Driving to Playa Hermosa
Driving to Playa Hermosa

One of the easiest ways to get around Costa Rica is with a car rental. Nothing beats the freedom of jumping in a car and heading out on an adventure through Costa Rica! Since everything in the country is fairly spread out, it can take twice as long to get to any destination using public transportation. Having access to a rental car makes it easier to explore all the natural splendors scattered throughout Costa Rica at your own pace. I may not actually be able to drive a car, but I've had plenty of experience getting across the country on a vehicle so I've got plenty of advice; driving in Costa Rica is quite different than driving in many other places! Here are a few tricks of the trade and helpful tips that will make your drive smooth and serene - after all, the roadways in my homeland boast some of the most magnificent views!

Costa Rica Bus Company - Coach
Costa Rica Bus Company - Coach

Where do I get my Car Rental?

Many of the major car rental companies like Hertz, Budget and Avis operate in Costa Rica; however, some of these companies don't have very good reviews. Do dome research before you choose your car rental company, and consider checking out one of the regional agencies in Costa Rica, such as Adobe, Europcar, Mapache and Solid. Before you settle on a company, check out the user reviews to see what other travelers thought of the service and rates.

What kind of Car should I get?

There are several very developed highways that will take you all across Costa Rica, but when you get into smaller, remote areas like Monteverde, the roads can be a little rough. Because Monteverde is a mountain town, the dirt roads can get slick. If you're planning to travel to smaller towns such as this one, you'll probably want to make sure that you have a four-wheel drive car to have proper traction. If you are traveling to Arenal Volcano National Park, Manuel Antonio National Park, Jacó or Tamarindo, a standard vehicle is generally not sufficient enough. This is especially important during the rainy season, which is from about May to November.

How much will a Car Rental cost me?

Some tourists are surprised by how much it can cost to rent a car here. Prices can be quite high, and the deposits required to rent a vehicle can range from $750 to upward of $2,000 depending on the length of the rental period, so make sure to ask ahead of time how much it'll cost to secure a car. Some companies will accept reservations in advance and deliver a rental car directly to the airport, which can be convenient but costly. Again, ask your travel agent before you get here.Before you set off on your travels, make sure to inspect the car thoroughly so that you can report any existing damages like dents and scratches. This will ensure that you don't get stuck with repair costs for something that wasn't your fault.

Getting Around with your Car Rental

Once you've secured your rental car, you’re ready to head out to start your Costa Rica adventures. Depending on where you want to go, driving can be quite literally an adventure. Although many of the roads in Costa Rica are well-maintained, rural areas are often served by narrower dirt roads that could prove to be a challenge for the suspension of some vehicles. It's usually best to take it steady while driving, as some of the locals can be quite bold when it comes to navigating the roads.

It’s important for you to note that most Costa Rican roads don't have names, and there are very few signs along the highways, except for big tourist towns like Jacó. Most Car Rental agencies will let you rent a GPS with your car for a small fee or you can grab Costa Rica maps, and many people find this very helpful. If you're heading to an off-the-beaten-path town, having a GPS on your side is a good idea, as these towns aren't as prominently marked. Ticos are all such friendly people and if you lose your way, someone will be there to help guide you to the correct roadway or turnoff – though if you ask a local for directions, they will generally use landmarks instead of road names.

Traffic jam on way to Monteverde
Traffic jam on way to Monteverde

Navigating Costa Rica traffic in a Car Rental

You might not think that Costa Rica has traffic, but driving through San José during peak hours can be quite treacherous! Take note that there are several one-way streets and that rush hour driving requires a bit of patience and tenacity. Once you're outside of this urban core, it'll be smooth sailing.

Practicing safety with a Car Rental

Costa Rica's roads are notorious for potholes and uneven surfaces, so driving at night is usually not recommended. Winding roads can get dangerous at night, especially because there are many tight turns and hilly drives. Plus, you won't get to experience the unbelievable scenery during the day! Unless you absolutely have to, try to avoid driving after the sun has set altogether. If you're driving through towns, especially at night, be wary of animals that may stray onto the roads. This is the most common in rural areas of the country. A small pile of sticks in the middle of the road is the Tico version of safety cones, so slow down and proceed with caution if you notice this.

Driving to Monteverde with Eurpocar
Driving to Monteverde with Eurpocar

Road Rules

Just as it is important in any other country, take note of the rules of the road to help you to avoid getting stuck with a high fine. There are several areas where police will be sitting with radar guns, and can pull you over for speeding or driving without a seatbelt. The speed limit on the highways is 100 kilometers-per-hour and 60 kilometers-per-hour on the secondary roads. Some car rental agencies will pay your speeding ticket for an additional fee.

A few Last Tips

Depending on the location you are driving through, road conditions are going to vary. For example, one time I was driving through Guanacaste and ran into farm traffic – yes, cows on the highway! In cases like this, just slowly follow behind until the herding cowboys venture off the road.

Like I said before, potholes can be vicious, and they can cause damage to your car. Areas around Arenal Lake in Nuevo Arenal can be quite bad. You will also want to take note of your destination if it is close to the shoreline. During high tide, roads can get flooded, making it nearly impossible to pass through. Also, be cautious of winding roads and steep drops. Most of Costa Rica's highways are single-lane roads with no shoulders to pull off onto. I hope my driving guide helps you find your way safely to your destination. There's no better way to explore the landscapes of Costa Rica than on four wheels! Do you have any tips that I missed? Your fellow travelers would greatly appreciate the advice.

The infamous road to Monteverde
The infamous road to Monteverde