to.  The person behind the wheel AND the passenger will both be engaged in navigating the confusing Costa Rican roads.    

A one lane bridge seen while driving in Costa Rica
We passed over many of these one lane bridges while driving in Costa Rica.
A motorcycle accident in Costa Rica
There are a lot of motorcycles, motor scooters and other bikes sharing the road with you when you are driving in Costa Rica (and yet another traffic jam…do you see a pattern?)

In addition, drivers in Costa Rica tend to be more aggressive.  They were not rude (mostly), but driving in Costa Rica requires a mindset more like driving in New York city than in the rural midwest. For example, if you want to merge or change lanes, you need to be comfortable with just pushing your way in (and can expect others to do the same). 

The relatively high cost to rent a car in Costa Rica means that savings might not be that much compared to hired transport.  You also have to factor in the added risk of getting in an accident of having your vehicle get broken into.  

6) What You Really Need to Know to Rent a Car in Costa Rica

We found car rental in Costa Rica to be a very easy way to get around and explore parts of the country more conveniently and freely than buses or shuttles would allowed.

However, the cost of renting a car in Costa Rica is more expensive than in many other parts of the world.  We were a family group of 3 adults and 2 children. A vehicle to fit us all cost approximately $100/day (including required insurances).

Our rental car while driving in Costa Rica
Our rental car BARELY fit five of us while driving in Costa Rica.

Now, about those required insurances….the Costa Rican government requires a type of insurance that is called “Marchamo” there.  The problem is that the car rental agencies can’t rely on reimbursement for this government mandated insurance. The bureaucratic process in the event of an accident would take years to clear up. 

They can’t afford to wait that long, so each of them offers their own version of this required insurance. This is the “mandatory” insurance that you read about not being able to waive.

These mandatory insurances may or may not show up when you book online, so if your online car rental quote seems too good to be true, it probably is.  Make sure you clarify whether that is the final price.

You might be asking, “But what about the CDW coverage for car rental that I usually use as a benefit of my credit card?”  It is POSSIBLE that you can use this, but each car rental company has its own policies regarding needed documentation for doing this.  You would need to check with your car rental company first and get specific details about what they need to waive it (and it seems like it is a much bigger hassle here than in most other parts of the world that we have traveled in).  

In addition, I have read that some Costa Rica car rental companies want to hold a large deposit on your credit card so that they can charge any damages to your card and let you sort it out later (some as much as $5,000…this was also true when we rented a car in Ireland but we didn’t know ahead of time).

Given all of this, figuring out what we could waive and how we needed to go about waiving it just seemed like too much hassle, so we just went along with the full insurance package with all of the bells and whistles.  THIS was included in our total $100/day in car rental costs and the peace of mind it gave us was worth it more so than in other countries that we had rented cars in.

This post explains the whole situation for car rental Costa Rica in great detail.

7) The Best Navigation Tools to Use On Your Costa Rica Road Trip

We used Google Maps like we usually do and had few issues while driving in Costa Rica.  We would plan out our route the night before, download the maps for offline use and in the morning we were off.  

I always think it is good to have a backup map program loaded on your device.  We have used for offline maps in the past and had good results. Waze also seems to be a popular navigation program in Costa Rica. 

Finally, I might be a little old fashioned, but if you are going to do a lot of driving in Costa Rica, I still feel like a paper map is a good tool to keep with you.  You never know when you electronic maps are going to fail you (and there is just something magical about opening up the paper map and looking for an adventure to be had!)

8) Some Points to Think About When Planning a Costa Rica Road Trip

Here are a few things to consider if you are thinking about a Costa Rica road trip.  Destinations in Costa Rica are kind of spread out. While it doesn’t look like a huge country (especially if you are coming from the sprawling United States) getting from one side to the other might take longer than you thought.

Even with a car, if you only have a week, you should plan for a maximum of two different areas (preferably not on opposite ends of the country.)  For instance, you could spend three days near Liberia and three days exploring the Arenal Volcano area (this is how we planned our first trip to Costa Rica).  Or, you could spend three days doing day trips from San Jose and three days in Manuel Antonio.  Whatever you do, just don’t spread yourself so thin that you are spending your whole trip driving in the car.

If you have more time, you can include a couple more areas.  When planning your driving days, keep in mind that Costa Rica is close to the equator, and it gets dark here at about 5:30pm year round.  For safety, leave enough extra “just in case” time to arrive at your lodging before dark for navigation and safety reasons.

The really excellent road between San Jose and Liberia
The really excellent road between San Jose and Liberia (to put this in perspective…this is one of the main highways in the country. The equivalent of one of our Interstates in the US.

9) There are Some Great Alternatives – Costa Rica Shuttle and Bus Options

Most travel blogs writing about Costa Rica heavily advocate for renting a car if you are planning on visiting.  Because we have had experience BOTH with renting a car and with using shuttle transportation, I can confidently tell you that either option can provide you a relaxing, fulfilling vacation experience in Costa Rica.  

If Costa Rica driving and the thought of taking a Costa Rica road trip just aren’t your thing, I have good news for you.  Costa Rica has a robust transportation system.

There are buses that travel regularly just about anywhere in Costa Rica, especially if you are sticking to the main tourist trail.  They are clean, cheap and easy to use.  

The Mepe Bus service in Costa Rica is a cheap and MOSTLY convenient way to travel
The MEPE bus service in Costa Rica is a cheap and MOSTLY convenient way to get from San Jose to Puerto Viejo

Bus travel is a great option for couples and solo travelers, but with small children we have opted for booking shuttles as our main alternative to driving in Costa Rica.  In our experience, booking our Costa Rica shuttle transfers was not any more expensive than renting a vehicle that would accommodate five of us. In addition, it gave us a much more relaxing experience.

Pro Tip: If you are doing a Costa Rica road trip and you are planning on visiting a few different parts of the country by private shuttle, I recommend using one company to book all of your Costa Rica shuttle transfers.  Ideally, this would be a company in the first place that you are visiting, or in the place where you are going to be spending the most time.  

Tour companies in Costa Rica seem to have a system worked out where they can easily book shuttles for their clients with other companies where they do not provide service.  This makes it easier to plan, because you have one point of contact that can arrange everything, instead of needing to coordinate multiple companies.

Shuttle Transportation is one of the easiest ways to get around Costa Rica
Taking a shuttle in Costa Rica is probably the easiest way to do this trip. Then you are not worrying about the traffic – they are!

We have used two companies to book private Costa Rica shuttle service.  If you are on the west coast, the Samara Adventure Company provided us really excellent service (they were even able to switch gears at the last minute to arrange a second shuttle the next day when two of us didn’t make our original flights). 

We can also recommend Desafio Adventures, which arranges tours and shuttle service all over Costa Rica.

Shanna Schultz

Hello, my name is Shanna, and I am a detail obsessed travel addict on a mission to make planning your own family trips fun and easy! I offer tools, guides and resources to help you through all of the steps of planning meaningful, memorable family vacations. Come over and check out our Facebook community where I share real tools and resources to help you move the needle on your travel goals. Let's start making those travel dreams real, y'all! Life is too short to spend dreaming...let's start DOING!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Michael

    These are really good tips as I wanted to visit Costa Rica sometime and drive there! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Den

    it` s a breathtaking to watch your piccs. Nice photography skills.
    Your photos and tips look awesome to me! Appreciate the article and kind words!

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