Driving a car in Costa Rica, or any foreign country for that matter can be pretty frightening. When I traveled to Costa Rica I was fully prepared to take the bus and shuttles but then decided against it because ultimately, I wanted the flexibility of a rental car.
On my 10-day trip, I drove from San Jose to Uvita and Dominical and then all the way up the mountains in Monteverde. I also drove to La Fortuna and entirely around Lake Arenal one day. I have driven in quite a few countries (Ireland Road Trip, Europe Road Trip, USA Road Trip) and I can confidently say Costa Rica was one of the easiest places to drive in.
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- I rented from Economy and had a great experience with them.
- To rent a car you only need a valid drivers license from your home country.
- There are no requirements in Costa Rica to hold an international drivers license.
- Have your passport on you at all times just in case you get pulled over.
- If you damage your car due to crossing a river most car insurance agreements are void. If you are driving during rainy season be extra careful. I didn’t encounter any of this during dry season.
- If you get in an accident immediately call 911 and your rental agency. DO NOT MOVE YOUR CAR.
General Driving tips
- Speed signs are in kilometers and posted quite often.
- It is the law to wear your seatbelt.
- Download Waze before you arrive. It is the most trustworthy navigating app for Costa Rica.
- The rules of the road are pretty much what you are used to back home. Paved roads have double solid lines when passing is not allowed and dotted lines when passing is allowed.
- Local drivers in Costa Rica tend to not listen to the solid lines and pass cars all the time and under any condition. Drive alertly and if you see someone starting to pass you slow down and give them room.
- In my experience enforcement of speed, seat belts and passing was extremely low. I didn’t see a single person pulled over on my entire 10-day trip. But I did see many accidents. Be very careful driving.
- Checkpoints are routine – don’t be alarmed. Sometimes they will stop you and ask for your passport and sometimes they will wave you through.
- Gas stations are few and far in between. Most major towns have at least one. Fill up long before you get low.
- The gas stations have attendants to fill you up. They will ask regular or super and if you want it completely full. I tipped 500 colones per fill up (please comment below is this is not appropriate amount)
- Gas station attendants will also check your oil, washer fluid and fill your tires – just ask.
- The government regulates all gas prices so there is no need to shop around.
- Roads change quickly in Costa Rica. If you have only rented a standard car make sure you research your route in advance.
- There are many one-lane bridges in Costa Rica. Look for signs that say Puente Adelante (Bridge Ahead) because sometimes the bridges appear out of nowhere.
Sharing the road
- Motorcyclists and scooters are common on main roads. If they can’t reach high speeds they are very good about pulling to the side to let you pass. Be patient and pass when it is safe.
- Pedestrians and bicyclists are also everywhere, be extra cautious especially at night.
- Unfortunately rental cars are targeted for crime and break ins are common. NEVER leave anything (even something of no value) in sight in your car. If you are traveling with friends let someone sit in the car while others go inside.
- Always take all valuables out of your car – even at nice hotels.
- Try to eat at restaurants that have parking attendants. Don't leave your car in parking lots without paying the attendant. 500 colones is sufficient.
- Be careful if you get a flat tire. Don’t stop on the side of the road and don't accept random help. Try to get to a gas station to change it. This is a common scam in Costa Rica: someone will slash your tire while you are inside a restaurant or store they will follow you out of town and when you realize you have a flat they will offer to help. Then instead of help, they rob you.
All that being said I was able to navigate Costa Rica ALONE(!) without any problem. I used Waze, didn’t leave valuables in my car, and only parked my car at my hotel or in lots with attendants.
If you plan on renting I HIGHLY SUGGEST reading my post on renting a car in Costa Rica. If you have any other questions do not hesitate to ask in the comments or by email. (firstname.lastname@example.org)