Driving in Costa Rica can be frightening at first and even at the second and third glances. And a lot of visitors decide to go on private transfers, shuttles, tours, and even public transportation rather than driving. Is it that bad? Find it here!
Driving in Costa Rica may look like a challenge to overcome quickly. It gives you freedom in every possible way, and this creates fantastic and spontaneous experiences while on the road.
You don’t have to be daring to drive in Costa Rica! You just have to face it and enjoy it!
And as we are locals and for Mapache Tours is quite essential to give our travelers all possible options, we are going to provide you with all the insiders’ tips right here.
What do you need to drive in Costa Rica?
What you need to drive in Costa Rica is, first of all, a valid driver’s license, not expired, and a copy of your passport at hand in case a transit cop pulls you over to check.
It is not required to have an international license. And the road’s rules are the same as everywhere else in the World.
Roads are signaled with double lines when passing is not permitted and hatched lines when you can pass.
Speed limits signs (in kilometers) are on the side of the roads, although maybe not as common as you can find them back home.
Seatbelts are required, and children under 12 must be seated on a booster seat (Unless height and weight allow them no to use them).
Although technically, these are the conditions, implementation is something else. The rules are bent wherever you go. You must drive defensively, as it is quite usual for drivers to pass the right lights or stop signs.
Depending on where you are, the road conditions may be different, from dirt roads with river crossings to well-paved four-lane highways.
In the Central Valley, in general, you can find smooth and easy to drive roads, but the more remote the place you go, the harder the conditions go.
As you may already know, the Costa Rican topography and climate are very diverse. On the road, you may discover that there are flat areas with 100% visibility to winding roads in cloud forests where at times, you have to go very slowly following the yellow lines of the side.
When you reserve your trip, it depends on your itinerary to go for a four-wheel-drive or a regular car.
However, we highly recommend going for a 4X4 nevertheless as this will give you the freedom to move into harder roads that may take to amazing places.
For more information on renting cars with Mapache Tours, click here.
Costa Rica is well known for its lack of signals. However, this has changed in the last few years, and it is getting better.
And you will not find street or avenue numbers easily. Costa Rica is a small country, and people still go for directions like “From the old ficus tree to the right” (Even if the tree disappeared fifty years ago.) and the people, in general, do not use route numbers.
Exits on roads are also infamous for being poorly marked or having small marks right at the turnoff. Because of all these reasons at Mapache Tours, we recommend paying a little extra for the Wi-Fi stick and the GPS.
As well, carrying at all times a hard copy map is an excellent idea. The Waze App is recommended because it reports constructions, blockings, and traffic. However, be careful in the country areas as it can misguide you easily.
Rainy Season – Washouts and Landslides
Remember that seasons in Costa Rica vary from one place to the next, you can find them here. (link)
If you are traveling to a region in the rainy season, you have to keep alert for landslides and washouts.
Some areas and roads are more predisposed to these issues, and it’s always good to ask your travel consultant at Mapache Tours about conditions before starting your trip.
Roads to be more cautious are:
- Road #32 from San José to the Caribbean.
- Road #27 from San José to the Central Pacific coast
- Road #2 from San José to the Panama border.
- Road #702 from San Ramon to La Fortuna
Pedestrians and cyclists
In the country areas of Costa Rica and especially in flat regions such as the Caribbean plains, Sarapiqui, La Fortuna, the South, and Guanacaste, people go around on bike or walking on the side of the roads.
We never recommend to drive at night, but if you must, you have to be extra careful in these areas as sometimes they don’t wear reflectors and appear out of nowhere in your line of vision.
Also, pedestrians do not have the right of way.
So in city areas, people attempting to traverse the street won’t assume that you will stop for them, and if you do, watch out, as you may get rear-ended.
Motorcycles and Dirt Bikes
Be conscious of scooters and motorcycles twisting around in and out of lanes as well as in the breakdown lane. They may get so close to your vehicle that it may feel as they are set to run into you.
You may find them, especially on the country roads. Either in paved or dirt ways, you have to drive carefully and slowly to avoid harming your vehicle.
Especially in the rainy season, you must be extra careful as they may disappear covered with water.
Original Use of Hazards
Costa Ricans usually turn on their hazard lights to advise the vehicle behind about problems in front.
This can be particularly helpful if you’re approaching fast and traffic is held because of construction or accidents.
Trucks and Trailers
Costa Rica is known as a dry canal, and it is, of course, a significant route for shipping between Panama and the United States. And that is why you will easily find, especially in the Panamerica Highway route, big trailer trucks that may slow down all the traffic.
Fruit, coffee and sugar cane trucks
Especially from December to May, you may find in some roads big and bulky vehicles taking coffee beans or loads of sugar cane to the processing plants. They are usually very slow, and it’s common to see them in winding roads.
You have to be extra careful with these as people will try to pass them carelessly.
One of the most important things to know when driving in Costa Rica is risky passing.
A lot of people pass in uncertain terms, on double line areas, uphill, on bridges, and in winding roads. And without real visibility.
Be cautious and alert at all times. And leave plenty of space between you and the car in front so that you can dodge an accident on the road.
Driving at Night
Avoid driving at night, particularly for extended distances.
Street lights are not as common in the rural regions, and on winding and narrow roads, it may be dangerous, to say the least.
Several bridges in Costa Rica are one lane wide, meaning that you have to take turns to pass.
The signal of “Yield” is “Ceda”. Usually, the norm is whoever goes first has the right of way. Rather than cars turning one at a time, the entire group of vehicles approaching from one direction crosses the bridge at the same time, while the other sidecars wait.
In some remote areas for Costa Rica, you will have to pass small creeks to get to your destination, and on the rainy season, this can be dangerous as flash floods coming from the mountains are quite common.
Please acknowledge that river crossings invalid rental car agreements; therefore, insurance won’t cover any damage.
Our recommendation before you cross a river is to wade through first and on foot to see the depth and look for submerged stones or holes that may harm your vehicle. It’s also a good idea to see a local car do it first and follow the path they take.
Always ask your Mapache Tours Travel consultant before going through a route with a river crossing.
Along main routes, you may find police checkpoints, often close to the international borders. They may be looking for illegal immigrants or smugglers.
They will ask you for the passport and the car’s papers and let you go. Don’t worry; these checkpoints are quite a routine. Just agree, and they will give you go right away.
If you get in an accident, call Mapache Tours’ emergency number immediately, we will handle the insurance company. Please do not move your car. The police and an insurance agent will come to evaluate the event and loss, and the rental car company will come to support and give you another car.
Gas stations are found everywhere in the country but are seldom separated by dozens of miles. Make sure your tank is full when going for a long-distance as you may not know when the next gas station will be.
Know that in Costa Rica, all gas rates are regulated by the government and are adequately served, and the employees are quite nice always. They will check the oil, water, and tires as part of their routine, and in some stations even wash your windshield.
As in other areas in the World, rental cars are targeted because many of the car models are the same.
It’s easy, however, to keep safe by regarding a few simple tips.
The first is not to leave anything valuable and on sight inside the car. And even things with apparently no value. Thieves are sometimes observing from distant points and will strike as soon as they see the chance.
Keep your doors and windows locked and try to leave someone in the car to keep watch.
You will find that in tourist attractions like restaurants, bars, national parks or museums there are people to watch after cars. Sometimes they are part of the business, but in most cases, they just do it for a small fee or even a tip.
Driving in Costa Rica is a great way to know it from the inside out, you can stop and travel whenever you want and get to places where shuttles or tours won’t go.
But the best way to do it is to have a local to support you along the way.
And of course, there are many other alternatives, from shared transfers to having your driver and guide with you at all times.