It can be intimidating to drive in foreign countries, even more so in Costa Rica given its mountainous terrain and often rainy conditions, but it gives you great flexibility to have your own means of transportation. We have driven on unpaved roads in Bosnia, and in busy city traffic in Europe and South America and didn’t really think Costa Rica would be much different. But it was!
Driving in Costa Rica felt like a combination of being on a roller coaster and an off-roading tour in Hell’s Revenge (you can read more about that in our post Four Adventure Filled Days in Moab) which neither of I (Dana) enjoy very much.
Renting a Car in Costa Rica
All you need is a valid driver’s license from your home country, a passport, and a credit card to rent a car in Costa Rica. During the busy season, we highly recommend that you make a reservation ahead of time, it is a good practice to do it anyway, especially if you need a 4WD vehicle or have any other special needs.
In general, the rules of the road are most likely similar to where you are from. The speed limits are in kilometers and posted both on the signs on the side of the road and inside of the lane lines every so often. Seatbelts are required.
Depending on how far out of the main cities you go, you will see everything from multi-lane highways to pothole-ridden unpaved roads. Most roads are two-way with a lane wide enough for only one vehicle, same with the bridges and usually, there is a road sign letting you know who has the right of way.
Costa Rica is a small country, and you may think moving from place to place is quick and easy. Think again! Because of the elevation changes, switchbacks, winding roads, sharp curves, potholes, unpaved roads it took us 1.5 hrs to cover 66 km (41 miles) from Catarata del Toro to San Jose. When we were leaving the waterfall the owner started a conversation with us asking “Do you have a big engine on your car? The newest road in Costa Rica is very steep for 2 km straight.” We took it as him being sarcastic and making fun of Costa Rican roads in general not being paved. It was not a joke. The road is brand new and steeper than anything we’ve ever driven on before. This entire drive on Route 708 was nerve-wracking.
Another crazy road we drove on was Route 2. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we drove right through the Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of Death). Named after a number of deaths that happen on this stretch of road every year. As bad as it may sound, the views were amazing. Watching the fog move in and out and the different landscapes kind of took our mind off the driving.
However, the location of our hotel in Uvita had the craziest road of them all. Steep, unpaved, curvy road with potholes deep and wide, and one-lane bridges without guardrails. We dreaded getting on that road every day, but the view from the hotel was priceless.
The point of the story here is don’t be like us and research your routes ahead of time. That will also help you decide if you need 4WD or not. Rental places run out of them quickly.
Rain and Fog
December through April is supposed to be the dry season, but that just means it rains a little less than during the rainy season. Washouts and landslides are possible anytime it rains especially on roads like Route 2.
Fog is constantly moving in and out, especially the higher in elevation you drive. Most people recommend driving early in the morning on high-risk roads since mornings are supposed to be less cloudy.
Using Google Maps
For the most part, Google Maps was a great tool to use however, we did run into instances where it took us to a completely wrong place, sent us on ‘shortcuts’ where road conditions were horrible and unsafe. Just be aware that every shortcut Google proposes may not be the best option, and when driving to national parks, waterfalls, beaches, and even some hotels there will be road signs that are more reliable than any app.
Pedestrians, Cyclists and Dirt Bikes
Anyone riding a bicycle on these roads deserves a standing ovation. It was mind-blowing how many men and women bike up and down these crazy roads, some of them do it as a hobby and others as the only means of transportation. As we have already mentioned, a lot of two-lane roads are only the width of a one-lane road which means you are already sharing the road, and then with pedestrians and bikers you must be extremely careful.
Dirt Bikes, motorcycles, and scooters love to weave in and out of the lanes or use a shoulder lane as a passing lane, just keep your eyes open to everything going on around you.
Pedestrians do not have the right of way in Costa Rica and they will not expect you to stop as they are preparing to cross the road.
What makes Costa Rica an exciting place to visit can also make it a dangerous place for drivers. It is not unusual to see monkeys, coatis, agoutis, and all other crazy wildlife roaming the streets of Costa Rica.
“This person cannot possibly be serious about what they are trying to do?!” I said this a lot.
Seeing cars trying to pass going uphill, on the corners, or not paying attention to who has a right of way just blew our mind, but locals didn’t seem to mind it at all. For them, it is just a way of life and for those of us who are visiting, we just need to take a deep breath and not get frustrated. As words of encouragement, we’ll share with you that we only saw one accident. The car was in the ditch on the side of the road and the driver was not local.
You may see headlights being flashed at you or hazard lights on the car in front of you they are usually trying to communicate that there is either an accident, police checkpoint, or some other hazard ahead of you. Sometimes you may even find yourself behind a car with hazard lights on and not moving. Yes, they’ve parked their car in the middle of the road while they run into a Pulperia.
We used to see them every day where Route 243 and Route 34 intersect, and sometimes they will stop people ask where they are going, ask for some type of identification, but most of the time they are just letting people pass. Not really sure what their purpose is, but we see this in a lot of Latin American countries.
The car rental place told us right away to only park in designated parking areas and do not leave any valuables in your car. Some parking areas are free but have a parking attendant, and it is customary to tip them a couple of bucks for keeping an eye on your car. Others charge for parking.
All the rental vehicles have spare tires and tools for replacing a tire, a first aid kit, jumper cables to help with the most common problems you can run into. Car rental place advised that if something was to happen we try to take care of the problem on our own since that is the quickest way and be wary of strangers trying to help. However, when our battery died we had the nicest locals come out and help. Most Ticos and Ticas are very nice and welcoming people, not to say that you shouldn’t be careful and wary of strangers.
Driving in Costa Rica can be nerve-wracking and not everyone wants to deal with it on their vacation. For us, it was the best way to see all the places we wanted to see and also a great adventure. Hopefully the tips we provided above help you on your next adventure.