If you’re wondering if you should rent a car during your visit to Costa Rica, the answer is: Yes! It’s hard to beat the added freedom a car provides. Travel whenever and wherever you want, and indulge your curiosity by discovering the “road less traveled.”
Costa Rica is truly a country worth exploring. A chain of iconic volcanoes cuts a path through the mountainous interior with great swaths of cloud and rainforests blanketing the many peaks. Tropical dry forests are scattered among the arid plains of the northwest; and rivers, mangroves, and canals weave an intricate map, along with fruit plantations and sleepy townships, in the Caribbean lowlands.
The Atlantic and Pacific oceans provide nearly 1,500 km (912 miles) of rugged coastline to the east and west, with postcard-perfect turquoise waters and palm-lined golden-, red-, white-, and black-sand beaches.
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The west also offers two distinct peninsulas, each with a unique blend of habitats and wildlife; while the eastern region is thick with dense jungles and mysterious waterways brimming with marine and animal life. And don’t forget the ubiquitous surfers riding the rolling swells on both coasts while pelicans paint giant Vs in the skies above… Travel Costa Rica on Your Own Terms with the Freedom of a Rental Car.
Renting a car is undoubtedly the best way to get the most of what Costa Rica has to offer, but other transportation options are available. Visitors with only one or two destinations on their radar often opt for shared or private shuttle services. A number of such companies exist and are considered a great alternative to public transportation.
The country’s public bus system is intricate, inexpensive, and covers the entire country. On any given day you’re practically guaranteed to find a departure time for your destination of choice. The most common drawback of public buses, however, are the frequent stops and longer travel times -- changing buses on the way to your destination could easily double journey time compared to driving yourself. But if you’re not in a hurry, you’ll get a great glimpse of Ticos (Costa Ricans) in their daily element.
Click for a list of Driving Tips
Driving Costa Rica’s roads in 2018 requires a more defensive style than in North America or Europe. The country adheres to international driving laws, including driving on the right-side of the road, passing restrictions, and speed limits (in km).
Nonetheless, the tropical climate combined with the country’s financial challenges to maintain sound infrastructure nationwide, have resulted in road conditions with more hazards than most visitors are accustomed to. Heavy rains and intense heat cause potholes and washouts during the green season and the steep mountainous terrain generates fog and poor visibility. For these reasons and more, visitors are strongly advised to drive cautiously and take it slow.
Although driving laws are similar, they’re not always observed, so drivers should quite literally expect anything – from vehicles passing on a curve or motorcycles speeding by on the shoulder, to pedestrians walking on the road for lack of a sidewalk.
Urban and rural driving conditions are dramatically different. In and around San Jose most roads are well paved and marked with street signs (names or numbers). However, it’s common not to find a street sign when you need it most. Nearly 70 percent of the country’s population lives in the Central Valley resulting in frequent traffic jams, delays, and accidents, so visitors are advised to plan their travels outside of peak traffic hours.
Driving through the rural countryside is not only idyllic, there’s usually less traffic, unless you count herding cattle... Road names or signs marking exit ramps or upcoming intersections are less common and sometimes non-existent; hence, adding a navigation system, such as our popular WazePhone, to your car rental is strongly recommended. Having a real-time navigator can take much of the headache and delays out of traveling with a hard-copy map or from provided directions.
When in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask a friendly-looking local. Costa Ricans are famous for their warm hospitality and willingness to lend a hand.
Driving at night is not recommended, especially for first-time visitors as many existing dangers, like washouts, lanes ending, or giant potholes, may not be marked. Drinking and driving is another “don’t do.” Common sense is key!
Most visitors can drive in Costa Rica with a valid driver’s license from their home country. An international driver’s license is only necessary if the home license is written in a different alphabet, such as Mandarin, Arabic, or Hebrew.
In accordance with Costa Rican law, driver’s licenses are recognized as valid only as long as the visitor’s 90-day immigration permit is valid (this is the Costa Rica entry and exit stamp on your passport). Visitors should also carry their passport, or a copy, with them at all times.
The damage deposit ranges from $100 to $2,000 depending on the level of coverage purchased although other rental agencies may hold up to $5,000 on your credit card. The deposit, or the partial amount, will be reimbursed to the client approximately 3 days after the rental is completed. Examples of deposit deductions include: returning the vehicle with less gas than it was received, and any fines incurred during the rental, such as parking or speeding tickets.
Remember that “off road” driving, including river crossings, or driving on the beach is considered a violation of a rental agreement and loss or damages incurred will not be covered by the rental insurance.
Much like visiting any country, tourists should use extra diligence regarding their belongings and comfort zone. We all want to relax on vacay, but keep common sense close at hand.
Renters are cautioned to be vigilant when parking. It is better to pay a little change to a security guard than leave the vehicle unattended. Never leave belongings in your car even if it’s locked, especially in view of passersby. Unfortunately, item theft from rental cars is one of the main crimes affecting tourists, yet it is easily avoided by taking the appropriate precautions.
Should a punctured tire require changing, we suggest driving to the nearest gas station or well-lit populated area to do so. While Ticos are generally very helpful, do be aware that deliberately punctured tires have been used as a ploy to rob unsuspecting tourists.
See the Driving Tips for Costa Rica link on this page for more information on items like reminder road rules, fuel, police, accidents, and other tips for traveling in Costa Rica.
“Cows” © Shere y Paul
Our posts are primarily written by people who actually live here! They know firsthand the places, routes and things to see and do. A few of them are actually forum experts on several well-known travel websites, so you’ll know that we’re not making this stuff up.