After living in Costa Rica for 7 years and experiencing first-hand what it’s like to drive there, I can say that for anyone about to visit Costa Rica, driving here can be intimidating at first, but it’s worth it! If you follow the advice and tips in this article.
Exploring Costa Rica, and traveling by road is an adventure in and of itself that comes with some challenges and considerations. This article will provide all the essential tips and insights you need to drive safely in Costa Rica.
From understanding the road conditions and local etiquette to finding and renting a car in Costa Rica, you can overcome any roadblock (pun intended) you encounter along the way.
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Driving requirements in Costa Rica
The best place to start is to first establish what the general driving requirements are in Costa Rica.
To be able to drive in Costa Rica you must have a valid driver’s license from your home country.
Carrying an International Drivers License is not a legal requirement in Costa Rica but it’s a good idea to have one.
Especially if you travel in foreign countries regularly and need to drive while abroad.
As a tourist, you will most likely be renting a vehicle and the minimum age requirement to rent a car from most agencies in Costa Rica is 21-23 years old.
Liability insurance known as Supplemental Liability Insurance (SLI) is mandatory and required coverage when driving in Costa Rica.
Rental car companies in Costa Rica typically include this insurance in the rental fee.
While not legally required you definitely should also get comprehensive insurance to cover potential damage to the rental vehicle.
Road Rules in Costa Rica
The road rules in Costa Rica are probably very similar to the road rules in your home country.
But the road signs in Costa Rica are in Spanish ( the most common signs are covered later in this post and their translations to English).
Like anywhere else, wearing seat belts is mandatory for all passengers in a moving vehicle in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica uses the metric system, so speed limits are in kilometers per hour (km/h).
The speed limits vary depending on where you’re driving i.e. city centers, rural roads, and school zones.
Look out for the road signs indicating the speed limits you need to stick to when you’re driving.
Which side of the road do you drive on in Costa Rica?
In Costa Rica, they drive on the right side of the road.
If you’re used to driving in the United States, Canada, and the majority of countries in Europe then you will have no trouble at all adjusting to driving in Costa Rica.
But if you’re traveling to Costa Rica from the United Kingdom, Australia, or New Zealand then it will take a little adjustment but you will get used to it.
Is driving difficult in Costa Rica?
If you’re an experienced driver and are comfortable driving in different conditions, then driving in Costa Rica shouldn’t be too different from driving anywhere else in the world.
But, there are several unique challenges when driving in Costa Rica that can be a little tricky for visitors.
After living in Costa Rica for several years, I pretty much have driven on every type of road there is and experienced exactly how the locals drive too.
Overall my number #1 tip would have to be Do NOT under any circumstances, take your eyes off the Costa Rican road!
Need to Rent a Car?
Rent a car here, it’s one of the best options to go for if your car stops working or is stuck at the mechanic getting services.
What are Road Conditions in Costa Rica?
The terrain and geography of Costa Rica present a wide range of road conditions, from well-paved and engineered highways to challenging rural off-road routes.
Road conditions and driving in Costa Rica vary depending on the weather, time of day, national holidays, or other unforeseen events.
For a relatively small country, the topography and climate vary quite a bit and influence driving and road conditions from place to place.
Costa Rica’s main highways, including the Pan-American Highway (Route 1), are generally well-maintained and offer smooth driving experiences.
These routes connect major cities and popular tourist destinations, making them ideal for covering long distances quickly.
But even on these highways, you might encounter occasional potholes, so stay vigilant.
Venturing off the beaten path is where the real adventure begins.
Based on my experience, navigating Costa Rica’s rural roads is one of the best ways to experience the natural attractions the country has to offer including waterfalls, rainforests, and hidden beaches.
Many of the most popular natural attractions may require you to rent a 4WD to access.
Do some research on the locations you want to visit before you decide on what type of vehicle you want to hire when you get to Costa Rica.
For a truly unique driving experience in Costa Rica, there are several options for ATV tours in Costa Rica like the volcano, river, and forest ATV tour in the Arenal Region.
Weather conditions play a significant role in road quality in a tropical country like Costa Rica.
Especially during the rainy season between May and November.
Heavy rain can lead to landslides, road washouts, and flooding, particularly on rural routes. Always check weather forecasts and ask locals about the road conditions as some routes may become impassable.
Road Signs and Markings
Road signs in Costa Rica are pretty much all in Spanish.
Thankfully I am fluent in Spanish and English so this helped to a smoother driving experience in Costa Rica.
But if you’re not familiar with Spanish, try to familiarize yourself with the common road signs listed below.
“Alto” – Stop
“Ceda el Paso” – Yield
“Pare” – Stop (often seen at stop signs)
“Ceda el Paso al Peatón” – Yield to Pedestrians
“Despacio” – Slow Down
“Curva Peligrosa” – Dangerous Curve
“Peligro” – Danger
Essential Travel Resources
❗Don’t forget travel insurance
This company is the one I trust, it’s one of the most essential things for any trip. It has your back in case you get sick abroad, or have an accident.
🎒Pack smarter, not bulky
Check out this vacation packing list, including all the essentials you need to pack when traveling, from travel clothing to backpacks and more.
🏡Where to Stay – Here are Suggestions
This is my favorite place to look for accommodations, it offers different types, a ton of locations, and good price options.
🗺️Get Around Hassle-Free
This one is the perfect option to look for different transportation options between cities, from flights, buses, and taxis to minivans and more.
🛫Find Cheap Flights
Whenever I need to fly, I head to this website for low-cost flights.
Wildlife on the Roads
One of the unique parts of driving on Costa Rican roads is the presence of wildlife.
You may come across monkeys, sloths, iguanas, and different kinds of bird species.
And while seeing these animals can be an exciting part of your journey they also are a potential road hazard if you’re not aware and prepared.
Be on the lookout for wildlife, especially at night
Always follow my first piece of advice and do not take your eyes off the road or become too lax when driving in Costa Rica.
Also, be on the lookout for road signs that indicate areas where animals are more likely to be crossing.
Is it safe to drive in Costa Rica at night?
Overall, whether it’s safe to drive at night in Costa Rica depends on each individual’s driving experience and level of comfort driving in low-light conditions.
If you’re not confident in your nighttime driving abilities just stick to driving in the day and use local transport when it’s dark.
Some specific local conditions in Costa Rica can make driving at night more challenging and even ‘less safe’ than in your home country.
- Limited Street Lighting: Especially outside of major cities, where street lighting can be limited, making it harder to see the road ahead and potential obstacles.
- Nocturnal Wildlife in Costa Rica: animals like deer, monkeys, and sloths are often active at night. Collisions with wildlife can be a risk, especially in more rural areas.
- Weather Conditions at Night: Rainfall is common in Costa Rica, and wet roads can be more treacherous at night, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the local conditions. Rainfall at night when driving can reduce visibility and increase the risk of accidents.
- Limited Services: In remote areas, finding gas stations, repair services, or assistance in case of emergencies may be more challenging at night when driving in Costa Rica.
If you’re comfortable driving at night and in challenging weather conditions then it should be an expected part of driving in any country at night that you would encounter extra challenges.
But a few obvious but very important tips would be to; i) Reduce your speed when driving at night, especially on unfamiliar roads.
And also to ii)Stay Alert and not drive when you’re too tired. Fatigue can set in more easily during nighttime driving. So be sure to take breaks as needed to rest and recharge.
Costa Rican Driving Culture Etiquette
If there is one thing I have learned after daily driving on Costa Rican roads for many years, it’s to expect the unexpected!
Apart from the regular potholes (even on well-paved highways), be aware that what is considered normal driving in Costa Rica could be considered ‘reckless’ in your home country
Aggressive driving in Costa Rica can catch newcomers off guard, especially in urban areas.
Locals or ‘ticos’ as Costa Ricans refer to themselves, are known to disregard the road rules and be a bit aggressive with their driving. But by no means does this mean that you have to follow what the locals are doing.
Always follow the road rules!
Tailgating, abrupt lane changes, changing lanes even without signaling, and fast overtaking are pretty common in Costa Rica.
This can be very unsettling for someone driving in Costa Rica for the first time.
But my best advice would be to stay calm, be patient, avoid confrontations, and drive defensively.
I have to add that motorcycles are one thing you must look out for!
Motorcyclists maneuver in and around traffic and areas of the road you least expect, outside of your line of sight too! So you must be aware of motorcycles, especially during rush hour.
Also, you may be surprised to see a family of 3 or more all riding on one motorcycle, so be extra vigilant. This is not uncommon in Costa Rica where motorcycles are a common mode of transport for the locals.
Another type of road behavior that took some getting used to for me when I first started driving in Costa Rica is the tendency for locals to honk their horns.
In Costa Rica, honking is a form of communication and could signal anything, from a friendly greeting to frustration.
Don’t be surprised if you hear horns frequently, just avoid aggressive honking and use your judgment if you do honk your horn.
Roundabouts, or “rotondas, as they’re called locally, are common in Costa Rica.
After going through near-crash experiences thanks to these circular traffic control devices, I have to say you need to be cautious when approaching these roundabouts in Costa Rica.
It may be obvious but the direction of all roundabouts in Costa Rica is counterclockwise.
Traffic inside the roundabout usually has the right of way, but this may not always be observed so choose your land wisely and approach with caution.
Renting a Car in Costa Rica
Renting a car is a popular choice for exploring all that Costa Rica offers.
A convenient way to get around Costa Rica is to arrange to pick up your rental car at the airport in Costa Rica on your arrival.
Do some research online beforehand and check customer reviews so you can find a reputable rental company.
The price of rental cars in Costa Rica can vary widely depending on the season, demand, and location within Costa Rica.
Also, you may have extra costs such as insurance, fuel, and fees for optional add-ons like GPS devices or child seats.
But indicative pricing numbers are shown below (in $USD):
- Economy cars: Economy or compact cars can start at around $30 to $50 per day.
- Mid-size cars: Mid-size cars typically range from $50 to $80 per day.
- SUVs and 4x4s: If you plan to explore rural or mountainous areas, you might opt for an SUV or 4×4 vehicle. These can cost anywhere from $80 to $150 or more per day.
- Luxury cars: Luxury cars will be more expensive, with prices starting at around $150 per day and going up significantly from there.
Always compare prices from different rental companies and read the terms and conditions carefully before making a reservation.
And scrutinize your rental agreement for hidden fees, like airport surcharges, drop-off charges, or additional driver fees.
These ‘hidden’ costs can drive up the total cost.
You can read everything you need to know about hiring a vehicle in my ‘Guide for Renting a Car in Costa Rica’ which includes useful tips that I have learned over the years.
Parking Considerations in Costa Rica
If you do decide to drive in Costa Rica then you must plan for parking too.
Especially in remote areas, popular tourist spots as well as in cities and larger towns.
Some remote accommodations charge a small fee for parking so clarify this when you make the booking to avoid any surprises.
One tip I have found for securing parking in popular tourist spots is to visit during off-peak hours when there is more parking available and much less competition for limited parking spaces.
Remember that parking availability can vary widely across Costa Rica, so research parking options for each leg of your journey and make necessary reservations where possible.
Getting Around Costa Rica without a Car
While driving in Costa Rica offers flexibility, there are instances where it’s more practical to use alternative transportation options.
You can experience pretty much everything Costa Rica has to offer without having to drive yourself at all.
One of the most famous scenic drives popular with visitors is the 3 hours journey from Manuel Antonio to San Jose. Some of the best ways to get from Manuel Antonio to San Jose include buses, shared vans, and taxis.
i) Take a Tour Bus
Costa Rica is known for its wide range of organized tours, which often include transportation.
These tours can take you to popular destinations, such as national parks, volcanoes, and wildlife reserves, without the need to drive.
Tour operators typically arrange pickups from your accommodation and provide guided experiences.
ii) Try Public Transport
Costa Rica’s public transportation system is extensive and reliable, especially between major cities and tourist areas.
Buses are an affordable way to travel, and many routes can take you to key destinations and are great options for longer journeys or visiting urban centers where parking can be challenging.
iii) Travel on the Water
In regions like Tortuguero and the Osa Peninsula, boat transfers are a common mode of transportation.
They offer a unique traveling experience and access to areas where road access is limited.
For a truly up close and personal experience of Costa Rica’s scenic waterways, I would recommend trying the Tortuguero National Park Excursion where you can tour the famous Tortuguero canal.
iv) Domestic Flights
Costa Rica has several regional airports, and domestic flights are efficient for covering longer distances, such as from San Jose to the Nicoya Peninsula or the Caribbean coast.
v) Hire a Local Driver
Hiring a local driver or taking taxis can be a comfortable and convenient option, especially if you’re not comfortable driving on challenging roads or in heavy traffic.
Local drivers are familiar with the terrain and can also act as tour guides and take you to some of the less crowded tourist attractions.
Get Some Exercise at the Same Time as Sight-seeing
In smaller towns and beachside communities, bicycles and walking are excellent ways to explore at a leisurely pace.
Rent a bike or simply take a stroll to soak in the local culture and scenery.
Additional Tips for Driving in Costa Rica
Sorry for sounding repetitive but I have to say again;
DO NOT take your eyes off the road in Costa Rica! Potholes, other vehicles (especially motorcycles), and pedestrians can appear out of nowhere.
And always try to stay calm, be patient, avoid confrontations, and drive defensively.
But here are some additional tips that will go a long way to making your driving experience in Costa Rica a lot smoother.
i) If you plan a route and Google Maps is telling you a time frame, just add 30 minutes to it because of traffic, accidents, road work or just having to drive slowly in case you find bad roads.
ii) One-lane bridges are common so exercise caution even if the road seems clear ahead. But the general rule to follow is to give the right of way if a car is already on the bridge.
iii) Avoid crossing rivers, they can be deceivingly deeper than you think. And your rental agreement won’t cover damage from river crossing.
iv) Carry your travel documents (or photocopies) and rental agreement when driving. Police checkpoints do come up and it’s always better to cooperate.
v) If you do get in an accident, it’s a requirement by law that you do not move your car before Police arrive on the scene, even if you’re blocking traffic.
vi) Do not park illegally. Costa Rica’s Transito (traffic police) not only issued a parking ticket for illegal parking, but they also removed the license plates! Getting your license plate back is a hassle you really do not want to have.
Below are extra resources you definitely should check before traveling to Costa Rica.
Costa Rican Traffic Police: Stay updated on road conditions, regulations, and traffic alerts from the Costa Rican Traffic Police.
Emergency Services: In case of an emergency, remember the universal emergency number in Costa Rica is 911 for police and medical assistance.
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