Last Updated: June 15, 2020
Driving in Costa Rica can be intimidating for a first- or even second- or third-time visitor. When we traveled to Costa Rica as tourists, we most often took the bus or shuttles. It took us several trips to gain the courage to finally get behind the wheel. But once we did, we never went back. Having a car in Costa Rica gives you the freedom to stop and go as you please, opening up a world of possibilities. And with a little knowledge and experience, you’ll lose the nerves and be ready to take on the open road for yourself.
We’ve driven all across the country over the last seven years from the Caribbean coast to northwestern-most Guanacaste, the central mountains to the southern Pacific, and everywhere in between. Here are our tops tips for driving in Costa Rica.
In Costa Rica, all you need is a valid driver’s license from your home country to operate a vehicle. Also be sure to have your passport or a copy handy in case you get pulled over. There is no requirement for an international driver’s license.
In general, the rules of the road are probably similar to what you’re used to back home. Lanes are marked with double solid lines when passing is not allowed and hatched (dotted) lines when passing is permitted. Speed limits (in kilometers) are posted with signs, though usually not as frequently as what we were used to in the US. Seatbelts are required. Children under the age of 12, subject to certain height and weight limits, are supposed to be restrained in car seats or booster seats.
Although these are technically the requirements, enforcement is another issue. The rules are bent everywhere you go. As an example, it’s very common in rural areas to see entire families on motorcycles with kids as young as two riding sandwiched between mom and dad.
Roads vary from well paved two-lane highways to pothole-ridden dirt roads with treacherous river crossings. Most of the roads in and around the capital of San Jose are nice and smooth, but once you get out of the city, conditions can change a lot.
Costa Rica’s topography is extremely diverse, with everything from lofty mountains and low visibility cloud forest to flat plains and farm fields. While many areas are accessible without four-wheel drive, many are not. Be sure to research in advance if 4×4 and higher clearance are necessary to access the specific places you’ll be visiting.
We have two posts on road conditions that will help you decide what type of car to rent. Road Conditions of Specific Routes in Costa Rica gives up-to-date info on the conditions of popular routes. And if you’re visiting Monteverde, you’ll want to read our Driving to Monteverde post, which covers the two major routes and has video clips showing what the dirt roads are actually like.
You’ll find during your visit that signs throughout the country are generally lacking. Most roads are not marked with street signs at all. In San Jose, sometimes major streets are marked with signs or on the walls of buildings, but more often, not at all.
In rural areas and beach towns, signs are also somewhat of a novelty. While you might see signs letting you know how far away a certain town is, it is very rare that a road or highway will be marked with the route number. Exits along highways are also notorious for being poorly marked or having very small signs right at the turnoff.
For these reasons, we recommend that people using our Rental Car Discount add a Wifi stick or GPS to their rental or use some type of map program on their phone. The Waze App is popular because it takes traffic and construction into account. Costa Ricans use Waze a lot, so it is usually really updated. Having a hard copy map is also not a bad idea just in case GPS sends you in the wrong direction. This waterproof map is one of the most popular and accurate.
Rainy Season – Washouts and Landslides
If you’re traveling in the rainy season (May to November), something to watch out for is washouts and landslides. Some roads are more prone to these events than others and it’s always good to ask your hotel about current conditions before setting out. Roads to be extra cautions on are Route 2 between San Jose and San Isidro de El General; Route 32 between San Jose and Limon/the Caribbean coast; and Route 27 connecting San Jose to Puntarenas and Jaco.
Pedestrians and Bicyclists
A lot of locals don’t have cars and get around mostly by foot or on bike. You’ll see men coming from work donning machetes and families with children in tow in the breakdown lane of busy roads. Always be on the lookout for people in the road, especially at night, as they aren’t usually wearing reflectors.
Another thing to keep in mind is that pedestrians do not have the right of way. So in urban areas, people trying to cross the street won’t expect you to stop for them. If you do stop, just be careful not to get rear-ended.
Motorcycles and Dirt Bikes
Motorcycles and dirt bikes are other popular ways to get around. Some motorcycles don’t reach the same speeds as cars. On highways, these guys will often pull way over to the right when a car comes behind to let them pass. If this happens to you, just go ahead and pass when it’s safe.
In San Jose, where there’s a lot of traffic, also be aware of motorcycles and scooters weaving in and out of lanes and in the breakdown lane. Sometimes they get so close to your car that they almost run into you.
Potholes and Road Hazards
Costa Ricans have some unique ways to convey that something is awry in the road. For example, potholes are often marked with whatever is lying around. A palm frond or a big stick with a potato chip bag as a reflector sticking out of a hole does the job of letting you know that there’s a pothole ahead.
Many times, locals will also cut a big leaf or small branch from the side of the road and lay it in the road as sort of a road cone. This keeps traffic from getting too close to a broken down car or warns drivers that something is around a sharp corner.
Creative Use of Hazards
Locals often put on their hazard lights to let the car behind them know of a problem up ahead. This can be especially useful if you’re coming fast around a corner and traffic is stopped because of an accident or construction. To signal oncoming traffic of a problem, the standard flashing of the headlights is also common practice.
Costa Rica is in a major shipping route from Panama to North America and also has major ports on each coast so tractor trailers frequent many of its roads. Something to be aware of when following a tractor trailer is that they will often use their left turn signal to let you know when it’s safe to pass. What they consider safe and what you do might be different, though, so pass with caution.
One of the biggest things to be aware of when driving in Costa Rica is unsafe passing. We have seen too many overturned tractor trailers and had many close calls ourselves not to emphasize this point. The fact is, a lot of people pass without much regard to oncoming traffic. While it seems callous, it’s the way of the road here. You will see people passing uphill, on curves, and in other places where it is not possible to see if an oncoming car is approaching.
There isn’t a lot you can do to control other people’s driving, but remain alert and cautious. We always try to leave enough space between us and the car in front of us so that we can avoid an accident and also go the speed limit so that we have time to react.
Driving at Night
Until you’re comfortable driving in Costa Rica, avoid driving at night, especially for long distances. Street lighting is used a lot less frequently than what you’re probably used to. Couple that with narrow, curvy roads with no guardrails, and it can be downright scary to drive after dark.
When we bought our first car in Costa Rica, we had to drive it back along a curvy mountain road that recently had been paved. It was pouring rain and they hadn’t painted the lines yet (common) so all we had to keep us out of the ditch were a few reflectors visible in between bolts of lightning. Not painting the lines may sound like a temporary problem but sometimes it takes road crews months or even years to get around to it.
Nervous about driving? Leave it up to someone else by taking a shuttle. Shared or private shuttles are a great option for getting between destinations. We’ve organized thousands of shuttle trips for our readers and clients. We even wrote a whole post on how these work that you can read here. You can also check our Shuttle Transfers Booking Page to compare rates and book your dates.
To save on costs, a lot of smaller bridges in Costa Rica are only one lane wide. This means that you have to take turns with oncoming traffic to pass. Technically one side of the bridge will have a yield sign and cars on that side are supposed to wait their turn. The general rule however, is whoever gets there first has the right of way. Instead of cars rotating one at a time, the whole group of cars coming from one direction cross at the same time, while the cars on the other side wait. Once all the cars have gone through, the other side can go. These bridges sometimes come up fast so be on the lookout for Puente Adelante (Bridge Ahead) signs.
Some rural areas of the country have roads that require river crossings. Depending on the time of year, it can be a small stream passable with a regular sedan or a gushing river not recommended with even a large truck or SUV. The first thing to keep in mind is that river crossings void most rental car agreements so your insurance won’t cover any damage.
If you do decide to cross a river, always be sure to wade through first on foot to check the depth. It’s also a good idea to watch another car do it first to see the path they take. If the river is tidal, check the tide charts before setting out to time your crossing right. Often, there’s an alternate route that avoids river crossings altogether, so if it looks at all dubious, ask a local if there’s safe passage another way.
Along major routes, you may see police checkpoints set up, often near international borders. They may stop every car or one every certain number. Usually, they only want to know where you’re going and sometimes will want to see your passport. Don’t be alarmed; these checkpoints are routine and usually rental cars with tourists are just waved through. If you do get stopped, just cooperate and you’ll be on your way in no time.
If you get in an accident, call 911 and your rental car company. Your rental car agency should give you a pamphlet with all the emergency numbers you need. Also be sure not to move your car. It’s actually against the law to move your car when you’ve been in an accident, even if you are blocking traffic. This is so that the authorities can do a proper investigation. The police and an insurance agent will come to assess the accident and damage, and the rental car company will come to help and give you a replacement car.
Gas stations are located throughout the country but are sometimes spaced out. Be sure to fill up in advance when driving a long distance if you’re not sure where the next station is. Keep in mind that all the gas stations in Costa Rica have the same government-regulated prices so there’s no need to shop around. Gas stations are full-serve, meaning they pump the gas for you, and the people working are almost always helpful. If you need air in a tire or washer fluid topped off, just ask. Gas stations take cash or credit cards.
One safety tip for gas stations is to always watch the attendant to make sure they zero out the meter before pumping your gas. The majority of attendants are honest but there are a few bad ones out there.
Protecting Your Valuables
Rental cars are targets in Costa Rica because many of the models are the same and easy to identify. But you can keep your valuables safe by following a few simple steps. The first is to never leave anything in sight inside the car—even things with seemingly no value. This goes for at the beach, the grocery store parking lot, or anywhere else. Thieves are sometimes watching from afar and will strike even in the time it takes to go from your car to bring back the shopping cart. Always lock your doors and bring your valuables with you; otherwise, leave someone in the car to keep watch.
Secondly, try to find safe parking. A lot of restaurants, national parks, and other tourist attractions have attendants to watch your car. Sometimes they are paid by the business, but usually they are just self-appointed watchmen and this is their primary job. They watch your car in exchange for a small tip (a dollar or two depending on how long you’re there). We’ve always had great luck with these guys, both in terms of security and in getting the inside scoop. As an example, the parking attendant at Carara National Park once told us about some tent-making bats hiding under a leaf that we had walked right by.
Something fairly new to be aware of are parking restrictions. In the last couple of years, Costa Rica’s Transito (traffic police) have been really cracking down on people parking illegally. The crazy thing is that when they do find a car parked illegally, they not only issue a parking ticket but they also remove the license plates. It is a real pain to get these plates back. From what we have heard the process can take weeks and several trips to far away offices. Rental companies charge you a lot if this happens too, since the car can’t be driven or rented without plates and they have to send staff to pick them up.
Usually the traffic police are looking for cars along the street that have parked in a restricted zone, like too close to a fire hydrant, taxi stand, loading zone, or bus stop. These areas are usually marked with yellow paint on the curb or with a sign.
Some cities and larger towns also require paid parking along the street. These areas are marked with signs. Instead of a parking meter, usually you will have to purchase a small piece of paper to stick in your windshield. Sometimes it can be tricky to find the papers for sale so you may have to ask a local business. If you are uncomfortable with this process, we recommend driving around a bit until you find a private parking lot. There are often plenty around, especially in areas where parking on the street is hard to find.
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Driving in Costa Rica is definitely an adventure but as long as you’re cautious and remember these tips, you shouldn’t have any problems.
Have you ever driven in Costa Rica? What did you think?
Last Updated: June 15, 2020
Want more info to get ready for your trip? Check out these articles:
- Packing for Costa Rica: The Essentials – Step-by-step guide for just what to bring, no matter where you’re visiting or the season.
- Cost of Traveling in Costa Rica – What to expect for hotels, restaurants, tours, and transportation, plus tips to help save you money.
- Costa Rica Rental Car Discount – Save 10-25% on a rental car and get free extras by using the form on our website.
- Shuttle Van Transfers – If you’d rather leave the driving to someone else, we can help make the arrangements for your shuttles. Learn more on this page.