Driving in Costa Rica – What You Need to Know

driving in costa rica
about us

Hi! We’re Thomas (the German) and Sarah (the US-er).

We met in Virginia, moved to Germany, and now live in sunny Costa Rica.

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Renting a car and driving in Costa Rica is often the best way to get around if you plan to visit multiple places within the country. Costa Rica is a great country for exploring several different areas from beach towns to adventure-filled jungle destinations. However, if you are interested in driving in Costa Rica there are some things you should be aware of before you get on the road.

Driving in Costa Rica Legally

costa rica car

If you have a valid driver’s license in your home country you will be allowed to drive in Costa Rica for up to 90 days. You do not need an international driver’s license. If you plan on staying in Costa Rica for longer than 90 days you will have to get a Costa Rican driver’s license.

Keep in mind that most rental car companies will not rent a car to you if you are under 23 years old or older than 75 years old.

We suggest making a photocopy of your driver’s license and keeping it in a safe spot. If your license gets lost or stolen while traveling it is good to have a backup.

Should I Rent a Car?

road to corcovado

We think that, yes, you should rent a car for your trip to Costa Rica. It is typically the most affordable and easiest way to get around if you will be visiting multiple destinations.

Driving in Costa Rica can be a bit overwhelming, but if you are a somewhat experienced driver you likely won’t have any troubles.

For more info we have a guide to all types of transportation in the country. This will help you decide the best transportation option for you.

We also have a great 10% discount with our favorite Costa Rica car rental company, Adobe. You can read here to find out which type of car in Costa Rica is best for you based on where you are going, info about car insurance, and more.

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The Adobe Rent-A-Car discount includes…..

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Road Signs in Costa Rica

la fortuna road

Velocidad Maxima: Maximum driving speed. Keep in mind that this speed is in kilometers not miles.

Alto: Stop. The sign is a red octagon like a normal stop sign

Ceda el Paso: Yield. The sign is a white triangle with a red border like a normal yield sign

Desvio: Detour. If you come across a detour sign it can sometimes be a bit confusing. Definitely refer to your GPS unit and try to keep an eye on what all the cars in front of you are doing.

Puente Solo Carrill: One lane bridge. Keep in mind that there are a lot of one-lane bridges in Costa Rica and often they only have a yield sign. Check to see if any cars are coming from the other direction before proceeding.

Despacio: Slow. You will see this sign a lot in smaller towns and around curves.

Carreta en Mal Estado: Road in bad condition. If you come across this you will have to assess how bad the road is before proceeding. There are roads that can be a problem without a 4 wheel drive vehicle.

No hay paso: Do not enter

Una via: One way

Curvas adelante: Dangerous curves ahead. Definitely take head to this because there are some real crazy curvy roads in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica Driving Laws

puerto jimenez road

Speeding, driving under the influence, and not wearing a seatbelt are the common infractions that seem to occur in Costa Rica. The fines for these can be high! For example, driving while on a cell phone will land you a $185 fine. Passing on a curve can land you a $540 fine.

Most of the driving rules are the same as the United States. Just be aware that people drive a bit crazy here. It is normal for people to switch lanes without putting on their blinker, run a red light if nobody is around etc. Be extra aware of your surrounding while driving.

Just use common sense and stick to the speed limits as much as possible and you likely won’t have any issues.

If you use Waze to get around, police who are checking car speeds are usually marked on the app.

Also, usually, if a car is approaching you they will flash their lights at you to let you know that there is a police officer ahead.

What to Do if You Get Pulled Over

We have heard of corruption from police officers, but we have never experienced it. We have never been pulled over besides during a checkpoint (which we talk about later in this article).

The only other experience with the police was at the beach. I had moved our car keys from my towel to my backpack but a police officer happened to be walking behind us thought I was hiding drugs or something.

They searched my bag but when they realized it was just my keys they were very nice and warned us to keep all valuables hidden while on the beach.

Anyway, if you do get pulled over, remain calm and pull off to the side of the road. The officer will ask for your license, registration, rental car agreement, and possibly your passport. The officer may or may not speak English. In smaller towns, it is less likely that they will speak English.

In the past, it seems it was common to bribe officers, but I think that practice has been reduced in recent years. I would not risk trying it.

Instead, just accept your ticket and go on your way.

It is possible to pay a ticket at any bank in the country. Just wait a few days because it can take a few days to show up in their system.

Just note, there are multiple police office branches in the country. Only the Policia de Transito is allowed to pull you over for a driving infraction.

What to Do if You Have an Accident

rio celeste from above

If you get in a car accident your first move should be to call your rental car company. If there is an injury obviously call 9-1-1 first and then call the company. If you rent with Adobe, they are super great and will send someone out to assist you and bring you another car when applicable.

When you pick up your rental car they will give you a thorough brochure with all the information and emergency numbers.

One of the many reasons we love Adobe is because if you rent through our site they will give you a free cell phone to use for local calls. This means if you have an accident you have a phone to use to call for help.

Adobe actually has a great article on their website about what to do during an accident here.

Staying Safe While Driving

Safety While Driving

– Obey all signs when possible.

– Use Waze for driving directions. As I have mentioned, almost everyone in the country uses Waze for directions and they are great about marking things in the road that you need to watch out for. For example, Waze will indicate to you when there is a hazard in the road, a police officer etc.

– Even when driving, keep doors locked and keep windows up when at traffic lights or in heavy traffic. We have never experienced this, but we have heard of people walking up to cars and reaching in and grabbing purses while at traffic lights.

– Watch out for vehicles carrying items that could fall off. For example, we saw this truck on the highway. apparently cardboard walls are an acceptable wall.

safety highway costa rica

– Be aware that is not unusual for roads to go from two lanes to one lane very quickly. Keep an eye out for any merge signs. This especially applies to the road from San Jose to the coast.

-There is a lot of wildlife in Costa Rica and sometimes these animals decide to cross the road. Just keep an eye out.

cows road

Safety While Parked

Don’t ever leave anything of value in your car. It hasn’t happened to us, but petty theft is the most common crime here and car robberies are known to happen.

The Best Way to Get Directions

alajuela driving

We suggest using the free app Waze on your phone for directions in Costa Rica. It is great! We have a guide to using your cell phone in Costa Rica if you need more info on how to get 3G connection while in the country.

It is also possible to rent a GPS through your rental car company. If you rent with Adobe, you can get a GPS unit for $6 a day with our discount.

For more info, we wrote a complete post with a breakdown of how to get directions in Costa Rica here.

Driving During Rainy Season vs. Dry Season

san gerado

Road conditions can be completely different during the rainy season versus the dry season. During the dry season, most roads will be very easy to drive on.

During rainy season it is more likely that you may have to deal with river crossings, flooded roads, trees down etc. This is especially a problem on dirt roads.

Here are a few places you need to take extra caution during rainy season:

Nicoya Peninsula (Montezuma and Santa Teresa area): Many of the roads in this area are not paved. Keep an eye out. After heavy rain, there can be some road damage.

Samara/ Nosara area: There are multiple river crossings in this area. During dry season it is no problem to drive through them, but if there has been frequent heavy rains your vehicle might not be able to make it through. Also, keep in mind that you are not technically allowed to drive through rivers with your rental car.

FIND OUT HOW TO GET UP TO 10% OFF YOUR CAR RENTAL IN COSTA RICA!

The road from San Jose to the Caribbean coast: This road goes through a national park which is almost always cloudy and rainy. Just note that the road is also very curvy and during the rainy season there are frequent accidents. Go slow and find a safe place to pull over if the rain is really bad.

Dominical area: This was a total freak thing, but keep an eye out when crossing bridges during heavy rains anywhere in the country. A few years ago a couple from Boston was on their honeymoon and drove across a bridge over a river in Dominical during a heavy rain. There was a flash flood and the water flooded the bridge. The car got swept out into the ocean and the man, unfortunately, did not survive.

Osa Peninsula: Near Puerto Jimenez and Drake Bay there are several river crossing that can get very flooded during rainy season.

Other Driving Tips

san jose highway

– If possible, please avoid driving in San Jose. People drive like crazy. If you need to get around, read our guide to taking an Uber vs. taxi.

– If you need a good radio station we suggest 104.7. It’s usually our favorite. For music, you can also use the Spotify app on your phone. Just don’t forget to bring your auxiliary cable to plug in so you can listen through the car speakers.

– There are speed bumps in some smaller towns, especially in the downtown areas. They are typically marked with a sign, but sometimes the signs are faded and you might miss them. Just keep an eye out.

-All of our Destination Guides include driving information. I suggest reading the guide for each place you are planning to visit for some further driving guidance.

– Sometimes you might run into a checkpoint. This is typically an officer or two who pulls over every car on a certain stretch of road to check for drugs.

Typically, they won’t stop tourists, but we did get stopped once. The officer was very nice and spoke English. After doing a quick check of our car and our passports we were free to go.

Also, there is a constant checkpoint on the Caribbean coast just above Cahuita. If you are driving down to Cahuita or Puerto Viejo be prepared to stop and hand over your license and passport.

– There are gas stations in most towns throughout the country. However, we have sometimes experienced gas stations in someone’s back yard while in very small towns. If possible, definitely fill up in a populated town at a normal gas station.

Gas prices are nationally regulated so you will pay the same amount no matter which gas station you go to.

Also, all stations are full service. Just stay in your car and someone will come over to you to fill your tank. You do not need to give a tip, but if they wash your windshield (which they sometimes do) we will through in an extra 500 colones (a dollar) as a thank you.

– Don’t forget that speeds on street signs are in kilometers per hour not miles per hour.

– Always drive a bit on the defensive here. People aren’t usually nice about letting you merge or switch lanes. You’ve got to show your power (an SUV definitely helps with this).

– Expect motorcycles to constantly be zipping by you while ignoring all rules of the road.

– Always be prepared for road trips to take longer than expected. It is not uncommon to get stuck behind a big trunk on a road and have trouble passing. I always add an hour on to whatever Google Maps tells me for driving time. I am also always prepared for drives with plenty of water and snacks, just in case.

– There are tolls on some of the main highway heading from San Jose to the Pacific coast. It is best to pay in colones for the best rate, but they also accept dollars. You will get colones back as change.

I suggest paying with a ten-dollar bill if you need to pay in dollars. The change you get back will be in colones. This is enough so you can pay for the rest of your drive in colones.

– Driving at night in Costa Rica can be overwhelming, especially on back roads in rural areas. If possible, try to drive long distances only during daylight hours.

If you have my questions about driving in Costa Rica please leave them in the comment section below. We are always happy to help you out. Also, if you have had an experience driving in Costa Rica we would love to hear about it. It can help future travelers.

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