Costa Rica Driving Advice and Car Hire Info
The research for this website was carried out mainly in 2011 and 2012. Therefore there is a good chance that much of the information may now be out of date. This is particularly true of countries in the developing world, especially Asia, Africa and parts of South America where conditions can change often. Also, the political climate in many countries has changed a lot in recent years. Therefore the information on this website should be treated with caution. You should always check with your Government’s website or the UK Foreign office travel advice website before finalising plans to drive abroad.
Driving In Costa Rica
Arriving in Costa Rica from Nicaragua to the North, you’ll probably cross the busy border and travel South around 80KM on a good paved road to Liberia, which has plenty of gas stations and restaurants right on the main road. Its then around 200KM/ 3 hours South to San Jose, again on a good paved road. As Capital Cities go, San Jose is pretty laid back and not overly complex for driving. San Jose introduced a ‘Pico y Placa’ (peak & license plate) restriction in 2010, which restricted certain private vehicles entering the city centre on certain days. If you’ll be driving in the Capital it may be worth checking the terms of this arrangement with the rental company.
In my experience, most of the rental cars available in Costa Rica will be 4×4- at the lower end this will be a little Suzuki Jimny. You really do need a 4X4 if driving away from towns, and away from the main Interamericana highway not necessarily as the roads are bad, in my opinion they’re generally OK out of the rainy season, but because you may have to drive through a number of rivers, along beaches and sand tracks etc. This is especially true on the Nicoya Peninsula when heading down the coast from Tamarindo , through Samara and to Montezuma. (Samara to San Jose via the Amistad Bridge is on a good paved road though it can become slippery after heavy rain.) Driving through rivers can be a nervous experience if you haven’t driven through water before. The fear factor will be multiplied in the rainy season. Theres an active ‘cottage industry’ of villagers, generally old ladies and kids, who sit by the riverbank and point out the safest passage through the water. You have to trust them, which can be a leap of faith too far- on a number of occasions I got out and waded across to test the depth. Locals seem to trust them implicitly though and I never saw them get a route wrong! In the rainy season you would certainly be advised to consult locals before crossing any river as they’ll normally know if and where its safe to cross.
Many travellers drive to the Monteverde area (Monteverde,Santa Elena and Cerro Plano) and to Volcan Arenal. Its certainly worth getting a 4WD vehicle if you’re planning to do this,and in the rainy season it will probably definitely be necessary. Coming from the South,you turn off the Interamericana at a gas station just outside Sardinal and follow the road to Guacimal- all roads are paved to this +point. The road onto Monterverde is a dirt road, usually in good condition, though it may deteriorate after rain. In normal conditions it should take around half an hour from Guacimal to Monterverde.(There are plans to pave this road in the future –probably end of 2012/start 2013)
Travelling from Monteverde onto Arenal Volcano you will take a mostly unpaved road to Tilaran .This road can be rough after bad weather though the scenery is fantastic –if not covered by cloud!
Generally I found the standard of roads in Costa Rica to be Ok, though I was driving a 4X4. However, I found the standard of driving from locals wasn’t great. They weren’t overly aggressive-on the contrary they were so laid back they presented a hazard as they often don’t seem to concentrate on the road. I saw drivers playing with kids whilst driving and even saw one couple doing some serious ‘courting’ as they drove along a mountain road! Another potential hazard to be aware of is that the police have radar speed guns and will lie in wait near popular speeding locations. (The Interamericana between Nicaragua and Liberia is a favourite). Speed limits range from 40KPH to 80KPH so check signs and if there aren’t any, adopt the general rule that if you’re the fastest car on the road, you’re asking for a ticket. In general, I found Costa Rica to be an excellent country for self driving, even the capital San Jose wasn’t overly taxing, but you will probably need a 4X4 to see its main attractions.
Costa Rica Car Rental –
Sixt, Hertz, Alamo, Europcar, National,Avis, Budget, Thrifty,Dollar and National Car Rental all rent vehicles in Costa Rica.Also usually features on Car rental broker sites such as Argus Car Hire and Web discount sites such as LastMinute.com.
There are also a multitude of local companies such as
As Costa Rica is a prime vacation location for US travellers you’ll probably find as much choice, or more, than you would in the US.
Costa Rica Self Driving Rules-
I couldn’t find any evidence that the big companies will allow the car to be taken outside CR. In my own experience, I struggled to find a company who would allow a car to be taken to Nicaragua. If you plan to travel to Nicaragua, you could do a one way rental to the City of Liberia near the border and get one of the regular buses North. If you will be returning to CR, one of the mid range hotels in Liberia will probably allow you to leave the car there whilst you hop over the border.Another option is to use a company such as Vamos 4×4 mentioned above. They can arrange for a rental car in Panama or Nicaragua which will be waiting when you cross the border. Obviously there will be a charge for this though!