Driving in Costa Rica – 9 Things to Know

categories: central america travel

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

Driving in Costa Rica - 9 Things to Know #costa-rica #driving #roadtrip #travel 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.


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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

8 Responses to “Driving in Costa Rica – 9 Things to Know”

Josh | Traveling 9 to 5


I drove through Costa Rica for a week in 2010. I totally agree about the good and bad roads. When we went the insurance wasn’t mandatory, but strongly encouraged. It was basically, “if you don’t get this insurance, we are going to charge you.” We were glad we did because one of the side panels came loose during one of the aforementioned “bad roads”.

Also, it’s good to not speed. We were going about 20 km/h slower than everyone else on the road, and when I sped up, we got pulled over. Luckily, we didn’t get a ticket, which was good because it started at $400! Also, if you plan on driving, knowing a bit of Spanish will be extremely helpful.



Thanks. I am currently planning a trip to Costa Rica after the first of the year and renting a car for at least part of the trip.

Jason Howell


Man, this post takes me back. Loved traveling through Costa Rica in a rented 4×4. To say the drive to Monte Verde is filled with potholes is, strangely, an understatement. That drive is more pothole than road and was a big challenge. My wife and I honestly thought our measly little rental would buckle and fall apart in that leg but alas it held up.

At the end of our two weeks of driving through the country, the car actually DID finally disintegrate into nothingness, thankfully while we were parked at our very last hotel close to San Jose. So finding a replacement was easy.

Man I need to go back. Best vacation ever.

Elaine N. Schoch


Ha! This made me laugh. I haven’t been to Costa Rica yet but I did hate driving in Italy. Trying to read the maps that didn’t match the roads we were on and then there was a lot of waiting for the goats to get out of the middle of the road…oye.



Thanks for sharing this information. I would like to visit there one day.



Elaine, I did a podcast episode about driving internationally. We did talk about the road turning into a sidewalk cafe, but not about sheep. πŸ™‚



Jason, “disintegrate into nothingness”, yikes!

Jeremy Martin


“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.” Definitely a true statement. My wife and I recently spent 12 days in Costa Rica, and had a fantastic time. We had a rental the whole time, and like you suggested, we spent a significant amount of time miles away from the closest stretch of pavement. As long as you heed the ample advice out there to get a 4×4, it really just adds to the experience, though. If you’ll pardon the backlink, I actually put my own guide together (on my wife’s blog) on driving in Costa Rica as well, which your readers may find complementary to this post: http://notjustabroad.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-driving-in-costa-rica/

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