Costa Rica is a great country to explore on your own with a rental car. It is safe and with this information and videos you are going to be well prepared. You can choose how adventurous you want to make it. For most destinations the roads are well paved, but you can also leave them to travel off the beaten track. Read all about driving in Costa Rica.

Why do you choose to rent a car in Costa Rica?
Why can’t you drive from one destination to another quickly?
Itinerary for Costa Rica: what is important to know?
Navigation
Costa Rica and the rainy season
Where are you (not) allowed to park?
Useful to know
Driving off the beaten path in Costa Rica: visit Calathea Lodge
Driving in Costa Rica: watch these videos

This blog is also available in Dutch: Reizen met een huurauto | alles over zelf rijden in Costa Rica

driving in Costa Rica

Why do you choose to rent a car in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is a rather small country, yet the distances are not always so easy to cover. Traveling by public transport is an option but is more time consuming. More destinations are easier to reach with a rental car. Would you prefer to avoid the busy tourist destinations? A rental car is also ideal to travel off the beaten track.

In Costa Rica people drive on the right. A foreign driver’s license is valid during the holidays in combination with a tourist visa. Remember to always carry your passport or a copy with a copy of the page with the entry stamp page with you.

Although it is not necessary for all destinations, it is recommended to choose a 4×4. Not all roads are paved. The height of the car is certainly important for bumpy roads. When renting a car without 4×4 it is possible that the contract states that you are not allowed to leave the paved roads.

Why can’t you drive from one destination to another quickly?

The quality of the roads
The main roads are paved, but it may well be that you’ll also drive on gravel roads. Or on paved roads with big holes in them, you want to hit the brake pedal in time.

Altitude
Did you know that the highest point of Costa Rica is at 3820 meters above sea level? With destinations in the central part of Costa Rica you’ll travel from one destination to the next destination while meandering through the mountains. The co-driver is lucky to be able to enjoy the beautiful views. Visibility can sometimes be poor due to low hanging clouds.

Trucks
There is a lot of truck transportation in Costa Rica. Because not all roads are dual carriageways, it is possible that you have to stay behind a truck for a while.

The maximum speed
On motorways, the maximum permitted speed is often up to 80 kilometers per hour, sometimes 90 kilometers per hour. Costa Rica uses kilometers per hour to indicate speed.

Traffic jams
It’s busy in the capital, there’s a lot of traffic. Don’t plan your arrival and departure from San José too tight and avoid getting stuck in traffic jams during rush hour. During the popular Christmas and Easter holidays you have to take into account that there is a lot of traffic on the roads, especially around the popular beach destinations.

driving in Costa Rica
Driving to a beach in Costa Rica

Itinerary for Costa Rica: what is important to know?

You can travel without reservations or you can pre-determine the route in advance. In any way a holiday in Costa Rica means a lot of activities and a lot of impressions. With the factors listed above, driving from one destination to the next is often an adventure in itself. Therefore, don’t plan too much.

With so many different destinations it will be hard to choose. If you have two weeks, don’t try to cover every corner of the country. That will mean a lot of driving time.

When planning your itinerary you have to take a few things into account. The time of year is important to know in case you have to make reservations early. January, February, March and April are the busiest months of the year. The Christmas holiday is super busy. It is recommended to make reservations ahead of time. It is very quiet during the months May, June, October and November so it makes it easier to travel without reservations.

Budget wise you have to remember that the famous tourist destinations will be more expensive. Traveling off the beaten path will be rewarded with lower prices.  

Last but not least: don’t forget to get into the rhythm of the Pura Vida lifestyle. Enjoy every moment, enjoy every day and every activity.

The Waze app is recommended for navigation. With an internet connection you can see the actual situation on the route. Google Maps does not know all the roads and can steer you the wrong way. Maps.me is an app you can use offline, but also with this app you have to be careful. It is possible that the app sends you over the small roads while another route is more passable. Always check with your accommodation if you have a good route and what the condition of the road is like.

Driving in Costa Rica

Costa Rica and the rainy season

The rainy season in Costa Rica runs from May to November, but in most parts of Costa Rica there is rain all year round. So you can always expect a rainstorm when you are on the road. Rain showers are generally heavier during the rainy season.

You can imagine that you can’t really drive fast when you are in the middle of a heavy shower. This is one of the reasons why it is important to take your time and to arrive at your destination before dark (6PM). This will prevent you from having to stress while making driving more uncomfortable.

Do you travel through Costa Rica with a rental car during the rainy season? Then you might like to travel without reservations. The rainy season equals the low season so there is less chance that accommodations are fully booked.

During the rainy season there are more frequent landslides. Most problems occur on the routes from San Jose to San Isidro de el General, the route from San Jose to Limón and the route from San Jose to the Pacific coast. On the Nicoya peninsula there are also more frequent problems. Driving to Drake Bay is adventurous anyway, but is certainly not recommended in the rainy season. Often the problems on the road are solved quickly, but it can cause a delay. The app Waze is very handy in this case and always check with the accommodation if there are any problems on the route.

Where are you (not) allowed to park?

You can’t just park your car anywhere. If you are in a city, pay attention to the yellow lines. You are not allowed to park your car here. Often there are locations where you can pay for a parking space.

Did you park somewhere where it is not allowed? Then you not only risk a fine, but also that the license plates are removed from the car. You are not allowed to drive the car anymore and it takes a lot of effort to get the license plates back. The rental company will charge you for the costs they have to make.

If you visit one of the national parks of Costa Rica, it is best to park your car in the parking lot at the entrance.

Useful to know

You may have to drive through streams or small rivers. Be careful with this. If water gets into the engine of the car it is not insured.

In a country of active volcanoes, you may be asked to park your car in reverse. This way you can leave quickly if necessary.

Is there something you should watch out for? A blocked road, a collapsed bridge or a hole in the road? It is possible that this is marked with a number of leaves or branches on the road. The Tico’s master the art of improvisation.

Other road users can also warn you by flashing the lights or by using the alarm lights.

In the central part of the country you have to pay tolls on a number of roads. Always keep some Colones in coins and bills from 1000 or 2000 Colones at hand.

Driving in Costa Rica

Pura Vida? Not always on the road. Tico’s can be very impatient and are only too happy to overtake, even when there is little view of possible oncoming traffic. Always keep enough distance and be alert.

Rental cars generally don’t have something to cover your luggage in the trunk. Stuff you leave behind in the car will be visible.

‘Ceda el paso’ means that oncoming traffic has priority, in this case on the bridge.

Roads in Costa Rica

One more thing

It is possible that someone will help you when you park the car or if you want to leave. This person looked after your car while you were gone. This is something that happens all over Costa Rica, not only in the touristy places. It is a way to earn a little money and whether you find it useful or not, it is probably the only income this person has. 500 Colones (less than $1) is enough, of course you can give more.

Driving off the beaten path in Costa Rica: visit Calathea Lodge

Our lodge is located on the country side of Costa Rica. Dos Bocas is a very quiet village with only about 60 people. One off the consequences of being off the beaten path is that Google Maps doesn’t know the shortest way to drive to Dos Bocas. Therefore our location in Google Maps is in the village Hatillo. From Hatillo it is 8 kilometers on a gravel road to get to Calathea Lodge. It takes about 20 minutes (depending on the driver and the type of car) and you’ll see jungle and the river of Dos Bocas on the way.

Why do we have our check in until 6PM? It gets dark in Costa Rica at 6PM. The road to Dos Bocas is not very well lit so that could make driving more uncomfortable. During the day there are quite some people traveling between Dos Bocas and Hatillo. In case you need some help with for example a flat tire there will always be someone passing by. It’s good to know that there is no cell reception after Hatillo so you couldn’t use your phone to call for help. With a reservation we know you are on your way so we will always be waiting for you. We recommend arriving at our lodge before 4PM so you have all the time to travel without stress and to see what the accommodation is like before it gets dark.

Read more about the location of Calathea Lodge.

What do guest think about a stay at Calathea Lodge? Read the reviews at Tripadvisor.

Calathea Lodge
Calathea Lodge

Driving in Costa Rica: watch these videos

Watch these videos to get an impression of what it’s like to be driving in Costa Rica.

Driving on a part of Ruta 34 Dominical – Quepos. January 2020

Driving to Playa Linda, one of our favorite beaches. February 2020

Driving to Calathea Lodge: Hatillo – Dos Bocas. This is the road that is not on Google Maps. June 2020

Driving through Dos Bocas. July 2020

Feel free to contact us if you have any questions about our lodge or about the road.

Eliseo and Anouk are the owners of Calathea Lodge. Read more about the lodge. Anouk also founded ‘Bestemming Pura Vidathe Dutch travelblog about Costa Rica. Some of the blogs are translated and published on this website.