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Driving in Costa Rica

18.06.2023
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Dream of visiting Costa Rica?

Considering going for a self-drive tour?

Read this and find answers to FAQs and 10 things to be aware of when driving in Costa Rica.

FAQs about self-drive in Costa Rica

Road sign with animals on the road

Costa Rica is a popular self-drive country. All you need is a passport and a valid driving licence.

But as fantastic as it is to experience this Central American country from your own car, driving in a foreign country where you don’t have in-depth knowledge of its traffic laws and customs can be scary for many people.

We’ve tried to answer the questions most frequently asked by our guests.

Is it safe to drive in Costa Rica?

The short answer is yes – it is safe to drive in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is a very safe self-drive country, and the rental cars are in good condition. It’s important to follow the rules that apply and use your common sense when you drive – just as you do at home.

What are the roads like in Costa Rica?

The condition of the roads largely depends on where you are.

Costa Rica’s topography is extremely varied, with mountainous regions, flat areas with fields – and everything in between – which is why you’ll find everything from narrow gravel roads, winding mountain roads and well-maintained highways.

The government puts a lot of effort into maintaining the roads. The roads in the larger cities are generally in good condition, and you can drive on them without any problems.

However, the rainy season can be hard on the roads and leave large potholes (especially outside the cities). These are often repaired quickly, but it’s important to be aware of the potholes when you drive – they’re not always marked.

When you rent a car in Costa Rica, a GPS or a mobile phone with Wi-Fi is always included. The WAZE app is installed on these to guide you away from roadworks. You can also install WAZE on your own phone. Find the app here.

What is the traffic like in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is a relatively easy self-drive country. Whether the traffic is busy depends to a large extent on where you are used to driving.

The traffic is busiest on its way in and out of the larger cities such as San Jose. But other than that, the traffic is pretty reliable.

Some may find it nerve-racking to drive in mountainous areas because the roads twist, and there can be sharp bends. In our experience, people automatically drive slower here, partly due to the road conditions, and also because the countryside is magnificent here, where it is occasionally necessary to stop to let families of animals cross the road.

Both animals and pedestrians crossing the roads are something you should be aware of throughout Costa Rica.

Is it easy to refuel the car?

There are plenty of petrol stations (bombas) in Costa Rica – and the attendant fills up the car for you.

Make sure that the attendant resets the pump gauge before they get started.

Be sure to fill up before venturing into rural areas, where petrol stations are few and far between.

Is it easy to find parking?

At the sights you’ll visit by car on our tours, it’s usually easy to find a place to park. All hotels and many national parks offer private parking. A parking fee may apply.

In many places, people are employed to keep an eye on the cars in return for a small tip.

What’s included when renting a car

Our self-drive tours include car hire with free mileage, one-way rental, GPS and mandatory insurance.

Please note that you must be at least 21 years of age to rent a car in Costa Rica.

Keep up to date on our practical information page.

10 things you should be aware of in traffic

Family in a car in Costa Rica

Some of the following things are very specific to Costa Rica – others could just as well apply here at home.

1. In Costa Rica, they drive on the right, so on the other side of the road to us.

2. Fewer road signs are used in Costa Rica than we are used to. There are more signs in the cities than in the rural areas, where they are often non-existent. That is why it’s a good idea to use GPS or the WAZE app. All signs are in Spanish, but they look like or resemble the signs we’re familiar with.

3. The metric system is used in Costa Rica, and all speed limits are in kilometres.

4. There are a lot of speed bumps in Costa Rica.
Be aware of signs that say “reductor”. It’s important to slow down here. The signs are typically found close to schools and when you drive in and out of a town or city. The speed bumps are not always that visible, but believe us, they can be felt in the car if you don’t slow down!

5. Only drive when it’s light
Street lighting is only found in the towns and cities, and with Costa Rica’s rich wildlife, potholes and the aforementioned speed bumps, we don’t recommend driving after dark. It gets dark at around 6 pm all year round.

6. Be aware of overtaking
It’s very normal for the locals to overtake on the inside or in situations that are not necessarily safe, e.g. when there may be oncoming cars. Overtaking on the inside is not legal, and we don’t recommend it! Keep a good distance from the vehicle in front of you and obey the speed limits. It’s normal practice to overtake slower vehicles on double tracks uphill in mountainous areas. Be aware that the double tracks often stop quite abruptly with a line across the road that says “Ceda el paso”.

7. The locals often use their hazard warning lights or flash their headlights to signal that something is happening further ahead, e.g. roadworks or an accident.

8. Do not leave valuables (or other things) in your car, and lock the car, even when you’re driving.

9. Costa Rica has a zero tolerance policy to drink driving. The limit is 0.05% (BAC – blood alcohol percentage).

10. Should you be unlucky enough to be involved in an accident, do not move your car until the police have arrived – even if you block the road. Call 911 and our partner/the car rental company.

Exploring Costa Rica in your own car is nothing short of fantastic.

So, fancy going on a self-drive holiday in Costa Rica? All our tours to Costa Rica are suitable for self-drive. Please contact our travel consultants for more information.

If you’re not sure, you can also read about the difference between a shuttle service and self-drive or Christina’s travelogue from when she drove around Costa Rica in 2022.

Check out our tours to Costa Rica below:

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