Costa Rica is a relatively small country but it’s packed with riches to explore from coast to coast. When planning a trip to Costa Rica, it can be difficult to decide exactly where you want to go. If you like having the freedom to move at your own pace like I do, renting a car is a great idea. I’m a sucker for a good road trip, and I believe renting a car is the best way to see a country.
Although it has its challenges, Costa Rica is set up pretty well for a road trip. If you want to explore a few different areas of Costa Rica, I’d suggest renting a car. I drove from San Jose out to the Caribbean coast, and then made my way to La Fortuna where I continued up through the mountains and down the coast to Manuel Antonio. I ended further south at the Osa Peninsula where I left the rental car in Puerto Jimenez before visiting Corcovado National Park. I rented with Alamo through Expedia and made sure to rent early in advance. I was able to pick up the car at the San Jose airport and drop it off in Puerto Jimenez for a one-way fee. This made my trip even more flexible as it allowed me to fly back to San Jose after the 3 day jungle trek I did in Corcovado National Park.
After over a week of driving all over the country, I thought it would be helpful to put together my thoughts on what it was like driving through Costa Rica. Here are 7 tips for driving in Costa Rica.
1. The Roads Can Be...Not Great
Ok so you’re probably asking why I am suggesting you take a road trip while also claiming the roads can be bad. For the most part, the roads were in pretty good condition. But there were certain areas where I had to be super focused to avoid devastating potholes. A lot of these were on the Caribbean coast near Tortuguero, but I found gaping potholes to be an issue throughout Costa Rica. With the size of these potholes, one moment of not paying attention to the road could easily end with a flat tire. There are also a lot of gravel roads which your GPS may lead you down, which I will go over in more detail later on this list. I rented a 4WD and was glad I had a slightly more elevated car for some of these roads. Even though I prefer SUVs and having the 4WD option, I never found myself needing to use the 4WD gear and think you’d be fine with a non SUV car if you need to go that route.
2. Expect Rain
Oh boy can it rain in Costa Rica. And when it rains it pours. I was in Costa Rica for 10 days in late April and it rained almost every day I was there. Most days the rain was only for an hour or two. But when it rained it came down hard. And when you’re driving in those conditions, in another country, it can be a bit intimidating. Make sure your wipers and lights are on, and keep focused on the road, as this strong rain can significantly diminish visibility - especially at night. If it’s too intense, don’t be afraid to pull over into a cafe or restaurant and hang for a while until it passes. If you have long driving days this may not be possible, so it’s best to be mentally prepared that strong rain could be a possibility.
3. Don't Drive At Night
A general rule of thumb in any foreign country would be to avoid driving at night if you can. This applies in Costa Rica as well. Decreased visibility doesn’t help when you are driving down winding roads through mountains and jungles, with potentially very little or no street lights. The lack of visibility can also increase your odds of hitting a pothole - or worse - the pedestrians and bicyclists who still decide to use the roads at night. Throw in that it rains a lot in the evenings, and you can start to see why it’s best to stick to driving during the day.
4. Watch Out For Pedestrians (And Bikes!)
And I don’t just mean motorbikes. On the Caribbean coast near Tortuguero, I drove through several small towns where I was constantly having to pass around pedestrians and people on bicycles sharing the road with me. That’s how most people in small towns and villages get around: they ride their bikes and walk on the street. You also don’t necessarily want to pass them when another car is coming from the opposite direction as the roads are sometimes pretty narrow. Additionally, there’s motorbikes all over the country so be careful when passing people and driving down winding roads.
5. People Want To Pass
Most roads I drove on were single lanes in each direction, some with no dividing lines at all. This leads to cars passing each other quite frequently. In my experience, the locals were usually the ones passing me as they are familiar with the roads and I was probably enjoying the scenery of this new world. But I did find myself passing quite a few people as well. Just be very careful when deciding to pass, making sure there’s no one coming and you have enough time to make the move. There will be dotted line marks indicating when you can or cannot pass. I wouldn’t suggest passing at night or in the rain unless it’s an easy move. There are way too many winding roads with blind turns to be mindlessly passing cars, so be extra cautious when making the move.
6. Don't Always Trust the GPS
I’m a big Google Maps fan. I especially love their feature where you can download the map to any country you are traveling to in case you don’t have service and need to navigate yourself somewhere. And for the most part using Google Maps worked flawlessly in Costa Rica. But when I drove from La Fortuna to Manuel Antonio, I was routed to drive through the mountains, and while I was near the top, it took me down these bizarre side streets that led me through a tiny, seemingly uninhabited town where the roads were BAD. I mean, some of the worst, rockiest terrain you can think of, with very steep angles going both up and then down. Even with a 4WD, it was a daunting task that I had to navigate very slowly through so I wouldn’t damage the car or get a flat. I made it out OK but didn’t trust Google Maps after that.
To their credit, I rented my car from Alamo and they told me upon renting it to use Waze and not Google Maps because it was better in Costa Rica, but I chose not to listen to them and maybe I should have. Either way, just know that the GPS may not always be reliable and can lead you down some difficult gravel and rocky roads.
7. Make Stops
Some of the most memorable moments on road trips for me are when we stop off at random cafes or spots to recharge for a few minutes. Costa Rica has a lot of great opportunities to do just that. Stopping to buy fruit from locals on the side of the road is always a nice stop as the fruit in Costa Rica is super fresh and delicious. You are also supporting locals while getting a little closer to the culture of the country. I highly recommend buying coconuts whenever and wherever you can and drinking straight from them. Ah such a treat.
Take these tips with you and don’t be discouraged from renting a car while visiting Costa Rica, as I believe it is the best way to really see the country. Having the flexibility to create the trip of your dreams is always ideal, and you’re going to want to see more of Costa Rica as soon as you arrive. Pura Vida!