Coming to Costa Rica and debating renting a car vs. getting cabs, shuttles or public transportation?
It is safe to drive in Costa Rica, many of the roads are even paved! With center lines and lines on the side, reflectors and everything. Some compare with roads you might find in the US, Canada or Europe. Some are so nice you’ll think, “What’s the big deal, these roads aren’t bad at all.” But not all roads are that lucky.
Before you grab your rental car keys and race out the door, there are a few things you should know ahead of time.
If you are renting a car, make sure you know if it takes diesel or regular gas, as many cars here are diesel.
All gas stations have attendants. I usually tip them a little something in cash, around 500 colones or a $1 US. Make sure when you pull up to get gas that the pump is back at $0 before the attendant starts pumping, so you’re not paying for someone else’s gas. Also make sure that when you pay for gas, the amount you pay is the same as what it says on the pump. I’m not saying that gas station attendants are malicious, but they may not have the attention to detail that one might hope.
Unless you are in a city, gas stations are infrequent. Never let your car get less than 1/4 a tank. Even when you find a gas station, if it’s busy season, it may be out of gas or have a long line to get gas.
The rental cars are comparable to rental cars in other countries. They will be new-ish and in working order. There are many national and local car rental companies. Sometimes the local ones are cheaper. We have had great experiences with Adobe.
You should know that many rental car companies will not cover you if you drive your car into water and get it stuck or washed away. I know this sounds insane if you’ve never been to Costa Rica. You’re thinking, “Why would I drive a car into water?”
And the answer is, you’d drive a car into water if you were coming down a road and all of a sudden the road is now a river, with no bridge, and the car in front of you crosses it and it makes you think, “Oh, I’m good, I can make it.” (Many locals have snorkels and a lift on their cars to drive through water. If your rental car doesn’t have a snorkel, it might not make it. Also, diesel cars hold up better in water as they don’t have spark plugs.)
Most roads between towns are paved. But occasionally, they aren’t. Or they were paved, but never maintained. So you will see tire marks where people drive off the “paved” road and drive to avoid the potholes that look like the surface of the moon.
You will most likely need a 4×4 if you are planning to explore Costa Rica. The exception being if you are planning to stay in San Jose, Liberia or in a city. Depending on where you are going you may not need 4×4, but it is best to have it and not use it, than get stuck somewhere where you need it and don’t have it. Often you don’t find out that you need 4×4 until you are already on the road that requires 4×4, either because it is muddy, gravel, steep or all of the above.
The below photo is a road in Guanacaste in dry season at the water’s lowest point.
When you use google maps or Waze, you often don’t know what type of road you will encounter along the way. It may be paved, dirt or gravel. You might want to ask someone before you leave on a long drive to confirm you’re traveling on the best route. Sometimes the dirt roads are faster, but you may be exhausted by the endless bumps and shaking. Some locations are only accessible by dirt roads, so you might want to ask ahead of time.
Always look at the time it is expected to take, not the distance. It make take an hour to go 10 miles because the road is a gravel mountain road with switchbacks.
When you’re driving around, you’ll notice that there are no numbers on houses. That’s because there are no official addresses in Costa Rica, which can make getting from point A to B difficult if you don’t know your way around. Some of the “addresses” are literally “500 meters past the Guanacaste tree.” When mapping to a place, type in the name of the place. If the name of where you are heading doesn’t come up, find out the name of something nearby you can map to.
Waze and google maps are good for getting around Costa Rica, however you may occasionally hit areas with no cell service. If you are using an international phone plan, make sure your phone is working before you drive off. Usually if you map to a place before you leave on a trip, even if you lose cell service, it will keep mapping you as long as you don’t turn your navigation off.
Most rental car places rent a wifi package for the car, so your phone will work through their wifi which runs off the cell towers. It will be slower but better than no access at all.
DRY SEASON VS. WET SEASON
In wet season the roads are very muddy and often have water over them. Late afternoon there can be torrential downpours that are too much water for windshield wipers. In dry season the dirt roads are extremely dusty. Take your pick. December/January is the best time in my opinion because it stops raining, but everything hasn’t dried out to a crisp.
Things other countries have in abundance that Costa Rica does not:
Shoulders on road
Lines on roads
Reflectors on road
Things Costa Rica does have in abundance:
Bicycles in road
Cows in the road
Horses in the road
Pizotes in the road
People driving at night with no headlights
Pedestrians walking, strolling their babies, carrying groceries, etc.
Sudden heavy rain
Road often going from 2 way to 1 way with no warning.
1 way bridges on 2 way roads
1 way bridges with no sides or guard rails
If you come to a one way bridge at the exact same time as another car, the one that has the “CEDA” sign has to stop.
LAWS THAT IMPACT DRIVING
Do Not Move Vehicles From the Road
If Costa Ricans get in an accident, they don’t move the cars from the road. Police don’t want the cars moved. This usually means that traffic will back up both ways, creating horrific delays that may last for hours. While this policy is annoying, it also is somewhat irrelevant. Most of the accidents I’ve seen, the cars are demolished and don’t look like the driver would have been able to move them anyway. So if you get in an accident or fender bender, don’t move the car.
Vehicle Import Fees
There is a hefty fee to import cars to Costa Rica. On one hand, I get it, Costa Rica wants to be more eco friendly. They even waive the vehicle import fee for electric cars. The only problem is, for most of Costa Rica, you really need a 4 wheel drive car, and right now they don’t make affordable 4 wheel drive electric cars. This law creates a situation where most people can’t afford reliable cars or can’t afford to maintain cars, as the price to repair cars is also hefty because fees on importing car parts.
A side effect of the expensive cars is that more people rely on public transportation, which is great. However, this means a lot of people are walking in the streets, riding bikes in the streets and waiting on the sides of streets for buses. Sometimes it can be hard to see these people. Especially in rural areas at night where you’re not expecting to see people biking or walking. And a lot of people are driving old, junky cars that should not be on the road with no headlines or only partially working lights.
One upside to Tico drivers is that they are, for the most part, hospitable. They will flash their lights at you if there is a cop ahead or something in the road. If someone driving towards you flashes their lights at your car, slow down! It means there is a cop or a bridge out or a mudslide or cow in the road. Ticos are also good at using their blinker to signal their turns. The downside is they will yell at you if you don’t.
Also, most Costa Ricans are prepared for their cars to break down and will bring their own orange cones that they will set out in the road. Most rental cars have a black bag somewhere in the car that has cones if you have to change a tire or stop for some reason.
Stopping for no reason? Totally acceptable too. Often people will stop in the middle of the road to have a conversation with another driver or pedestrian…. even if there is a parking lot right beside them. If you honk you will look like a tourist. Try to drive around them if you can. Or just wait, they’ll eventually run out of things to talk about.
Hazard lights. Prior to moving to Costa Rica, I think I had turned on my hazard lights maybe once or twice in my entire 20+ years of driving. Now I use them daily or at least weekly. People turn on their hazards to alert the person behind them that “hey, I’m stopped for a reason.” Hazard lights mean the car in front of them is doing something stupid, or there is an actual hazard in the road.
Try not to speed, for you own safety and for the safety of the children, adults, cows, horses, dogs and pizotes that share the road. You will encounter cars that are going at half the rate of the speed limit, and ones that will be going double the speed limit, but just go the speed that is safe for your vehicle.
It is unlikely you will get a speeding ticket, even though now some cops have radar detectors. Right now they mostly sit where there is a double-line and pull people over for passing on a double-line, or passing in a school zone. Which is annoying because usually this location is the only for a chance to pass for miles. Cops also pull cars over for running stop signs, even though the stop sign may be faded and hidden behind tree branches that have grown in front of the sign.
If you get pulled over, police will want to see a copy of your Driver’s License and passport. If you don’t want to keep your passport on you, keep a copy of it in the car, with a copy of the page that shows the stamp with the date you entered Costa Rica.
Sometimes they will have random road blocks to check passports to make sure no one has overstayed their 90 day limit. (More on staying longer in Costa Rica here. )
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
This is typical driving in Costa Rica. I see cows or horses in the road about once a week. Some are being herded, some are roaming on their own.
This video shows the best case scenario driving in Costa Rica.
Basically, don’t drive between cities at night if you aren’t familiar with the roads. Figure out how long it will take you to get to your destination, then double that time. Then make sure you arrive before 5:30, which is usually when the sun sets year round.
I drive all over Costa Rica. It is, at times, a harrowing experience. Many times I regret not leaving earlier. If you’re driving in Costa Rica, plan to slow down, take your time and enjoy the pure vida.
Whatever transportation you choose to see Costa Rica, definitely come see it. Costa Rica is a beautiful country with lovely people, and it’s worth the trip.