Driving in Costa Rica

From Point A to Point B – Driving in Costa Rica lets you see it all!

Freedom to explore

If you’re going to be driving in Costa Rica, accept that it will be part of your adventure! It will be so much more than going from point A to point B. And you’ll do it on your own timetable. Stay as long as you want, leave when you want to. With Costa Rica vacations, it’s the only way to fly (err, drive!)

Four wheelin’

Driving in Costa Rica is a little different in the sense that pretty much all rental cars are 4x4s. Be prepared for the fact that your rental car will likely have a manual transmission as opposed to an automatic. That surprised me at first, but fortunately I already knew how to drive a stick. If you absolutely have to have an automatic transmission, make sure you request it.

VIP Transfers
Typical 4×4 Costa Rica rental cars. Your choice: small, medium, or large?

You’ll need a 4×4 because once you get out of San José proper, not much is paved. The roads can get bumpy and you’ll need to pay attention for big potholes, rocks, missing manhole covers, trees and telephone poles. When it rains, roads can get muddy and slippery as well. That’ll keep things interesting driving up the mountains!

Driving tips

Drive defensively. This isn’t New York City where you’ll be stuck behind a parked car unless you force your way into traffic. When you travel to Costa Rica, you’ll find Ticos can be aggressive drivers and pedestrians don’t pay much attention.

You’ll drive on the right-hand side. Be aware that route and street signs are pretty sparse once you get out of San José! You’ll definitely need to keep your eyes peeled at all times if you are looking to make a turn. There were many times we had to turn back because we missed the road we were supposed to catch. That was part of the adventure for us!

The bridges will look pretty rickety. Usually they will be single lane only. Guardrails? What are those? Take your time crossing these.

Because of the rough terrain, lack of street signs, and non-existent lighting, only drive during the day. We got stuck driving at night once and it was pretty frustrating to navigate. We only got to where we needed to go by stopping at a hotel to ask for directions (which were to another hotel!)

Weather can be a factor. Sudden downpours, fog, and bright, bright sun can hamper your visibility. Slow down and let the ticos blast past you (and they will!)

Rough road ahead

Bumpy, rough road ahead!

The rough roads force you to take it slow, so distances from point A to point B will likely take longer to travel than you might be used to. That’s OK – you’re on vacation and driving in Costa Rica lets you take in more of the local sights as you drive by. So allow plenty of time to reach your destination. Start out early.

From San José, most of the country is accessible with within a 4-5 hour drive. Our immediate destination out of San José was Arenal, and that was 4 hours. Driving within San José is kind of nutty, so if you’re going to be doing anything in the city I would recommend a taxi. Once you’re out of the city, traffic will die down considerably.

Costa Rica for adventurers

It sounds precarious, but driving in Costa Rica is one of the best ways to see the country as it truly is. We found it fascinating to drive through some of the villages, farms, and plantations. The vast, green, lush scenery you’ll see is breathtaking.

Drive carefully, and the journey will be as interesting and exciting as the destination.