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How to Be Safe Driving in Costa Rica – Tips and Hints

Vamos Rent-A-Car wants our customers to enjoy their hard-earned time off and not have to worry about Costa Rica's limited infrastructure, so we’ll help take the hassle out of your vacation. Let the fun begin!

1. Costa Rican Road Conditions

Most of the main roads in Costa Rica are paved and are in good to fair condition. However, many side roads are in desperate need of repair. Over the last eight years, great strides have been made to repair roads, but potholes and other road damage still persists. Therefore, we suggest renting an all-wheel drive vehicle (4x4) to maximize your comfort with higher clearance.

Being aware of the season in which you’ll be visiting will help you prepare as well; whether it’s Green (Mid-April to October) or High (November to Mid-April) Season. View our Traffic Alerts for specific seasonal information.

Please keep in mind that new shocks and tires are not going to smooth out the ruts and hard-packed dirt roads that you may encounter. This is a part of Costa Rica; you may have to "rough it" a bit. Smile, roll with it and live to tell the tale of the car-sized pothole…they’re still out there…somewhere.

Once out of the capital, unless you’re traveling at the height of High Season, the roads are fairly quiet and you’re more likely to pause for cows crossing the road than you are for a rush hour crush. Here are a few pointers that may help you to negotiate the roads:

  • A hole in the road ahead may not be indicated by official tape or cones. Locals may have helpfully marked the large pothole by inserting a tree branch, tire or similar item…so watch out and leave plenty of space as you drive around the obstacle. A large puddle should be avoided as it may well be hiding a pothole and be much deeper than it appears on the surface. Steer clear of puddles with inserted tree branches as these are the most dangerous.
  • Continuing this thought, be careful turning corners -- since many of the missing manhole covers are found near the shoulder/curbs.
  • Watch the actions (jerky motions) from the other motorists -- particularly those in front of you -- because there’s (usually) a reason for it.
  • Maintain ample stopping distance between the vehicle(s) in front of you.
  • Bridges are often one-lane only. A traffic sign will indicate which side has the right of way on the bridge, so wait your turn and then seize the moment as soon as you can. Hesitation on your part will be taken as weakness and the vehicles waiting on the other side will immediately start crossing. Potholes are not only restricted to the roads. Many bridges may be equally damaged. Follow this rhyme, "If you can see the river below, take it slow!"
  • Rivers may cross the road. If they’re deep, then turn back and find an alternate route — as your insurance will be void if the vehicle is driven through a river. However, as this isn’t uncommon, you may see a raised stone or sandbank which allows the vehicle to cross in only a couple of inches of water. Hence why it’s a normal sight to see locals walking in the water, prodding the depths with a stick. They’re gauging ‘luck’ versus ‘loss’. There’s already several ‘bad judgements’ posted on, so considering your liability, please don’t follow their examples.
Road Filled with Potholes

“Challenges in Costa Rica” © VamosRAC

Marking a Pothole - Local Style

"Marked Pothole" photo © VamosRAC

One-Lane Metal Bridge

"One-Lane Bridge" photo © VamosRAC

River Crossing in Car

"River Crossing" photo © YouTube

Wondering about other road users? Generally, the rule is to drive defensively in Costa Rica. Although "Ticos" are known as friendly and relaxed people, there tends to be a transformation behind the wheel! Clues for deciphering Tico driving are below, but be warned. You’ll have to take your best guess at what they’re trying to tell you.

  • Lights flashing can be another driver’s way of saying "Thanks" or an invitation to pass, a warning of traffic police on the road ahead, a reminder to lower your headlights for oncoming traffic or that there’s an issue with your vehicle door not being closed properly.

    Livestock in the Road"Oxen on Road" photo © VamosRAC
  • Horn honking is used to warn another vehicle that the driver behind is in the process of overtaking your vehicle, the traffic lights changed color three milliseconds previously, there is an attractive woman within the driver’s vision, or that a vehicle is waiting outside a door or gate — otherwise known as the "Costa Rican doorbell".
  • Hazard lights can apparently be used on any road or highway if the driver of the vehicle needs to dash out to the store, stop to speak to a passer-by or simply pause roadside. The hazards may be switched on before, during or even after the driver has stopped the car.
  • Be prepared to share the road with cyclists, pedestrians and any number and variety of wild or domestic animals.


Driving in San Jose is much like any other big city. Taxis will try to cut in front of you, impatient commuters will honk their horns at a millisecond’s delay, and peak hours are when you’ll hit lines of traffic. The bonus though is that San Jose is a small city, so although the one-way system may make you feel like you’re driving in circles; you’ll find your way in the end. Don’t expect signage to be the key out of your confusion though — there isn’t much! If you find yourself overwhelmed, stop and flag down the nearest cab to lead you through the city and towards your vacation route.

Nevertheless, if you’re staying mainly in the Central Valley (San Jose, etc.), then a sedan is probably a better choice — for gas mileage, parking limitations and blending in. You’ll miss out on your opportunity to spot the "Great Pothole", but we certainly understand that not everyone finds this as amusing as others do.

2. Finding Your Way

You will receive a complimentary road map with your rental documents. Our knowledgeable, bilingual staff will ensure that you have sound directions to your first destination.

Major tourist destinations are marked with road signs. However, these signs may not always be clearly visible the first time you drive by. There are few street names and even fewer street numbers. Addresses are given by distance from landmarks (for example: 300 meters North of the city hall). A compass may be beneficial. A quick rule of thumb, almost all church entrances face West — making it easier to get your bearings (North, South, etc.).

Volcanoes Across Costa Rica
“Volcanoes throughout CR” © Sara Ford

Remember, you can always call us with the supplied cell phone (free of charge) to ask for directions! Don't feel shy, it happens to the best of us.

3. Global Positioning Systems

Safely reach your destinations with the least amount of worry and time-loss. Your electronic co-pilot will guide you comfortably through Costa Rica, so you can enjoy more time relaxing on your vacation.

We offer an optional WazePhone rental for $5 per day and it functions not only as a real-time GPS, but also a Wi-Fi hotspot, and of course...a mobile phone. Please request the WazePhone at the time of your reservation. This allows us to prepare your vehicle without delay.

4. Basic Road Rules

You may drive using the drivers license issued by your home country.

Speed Limits:

• Highways

• Urban Areas

• Near Schools
& Hospitals

80 kph
50 mph

60 kph
24 mph

25 kph
15 mph

Please note: These are general speed-limits guidelines. The actual speed limit will be posted on signs.

Some other legal points to bear in mind are:

  • Legal driving age is 18.
  • It is illegal to drink and drive. DUI voids all insurances.
  • It is illegal to drive without your seat belt buckled. You will be ticketed.
  • Driving on beaches is strictly prohibited everywhere and voids all insurances.
  • Children must be seated in an appropriate infant seat or booster! We offer a complimentary child seat/booster free of charge. Please mention your needs at the time of your reservation, so we may arrange it for you, again, without delay.

5. Emergency Vehicles

Emergency vehicles do not have the luxury of time to obey the same traffic laws that other drivers do. When their sirens AND flashing lights are on, emergency vehicles trump all others regarding right-of-way; one exception is a school bus with it's crossing guard sign displayed, but otherwise, green lights, yield signs, and roundabout politeness are set aside for any police vehicle, fire truck or ambulance.

When a siren approaches from behind:

  • Slow down.
  • Check for traffic around you.
  • Resist the fear to suddenly jerk the wheel to the right — there may be another car, cyclist or even a pedestrian in your blind spot.
  • Once a clear path to the shoulder appears, turn on your flashers/blinkers and make your way over to the right hand edge or curb of the roadway, parallel to the roadway, and clear of any intersections.
  • Stop and remain stopped until the emergency vehicles have passed, unless otherwise directed by a police officer.
  • Be alert before pulling back into traffic as there's usually more than one responding to the call.

When a siren approaches from the front:

  • Don't panic.
  • Follow the standard procedure; pull to the side of the road as safely as possible and turn on your hazard lights.
  • Responders will occasionally need to use the wrong side of the road to bypass congestion. Pulling over creates space for them to proceed.

When an emergency vehicle is stopped:

  • Move over away from the emergency personnel; including tow truck operators.
  • If it is not possible to move over, slow down and pass with extreme caution.

Following an emergency vehicle:

  • Stay back; approximately 300 to 500 feet (a football/soccer field's length)
  • Do not tailgate — even if your loved ones are in the ambulance ahead. You'll only increase your chances of being an accident yourself.

Driving over a fire hose:

  • It is illegal to drive over a fire hose which is in use, unless otherwise instructed by the fire officer in command.
  • This endangers the firefighters and the pump operator.

Let's help the emergency responder to do their job by keeping them (and us) alive. Slow down, pull over when clear, and stay alert.

6. Fuel (Gasolina)

Fuel stations (called Bombas or Gasolineras) are widespread across Costa Rica. Regular, Super and Diesel fuel are readily available at all gas stations. Fuel prices are regulated by the government and thus are all exactly the same at every gas station — leaving you to enjoy your vacation without being on the look-out for the cheapest gas pump.

Service at gas stations is provided by attendants, or what they call in the U.S. as "full-service". There is no need to leave the car. Tipping is at your own discretion. On long trips, use fuel stops as an opportunity to relax and freshen-up.

Price of Regular Gas

September 23, 2019

Per Liter

  • ₡632 (CRC)
  • $1.09 (USD)
  • €0.99 (EUR)

Per U.S. Gallon

  • 2,392.38 colones
  • 4.13 dollars
  • 3.12 euros

Price of Diesel Fuel

September 23, 2019

Per Liter

  • ₡526 (CRC)
  • $0.91 (USD)
  • €0.83 (EUR)

Per U.S. Gallon

  • 1,991.13 colones
  • 3.43 dollars
  • 3.12 euros

7. Police

Pull over if a police officer signals you to do so. Police officers may ask you to stop if there is an accident ahead, a checkpoint, or if you are violating the law for such things as not displaying a license plate or exceeding the speed limit.

Your personal documents, as well as the vehicle registration papers, are private property and may not be retained by police officers for any reason. If a police officer insists on stopping you or retaining your documents for no apparent reason, ask him to escort you to the nearest police station to clear the problem. If you believe a traffic police officer or any other law enforcement official acted inappropriately, or you have questions regarding their behavior, call 2257-7798, ext. 2506 and ask to be referred to the nearest police station.

If you are given a ticket, please pay it at the nearest state-owned bank and present a copy of the receipt to our staff when you return the rented vehicle. If you fail to do so, your credit card will be charged for the amount of the fine, plus a $15 administrative fee.

8. Accidents

In the case of an accident, stay with the car and DO NOT MOVE IT, unless ordered by a police officer. Costa Rican law states that you must wait until the police and an insurance representative arrive at the scene. Contact Vamos immediately for further assistance. You may also report the accident by calling 911 or 800-800-8000.

9. Other Driving Tips

There is a temptation to throw caution to the wind on vacation which is fine if this means trying a new food or ziplining. Driving in Costa Rica though should be approached with common sense!

Over the years, the Vamos Team has answered most of the typical questions/concerns that first-time visitors may have. To aid you, the reader, (and to protect your identity against asking silly questions on a travel forum), we’ll gathered more useful tips -- that haven’t been mentioned elsewhere on this website -- to help make your road trip successful:

  • Get the best insurance from either your credit card company or the rental agency. Front-end repair is not cheap!
  • Choose a car model that sits higher with better/wider visibility; SUVs vs. coupes.
  • Select the proper engine size for traversing local obstacles; such as steep hills, or higher ground clearance, to reach Airbnbs and the like off the paved roads. Our counter staff is happy to help with any questions to choose the right vehicle for your stay.
  • Only rent a manual transmission if you can drive stick and not because it’s available or because it’s $5 cheaper per day. Learning to drive with gear change is not a challenge you need in a foreign country on your supposedly relaxing vacay!
  • The A/C does not come on automatically. Please check that the button is switched on. :-)
  • Drive confidently and stay alert.
  • Driving at night should be avoided, unless you have visited Costa Rica and are familiar with the road conditions. It is not like driving back home. Since many flights arrive fairly late in the day, consider staying the night at one of the many nearby hotels and allow us to deliver your car early the next morning. You will be refreshed and enjoy the sights on the way to your first destination, instead of driving your first night, exhausted and lost in the dark.
  • Do not stop for people waving you down and never stop for hitchhikers.
  • Do not drive through, or leave your car in poorly lit areas.
  • Never leave your car on the street unattended; always park it in a safe parking lot.
  • Do not leave any belongings in the car where they might draw the attention of delinquents.
  • The parking brake is only used when the vehicle is at a complete stop. This should go without saying, but we’ll mention it again. “Once the car is in motion, the parking brake should be released!”
  • Parking on yellow lines, or even getting a parking ticket, could result in the removal of vehicle’s license plates as well as the associated fine. This effectively ‘grounds’ the vehicle until it can be towed to a Vamos office and puts you without a car until things are sorted out. Even if you need to walk a block to your destination, park in a secure, off-road parking lot and pay a token hourly rate to avoid issues.
  • 4x4 / low gear is for better traction at slow speeds (under 40kmh), like through mud, or up a steep incline. After reaching a more suitable location, stop the vehicle, disengage 4x4 / low gear, then continue normally. These gears are not meant to be used at regular speeds on paved roads. If any damage occurs, the renter will be liable since this falls under misuse/negligence.
  • Riding the brakes downhill is unwise as well. Brake pads get hot when used constantly which causes the brake pads will turn bright red, the smell of burnt asbestos will be apparent and the fluid boils in the brake lines. All of which can cause brake failure and massive leakage. Instead of using the brakes to constantly slow you down, use a lower gear to enable engine compression or pull over when safe. Check your mirrors for large truck that may not be able to stop as quickly as you descend. After about an hour, the brakes will be cool enough to continue the trip safely. Riding in Neutral or with the clutch disengaged is not a bright idea either as this allows the vehicle to build up momentum, making it even harder to slow down.
  • If it starts to rain, try to find a place to pull over until the rain lets up, but be careful of where you stop -- it may be the worst spot on the entire road!
  • Vamos does not change flat tires -- or round ones either. ;-) Seek a nearby gas station or roll up your sleeves and change it yourself. Once you’ve changed the flat, get it repaired for a few dollars at any gas station on your route.


Although it may seem daunting at first, annually there are tens of thousands of visitors to Costa Rica who enjoy the freedom to discover the country at their own pace with the help of their rental vehicle. After all, getting there is always half the fun of any vacation!

Don't forget to visit our Tico Tips outlining 7 insider tips from a local perspective.

"Arrive Safely and More Relaxed After Reading Our Tips."