Are you planning a trip to Costa Rica? Did it surprise you how much time it’s going to take to get around this tiny country by bus? Are you hesitant about whether or not you should rent a car and drive in an unknown condition to avoid hours of bus riding? Look no further! The upcoming information on this page will tell you everything you need to know about driving in Costa Rica.
Disclaimer 1: I’ve only driven from San Jose to La Fortuna, Puntarenas, and Paquera. These are relatively easy, well-paved roads to drive on. Please do research your destinations if it’s not one of these places. You will need a 4×4 to drive on some of the rural roads there. There will be river-crossings and all the fun stuff.
Disclaimer 2: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning that if you click through & make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!
First, let’s get to know the driving scene in Costa Rica in the most basic sense.
Costa Ricans drive on the right side of the street, the same as the USA, Canada, and the EU.
As long as your home country license has the Roman alphabet on it, you’re fine to use only that to drive in Costa Rica. But here are some conditions:
- You must have had the license in use for at least 2 years.
- Only the original copy will be accepted.
- Temporary licenses are not valid.
- The minimum age for renting a car here is 21-23 years depending on the supplier.
- Always have your passport. The driver’s license alone will not work without it.
- If your home country license doesn’t have the Roman alphabet on it, you must bring an International Driving Permit along with that license.
This section will get you accustomed to all the preparations you need pre-driving.
Addresses in Costa Rica
The first and most important thing you need to know before you hit the road is this: There are no street addresses in Costa Rica.
You read that right. Houses and buildings don’t have numbers, so a home address would look something like this: 200 meters north of Parque Juan de Jesus Flores on Calle 6, Heredia.
- What this means: On Calle 6, continue 200 meters north of the Juan de Jesus Flores Park, and you will reach your destination, on the same side of the street as the park.
Here is the good news: While these are not addresses as we know them, they are VERY accurate.
When I was trying to find the local supplier to the company I rented from, I didn’t know what the rental house was called, only that it was 1.4 km east of the Airport Holiday Inn Express. So I got onto Google Maps and ran the GPS from Holiday Inn to every single rental company on that highway until one has a distance that says “1.4km.” That ended up being the correct place.
I also tried selecting another company right next to it to see what the distance would be, and it was already slightly different!
Renting a Car
If you have rented a car anywhere else before, you’ll be fine renting one in Costa Rica as well. It’s exactly the same system and process. But below are some key points to remember just in case.
- When booking your rental car, make sure your credit card comes with rental car damage protection. If it does, pay with that card so you have an extra layer of safety.
- When checking out your rental car, most places will ask if you want some top-ups. These will range from basic damage protection to roadside assistance. I highly recommend getting the roadside assistance package since you never know what will happen. The last thing you want to be is lost and helpless in a foreign country when you’re supposed to be living your best life. The full package I got cost only $85 and offered full protection on all sorts of unfortunate events.
- Take pictures of any dent or scratch you see on your rental car before getting in it. Your rental company associate will very likely be doing this as well, but it’s always safe to have your own record of things.
If you’re ready to rent a car as you’re reading this, find the best deals HERE.
I admit Google Maps and Apple Maps have been amazing buddies of mine when planning travel. But when driving in Costa Rica, Waze is your one and only best friend.
It tells you what the road conditions are like as you’re driving. If there’s an upcoming pothole in the middle of the road, it will warn you. Ticos use Waze on a daily basis so the information on the app is highly up to date.
NOTE: Since you need local phone service to use navigation, I’d highly recommend Claro. If you don’t know Spanish, don’t worry. I linked it there just so you’d know what the brand looks like when you try to find it when you’re there. I personally use Google Fi which gives me SO MUCH international access without having to scrape my wallet for it. The plan automatically switched me to Claro when I arrived, and it’s been working really well.
On the Road
Now, we’re going to talk about what to expect when you’re driving in Costa Rica!
Apart from its unique addresses, another thing to note is that street labels are minimal here. You should see some street names when in San José, but once you’re out of the capital area, it gets tricky. So here I will be talking only about the smaller towns like Heredia, Alajuela, and the like.
Street name signs, if any, will be on the side of the building that’s on the corner, not on its own pole like what we’re used to seeing. Sometimes if there’s not a building on the corner, it will be stuck onto the fence.
Again, the majority of streets have no sign at all. So do expect that, but no need to worry. Waze is really good at getting you where you need to go. I promise.
The great news is that traffic signs are universal, and so are the ones in Costa Rica! They all look identical to the ones in the US, only with Spanish on them. But just for your peace of mind, I’m listing what I saw most often below. I wish I had pictures, but I was driving solo the whole time I was there, so no photographer, I’m afraid…
- ALTO = STOP
- No Estacionar = No Parking
- Velocidad Maxima = Maximum Speed
- Ceda El Paso = Yield
- No Hay Paso = Do Not Enter
- Cruce De [insert animal] = Animal Xing (You’ll find all types of animals on these signs!)
- Mal Estado = Bad Road Conditions (There’ll be a picture explaining what exactly the problem is)
- Curvas Peligrosas Adelante = Dangerous curves ahead
The most common speed limits you will see are 40kph, 60kph, 80kph, or 90kph depending on where you are. Most small-town streets will have a 40-60kph limit, while highways range between 60-90kph.
The most common limit on highways is 80kph. If the roads get curvier, it goes down to 60.
The speed limit signs are not as frequent as in the US, but they’re painted right onto the street surface at much smaller intervals. So be sure to keep checking the surface. If you have Waze on, of course, it will let you know the current speed limit as well.
If you’re coming from the US, this is probably the hardest habit to shake… But pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way in Costa Rica.
If you see a person on the side of the street waiting to cross, do not stop unless you want to get rear-ended. Because the car behind you won’t be expecting you to stop. Even the pedestrian won’t be expecting you to stop.
Sometimes you’ll even see a pedestrian starting to cross as you’re about to pass them. It looks terrifying, but they know what they’re doing. Keep driving at the pace you were going at and everyone will be safe!
All the streets in San José and its surrounding areas are well-paved, as well as all the main highways regardless of which part of the country they’re in.
Most roads here don’t have shoulders. So you will often run into a bicycle or a pedestrian blocking half your lane simply because there’s nowhere else he/she could be. Simply wait for the other side of the road to clear, then pass them.
If you’re driving through neighborhood roads in La Fortuna or Paquera, however, it gets a little rougher, but by no means difficult. Smaller sedans are totally safe in all the towns I’m mentioning, just make sure to drive at appropriate speeds so as to not destroy the poor car on rockier terrains.
The speed bumps outside the cities are also very intense, but not well-marked. Keep your eyes peeled at all times so you don’t get surprised by one.
If you’re driving in San José as well, be very careful of all kinds of things. People will pass each other on the shoulders. There will be very little courtesy, no such thing as one car at a time. There are bikes everywhere. It’s every man for himself. If you’re not used to chaotic driving, stay in your lane and focused on the road and all its inhabitants at all times.
When changing lanes, do not assume that people will let you in just because you turned your blinkers on. ALWAYS look over your shoulder as well to make sure before making the lane change.
When driving in rural areas, you will run into many of these one-lane bridges. Some of them are situated right at an extreme curve after a blind corner on mountain roads, so be aware of that.
If you’re on the side that needs to wait, you will see the sign “Ceda El Paso” right by the bridge. In this case, let the cars coming from the other side pass first, if any. Also, note that this is not a car-per-car situation. When you’re yielding for the other side, they will come in a batch. Wait until they’ve all gone through, then continue on your way.
Another reason to be very careful approaching blind corners on mountain roads: People pass each other EVERYWHERE here, even during a curve on a 2-way street in the mountains.
The good news is the mountain roads are never ever crowded. I was there during a holiday and the cars were scattered all over that I mostly felt like I was alone on the roads.
Getting into an Accident
If you get into an accident (God forbids…), the most important thing is to stay calm.
- Call your rental car company. They should have given you emergency contact numbers when you checked out the car. Let them know what happened.
- If someone is injured, the number is 911, just like in the US.
Gas stations in Costa Rica are full-service. You only need to tell the attendant which type of gas you want and for how much (Full, for example).
They take credit cards. And yes, the attendant will be the one running the card for you as well.
Another thing that might surprise you: Gas is EXPENSIVE here. You’re totally safe to do your budget for Costa Rican gas off the gas pricing in Los Angeles. It’s insane!
Other things to note…
Before I leave you to your travel plans, some more common reminders… because sharing is caring 😉
- NEVER ever, ever, ever leave your possessions visible inside your rental car. Costa Rica is a relatively safe country, true. But don’t push your luck. You don’t want to lose your possession AND get the rental car damaged getting broken in.
- If you’re going out of the cities, try to plan so that you don’t have to drive at night on potentially rockier terrains.
- I don’t know much about the exact driving laws in Costa Rica, but I stuck by what I would have done in LA or Michigan. DO NOT break the laws, not even when the locals are clearly doing it. This is their home. When things go wrong, they’re perfectly comfortable sorting it out. The last thing you need is to get pulled over and have a court date set for after you’ve left.
Loving this post? Below is a list of my other Costa Rica blog posts!