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Renting a car and driving in Costa Rica is one of the best ways to see the different regions of the country. From the beaches in Guanacaste to the Monteverde cloud forest and the Arenal rainforest, the country’s landscape, climate, and topography can change drastically from one area to another. If you want to rent a car and drive in Costa Rica, there are a few things you should know before your trip.
Is driving in Costa Rica safe?
This is a question we got asked a lot after our trip to Costa Rica last year, and periodically I still get asked about any safety issues we encountered on our Costa Rican road trip. Is it safe to drive in Costa Rica? The short answer is yes.
Our daughter was six months old when we visited Costa Rica. Since we wanted to see more than just one area of this relatively small country, and we had an infant with us, we decided to rent a car and drive instead of using a shuttle. For us, it just makes sense to rent a car when traveling with a baby or toddler. It’s easier to stop if the baby gets fussy or irritable. And that is exactly what our daughter did. While driving across Costa Rica, we stopped at a beautiful waterfall one day to give our daughter a break from the car seat. This impromptu stop at a somewhat hidden treasure in Costa Rica turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip!
Ultimately, we never felt unsafe driving in Costa Rica. Not once. Of course, we weren’t driving around at night because our daughter has an early bedtime, but I wouldn’t recommend it anyway (more on that below).
Things you may notice when driving in Costa Rica
The people of Costa Rica are extremely friendly, happy, and laid back. After all, their motto is ‘pura vida’, which means ‘pure life’. One would think with such a laid back lifestyle, things would feel much less gated and locked down. However, we did drive through some small towns where every building seemed to have bars on the windows. There was also a fair amount of poverty compared to what you will find in the United States or western Europe, but don’t always assume poverty equals crime. If those towns make you nervous though, just don’t stop in them. There are plenty of other charming Costa Rican towns to stop in that will feel much more inviting and safer.
Here are a few things you need to know if you want to rent a car and drive in Costa Rica:
Don’t get scammed renting a car in Costa Rica
Rental car companies in Costa Rica, even the well-known American-owned ones, will try to scam you. They will try to upgrade you to a larger, more expensive car without telling you. Tell them no. They will try to sell you expensive insurance that your credit card already includes. Tell them no. They will try to tell you that you need insurance on the wheels and tires. (That one we actually did buy because the roads are somewhat terrible in Costa Rica). We were polite, but firm, and it saved us about $500.
Don’t drive after dark
This isn’t necessarily a safety issue as much as a car maintenance issue. As I said earlier, a lot of the roads are in bad shape. They are passable, but pot holes, downed trees, and erosion issues don’t always get fixed in a timely fashion. And it rains a lot in Costa Rica so the issues are pretty widespread. Some of the roads aren’t even paved, creating yet another issue if you’re driving. The highways are in good shape, but a lot of the smaller roads, which ultimately you will have to take to get to just about any tourist area, can often present unforeseen hazards after nightfall. No one wants to be stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire and a bent wheel in a foreign country because they hit a pothole the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. (A bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point.)
Don’t expect road signs
Streets aren’t marked. Signage is few and far between. Even the exits off the highway aren’t even that noticeable. It would be a good idea to use a GPS or at the very least grab a map from the rental car agency, and have a clear idea where you are going. Getting from town-to-town wasn’t that bad, but finding various attractions along the way is much trickier. You won’t find big, bold signs pointing you toward a waterfall, great lookout, or free hot springs, so do your research in advance so you know where you are going. And those sites will feel that much more special because you found something others might have driven right passed.
Your drive in Costa Rica will be longer than you think
At some point while planning a road trip to Costa Rica, you look at a map and say “that can’t be more than a one hour drive.” The country is small, geographically speaking, but it is mountainous, and the roads twist and turn to take you around those mountains. For this reason, getting from point A to point B will inevitably always take you longer than you expect. Don’t get frustrated, just enjoy the drive and the scenery and accept it for what it is.
You don’t need an international driver’s license
Your US driver’s license (or native country’s license) will work just fine, although we never got pulled over. I’ve also heard tickets for breaking the traffic laws are quite expensive in Costa Rica, so I would recommend following the posted speed limit, even if the natives are zipping passed you.
Gas stations are full-services
Gas stations are full service in Costa Rica. You are strongly encouraged to tip if you need to fill up. I’ve heard tipping isn’t a requirement, but the recommended gratuity is posted at the station, so don’t be that guy who doesn’t tip. We didn’t purchase a lot of gas, but I believe the recommended tip was a couple of dollars. The gas station we used did take US dollars (although the tip was posted in colones, the currency of Costa Rica).
We’ve written a complete review of our trip to Costa Rica, including hotels, tourist sights and activities to help you plan your trip. I would definitely recommend driving in this country. Not only is it safe to drive in Costa Rica, but it’s a beautiful country and you will get to see more of it if you rent a car.
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