Driving in Costa Rica can be an incredible experience, provided if you know what to expect – or incredibly frustrating, if you go in unprepared.
The country is small enough that – if you have your own car – you can drive around in two or three weeks and hit all the main places to visit. You’ll be able to reach places in the Nicoya Peninsula, and also go to the Orosi Valley and the Osa Peninsula to check out the untouched wilderness consisting of jungle, secluded coastline and unique wildlife. But if you have more time, you will be happy to get off the beaten path too (though mind you, some places can’t be accessed by car at all).
If are curious to know what driving in Costa Rica is like, you are in the right place. I have done that myself when I visited, and I am about to share everything you should know for a smooth experience.
Make sure to also read my post What You Need To Know Before Renting A Car In Costa Rica.
What You Must Know About Driving In Costa Rica
Driving is on the right
Let’s start with the most important piece of information here. Driving is done on the right in Costa Rica – which is what you will be used to if you are from the US or continental Europe, but the other way around if you are accustomed to driving in the UK, Australia or South Africa, to name a few. In that case, you may want to definitely opt for an automatic car versus one with manual transmission, as it will make your life much easier!
Want to have an idea of prices of car rental in Costa Rica? Click here.
You will need a valid driver’s license
Foreigners wishing to drive in Costa Rica don’t need to have an international driver’s license. However, you will need a valid license from your home country and your passport with a valid tourist stamp – if this expires, you’re no longer eligible to drive in the country.
Rules of the Road in Costa Rica
Most of the driving rules in Costa Rica are similar to those you will find in your home country. Here are the basic ones you need to observe:
- Wear your seatbelt at all times;
- Have a seat for children under 12 – based on their height and weight;
- Don’t use a cell phone unless it’s with a hands-free device;
- Don’t drive under the influence.
These are basic rules that aren’t always enforced – but that doesn’t mean you should not follow them.
Here are some other customs you may want to take a note of:
- It’s customary to honk lightly as you pass someone so they know you are there;
- It’s also customary for drivers to use a system of headlight signals to indicate to other drivers of hazards on the road ahead (ie animals crossing the road, or obstructions on the road).
You will also noticed the other drivers may flash their light to point out there are cops doing checks up ahead. On this note, keep in mind bribing police officers is not acceptable and may put you in a lot of trouble. If you think that the ticket you are receiving is not legit, remember that in case it is you will have to pay it when returning your rental car.
Road conditions in Costa Rica
Road conditions in Costa Rica vary depending on the location and on the season. In the cities, roads are paved but, because signs are in Spanish, this could create some confusion if you neglect to learn what they mean before getting behind the wheel.
Roundabouts are tricky in San Jose and the lack of painted lines and turning signals make them trickier. Simply take your time and ignore the drivers behind you who’ll likely be honking and making hand gestures for you to hurry up!
The highways outside the cities are quite narrow with few lanes. Sometimes the lanes end abruptly (and with no signage to point that out) and you’ll need to suddenly merge to remain on the highway. Watch out for pesky, poorly-marked speed bumps! In rural areas, potholes and rough patches are common as are narrow roads with no guard rails.
The mountain chain that passes through the centre of Costa Rica is very windy and travelers on buses often complain of motion sickness. One good reason to drive in Costa Rica is definitely avoiding the motion sickness – with your own car, you can take those hairpin turns at your own pace.
Finally, some very remote areas of Costa Rica, such as Tortuguero, are not accessible by car and these are some of the nicest areas of the country. I suppose, the fact that they are so remote and unaccessible by car is part of their charme!
Most highways in Costa Rica are toll roads – but they are not too expensive. It is best to pay by cash. Make sure to have small change on you and be ready to pay.
Gas stations in Costa Rica
Gas stations are found throughout the country but are definitely more sparse in rural areas, so it’s always a good idea to fill up your tank on every occasion. The price of gasoline is actually regulated by the government, so you don’t have to worry about finding a cheaper deal at another station.
You won’t find self-service stations so there will be someone filling up the tank for you. You can pay in cash (best) but also credit or debit card.
Traffic in Costa Rica
Generally speaking, traffic in Costa Rica is not bad – at least not if you are accustomed to the congested traffic of European capitals, or of large cities in the US. Having said that, traffic can be quite bad in and around San José.
If you are in the city, it is best to avoid rush hour traffic because the roads are packed with drivers hurrying to get to work. In rural areas, the traffic is lighter and the driving is more laid back but you’ll have to contend with horrible road conditions in some places.
Bike lanes aren’t a common sight anywhere in the country so expect to see lots of bikes on city roads traveling in the same lanes as heavy traffic – not ideal, I know. And if you are driving through San José, definitely keep your eyes open for motorbikes zipping through traffic!
While there may be fewer cars on the roads in rural areas, you’ll find other obstacles that will force you to slow down. Sidewalks are non-existent so pedestrians often walk on the road and it’s common to see chickens, cows, sloths and iguanas taking a leisurely stroll along the road.
What are Tico drivers like?
The driving in Costa Rica tends to be fast and aggressive and this is most noticeable in congested urban areas. You’ll witness drivers tailgating, passing when they shouldn’t and ignoring right-of-way rules.
One-lane bridges are actually quite common in some parts of Italy – they certainly are in Sardinia – so they were not a big surprise for me when I was driving in Costa Rica. However, they may be a new thing for you. These bridges were literally built this way to save on costs, and the outcome is that cars have to take their turns to get on it.
Most typically, whoever gets to the bridge first has the right of way. You will see that cars going on the same direction will get on the bridge at once. Once they are done crossing, cars coming from the other direction can go.
Driving in Costa Rica during the rainy season
To be completely honest, you should not even consider traveling to Costa Rica in the rainy season (from May to November included). It’s just not fun. But in case you are, and decide to rent a car, really be considerate while driving as the road conditions can be even worse than expected, with landslides causing road blockages. In doubt, before hitting the road ask your hotel receptionist to double check whether the route you are about to take is fully open.
Should you cross rivers with your car?
A major obstacle you may face if you venture into remote areas of the country is river crossings. Sometimes after heavy rains and flash floods, rivers can overflow and swamp roads. Before you attempt to cross, remember that your car insurance will not cover water damage. If you have any doubt that your car will make it across, it’s best to turn around. And remember never to turn hour engine off while crossing the river!
Is 4WD necessary to drive in Costa Rica?
This is totally up to you and the itinerary you intend to follow. If you are sticking to the highway and main roads through villages, you won’t need a 4WD. If, on the other hand, you intend to get to more rural areas and off the beaten path, it may be worth paying a bit more for your peace of mind.
Driving at night in Costa Rica
I don’t recommend driving in Costa Rica at night, especially during the rainy season when there’s a danger of flash floods and washed-out roads. In rural areas, there’s a lack of street lights.
Parking in Costa Rica
In San Jose, it’s strongly advised to park only in the paid, guarded parking lots. In the cities, it’s almost impossible to find on-street parking but if you find a spot, make sure it’s not marked in yellow or you’ll get a ticket. Wherever you park, make sure it’s well-lit, don’t leave any valuables behind and lock the doors.
In many places outside the cities, drivers simply park wherever they can find room. Be aware that you may run into watchimans. These are independent “security guards” who’ll watch your car while you’re gone. It’s a good idea to leave them a tip as most of them are honest people simply trying to make a living.
Useful apps when driving in Costa Rica
When making your way through Costa Rica on your own, there are some helpful apps to assist you along the way.
Waze is a user-generated service that works better than Google Maps in Costa Rica. CRMaps is updated frequently and features maps and other information such as tide charts and places of interest. Windy and Wunderground will help you keep on top of adverse weather conditions that could cause issues on some roads.
In Costa Rica has detailed listings for hotels, restaurants and attractions. iOverlander is the perfect companion for visitors who plan to do some camping on their road trip. The app features information about campsites throughout the country.
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