What we heard about driving in Costa Rica was that there were potholes big enough to lose your car in and that you should not accept help to change a flat tire, because the person offering to help probably punctured your tire in the first place and is only trying to distract you so an accomplice can rob you. Was that our experience? Yes and no.
1) There Are Good Roads
The national highway in Costa Rica is a fine road. The roads out of the capital of San Jose compare favorably to roads in the U.S. They are primarily two-lane roads but there are not huge potholes, at least most of the time.
2) There Are Bad Roads
Once you decide to head to places like the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve or the Nicoya Peninsula as we did, then you leave those good roads. In fact, you quickly leave paved roads altogether. The road up to Monteverde, in particular, is a winding, narrow road and is indeed filled with potholes. We only thought we were going to die a couple of times as some bus or truck would come barreling down the road towards us or pass where we did not think there was room to pass. My biggest regret was that no one in my car was taking pictures of the great views… I was trying to keep my eyes on the road.
3) There Are Different Seasons
Costa Rica is a lush green country and what keeps a country lush and green is rain… and in places a lot of rain. Costa Rica gets more rain in May through mid-November. We went in May when the roads had not had months of rain yet, but we are told that later in the season the potholes get bigger and mudslides can also take out a road on occasion. During our first trip to Costa Rica, the main road between San Jose and Limon was closed for a few hours by just such a mudslide.
4) Rental Cars Can be Driven Anywhere
When you rent a car on Maui you sign something that says you won’t take the car off the paved road. Doing so violates your rental contract. By contrast, in Costa Rica, most of the rental cars we saw had 4 wheel drive and the assumption was that you would drive them off of the paved roads. One of our hotels was half an hour from the last paved road and another was a couple of hours of driving on dirt roads away from the highway.
5) Ox Carts Have the Right of Way
The days of the ubiquitous ox cart in Costa Rica (used to carry coffee) are over but the country still has a fondness for their ox carts and we did pass by a number as one town was doing some sort of local celebration. They are colorful, picturesque and slow so keep an eye out for them.
6) Don’t Have an Accident
While most Ticans we saw were pleasant enough we happen to pass by two motor vehicle accidents on the same day. In one accident the two drivers had taken to fisticuffs to resolve their disagreement. In the second one, a car had hit an Ox (I did warn you to watch for Ox carts). A police officer took out his pistol and shot the wounded animal just as we drove by.
7) Sometimes The Ferry is Quicker
When we visited the Nicoya Peninsula we had read that getting there by ferry was both more scenic and the 65-minute ferry ride is much quicker than driving around the long way. The ferry leaves from Puntarenas 4 times each day. In the high season, the lines for the ferry are longer so get there early.
8) Insurance is Mandatory
Whether or not you would normally get rental car insurance at home you will be getting it in Costa Rica as it is required by law. That does make the rental car more expensive so make sure that enters into your calculations.
9) Sometimes the Speed bumps move
After going from the Monteverde Cloud Forest where we had seen large orange and black tarantulas we went to the Nicoya Peninsula where the road at night was covered with skittering 8-legged critters. We would squash about 8 in the half-mile road into town on average. We were very creeped out until we realized that they were crabs and not tarantulas. I am not sure why that made a difference but better a small crab than a large spider in my opinion.
Driving in Costa Rica is not that hard. Allow enough time, because you won’t be traveling as fast. Try not to leave valuables in view in your car and whatever you do, get someone to take pictures of the beautiful view while you keep your eyes on the road.