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.

Updated Apr 9, 2021·9min read
Driving Guide

Roosted in between the Western Pacific and the Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica boasts a rich verdancy that runs from the peak of Mount Chirripó, to the coasts of Puntarenas, Guanacaste, and Limón. Driving in Costa Rica is the ultimate experience because in every town, in every corner, the scenes are just undeniably breathtaking. If you are not a fan of the subtropical outdoors yet, wait until you see the country.

Costa Rica Photo by Falco

How Can This Guide Help You?

This guide will help you explore the country much closer, including the latest International Driver's Permit updates, car rental facts, the most important road rules, what to know about driving the country, and many more.

General Information

Traveling to a different country the first time always has its queries. Is driving in Costa Rica safe? Do I need a local permit to drive? How long am I allowed to stay in the country? Where should I go once I land? These are just some of the points that you need to prepare to have a smooth travel experience, and this guide will answer all of them.

Geographic Location

Costa Rica is located approximately 9.7489° N and 83.7534° W. It is bounded in the north by Nicaragua, in the south by Panama, east by the Caribbean Sea, and the west by the Pacific Ocean. It extends to about 51,100km2 and is generally characterized by wet, humid weather due to its relative location to the equator.

The country is mostly rainy from May to November and dry from December to April. The average annual temperature range in the country is 17.2oC - 27.2oC. Unlike other countries near the Pacific, Costa Rica is not frequented by storms and hurricanes. However, due to the microclimate conditions in the area, the summer months are still the best times to go around the country.

Languages Spoken

The official language in the country is Spanish, characterized by a distinct intonation. Some provinces, however, have their local dialects. These are either indigenous or foreign. These dialects include:


  • Limonese Creole
  • Cabécar
  • Bribri
  • Maléku Jaíka
  • Boruca
  • Térraba
  • Buglere
  • Guaymi

Land Area

Covering an area of about 51,100km2, Costa Rica exhibits all kinds of terrain, from low-lying coastal zones to majestic mountainous areas. The highest peak in the country is Mount Chirripo, towering at 12,450 feet above mean sea level (MSL). It is known as the “Land of Fire” because it has 60 volcanoes throughout, with five (5) that are active. These active volcanoes and their associated geological composition support a rich biodiversity that makes Costa Rica a haven for nature-lovers.

Inland, there are five (5) major mountain ranges that tourists can visit. These are the:

  • Cordillera de Guanacaste
  • Cordillera Central
  • Cordillera de Talamanca
  • Cordillera de Tilaran
  • Cerros de Escazu

Along the coasts, the country is blessed with rich estuarine and freshwater ecosystems where visitors can roam around or ride a canoe to see. You are encouraged to bring multiple clothes to layer as temperatures in some areas may drop to freezing levels.

History

Costa Rica took its name from the term “Rich Coast”. This is because its original settlers, the Carib Indians, wore a lot of earrings and nose rings. The country was not a favored land to colonize during the early years because of its climate and the dense jungles that brought health risks. It was only during 1563 that the first colonizers took residence in Cartago, which had a cooler microclimate. Costa Rica gained its independence in 1821, with Juan Mora Fernandez as its first elected chief of state. This was also when the cultivation of coffee started to boost its economy.

Government

Costa Rica is a Democratic Republic which means that the Head of State, President, Vice-President, and Legislative Deputies are elected into position by direct vote from citizens who have reached the age of 18.

The Legislative Branch is unicameral (one chamber) and composed of 57 legislative deputies. Likewise, the Judicial Branch is composed of 22 magistrates who are chosen by the legislative branch.

The country has seven (7) administrative regions, called provinces. The provinces are governed by officials appointed by the Head of State. Traffic Law Enforcement powers are delegated to these individual provinces to make driving in the country safer.

Tourism

Between 2009 – 2019, Costa Rica observed a more than 60% increase in tourist arrivals. With more investments in the tourism industry, the statistics are seen to increase more each year.

The local currency used here is the Colón, named after Christopher Columbus. Many tourist establishments are now accepting U.S. Dollars; however, it would be safe to bring some local currency with you, especially if you travel to rural areas.

Foreign exchange services are available around the country, even in rural areas. However, they are mostly concentrated in the capital province of San Jose. Likewise, when you apply for your International Driver's License in Costa Rica, offices might require you to pay in the local currency. Hence, if you can exchange money once you land at the airport, that would be one less thing to worry about.

IDP FAQs

If you want to experience driving in the Costa Rican zip code, securing an International Driver's Permit is highly recommended. There is no strict timing as to when you should apply for one because you can apply for it anywhere you are in the world. The International Driver's Permit is a translation of your native drivers’ license. The translation covers 12 of the most spoken languages in the world, including Spanish. Although many Costa Ricans speak and understand English well, some locals, especially in far-flung areas, including road authorities, may still have difficulties.

If you’re planning to go on a road trip with a rental car in the country, definitely secure an International Driver's Permit in Costa Rica. Updates, when available, are posted right away online, so you wouldn’t have to worry about missing anything. In addition, you can use the same IDP if you want to travel to South America or North America. Some countries within these regions require an IDP.

Do I need an International Driver's License in Costa Rica?

Costa Rican government does not require an International Driver's License if you will only stay in the country for less than 90 days. However, you are encouraged to get an International Driver's Permit to help make driving in the country safe and convenient. Beyond 90 days, foreigners will be required to apply for a Costa Rican Drivers’ License.

An International Driving Permit has the same validity as your native driver’s license. You have an option to secure an IDP that is valid for 1, 2, or 3 years. However, once your native license expires, your IDP will automatically become invalid. So check when your native driving license expires before you apply for an IDP. Before applying for an International Driver's License in Costa Rica, updates on validities are also posted online, just in case.

How do you get an International Driver's Permit in Costa Rica?

Getting hold of an International Driver's Permit is relatively simple. When obtaining an International Driver's License in Costa Rica, offices that allow walk-in applications can be found around the country. If you prefer a faster, more convenient way to acquire an International Driver's Permit in Costa Rica, website-based applications are also available. All you need to do is go to our homepage, click on the shopping car button and follow the simple six (6) - step process.

Also, before proceeding with your application, make sure to prepare the following International Driver's Permit requirements:

  • Valid driver’s license from your home country
  • Passport-size photos
  • Credit card

If you want to make sure of the requirements in getting an International Driver's Permit, contact numbers are available on our Contact Us page.

How long is the application process for the IDP?

When getting an International Driver's Permit, schedules as to the timing of application are non-existent. You can apply anytime. The standard IDP application process will only take you about 2 hours through the International Drivers’ Association (IDA). The shipping duration will depend on the country where you are located. It is composed of 3-5 days in the U.S. and 30 days or more internationally.

To receive a hard copy of your International Driver's License in Costa Rica, zip codes / postal codes for specific localities should be provided on the shipment details. You also have the option to apply for a digital copy only. This is popular among tourists who are already in the country or who are in constant transit. The digital copy holds the same features and benefits that the hard copy has. If you are running late and badly need to get the IDP as soon as possible, you can also go for express shipping at an additional, minimal fee.

Renting a Car in Costa Rica

Tour packages and public transportation are open and available for all who prefer their advantages. However, driving in the country presents a different kind of adrenaline that will surely make your stay more exciting, memorable, and unparalleled.

Car Rental Companies

You can easily spot a rental car company in the country. All provinces have at least one on-site, so even if you're in the rural areas, spotting a vehicle to rent is not difficult. You can rent a car from the capital cities of each province. These are:

  • Alajuela, Alajuela
  • Cartago, Cartago
  • Liberia, Guanacaste
  • Heredia, Heredia
  • Puerto Limón, Limón
  • Puntarenas, Puntarenas
  • San José, San José

You can also book a car from a rental car company in advance. Your rental car company will deliver you your vehicle wherever your port of entry is. There are car rental companies that offer an online booking service with a minimal booking fee, which is one of the best ways to enjoy your trip in the country.

Documents Required

To qualify in a rental car company, you will need a valid driver’s license from your home country and your passport. A rental car company will rarely look for an International Driving Permit. However, there may be some who will require it for car insurance purposes.

Getting an International Driving Permit should not be a problem because you can practically get it within 20 minutes to two (2) hours through the International Drivers’ Association. Even if you're in the rural areas of Costa Rica, getting an IDP is just at your fingertips with the hassle-free, 6-step online application.

Vehicle Types

The most recommended type of vehicle to rent is a four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle. Having a four-wheel drive vehicle makes driving in the country, especially on rural roads, safer. Considering the dominant rainy weather, dirt roads can become very soft, and some paved areas can become flooded rapidly. You can also expect to traverse multiple river crossings in the rural areas around the country; hence, the need for a four-wheel drive vehicle.

Microclimates in Costa Rica are also highly variable when it comes to geographic location. It may be sunny and humid on the coasts, but a short drive into the valleys will transport you to a very cool (and often wet) atmosphere. Rural roads may also be enveloped by intense fogs in these areas, which is why your rental cars have to be in the best condition. Be careful when driving, especially in river crossings.

Car Rental Cost

Car rental prices vary per type of vehicle and the level of demand. As such, prices may be higher during the holidays or summers when there are more tourists. Furthermore, prices also depend on the type of transmission, with automatic as the more expensive. While premium cars can cost almost USD180/day, you can still find car rentals as low as USD5/day. The important thing is that you rent a car from a trusted rental company.

Age Requirements

To rent a car in the country, you need to be at least 21 years old. Renters who are between 21 -25 years old, however, will have to pay a surcharge; and this is also true for renters who are above 70 years old. People in this age range tend to be more at risk on the road because of inexperience and the lesser ability to react logically in certain situations. In addition, for renters who are between 21-25 years old, some companies may additionally require them to have at least 1-2 years of driving experience before being allowed to handle rental cars.

Car Insurance Cost

Insurance for cars is not mandatory when driving in the country. Companies can legally allow you to rent a car without Optional Car Rental Insurance, but they will most likely not allow you to do it since it is for their own protection also. Car insurances range from US$10 - US$30 a day, depending on the type of vehicle. There are also optional riders that you can add to your insurance policy. These include Collision Damage Waivers and Zero Liability riders.

Car Insurance Policy

Insurances in the country are provided by the Instituto Nacional de Seguros (INS). The company offers a variety of insurance products, but the most recommended is comprehensive car insurance and third-party liability insurance. You won’t have to worry about this when renting a car in the country because the car rental company will process it for you. You just have to pay the insurance through them. Insurance for car rentals is also charged on a per-day basis.

Other Facts

When you rent a car, make sure to read the rental policy before signing out. To ensure that the company is a trusted company, there should be a written contract between you and the company when you rent. Before signing it out also, it would be best to do a full physical check of the car first. You might think that the process of renting a car might be too much of an inconvenience. However, having your own car will definitely give you plenty of benefits.

Is it better to rent a car in Costa Rica?

Guided tours are expectedly pricier because it also covers the labor fees of your driver and/or your tour guide. An advantage of commissioning tours is that you don’t have to think about where to go and the necessities needed. In addition, if anything happens while on the road, you will have some extra help.

However, renting a private vehicle will give you the freedom to decide where and when to go, whether you want long or short trips. You can save on costs and allow flexibility in schedules if ever some new interesting destination suddenly comes up. If there's too much traffic on the way to your desired tourist spot, you can always detour to find another destination.

Can I bring my rental car outside Costa Rica?

The good thing about a country that is connected to Costa Rica's borders by land is that you may be able to bring your rental car to these different countries, considering that the car rental company allows it.

If you’re coming in and out from Nicaragua, you’ll have to enter the country through the Sapoá–Peñas Blancas Border between 6:00 am - 10:00 pm.

If you’re coming in and out from South America (via Panama), there are three(3) border crossings to choose from:

  • Sixaola-Guabito (7:00 am - 5:00 pm daily)
  • Paso Canoas (6:00 am - 10:00 pm, Mondays to Fridays; 6:00 am - 8:00, Weekends)
  • Panama - Puerto Viejo (8:00 am - 4:00 pm daily)

The requirements to enter the country's border crossings are the same. You’ll need to pay for border taxes and go through the Costa Rican Immigration Office. The immigration officer will check your:

  • Passport
  • Travel itinerary
  • Return tickets
  • Accommodation booking documents
  • Access to at least US$300

Road-rules-Costa-rica-Cabezas

The Road Rules in Costa Rica

Road incidents in Costa Rica are relatively low. However, since investments in promising-quality road developments and sustainable road planning have only been initiated within the last decade (after 2010), it would be best to strictly adhere to the different road rules and safety precautions in the country. Plus, insurance coverage is often very limited to particular damages only.

Important Regulations

Road regulations, in general, are often reinforced through physical traffic signs. If you are caught disregarding them, you will be in violation subject to corresponding fines. Some of the regulations, on the other hand, are not fortified by traffic signs. However, you still need to remember and follow them because penalties will still apply if they are disregarded.

Drunk-Driving

What to know about driving in Costa Rica under the influence? Well, driving in Costa Rica under the influence of alcohol is not allowed. If you are caught with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of more than 0.05%, you will be liable to a fine of up to $410 or imprisonment for up to three (3) years. All road users are obliged to make driving in Costa Rica safe.

Seatbelt Laws

Car seat laws in Costa Rica are similar, if not, stricter than the U.S. and Canada. If you are bringing kids along for the ride, take note of the followin

  • Children who are < 1 year old, weigh 10kg, and are 75cm tall need to be in rear-facing car seats
  • Children who are 1-4 years old, weight 10-18kgand are 75-110cm tall can ride in front-facing car seats with a harness system
  • Children who are > 4 years old, weigh more than 18kg, and are taller than 110cm can ride in a booster car seats with just the regular seatbelt

A lot of car rental companies have child seats and boosters that you can additionally rent. It would be best to inquire via email or telephone before going to the shop physically.

Parking Laws

Parking policies in the country are a bit unique. For example, in busy urban areas, you’ll have to buy a parking ticket from the local municipal office. Designated parking areas are usually marked by the letter “E” that is enclosed in a red circle. Some “E” signs will also come with the word “Con boleto” which means “with ticket”. Avoid parking in non-parking areas. Not only will you have to pay a fine, but you’ll have to go to the National Bank to pay for your violation.

General Standards

Make sure to have with you your driving license at all times. If you are caught driving without a license (even if you had one), you can still be charged with a violation. Likewise, always practice safe, responsible, and defensive driving. Defensive driving is when you should be able to expect potential road accidents even before it happens, so you could avoid them.

Speed Limits

Costa Rica is a subtropical nation characterized by a topography that highly precedes wet and rainy microclimates. An open Road, even in urban areas, can be covered in a dense fog that causes low visibility. Likewise, when a downpour occurs, roads are easily flooded.

To make driving safe and avoid increasing the risks of natural road hazards, it is highly essential to drive below the maximum speed limits.

  • Main roads - 80lph
  • Within towns - 40kph
  • Secondary roads- 60kph
  • Special zones (e.g. schools, hospitals) - 25kph

In 2011, speed cameras were installed on different spots along major roads. Anyone caught driving more than 20kph over the speed limit is liable to a fine of over US$300

Driving Directions

There are plenty of one-way streets in Costa Rica. With this, you’ll have to watch out for traffic signs and make sure that you are driving in the correct direction. Some visitors have noted that some vehicles that park in one-way streets face the opposite direction. With this, you should follow these vehicles and always follow the traffic signs.

Traffic Road Signs

Some signs, especially in the cities, have been translated into English. However, many areas around the country still do not use symbols and instead spell out the road rules in Spanish. It would be good to carry around a guide or a translation dictionary when you drive in the country.

Here are some common signs and their meanings:

  • No virar en u = no U-turn
  • Alto = stop
  • No estacionar = no parking
  • No hay paso = do not enter
  • Velocidad maxima = maximum speed
  • Ceda el paso = yield
  • Puente angosto = narrow bridge
  • Desvio = detour
  • Calle sin salida = dead end
  • Despacio = slow down
  • Una via = one way
  • Curvas peligrosas adelante = dangerous curves ahead
  • Carretera en mal estado = road in bad condition
  • Puente en mal estado = bridge in bad condition

Right of Way

As mentioned, there are plenty of one-way roads in the country. This includes bridges on the outskirts of town. With this, it is important that you know when to yield or when you have the right of way.

At any given circumstance, the following vehicles have the right of way:

  • Larger vehicles (like trucks over vans)
  • Motorized vehicles over non-motorized vehicles
  • Emergency Response Vehicles (that are on duty)
  • Vehicles that are inside intersections
  • Vehicles on the main road
  • Vehicles that are inside roundabouts
  • Vehicles that are going downhill

Legal Driving Age

Every country has a minimum legal driving age. In Costa Rica, the driving age is one of the oldest in the world. The legal driving age in the country is 21 years old. Some countries may have lower minimum age requirements, including the application for an International Driver's Permit. As such, even if you have secured an IDP and have ample driving experience, driving when you haven’t reached the age of 21 yet is not allowed in the country.

Laws on Overtaking

Whether you are in a busy traffic area or in the lesser traffic countryside, you need to do your overtaking maneuvers safely and responsibly. This means that you should make sure that there are no road obstructions ahead, and you should only overtake in non-curved road areas. The laws on overtaking in the country have also developed over the years. For example, overtaking with a motorcycle in between two lines of vehicles is allowed, provided that neither of the vehicles is going faster than 25km/hour.

Driving Side

People drive on the right side of the road in Costa Rica. Roads in the countryside rarely have road markings (i.e., lane dividers), so if ever you come across an oncoming vehicle, remember to stay on the right. If you are not used to driving on the right side of the road, make sure to be vigilant about it, especially when turning, entering, and exiting roundabouts.

Other Road Rules

In order to further reduce road traffic accidents and improve the safety of roads, traffic fines have increased in the country over the years. Despite some local drivers disregarding the laws and not worrying about it, you should make sure to stick to the law no matter the situation.

Are there driving restrictions in San Jose, Costa Rica?

The Province of San Jose has implemented a coding scheme to regulate the volume of traffic in particular areas. The last digits of plate numbers dictate whether they are allowed to enter city zones for the day. Below are the digits and their corresponding restricted days.

  • 1-2, Mondays
  • 3-4, Tuesdays
  • 5-6, Wednesdays
  • 7-8, Thursdays
  • 9-0, Fridays

You’ll need to strictly observe the driving restrictions in San Jose. Costa Rican authorities are stationed randomly around the city, and you might not be allowed anymore to continue driving if caught.

Can you drive around Costa Rica without a tour guide?

You can find reputable tour companies around the country. Nevertheless, many tourists who plan to circle the entire country rent their private vehicles to have a better hold of their itinerary. Road signs are practically everywhere, and road maps are highly accurate. Just make sure to pack emergency kits, gears, and communication devices before traveling without a tour guide.

Apart from bringing along your International Driver's License in Costa Rica, a good map should be your ultimate travel companion during the entire trip. Check the road conditions of specific routes before driving.

Driving Etiquette in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a stunning road trip sanctuary. Even outside tourist attractions, roads are generally scenic. Don’t forget, though, that you are not the only road user. To maintain safety for all road users, you have to observe proper road decorum.

Car Breakdown

Before you check out your car from the rental company, make sure that there are emergency kits, gear, communication devices inside the car. This includes basic wrenches, screwdrivers, jumper cables, radios, spare tires, and the like. Temperatures in some parts of Costa Rica may go below freezing temperatures which can affect your car’s machinery.

If you can’t repair the car by yourself, you can for the help of locals. Costa Ricans are accommodating people, and you can ask them courteously. You can say:

  • Excuse Me = Disculpe
  • Can you help me? = Me puedes ayudar?
  • My car got into trouble = Mi auto se metió en

problemas

  • Can you tell me where the nearest car repair shop is? =¿Puedes decirme dónde

está el taller de reparación de automóviles más cercano?

  • Thank you very much = Muchas gracias
  • Have a good day = Tenga un buen día

Police Stops

Did you know that there is a specific arm of police officers just intended to monitor the safety of tourists? They are called the tourist police and they are who you usually see in popular tourist sites. Nonetheless, anywhere you are driving, any type of police have the legal right to wave you over if you caused any suspicion. If you get waved over, it is a routine protocol that police will request for your driving documents. With this, you can show them your International Driving Permit.

Asking Directions

Costa Rica is a Spanish-speaking nation. A lot of locals can understand English well, but it always pays to learn a few simple phrases.

  • Hello = Hola
  • Good morning = Buenos días
  • Good afternoon = Buenas tardes
  • Good evening = Buena noches
  • Excuse Me = Disculpe
  • Do you speak English? = Habla usted Inglés?
  • I am going to ___ = Voy a ___
  • Can you help me? = Me puedes ayudar?
  • Can you tell me where __ is? = ¿Puedes decirme dónde está _____?
  • Am I driving in the correct direction? = ¿Conduzco en la dirección correcta?
  • Thank you very much = Muchas gracias
  • Have a good day = Tenga un buen día

Apart from showing your International Driver's License in Costa Rica, maps will also help you describe what you need help with.

Checkpoints

Costa Rican police conduct random checkpoints as part of their ongoing operations that cannot be disclosed to the public. Do not be alarmed if you need to go through a checkpoint because it is still for your own safety. Again, expect that they will request your driving documents, as well as your travel documents. You can ask what the checkpoint is for, but don’t get too pushy if the reason cannot be disclosed to you.

Other Tips

Driving in Costa Rica isn’t that confusing. Although the country still has room to grow with its road management system, road trips in the country can still be positively memorable if you remain to abide by the laws. To further your safe driving experience, here are some other tips:

What Do You Do in Case of Road Emergencies or Accidents?

Slippery roads, potholes, and tight mountain roads can be a challenge to drive along, especially if you’re not used to driving on the right side of the road. Accidents are possible but avoidable.

In case you need emergency assistance, do not panic. Check first if there are any other hazards that you should stay away from. The main emergency hotline of Costa Rica is 911. This connects you to medical, fire, and/or police assistance. Alternative numbers include:

  • Police - 1117
  • Fire Department - 1118
  • Red Cross - 1128 / 2211-5818
  • Transit Police - 222-9330 / 800-8726-7486

A third option would be to call the emergency contact number provided by your car rental company.

Can You Go Driving in Costa Rican National Parks?

Approximately ¼ of the entire Costa Rican territory are conservation areas. These sum up to a total of 1.3 million hectares. Specifically, there are:

  • More than 24 national parks
  • More than 57 wildlife refuges
  • More than 14 wetlands and mangrove reserves
  • More than ten (10) forest reserves
  • More than seven (7) biological reserves

When driving through these areas, be aware not to cause any disturbance. This includes not honking your car horns aggressively, not flashing your lights intrusively, and keeping your trash/waste at bay. Keep your eyes open also for any wildlife crossing the road, especially the minute ones. When driving in Costa Rica, the safety of all wildlife is of utmost importance.

Driving Conditions in Costa Rica

Driving conditions in the country have improved over time. Driving in the Costa Rica zip code, however, continues to require utmost caution and responsibility.

Accident Statistics

In 2009, the greatest percentage of road mortalities involved pedestrians. This was followed by two (2) - wheeler riders, then four (4) - wheeled cars. The numbers have been more or less the same during the previous ten (10) years. The OECD recognized the country as having an extensive transport infrastructure but of haphazard quality. Couple this with the weak enforcement of road rules and a few irresponsible pedestrians, mortalities were not impossible.

According to an Australian study in 2016, the country ranked 4th among the worst countries to drive in considering road conditions, traffic fatalities, and car theft. However, most road accidents happen because of infrastructure and environmental hazards.

Common Vehicles

Some of the most common car brands you’ll see along Costa Rican roads include Nissan, Mitsubishi, Toyota, and Hyundai. This is because most of all their car parts are readily available anywhere in the country. Accents, Elantras, Jimnys, ASXs, Ravs, Tucsons are regulars country-wide, and you can find them as car rentals. Because Costa Rica is an economic gateway, trucks, tractor-trailers, and delivery vans are also frequent anywhere you go. So make sure to drive safe!

Toll Roads

Toll roads in the country are managed by the Consejo Nacional de Vialidad. Some toll roads that you need to be aware of are:

  • Route 1 (section A) - 15.2 km
  • Route 1 (section B) - 40.7 km
  • Route 2 - 14.1 km
  • Route 27 - 76.8km
  • Route 32 - 63.6km

Toll fees vary between US$0.09 - US$3.47 depending on the type of vehicle and the toll road. The rates are relatively cheap. Make sure to prepare small Colon denominations when you drive around. If you think you will pass these roads multiple times within your stay, a more convenient way is to buy a “quick pass”.

Road Situations

In 2014, only 27.6% of national and municipal roads were paved. The remaining were dirt roads and gravel roads. About 41% (2,169 km) were considered deficient and only 5% (238 km) were considered in good condition. At present, there are already more paved roads in Costa Rica.

Tourists are welcome to drive any time of the year. During the rainy season (and in rainy regions), roads may be a bit slippery and muddy (in the case of dirt roads) but less likely to be impassable. This is why four (4) - wheel drives are the most recommended as they are built to withstand these kinds of terrain and weather.

Driving Culture

One of the nerve-wracking driving culture in Costa Rica is the road etiquette of a lot of motorcycle drivers. In some tourist accounts, motorcycles drive a bit aggressively in Costa Rica. They keep on switching lanes, overtake suddenly without proper signaling, and sometimes drive too close to bigger motorized vehicles. As such, watch out for motorcycles when on the road.

Other Tips

You can’t really control how other people drive, but you can always control how your drive. At any cost, drive a certain distance away from any other vehicle and do not rush to your destination.

Is it safe to drive when it’s raining in Costa Rica?

The country is not along the hurricane belt. However, rainfall is highly frequent. Rain can be non-stop to the point where roads become flooded, and visibility becomes low due to fogging. Before driving out, double-check that your headlights are in perfect condition. Make sure also that your windshield wipers are fully functional. Driving at minimal speed during these times will safeguard you and other road users.

Things to Do in Costa Rica

The country is not just a destination for nature-buff. People migrate to the country because of the balance between nature, practical-living, and economic opportunities.

Drive as a Tourist

If you feel like you want to reside in the country but are not yet absolutely sure, you can always get to know it first by going on an epic road adventure to the different provinces. If you are a bit anxious about driving in a new country, you can always join guided tours first. Afterward, when you’ve got the hang of things, you can experience the country already by yourself. Plus, guided tours are often limited, destination and time-wise. Driving on your own as a tourist will help you get to know the country on your own terms and at your own pace.

Work as a Driver

Driving-related jobs in the country are abundant. You can apply for tourist driving jobs, delivery services, public transportation driver jobs, or truck driving jobs. Drivers receive an average monthly salary of 720,000 CRC. However, you can only drive the type of vehicle allowed by your drivers’ license. Truck driving jobs, for example, will need a particular or a more advanced driving permit.

Work as a Travel Guide

In the province of Limon, the average tour guide salary is CRC2,433/hour. That’s about USD4/hour and does not include other benefits and bonuses. You don’t need to have a college degree to work as a travel guide. In fact, the majority of tourist guides in the country are high school graduates, and they are very good with what they do. The rates may also differ according to the province, and you’ll most likely receive a higher rate if your tour company is located in the capital city.

Apply for Residency

If you plan to stay in the country for more than 90 days, you can apply for a provisional visa, a temporary residence visa, or a permanent residence visa.

Provisional Visa

This is open for students, volunteers, academicians and/or researchers, retirees, renters, and close families of Costa Rican nationals. Apart from paying the associated application fees, you need to submit an Application Letter, Birth Certificate, Federal Criminal Background Certificate, Passport, Acceptance Letter from your Institution, Proof of Financial Capacity (rental income, pension, etc.), and Passport-sized photo.

Temporary Resident Visa

This is open for retirees, students, teachers, researchers, executives, representatives, managers, technical personnel, rentiers, and spouses of Costa Rican nationals. The requirements are similar to those of getting a provisional visa but with an added work contract, relevant documents establishing that your company is legitimate, consular registration, fingerprint registration, and marriage certificate, whichever is applicable.

Permanent Resident Visa

This is open only to parents and children (below 18 years old) of a Costa Rican citizen. Requirements are similar to those of getting a temporary resident visa but with an additional birth certificate of a Costa Rican relative, an affiliation form, and a solicitation letter for the granting of the visa.

Corresponding visa application fees and the minimum value of financial capacity vary depending on the specific type of visa you will apply for. You can visit the Costa Rican Embassy website for more details. If you are granted any of these visas, driving in Costa Rica will now require you to possess a local driving permit.

Other Things to Do

People travel to the country for its environmental attractions and activities. A day in the country might only cover 2-3 adventures. Considering that the country is large enough that it would take you hours to reach another province, driving time alone will already eat up much of the time. If you stay for at least ten (10) days, you might be able to cover all major destinations in the entire country. However, for a lot of tourists, two (2) weeks will be enough to cover all at a leisurely pace.

Are you interested in volunteering in Costa Rica?

There are many non-government organizations in the country that welcome volunteers from all over the globe. These programs aim to address a wide range of social, health, wildlife, and environmental issues hampering the nation's sustainable growth. A lot of these NGOs offer accommodations and language lessons to help you adapt to the culture.

You can explore:

  • International Volunteer HQ
  • GoEco
  • Maximo Nivel
  • Global Leadership Adventures
  • Project Abroad
  • Global Vision International
  • Abroadly
  • Global Nomadic
  • A Broader View

Top Destinations in Costa Rica

You wouldn’t be having a hard time filling up your itinerary because there are just so many sights to see and things to do in the country. Each of the seven (7) provinces presents a zestful combination of experiences that collectively defines what a real vacation is. Check them out below.

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Alajuela

The province of Alajuela sits along the north-central border of Costa Rica. The capital town of Alajuela is about 19.3 km from the capital of San Jose.

Driving Directions

From the capital city of San Jose, you can drive to Alajuela via Route 1. This route would take you approximately 19 minutes to get to the province. Alajuela has some of the most stunning views. Buses are available; however, stops are mostly located within the city center. You’ll have to charter another local public transportation to get to the specific Alajuela destinations. The best mode of transport to drive around Alajuela would be by private car.

If you are driving directly from the Juan Santamaria International Airport, it would only take you around six (6) minutes because the airport is near the boundary of San Jose. To get to the main town center of Alajuela from the Juan Santamaria Airport:


  1. Turn right onto the ramp to Carr. Interamericana / Route 1.
  2. Keep right at the fork to merge onto Route 1.
  3. Take the exit toward Radial Francisco J. Orlich.
  4. Keep right and continue onto Calle 2 Obispo Trista

Tourist accommodations are distributed around the province. Some accommodations even lie at the foot of Mount Arenal. If you’ll rent an RV or want to sleep under the stars, you can do so safely at designated camping grounds

  • Pure Van Campsite
  • Eco Adventuras La Finca
  • Campamento Mirando Al Futuro
  • Paraiso Feteria Luca

Things to Do

Alajuela is home to the glorious Mount Arenal, Central America’s most active volcano. Specifically, it is located in the town of La Fortuna. The town serves a lot of activities for adventure seekers, both beginners and seasoned. You can:

1. Go Windsurfing and Water Skiing at Lake Arenal

Apart from being situated near one of the most active volcanoes, Lake Arenal is the country's largest inland body of water. It covers a huge 85km2 of space, perfect for plenty of watersports. If you aren’t familiar with windsurfing, it involves you riding a sailboard and letting the wind push you through the surface of the water. Likewise, waterskiing involves you riding a board that is towed by a motorized boat across the surface of the water.

2. Trek and Swim to Numerous Waterfalls and Natural Hot Springs

Alajuela has plenty of hot springs from Mount Arenal. Bathing in hot springs has multiple health benefits, and it is a very good way to relax the nerves after a long hike up and down the mountain. Trekking trails also vary in level of difficulty, so if you are just a beginner, make sure to take the more friendly trails

3. Go Ziplining

Alajuela has built upon the tourism potential of its lush forests. Not only is it a home to some interesting wildlife, but visitors can also go on a zipline adventure across the canopies and cross-forest sky bridges. These are very much safe activities, but maybe not for those who have a fear of heights.

4. Ride/Drive an ATV Along the Foot Slopes of Mount Arenal

ATV rides are some of the most popular tourist activities on the volcano slope. This is because of the rugged volcanic terrain that’s perfect for exciting, bumpy rides. You can either rent an ATV with a designated driver or rent an ATV and drive it yourself. Don’t worry, there is a trail for ATV adventures, so your safety is ensured.

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Guanacaste

Located on the northwestern side of Costa Rica, Guanacaste spreads to an area of about 10,141km2. It is bounded in the north by Nicaragua and in the east by the Province of Alajuela. Guanacaste has a pacific coastline that runs for 644km from the border down to the tip of the Guanacaste peninsula. This is the perfect place to bask under the golden pacific sunset.

Driving Directions

Guanacaste has one (1) international airport. You have the option to enter the country via the province or go to the San Jose International Airport. From San Jose, the capital is about a three (3) - hour drive via Autopista José Maria Castro Madriz and Route 1. If you want to experience the sought-after scenic hours of drive time, it is suggested to enter the country via San Jose.

From the Juan Santamaria International Airport:

  1. Drive west towards Autopista Bernardo Soto.
  2. Exit onto Carr. del Coyol.
  3. At the roundabout, take the 2nd exit and merge onto the Autopista Jose Maria Castro Madriz/Route 27.
  4. Continue onto Route 23.
  5. Merge onto Carr. Interamericana/Route 1.
  6. Route 1 will take your directly to Liberia, Guanacasta.

Things to Do

Guanacaste is blessed with the treasures of the coast, which you can see even from the mountains. When you visit the province, here are some activities that you can do:

1. Go To the Beach

Beaches in Guanacaste are generally less crowded. The sand is not white, but they are powdery and soft enough to go barefoot. The water is also cooler on this side of the country. Some of the most popular beaches in the province that you can check out include:

  • Playa Tamarindo (most touristy and has magnificent surf breaks)
  • Playas del Coco (watersports and fishing)
  • Playa Grande (surfing area and nesting grounds for the leatherback sea turtle)
  • Playa Samara (least crowded and best for quiet chilling)
  • Playa Hermosa (snorkeling, SCUBA diving, sailing, and horseback riding area)

2. Go On a Forest Adventure at the Diamante Eco Adventure Park

The Diamante EcoAdventure Park features the longest dual-line zipline in the country. Unlike most zip lines that go through the forest, an adventure in the eco-park will give you amazing ocean scenery. In addition, the park features a beach and a botanical garden where you can stroll around in.

3. Learn How Costa Rican Coffee is Made

If you want to learn about how coffee and chocolate are made, head on over to the Tio Leo Coffee in Barrio el Fosforio, the Diria Cooperative in Hojancha, or the Beach Chocolate Factory in Brasilito. Costa Rican coffee is world-class and is distributed globally. You wouldn’t want to miss learning about the secrets of producing it.

Limón-TG23

Limón

The Province of Limón covers the entire eastern coastal areas of Costa Rica. It is the port of call for many Caribbean cruise ships and offers multiple pristine areas for beach lounging and swimming.

The average temperatures in the province are relatively high and stable. If you’re only staying in Limón, a good time to go around the area would be between April to October. Apart from the weather, these are breeding months for turtles. If you go to Tortuguero beaches during these months, you might be able to see a turtle lay its eggs in the wild! But of course, there are standard protocols that you have to observe when engaging in these types of activities.

Driving Directions

The province is about 115km from San Jose. By private car, it will take you about 3 hours to reach the main town via Carr Braulio Carrillo and Route 32. Buses are the only public transportation in the area, so it would be best if you have your vehicle. Driving will give you a sense of genuine accomplishment, especially if you reach far-flung and challenging destinations.

From the Juan Santamaria International Airport:

  1. Drive east onto Route 1.
  2. Take the ramp towards Paseo de la Segunda Republica.
  3. Turn right onto Route 108.
  4. Slight left onto Route 100.
  5. Turn left onto Calle 7.
  6. Turn right onto Route 101.
  7. At Muebles Alvarado Bodega, Turn right and merge onto Carr. Braulio Carrillo/Route 32.
  8. Stay on Route 32 until you get to the eastern coast.

Things to Do

The beaches in Limón have varying compositions. Not all areas have white and powdery sand. However, these coastal areas still offer invigorating seascapes where you can lounge peacefully. If the golden hour is your thing, the sunrise on this side of the country is no less than breathtaking! However, Limón is not just a coastal province; inland territories also offer impressive opportunities for livelihood and recreation. Below are some of the things that you can do while in Limón.

1. Visit the Sloth Sanctuary

Sloths are lethargic mammals that live in treetops. These animals are solitary and slow-moving because they naturally have very low metabolic rates. For a fun fact, sloths can only travel half the size of a football field in one day! Nonetheless, mammals are very cute creatures, and you might even find them smiling at you.

2. Go White-water Rafting at the Reventazon River

White-water rafting is when you ride a boat and have the fast river rapids take you downstream without paddling. Don’t worry, a guide will ride with you and make sure that you don’t fall over the rapids.

3. Ride a Canoe and Explore the Tortuguero Canals

The Tortuguero Canals is considered as the Costa Rican Amazon. The wetlands are a protected area, so there are no road infrastructures within it. As such, it can only be accessed by plane or boat. The jump-off point to the canals is the town of Tortuguero, so you’ll have to drive to the main town first.

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Puntarenas

Puntarenas borders Costa Rica and Panama. Its coastline also runs from the southern border up to the Province of Guanacaste. It covers about ¾ of the entire Costa Rican west coast. The province is a very important economic gateway. It is the shipping capital of the country where overseas trade of agricultural and fishery products commences. The Port of Cardenas is also the port of call for a lot of cruise ships. Above all that, Puntarenas has it all. Attractions and adventures run from ridge to reef, and they never fail to amuse people of all ages.

Driving Directions

The capital city of Puntarenas is about 95.5 km away from San José. It will take you about 1 hour and 20 minutes to get to the province via Autopista José María Castro Madriz. Because Puntarenas is a vast province, you can also access it directly from Guanacaste and Alajuela.

From the Juan Santamaria International Airport:

  1. Drive east towards Route 1.
  2. Turn right at Parada Intcoex onto Paseo de la Segunda Republica.
  3. Take the ramp to Av 32/Route 215.
  4. At the roundabout, take the 1st exit onto Av 32/Route 215.
  5. Drive slightly right onto Route 2.
  6. Continue onto Autopista Florencio del Castillo.
  7. Route 2 will traverse the entire Puntarenas Province.

Beach districts are generally safe to drive around in. One (1) thing to probably look out for is when you will be driving in Jaco has been tagged multiple times as a drug port, and some of these dens are known to exist in Jaco. Whilst the town is a prominent coastal destination, it is where a lot of people turn to drugs and prostitution as well. So take extra caution when driving in Jaco.

Things to Do

Puntarenas is a beach-goer’s dream. The best months to visit Puntarenas, considering the weather, is from December to April. During February, locals put on concerts and parades that delight visitors. Moreover, the province is more than just the beaches. Other activities you can spend time on include:

1. Check Out Local Artworks at Paseo de Los Turistas

The eastern end of Paseo de Los Turistas is a docking port of cruise ships. As such, this section of Puntarenas is usually filled with tourists. Entertainment is basically non-stop in this area, including the wonderful artworks of different talented Costa Ricans. When you visit the area, make sure to find a taste of the Churchill, a popular dessert made of chopped fruits and condensed milk.

2. Walk Through the Hanging Bridge at the Monteverde Biological Reserv

If you are not afraid of heights, try going on a hiking adventure and cross the hanging bridge at the Monteverde Biological Reserve. And while you’re crossing the bridge, try if you can spot what wildlife lives on the reserve.

3. Learn How Cheese and Ice Cream Are Made at the Quaker Cheese Factory

Established in the 1050s, the Monteverde Cheese Factory was founded by the Quakers who escaped the Korean War. It is a well-loved factory because not only does it produce the most delicious ice cream and cheeses, it also sources all of its ingredients from the local farms in the area. When you visit the factory, you’ll get to see the entire manufacturing process.

4. Swim at Pura Vida Waterfalls,

At 650-feet, Pura Vida is the highest waterfalls in the country. You can park at the visitor’s center in the Pura Vida Botanical Gardens and just start your trek from there.

5. Surf, Swim, and Lounge at Jaco Beach and Sta. Teresa Beach

Of course, a trip to Puntarenas is not a trip without visiting the beach. The two (2) most popular beaches in the provinces are Jaco Beach and Sta. Teresa. As such, you should expect that these areas are more crowded. If you want a quieter day at the beach, you can explore other beach areas.

San José

San José is the capital city of Costa Rica. It wasn’t the original capital city but was declared one in 1823. You can visit the Province of San José anytime throughout the year. If you want to experience the signature Costa Rican-style festivals, travel to the country either in January or October. January is the month of the Fiestas Zapote. This is where the biggest rodeo happens. Bullfighters from all around the country flock to San José to compete!

On the other hand, October is the month of Fiestas Palmares. This is longest Costa Rican festival which runs for two (2) weeks. You’ll be treated to an infinite supply of beer, musical performances, and carnival rides! A lot of these festivals last until the wee hours of the morning. Extra caution is highly advised when driving at night.

Driving Directions

Roads within the capital city are in good condition but usually packed with traffic. Modes of public transportation include taxis, buses, and shared shuttles. One (1) of the reasons why public transportation is not advisable for visitors is that there are just so many different types operating under different regulations!

In taxis, for example:

  • ojos are the only licensed, authorized cabs that you can flag down
  • Taxi meters called la Maria charge a different rate after 10:00 pm
  • You need to tell the driver to turn on the taximeter
  • Rojos are not allowed to fetch passengers from the airport but are allowed to drop them off
  • Porteadores taxis are only allowed to transport passengers from the home or hotels to their destinations. You cannot flag down a Porteadores taxi on the road.

It would be best to go driving in San José using a rented private vehicle. The main challenge of driving around the city is when downpours occur. Roads can be easily flooded and hard to navigate during nightfall, so be careful when driving at night.

If you want to visit the Teatro Nacional Costa Rica first from the Juan Santamaria International Airport, it will only take you 18 minutes or less to drive. The best route is:

  1. Drive east towards Route 1.
  2. At the Indoor Club, turn left onto Paseo Colon/Route 2.
  3. At the gas station, turn left onto Av. del Libertador Juan Rafael Mora Porras.
  4. You’ll find Teatro Nacional to your left before the intersection of Av. del Libertador Juan Rafael Mora Porras and Calle 5.

Things to Do

San José is mostly known as a gateway to other destinations around the country. What many fail to recognize is that San José alone already holds so much in store for the thrill-seeking traveler. Plus, it is bundled right in the middle of a rainforest, so the weather is cozy — almost always perfect for a day out!

1. Visit the Prestigious Teatro Nacional Costa Rica

The National Theatre of Costa Rica hosts various social gatherings and live presentations of both local and international artists. A lot of stage plays are held in this historic theatre, so when you visit San Jose, make sure to check out the upcoming schedules at the website of the Teatro Nacional.

2. Wind Down at La Sabana Metropolitan Park

The park is a 72-hectare urban oasis that was once a bustling airport during the 1940s. If you are an advocate for a healthy lifestyle, La Sabana is the perfect place to be. You can go for a walk, bike, jog, visit the art museum, rent a paddleboat, or spend quality time with your family within the sprawling grounds.

3. See Different Species of Animals at the Zoologico y Jardin Botanico Nacional Simon Bolivar Park

If you are traveling with children, the park will surely entertain them. The zoo section spreads to over two (2) hectares, and the area is complete with a lagoon, an environmental education section, a children’s self-discovery area, and of course, different kinds of animals!

To recap, before traveling and engaging in any sort of activity, it would be beneficial to secure an International Driver's Permit. Contact numbers are found on the International Drivers’ Association page, or you can email your queries to hello@internationaldriversassociation.com.

References:

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