There’s nothing quite like discovering a country at your own pace. Driving along unfamiliar roads, through breathtaking landscapes, and being able to stop whenever you want. Costa Rica is perfect for a road trip. The roads are generally in good condition, traffic is light, and the routes are stunningly beautiful. In this article, you’ll find everything you need to know about driving in Costa Rica.
Traffic Rules in Costa Rica
Most traffic rules in Costa Rica are similar to those in your own country. Here are the key traffic rules you should know:
- In Costa Rica, you drive on the right side of the road
- The speed limit within urban areas is 40 km/h (25 mph)
- Around schools and hospitals, the speed limit is 25 km/h (15 mph)
- The speed limit on highways is 100 km/h (60 mph), unless otherwise indicated
- You may encounter herds of cows or wild animals along the way
What Are the Roads Like?
The roads in and around major cities in Costa Rica are very good. The same goes for the highways that run through the country. However, if you take a shortcut between two villages, you might find yourself driving on bumpy dirt roads for hours. It can be thrilling, but not the most comfortable experience.
The quality of roads in Costa Rica varies. If you stick to the highways, you’ll be driving on asphalt. However, keep in mind that you may have to pay tolls occasionally. The amounts are not significant, but be aware of this and make sure you have enough cash with you.
Even on well-maintained highways, you might encounter potholes. So, stay alert and try to avoid driving at night. Not only for your safety but also because you would miss out on the breathtaking landscapes. Driving in Costa Rica is incredibly beautiful.
Do You Need a 4×4 in Costa Rica?
It depends on your plans. If you’re primarily staying in and around major cities, a regular rental car will probably suffice. However, if you expect to do a lot of driving around, a 4×4 (or four-wheel drive) is highly recommended.
The interior roads between villages can be quite rough. Dirt roads are more common than exceptions and can be challenging without a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Additionally, you might encounter hills that a regular car probably can’t handle. One of our hotels even mentioned that it was only accessible with a 4×4.
We were incredibly grateful to have a rental car with four-wheel drive. And even if you plan to stick to the main roads, a 4×4 might still be worth considering. Many beautiful beaches, although located on main roads, have short unpaved access roads. We witnessed a group of American tourists damaging the entire bumper of their non-4×4 (which was much lower). Ouch!
Costa Rica is not an exceptionally large country; it’s slightly bigger in size than the Netherlands. However, a short distance can easily take up an entire day of travel. This is particularly true on unpaved roads, where you sometimes can’t drive much faster than a walking pace.
Therefore, make sure to double-check if you have chosen the correct route. A route that covers more kilometers can actually get you to your destination hours earlier because it’s a highway.
Moreover, unpaved backroads can lead to unexpected surprises. For instance, we drove from Monteverde to La Fortuna along an adventurous dirt road. Along the way, we encountered few other vehicles, and if we did, they were usually on horseback.
After a few hours of driving, we reached a small stream that was flowing right across our path. Although our four-wheel-drive car had decent ground clearance, its underside was certainly not waterproof. We decided to proceed, as the water level was low. After all, who wants to drive the same road for hours back?
Our car easily braved through the water. However, we had to cross two more streams afterward. The last river, in particular, was incredibly thrilling as it grew deeper each time. An applauding local made us feel like we had been quite lucky.
Any damage to your rental car from intentionally crossing a river will naturally not be covered by your insurance, even if you have comprehensive coverage. So, make sure to check beforehand if you have chosen the best route.
What is the Traffic Like?
The traffic in Costa Rica is as varied as the quality of the roads. Around major cities, it can be hectic and busy. On unpaved roads, traffic is calm, and sometimes you’ll encounter more animals than people.
The traffic rules are similar to ours. Maximum speed limits are always clearly indicated and slightly lower than in the Netherlands. The maximum speed is 100 km/h (60 mph) on highways, 60 km/h (40 mph) outside urban areas, and 40 km/h (25 mph) within urban areas. When passing a school or hospital, the speed limit is 25 km/h (15 mph).
Gas Stations in Costa Rica
Costa Ricans don’t pump gas themselves. So, just stay in your car, roll down your window, and ask the attendant to fill your tank. Usually, you can pay with a credit card.
If you take an unpaved backroad between two villages, make sure to have a full tank. The chances are high that you won’t come across a gas station for hours. On main roads and in cities, there are always enough gas stations available.
How Safe is Driving in Costa Rica?
During our road trip in Costa Rica, we never felt unsafe, except for that one time when we drove through a slightly too deep river, but that was our own choice, of course. However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs warns about aggression on the roads, although we didn’t experience any of that.
To prevent possible break-ins, it’s wise not to leave valuable items in your car. Some parking lots have guards and may ask for a small (voluntary) contribution for their services.
Tips for Renting a Car in Costa Rica
We recommend renting a 4×4. Especially if you plan to explore a lot of the country, it provides a sense of comfort. With a 4×4, you can be sure to reach almost any destination with ease.
Renting a car is popular in Costa Rica, so it’s relatively inexpensive, as long as you book in advance. We always book our rental cars through Rentalcars because it allows us to compare multiple companies. Additionally, you can easily purchase comprehensive insurance, which makes the (sometimes adventurous) journey much more relaxing.
If you rent a car with Rentalcars’ full protection coverage, there’s no need to purchase insurance from the car rental company. Many companies may still try to sell you insurance on-site, often by playing on your fears. Rentalcars’ additional insurance also covers the deductible in case of damage to your rental car.