We’re pretty fearless when it comes to driving in foreign countries. Costa Rica tested our resolve. We did survive all three trips here and learned a few lessons about driving around this captivating country — or maybe almost anywhere outside of your home territory. And in Costa Rica having a car is essential—most of the country has limited public transport and some of the best spots are pretty remote.
First, buy a good map. The various online guides — Google Maps, Waze, or the in car navigation systems have real limitations. They only show you a small section of the route at a time. When reception is spotty, they can be slow or slightly out of sync with your actual location. BUY A GOOD PAPER MAP. Use your map with the online line assist. We set the route looking at the map and then confirmed it with Waze and used Waze for turn by turn directions. The few times we went to Google, it misled us—in one case taking us over a road more suitable for a tractor when there was a shorter, paved alternative.
Second, rent a car with high clearance and preferably, four-wheel drive. (Side note: be aware that in Costa Rica when you rent a car, insurance is mandatory — your US insurance or credit card coverage will not cover a significant portions of the insurance. This is not a scam by the rental agency, but a matter of law. An advertised $500 dollar car month long rental will likely cost &1500-2000 with the mandatory insurance.). There’s a reason why you see so many jeeps and such in Costa Rica. The map may indicate you’re on a good road, but we learned even the major roads between major towns could descend into a series of landmine-like potholes or gravel and dirt. We referred to the best of these as Costa Rican car massages. The worst of them caused the driver and the navigator to full alert and slowed us to a crawl.
By far the biggest threat are the Tico drivers. Speed limits are mere suggestions; many locals drive much faster. It seems to be a sport! Passing the slower car in front of you seems to be the national pastime — on either side of the car, around corners or when your vision is restricted. Motorcycles think nothing of carving a third lane down the middle of the road, often carrying more than two passengers.
There are the inevitable slows downs and traffic backups. When most of the main highways are only two lane, a construction site or accident can cause huge delays. The worst for us was accidentally finding ourselves in the middle of a national bike race on one of the main north-south roads. Three hours to go six miles.
Many bridges are one lane affairs. Even on most two-lane roads. On one side of the bridge or the other, signs indicate when you must yield to on coming traffic. Once you get the hang of it, the system works just fine. Ten to twenty yards before the bridge on more traveled roads, be prepare for a speed bump. Sometimes they’re marked by a sign saying “reductor;” sometimes they are painted yellow, but not always. Hitting one of those at full speed is a tooth loosening experience. And sometimes there is no bridge at all. Then you wind up fording a stream or small river—a very sketchy prospect in a low clearance sedan.
Be alert to pedestrians, bicycles, parents with baby strollers walking along the edge of the road. Vendors sell fruit and juices, rosaquillos (kind of donut) and even the local home brew, coyol, along the roads—anywhere there’s enough traffic, almost enough space for a car to pull off the road, or a speed bump to slow folks down. Sidewalks are scarce. Along many roads shoulders are non-existent or there are deep, steep and wide ditches often with small bridges connecting driveways and farm access points to the road. Running into one of these ditches would definitely ruin your day. In heavily touristed areas golf carts are road approved, and occasionally come without headlights. Yikes!
Watch out for the stray cow or two grazing along the roads.
Tico cowboys also move whole herds on the same roads you drive on. A small herd of water buffalo followed by a cowboy on a horse caused a delay in our drive near the Tempisque River. Such pastoral views aren’t limited to the countryside. We even saw an oxen drawn cart on the Inter-American highway!
Once you’re off the main roads, most lack the yellow center lines. Doesn’t really matter because Tico drivers often ignore the center line. When avoiding potholes, we followed their example and crossed to the other lane to find the smoothest path, praying a local driver didn’t coming bombing down the road at us. Mind you these same roads are used by truckers — a lot of truckers as Costa Rica has no railroads to ship goods. Be prepared for dust blackouts when driving behind trucks on the many dirt roads.
Despite the condition of the roads, we also found Tico drivers to be pretty courteous, often pausing to let you into the flow of traffic, waving you ahead at four-way stops. They may not follow the rules of the road that we are used to, but they also are not generally aggressive jerks. The basic Pura Vida of the locals shines through even in traffic.
Is Costa Rica too dangerous for North American drivers? Not really. While we focused here on the challenges, many of the roads are in good shape, not unlike country roads in rural parts of the US. And it’s really the best way to experience the variety that the country offers. At least for our style of travel (staying in Airbnb’s and trying to get a feel for the local community) it’s the best way. Maybe in bigger resorts taxis are available, but we saw few of them where we were. Public transportation consists mainly of buses with somewhat limited routes. The lack of public transportation is probably why we saw so many bikes and pedestrians on the roads. Your other option is hiring guides or drivers which is pretty much what you would have to do without a car. And they are readily available and reasonably priced.
We’ll rent a car again next time we visit. And we’ll remember to be vigilant, and that travel times may be greater than they might be back home. We’ll remind ourselves to exercise more caution than we might at home and keep our sense of humor! We’re on vacation after all!