Costa Rica Driving Guide 2021
Driving in Costa Rica provides the perfect way to enjoy this popular destination. Order your International Driving Permit and follow these tips for a safe adventure.
December 13, 2020
Driving in Costa Rica is very different to driving in the United States, and if you read too many driving in Costa Rica reviews, you can end up wondering whether it is something you really want to try. The truth is nowhere near as dramatic as some people suggest, and thousands of visitors have a safe and trouble-free time driving in Costa Rica with a US license every year. The width and quality of the roads will certainly be different from what you are used to, but when it comes down to it, the supposed difficulty of driving in Costa Rica is usually exaggerated.
With a total area of 51,000 square kilometers (21,000 square miles) Costa Rica is a relatively small nation – in fact, it is less than half the size of Louisiana. Nevertheless, the main towns, cities, and tourist destinations are spread evenly across the country. To see as many as possible, and just as importantly, to soak up the culture in the small towns and villages in between, you need to turn your visit into something of a road trip. There is really no better way to experience this unique destination than with a car of your own.
Having made the decision to try driving in Costa Rica, you will undoubtedly have plenty of questions in mind. Is driving in Costa Rica safe? What are the driving times in Costa Rica? Will you understand the road signs? Should you avoid driving in Costa Rica during the rainy season?
Finding answers to these questions and knowing what basic preparations you need to make before you set out will put your mind at rest, help everything go smoothly and possibly even save you a little money, too.
Should I get an International Driving Permit if I will be driving in Costa Rica?
Driving in Costa Rica with a US license requires an International Driving Permit (IDP). This internationally recognized document provides exactly the same information as is on your US driver’s license but is translated into 12 common languages, including Spanish. If you intend to rent a car while visiting Costa Rica, an IDP is absolutely essential for anyone holding a license or driver’s permit that was issued outside the European Union.
As well as needing an IDP to rent a car, you will also be asked to produce it if you have any interaction with the traffic police, for example, if you are involved in an accident or you are subject to a random stop or check.
Foreign drivers who are planning on driving in Costa Rica need to have a valid driver’s license from their home country. Most car rental agencies will also want to see an International Driving Permit (IDP) and even if the rental firm does not specifically mention it when you make your booking, it makes every sort of sense to get one.
For one thing, the IDP will ensure the rental clerk has no problem understanding what is on your license. The document is issued online and carries all the essential driver information in 12 languages, including Spanish. If you don’t have one, there’s more chance of delays at the desk and you might even be prevented from driving away in your rental car.
Even more importantly, though, the IDP can save you a whole lot of inconvenience and trouble if you should be stopped by the police or asked to present your paperwork following an accident.
Can any driver get an IDP?
If you are aged 18 or more and have obtained your license for at least six months, you are eligible to apply for an IDP. It’s a simple process that is completed online, and there are no written or practical tests to complete, as the permit is not giving you any additional driving rights. It simply presents the information that is already on your license in a document that is understood and recognized in more than 100 countries around the world.
Once you have your IDP, it remains valid for a period of 12 months. Having said that, two or three year versions are also available and are a worthwhile investment if you travel overseas on a regular basis.
How do I arrange a rental car in Costa Rica?
As long as you have your driver’s license, IDP, and payment card, you will find that the mechanics of renting a car in Costa Rica are practically identical to renting in the US. You will even see the same companies, especially if you rent a car from the airport. These include Avis, Hertz, Budget and all the rest.
If you are a first time visitor, it is often the case that you don’t realize just how much you need a car in Costa Rica till you get there. From a documentation perspective, that is not necessarily a problem, as even those who make a last-minute decision to try driving in Costa Rica can obtain an IDP electronically using a fast-track same day service. However, it is generally better to plan ahead and check out the rental options online before you travel.
Costa Rica has a choice of rental car agencies, ranging from the major international companies to small independent operations. The overall mechanics of renting a car in Costa Rica are no different to anywhere else, but the devil is in the detail, so keep the following points in mind:
There are some places in the world where you can turn up on the day and get a terrific bargain on your car rental. Costa Rica is not one of them. All the best deals are available online, something which travels blogger Katie Diederiches discovered when she tried to book a car at Alamo in La Fortuna. She thought the price of $69 per day was a little steep, so she tried online using her smartphone while standing at the rental desk. She was able to rent the same car from the same agent then and there for $12 per day.
Factor in the insurance cost
If you think the above sounds too good to be true, you are partially right. To make driving in Costa Rica safe, you need a comprehensive insurance, and that can more than double the initial quote. Basic third party liability cover is the minimum legal requirement, so there is no getting around that. Rental firms will also offer varying levels of the collision damage waiver. It’s often the case that you can get far cheaper cover through your credit card provider, but if you decide to take that option, remember to carry a hard copy of the insurance policy with you whenever you are driving.
Driving age in Costa Rica
You have to be at least 18 to rent a car in Costa Rica. Some rental firms have additional age restrictions, either setting their own minimum age or adding an extra charge for young drivers. If you are under 25 or have held your license for less than a year, you might have to shop around. Pay close attention to the young driver policies to make sure you will be able to get the car you want at a reasonable price.
Do a full inspection
Wherever you are in the world, you should always inspect your rental and ensure the agent acknowledges any scratches or dents before you take possession of it. Most of us tend to do this in a cursory manner, but before driving in Costa Rica, it pays to take this step seriously. Minor parking scrapes are common, so look closely at all the likely areas, including alloy wheels. As well as ensuring any imperfections are documented and agreed, take a couple of photos on your smartphone, too.
Have your documents at the ready
If you have booked your rental car online, it is a good idea to have a print out of the reservation with you. That way, you can double check that the rate, insurance requirements, fuel policy, and vehicle specifications are all as agreed. You will also be asked to produce your driver’s license, IDP, and passport as an additional form of ID verification. If you decided to take out your own insurance for driving in Costa Rica, have a print out of the policy documentation with you, too. Last but not least, you will need a credit card. Even if you paid online, the rental agency will need it for any applicable security deposit and to cover the cost of fines or penalties you might incur.
Is a 4x4 essential for driving in Costa Rica?
Anyone who has spent time watching travel documentaries might equate driving in Costa Rica with gravel roads that are filled with potholes and regularly flood. That’s something of an exaggeration, as the main highways and the roads in large cities are in generally good condition. If you are going to be staying in the capital, or driving in Liberia Costa Rica and using only the major roads that link the cities, then a regular two-wheel drive sedan will be more than adequate.
Straying from the beaten path
Having said that, choosing a 4×4 rental car for driving in Costa Rica gives you complete flexibility to explore at will. Smaller roads are often unpaved and are not so well maintained. Also, when you enter the state parks, for example driving in Guanacaste Costa Rica, you will encounter frequent speed bumps that are not painted and are very hard to spot until you are almost on top of them. Hiring a 4×4 is not significantly more expensive than a regular car, and most people driving in Costa Rica as tourists agree that it is well worth it.
Are driving standards bad in Costa Rica?
This is another area in which some people never want to let the truth get in the way of a good story. In years gone by, there was some truth to the horror stories, but over the past 10 years, there have been multiple government campaigns to improve driving standards on Costa Rica’s roads. Driving in Costa Rica in 2014 saw the introduction of roadside billboards that reminded the peace-loving citizens that their roads were not a war zone! There is still work to be done, but by and large, you will see more bad driving habits among your fellow tourists driving in Costa Rica with a US license than from the locals.
Of course, you still need to keep your wits about you, especially when it comes to the largest and smallest vehicles with which you share the road. Semi-trucks can be considered as Kings of the Road, and their drivers have a tendency to expect to be treated accordingly. In other words, yield on narrow roads and give them room to get by. At the other end of the spectrum, motorcycles and scooters will create an extra lane for themselves wherever they can, especially in congested traffic. Watch your mirrors and be particularly vigilant when changing lanes or turning, as they are liable to appear suddenly from any direction.
However, these sorts of driving habits are certainly not exclusive to Costa Rica. The people are friendly and take a relaxed attitude to driving, so if you do find yourself blocked, tailgated or forced to brake suddenly, adopt a similarly calm approach. Why get angry when instead you can exchange a friendly wave and get on with enjoying your day?
Are there any special driving in Costa Rica safety tips?
Staying calm and relaxed, but at the same time attentive, and practicing defensive driving techniques will mean you are ready for the road just about anywhere. Driving in Costa Rica is no different, but keep in mind that this is a country where the infrastructure is still developing. The government has worked hard to improve road safety in recent years, but there were still around 34,000 traffic accidents in 2018 that demanded police involvement and 4,500 people were killed or seriously injured.
To avoid becoming another statistic, there are some specific points worth keeping in mind when you are driving in Costa Rica:
In short, don’t do it unless you absolutely have to. Even on roads that are perfectly smooth and well-surfaced, for example, when driving Route 2 in Costa Rica, the absence of painted lines or hard shoulders means you have to concentrate hard every second. Seeing where you need to be going becomes all the more difficult when you have to encounter oncoming traffic, and there seems to be a general reluctance to use dipped headlights. Add to that the lack of street lighting outside the cities and the pedestrians, dogs, and other random obstructions that are likely to appear in your path, and you will understand why it is better to stay in the comfort of your hotel and leave the driving till morning.
Finding your way
The above is well and good if you know how to get to your hotel, but the key to avoid driving in Costa Rica at night is to make sure you don’t get lost. Google Maps and similar apps are fine when you have a good signal, but that is by no means assured in more remote spots. Offline alternatives such as Mapquest driving directions in Costa Rica are a good backup, but the best way to be sure of accurate driving directions in Costa Rica is to take the old fashioned approach and buy a good map.
Dual carriageways exist between the key cities, but the majority of roads in rural Costa Rica are single lane. Given that they are being shared by cars, trucks, motorcycles, and buses, there is inevitably some jockeying and jostling for position. There are actually two safety tips to keep in mind here:Only pass slower vehicles when you can see there is definitely nothing coming the other way. Never cross double yellow lines in the middle of the road – as well as putting your life and those of others at risk, you also leave yourself open to a fine of ¢280.000 ($480) if you live to tell the tale.
Don’t assume that every other driver will follow the above rule. Be prepared for the unexpected on every blind turn, for example, a fully laden bus coming straight towards you on the wrong side of the road.
Driving in Costa Rica during the rainy season
Costa Rica’s rainy season runs from late August to early January. During this period, flooding, landslides, and road closures are a common feature of driving in Costa Rica. Naturally, the driving time between cities in Costa Rica increases significantly, and you need to plan your journey with care. Alternative routes will be available, but do not expect them to be reliably signed and prepare for the fact that they could add hours to your overall journey.
The earlier comment about choosing a 4×4 SUV holds doubly true if you are driving in Costa Rica during the later months of the year. Having a vehicle with high ground clearance can make all the difference between arriving safely and waiting for rescue.
Fords are common on rural roads, and these can transform from a trickling stream to a raging torrent in a matter of minutes. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, and at the very least, you should pull over to the side of the road and either investigate the depth of the water on foot or wait to see another vehicle go through before proceeding.
What driving rules do I need to know about in Costa Rica?
Every country has its own specific driving laws, and on top of those, you have those unwritten rules and conventions that drivers follow. It’s the same story when you are driving in Costa Rica. Here are some important points to remember.
Leave your phone alone
We mentioned earlier that a physical map is a far better navigational aid than a cell phone app. Aside from the fact that it will give you a more realistic indication of the driving distance from Playa Hermosa Costa Rica to ruins in Costa Rica, it will also mean you are not tempted to operate your phone while behind the wheel. Using a cell phone while driving is another high-profile driving offense, as globally, it is a leading cause of distracted driving. Break the rules and you can expect to find yourself ¢280.000 poorer, which works out at about $480.
Light up after dark
Local drivers have a tendency to avoid switching their lights on until it is absolutely necessary. Apparently, this is to preserve the bulbs, as replacements are expensive. The authorities have cracked down on this practice as part of their drive to make Costa Rica’s roads safer, and all drivers are required to switch their lights on between 6 PM and 6 AM. Offenders will be handed a fine of ¢94.000 ($150).
Stay off the beach
On the more rural routes, it can be hard to tell whether you are on or off road. One place where you must not venture with your vehicle, however, is the beach. As well as annoying sun-worshipers and marine life, you will be fined ¢47.000 ($80) for ignoring this rule.
Across the globe, traffic fatalities have fallen dramatically with the introduction of seat belt laws, so it is no surprise that Costa Rica hurried through appropriate legislation. Everyone in the car is required to wear a seat belt, whether they are in the front or the back. Failing to buckle up means an instant fine of ¢94.000 ($160).
Watch your speed
One thing that should be quite clear by now is that when driving in Costa Rica, you are likely to encounter the unexpected around every turn. You always need to be prepared to slow right down or stop, so this is not a place to be driving at high speed. Unless otherwise posted, the maximum speed on highways is 80 km/h (50 mph). Some of the newer highways permit speeds of 90 km/h (55mph) or even 100 km/h (62 mph), but these areas will be clearly signed and are the exception, not the rule.
In residential areas, the standard speed limit is 40 km/h (25mph) and areas close to schools and hospitals, drop to just 25 km/h (15 mph). Roadside speed traps are common, and violations will result in a fine that goes up according to the seriousness of the offense. This starts at a minimum of ¢47.000 ($80). Exceed 150 km/h (90 mph) and you will be fined ¢280.000 ($480) and could face three years in prison.
Horn use and light-flashing
The use of the horn is one of those topics that is hotly debated in the pages of driving in Costa Rica forums. On the one hand, it is conventional to give a light double toot of the horn when passing another vehicle to warn of your presence. However, locals tend to use the horn to mean almost anything, from “good morning” to “get a move on!” The official stance is that “improper use of the horn” incurs a fine of ¢20,000 ($35), so the best advice is to use it sparingly.
Flashing lights from oncoming vehicles is a warning that there is some sort of hazard ahead. It could be anything from a police speed trap to wild animals in the road, so proceed with caution.
Gas stations in Costa Rica are plentiful, and as prices are regulated by the government, there is no need to shop around. The convention here is “full service” so you don’t even need to get your hands dirty, the attendant will do it all for you. Expect to pay around ¢700 per liter, which works out at about $4 per gallon.
One lane bridges
These are a very common sight when driving in Costa Rica on rural roads, so it is important to know the etiquette. Slow down as you approach the bridge. Typically, but not always, there will be a sign showing a white and a red arrow to indicate which direction has priority.
In effect, however, the arrows are mostly ignored and the following convention seems to work effectively. If there is already traffic crossing towards you, then you must stop and wait till the bridge is clear before proceeding. If there are vehicles ahead of you already crossing the bridge, you can simply follow them along.
Any unusual traffic signs I should look out for while driving in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica tends to adopt a “less is more” approach to road signs. This applies to distances and directions as well as warnings or instructions. It’s yet another reason to invest in that map if you want to accurately work out the driving time between cities in Costa Rica.
Where you do encounter signs, most are quite obvious to understand. Costa Rica follows the usual convention of triangular signs to communicate warnings and circular ones to give instructions or prohibitions. For example, speed limit signs look the same in Costa Rica as they do anywhere else in the world.
Understanding a little Spanish will get you a long way in Costa Rica – both in general and when it comes to deciphering road signs. Here are a few useful words that you should commit to memory.
ALTO – StopCEDA EL PASO – YieldUNA VIA – One WayCALLE SIN SALIDA – Dead EndNO ESTACIONA – No ParkingNO ADELANTAR – No passingNO VIRAR EN U – No U-turnsNO VIRAR A LA DERECHA/IZQUERDA – No right/ left turnNIEBLA – FogCARRETERA EN MAL ESTADO – Road in bad conditionPICO y PLACA – Rush hour and license plate (see below)
Is driving in San Jose Costa Rica difficult?
More than half the population of Costa Rica lives in San Jose, so naturally, there is a plenty of traffic and congestion, particularly during the morning and evening rush hour. Driving in the city brings challenges of its own, but no more than driving in any other major city, for example, New York or Paris. Here are some important points to remember when driving in the capital:
Choose your day wisely
The San Jose government has taken a radical but effective approach to cut congestion and pollution in San Jose by restricting vehicular access to the city. Vehicles are only permitted within the restricted zone, marked Pica y Placa on specific days, depending on the last digit on the license plate. Driving in on a wrong day and you will be fined ¢20.000 ($35). The restrictions are in place from 6 AM to 7 PM, Monday to Friday as follows (there are no restrictions at weekends):
- Monday: 1 and 2
- Tuesday: 3 and 4
- Wednesday:5 and 6
- Thursday: 7 and 8
- Friday: 9 and 0
Be prepared for tolls
Traffic toll plazas are common in the main roads around the capital. They are more of an inconvenience that a financial burden, and typically cost the equivalent of around a dollar. Make sure you have some loose cash on you to avoid embarrassment. Driving through a toll plaza without paying an automatic fine of ¢20.000 ($35).
Parking in the city
Again, San Jose is similar to other capital cities in so much as it can be a challenge to find a parking spot, particularly in the evening and at weekends. Roadside parking is free, but you will often encounter enterprising youngsters who will guide you into a vacant spot and offer to “watch your car.” You are under no obligation to pay them, but most drivers feel it is a few coins well spent, particularly late at night.
What are the drink driving rules in Costa Rica?
Driving in Costa Rica demands your undivided attention, so from a common-sense perspective, driving under the influence is a very bad idea. There have been some driving in Costa Rica trip advisor “experts” spreading the word that drinking and driving is legal. Years ago, it is true that the authorities turned something of a blind eye to drinking and driving, but in the battle to save lives on Costa Rica’s roads, that is no longer the case. in fact, Costa Rica’s drink driving rules are even more strict than in the USA.
The maximum blood alcohol level for driving in Costa Rica is just 0.5 mg/ml, compared with 0.8 mg/ml in the US. This effectively means that a single glass of wine or a pint of beer can easily put you over the limit.
Providing a sample reading between 0.5 and 0.74 mg/ml means a fine of ¢280.000 ($480). Blow 75 mg/ml or more and you could also face a custodial sentence of two years. It’s very simple – avoid alcohol completely while driving in Costa Rica. That way, you can stay alive and keep your money and your freedom.
Am I likely to get stopped by the Costa Rican police?
Police patrols and checkpoints are a common feature in Costa Rica. You will also notice that police officers typically drive around with their blue lights flashing by default, and not just when they are responding to an emergency or signaling a car to stop. If you see blue lights in your rearview mirror, don’t panic. Slow down and move to the side of the road if it is safe to do so. Nine times out of ten, the patrol car will sweep past you and continue on its way.
Getting stopped by the police
If you are stopped, the golden rule of police stops the world over applies. Be polite and courteous, follow all reasonable instructions and remain patient. The officer will ask to see your documents. Ensure you and your passengers have your passports with them at all times, and be ready to produce your driver’s license, IDP, car rental agreement, and insurance information.
Paying your fine
As we have already discussed, there are standard fines for common traffic violations such as speeding, failing to wear a seat belt or driving while using a cell phone. The police officer will hand you a ticket that details the nature of the offense and the amount you must pay.
Traffic officers are not authorized to take payments personally and should not ask for money. Similarly, you should not offer to pay on the spot, as this might be misunderstood and construed as the offer of a bribe. The ticket will indicate where you need to go to pay the fine, although in most cases, the rental agency will be happy to deal with it for you with the addition of a small administrative fee.
What should I do if I have an accident while driving in Costa Rica?
Driving in Costa Rica is far safer today than it was 10 years ago, but accidents are still relatively commonplace. If you are unfortunate enough to be involved in an accident that causes significant damage or that results in injury, you are required by the law to leave the vehicle at the scene until the police have finished their investigation.
The most important piece of advice is to remain calm. You can call the emergency services on 911, which will put you through to a bilingual operator. Alternatively, call the Cruz Roja, or ambulance service, directly on 128. Once you have ensured everyone is safe and any necessary medical assistance has been rendered, call the car rental company as quick as possible to explain what has happened and they will guide you through the necessary steps.
The adventure of a lifetime in Costa Rica
With its narrow roads, extreme weather and slightly chequered history, it is hardly surprising that driving in Costa Rica is sometimes considered a challenge fit only for adventurers. However, while it can certainly present some interesting moments, it is neither as hazardous nor as dangerous as some people might suggest.
The major tourist attractions are spread across the length and breadth of the country and driving distances and times can be significant. This means that public transport is restrictive, costly or both. Renting a car and driving in Costa Rica give you the freedom and flexibility to explore the beautiful natural scenery, exciting cities and fascinating culture of this unique country.
Driving in Costa Rica is sometimes challenging, but it is never boring. The tips we have covered above will help you to negotiate the highways and rural routes as confidently as any local.
In conclusion, keep the following key points in mind and you will have an adventure that stays in your memory for years, for all the right reasons:
- Keep all important documents with you at all times. That means your driver’s license, International Driver’s Permit, rental agreement, and insurance details. You and all your passengers should also have your passports with you in case you are stopped by the police.
- Never drink and drive. Aside from the safety aspect, blowing over the legal limit can easily lead you straight to a Costa Rica prison cell.
- Take it slow. Road conditions are changeable and your fellow road users can be unpredictable. Always be ready to slow down and stop as there could be an obstacle around every corner.
- Avoid driving in Costa Rica after dark unless absolutely essential. If you do have to, remember to switch your lights on between 6PM and 6AM.
- Exercise extra caution when driving in the rainy season. Only take to the roads in a 4×4 and allow plenty of extra time.
- Keep your cool. You’ll be certain to encounter some crazy drivers while you are in Costa Rica. Don’t become one of them, but instead give them extra space and a friendly wave as you continue on your way in this spellbinding destination.