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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, Manuel Antonio National Park, or the Arenal Volcano area, Costa Rica is very diverse. The country’s landscape, climate, and topography can change drastically from one area to another. But if you want to rent a car and drive in Costa Rica, there are a few things you should know before your trip.
This Costa Rica driving guide covers the necessary information you need if you plan to rent a car and drive in Costa Rica, plus, we offer tips and observations from our personal Costa Rica road trip.
Is it safe to drive in Costa Rica?
This is a question we got asked a lot after our trip to Costa Rica, and periodically we 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.We never felt unsafe driving in Costa Rica, although we avoided areas where crime might be higher and were primarily visiting tourist areas. We were also visiting Costa Rica with kids, so we weren’t driving around at night, going out to bars or visiting areas where alcohol or drugs may negatively influence someone’s decisions.
Our experience driving in Costa Rica
We visited Costa Rica when our daughter was just a baby. We wanted to see more than just one area of this relatively small country, and since we had an infant with us, we decided to rent a car and drive instead of using a shuttle service or hiring a driver.
For us, it just makes sense to rent a car when traveling with a baby or toddler because 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 multiple times, first at the beautiful Llanos de Cortes waterfall, then at Lake Arenal, and again for something to eat at Cafe y Macadamia. While we were stopping to stretch and give our baby a break from the car seat, impromptu stops often turn out to be the highlight of our road trips!
What you need to know about driving in Costa Rica
Like in the United States and Canada, people in Costa Rica drive on the right hand side of the road. In fact, driving in Costa Rica isn’t that much different than driving in the states. However, there are a few unique rules and things to know if you plan to drive in Costa Rica. Following these Costa Rica driving tips will not only ensure your Costa Rica travels are safe, but that your trip is stress free.
Renting a car
Rental car companies in Costa Rica, even the well-known American-owned ones, may try to scam you. They will try to upgrade you to a larger, more expensive car without telling you. Our Costa Rica rental car company even pulled the upgraded car around to the front and started loading up our bags before we had signed the paperwork or agreed to the price.
Car rental companies may also try to sell you expensive car rental insurance. Chances are, if you have purchased travel insurance or have a travel credit card, you do not need the additional car rental insurance.
However, you will likely also be offered insurance on the wheels and tires. You may want to strongly consider adding on the wheels and tires insurance (we did) because many of the roads in Costa Rica aren’t great. If you are sticking to the cities, you likely don’t need this, but most of Costa Rica’s beauty is found outside of the cities and in areas where the roads can be in disrepair or even unpaved. Depending on where you are going, you may even need a 4×4 rental car for your Costa Rica road trip.
Driving after dark
Driving after dark is not necessarily a safety issue as much as a car maintenance issue. As previously mentioned, a lot of the roads, particularly in rural areas are in bad shape due to the amount of rain which can cause frequent damage. The roads are typically passable, but potholes, downed trees, and erosion issues don’t always get fixed in a timely fashion.
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 the point.)
Road conditions can vary by season and region
During the rainy season, the roads in Costa Rica can be significantly worse than they are in the dry season. It rains a lot in Costa Rica, and torrential rains can cause erosion and disrepair to the roads. After a heavy rain, the issues can be pretty widespread and take awhile to repair.
City roads typically are in good condition and paved. But in rural areas, many of the roads aren’t even paved. At some point in your Costa Rica trip, you will likely come across at least one dirt road. This can create yet another issue if you’re driving, so renting a 4-wheel drive vehicle may be worth the investment.
Navigating the roads in Costa Rica
Navigating roads in Costa Rica definitely requires a GPS at times. Luckily, Google Maps and Maps.me are great options to help you get around in the Central American country.
Streets are not well marked. Signage is few and far between. Even the exits off the highway aren’t even that noticeable. The road signs that do exist are in Spanish, a great language to learn for travel in Central or South America.
Speed limit signs, when you see one, are posted in kilometers because Costa Rica uses the metric system.
Getting from town-to-town or between places you want to visit isn’t necessarily difficult, particularly if you use a GPS app. But without one, finding various attractions along the way might be tricky. You won’t find big, bold signs pointing you toward a waterfall, a great lookout spot, or other awesome spots. So, do your research in advance so you know where you are going and what you want to see. If you don’t, there is a good chance you might end up driving right past something that is truly spectacular without even knowing it’s there.
Destinations are further apart than you might expect
At some point while planning a road trip to Costa Rica, you will probably 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 one place to another 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.
No international driver’s license needed
Perhaps one of the more convenient things about driving in Costa Rica is that your US driver’s license (or native country’s license) is sufficient. No international driver’s license is required. Although we never got pulled over to test this, we were able to rent a car in Costa Rica without an international driver’s license.
You may come across a police checkpoint, as they are quite common, and you might be asked to show your driver’s license. We did go through one police checkpoint, but apparently we must have looked like tourists because they didn’t even stop us. The police officer just waved us right through.
Fines for breaking the traffic laws are quite expensive in Costa Rica, so follow the posted speed limit at all times, even if the locals are zipping past you.
Gas stations are full-service
Gas stations, at least the ones we stopped at, are full service in Costa Rica. You are strongly encouraged to tip if you need to fill up. We’ve read tipping isn’t a requirement, but the recommended gratuity is posted at the station. Personally, as Americans we are used to tipping culture, so we gave the recommended gratuity.
We didn’t purchase a lot of gas in Costa Rica, but I believe the recommended tip was a couple of dollars to fill up your tank. The gas stations we used did take US dollars (although the tip rate was posted in colones, the currency of Costa Rica).
Driving in Costa Rican cities
The majority of Costa Rica’s population lives in the capital city of San Jose. Although San Jose isn’t likely where you’ll spend much time if you are traveling to Costa Rica for tourism, there is a good chance your travels will start or end there.
Driving in San Jose takes a bit more defensive driving skills than other parts of the country. You will deal with traffic congestion, and aggressive drivers who don’t always seem to follow the traffic rules. It is doable, but don’t expect the same courtesy you might see from drivers states like Texas or Oklahoma. As a southerner who grew up in Texas and lives in Oklahoma, I found myself missing the friendly wave from other drivers who slow down to allow others to merge.
Other things you may notice while traveling around Costa Rica
Despite the aggressive driving in San Jose, in general, 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 locked down and more carefree. However, we drove through some small towns where every building seemed to have bars on the windows. There was also a fair amount of poverty. While we don’t make the assumption that poverty equals crime, some of the towns did not seem inviting because everything was barred up. There are plenty of other charming Costa Rican towns, however, that felt welcoming and safe. And we loved every minute we spent in those towns in Costa Rica with kids!
FAQs about driving in Costa Rica
Yes, driving in Costa Rica is safe and is the best way to travel around the country.
Yes! No international drivers license is needed to drive in Costa Rica.
Google Maps, Maps.me and Waze are all fairly reliable in Costa Rica. Whether you use one of these apps or rent a car with a navigation system, a GPS is strongly recommended when driving in Costa Rica.
Although not our personal preference, you can hire a transfer service to take you from the airport to your hotel or book guided tours that include transportation to many of the more popular areas for tourism around the country.
If staying within the city or primarily using the highway system, you don’t necessarily need a 4-wheel drive vehicle. However, it is recommended if you want to visit some of the more rural areas of Costa Rica where bumpy, dirt roads are very common.
We would definitely recommend renting a car and driving in Costa Rica! 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.
Got a question or comment about driving in Costa Rica? We’d love to hear from you. Leave us your thoughts in the comments below!
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This Costa Rica driving guide was first published in May 2016 and was updated in July 2021 for accuracy and current information.