There are good reasons why so many people rent a car when they visit Costa Rica. As we discovered during our nearly six months and more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km) of driving in Costa Rica, the country really doesn’t have an adequate public transportation system and the best parks, activities, and adventures require wheels. With that in mind, here are our top tips about how to have a Costa Rican road trip and how to rent a car in Costa Rica without getting ripped off.
Road rules in Costa Rica
In October of 2012 a new schedule of driving violation fees was established in Costa Rica. Many of the violations seem to go unpunished. For example, there is a US$40 fine for littering from your vehicle in Costa Rica, though it’s unclear how frequently that law is enforced given the amount of roadside trash we saw. Speeding and drunk driving rules, however, are strict and fees are expensive at US$568 per violation. That said, we saw very few cops on the road and only a handful of vehicles pulled over.
As in most Latin American countries you must carry a fire extinguisher and reflective triangles in your vehicle.
Costa Rican law requires a front and back license plate but we were never hassled about our missing front plate.
Navigating in Costa Rica
There really are almost no road signs in Costa Rica so don’t bother looking for signs on the highways telling you where and when to turn or signs in towns telling you what street you’re on. When we left Costa Rica there were rumors of a campaign to improve signage in the capital, San José, but that’s not gonna help you out on the highways and in the small towns.
Unlike most of its Central American neighbors, dependable GPS data for Costa Rica seems to actually exist. Sadly we didn’t have a GPS unit when we were there.
We managed to find our way around Costa Rica thanks to a combination of Eric’s genetic GPS, asking locals, and our ITMB maps which are detailed, accurate, and cover the entire country which is head and shoulders above any map you’ll find inside Costa Rica.
Estimated drive times are almost always much shorter than reality so if someone says it takes four hours to drive from there to there plan on six. Or seven. As we’ve mentioned, road quality is poor and even “highways” in Costa Rica are generally only two lanes (one in each direction with no passing lane) and they nearly always wind through mountains unless you’re driving along the coast. This adds up to slow going, especially once you get stuck behind a slow-moving 18 wheeler, and you will.
Many bridges in Costa Rica are single lane so look before you leap. Specifically, look for triangular signs that say “Ceda el Paso” which means you need to yield to bridge traffic coming in the opposite direction.
The drainage ditches along many roads are 2-3 feet (1 meter) deep and there’s no shoulder on the roads. It’s best to think of them as moats.
Key Costa Rican road trip tips
We never found a car wash under US$10.
The whole country is the size of West Virginia yet we somehow managed to drive more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km).
All those intriguing peninsulas usually require taking the long way around so be prepared to put in more miles (and time) on the road than you think.
Cop shakedowns are not common in Costa Rica, but police checkpoints are. However, we were rarely questioned at any of them and the officials just wanted to take a cursory glance at our paperwork.
Costa Ricans are the slowest drivers in Central America. Sometimes infuriatingly so. For example, the guy you get stuck behind as he crawls through the hills always seems to speed up just enough on the straightaways so that you can’t pass him.
Gas prices are regulated by the government so all stations charge the same price. The price of diesel ranged from US$4.27 to US$4.85 when we were in Costa Rica and gas was even pricier.
One of the first things representatives of the Institute of Costa Rican Tourism (ICT) did when we met with them was apologize for the shameful condition of the roads in Costa Rica. They are far worse than in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador with pot holes, buckling pavement, narrow sections, and a chronic lack of street name signs, directional signs or street lights. Oh, and did we mention the unmarked topes (speed bumps)?
If you are driving your own vehicle keep your fingers crossed that nothing breaks. For the most part, only crappy Chinese-made replacement parts are available for the makes and models of vehicles that are commonly sold in Costa Rica. We learned this the hard way after needing to have a bunch of steering components replaced.
Related tip: If you do need to see a mechanic in Costa Rica don’t take your vehicle to a chain called AutoPits. Yes, the name should have tipped us off but it seemed like a modern chain and it’s owned by Grupo Q, a large vehicle dealer with a presence in several Central American countries. However, AutoPits sold us inferior parts not made for our truck and installed them incorrectly. No wonder the parts failed after just a few hundred miles, rendering our truck undrivable. After a lengthy battle between AutoPits and our credit card company we were left paying the full AutoPits bill (US$1,200) and needing to replace the parts with the good stuff (thanks Rare Parts).
At the border with your vehicle
You and your vehicle with get a 90 day permit when you enter Costa Rica overland. However, even though tourists visas can be renewed for an additional 90 days by simply leaving Costa Rica for 72 hours then returning, foreign vehicles are only allowed to be in Costa Rica for 90 days out of every 180. Period. If you want to get a new 90 day temporary importation permit for your vehicle, you first have to leave your vehicle outside of Costa Rica for at least 90 days then you can re-apply. Also be aware that you can “suspend” your temporary vehicle importation when you drive out of the country. This means that whatever time was left on your importation when you left the Costa Rica will be available to you when you drive back into Costa Rica.
It currently costs 17,216 colones (US$35) for 90 days of mandatory vehicle liability insurance (Poliza Turista) which is a considerable increase from our 2012 crossings when the price was only 8,365 colones (about US$17).
Get complete details about procedures and customs requirements for driving a foreign vehicle into Costa Rica in our Border Crossing 101 post about traveling overland from Nicaragua to Costa Rica.
How to rent a car in Costa Rica (without getting ripped off)
Rental car companies can be super aggressive about buying very expensive in-country insurance. When you pick up the car you’ve reserved they will insist that it is mandatory. They will NOT let you off the hook by simply saying that your credit card company provides rental car insurance. Do yourself a favor and get a letter from your credit card company on letterhead stating the details of the rental car insurance coverage your card provides. Also get the appropriate toll free phone number you can use to call your credit card company from the rental car company desk in Costa Rica should the agent in front of you still insist that you need to buy expensive additional insurance.
It’s worth splurging on a GPS unit for your rental car (offered by most rental companies for a daily rate) and be sure to reserve a 4X4 vehicle. As we’ve noted, the roads in Costa Rica suck and you’re going to want the extra clearance, power and durability even if you’re not planning on doing any off-roading.
When we left Costa Rica we heard that some car rental companies were considering adding more environmentally friendly rental cars to their fleets.
Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica