Tips For Traveling By Car in Costa Rica

Traveling by car in Costa Rica can be a nightmare if you’re not prepared. Our 6 best tips for staying alive.

If you’ve read our tips on planning a vacation to Costa Rica, you know we don’t advise renting a car unless you considered yourself a strong driver. Getting around safely by car in Costa Rica means being able to react quickly, drive defensively, and maneuver around potholes, bikers, incoming cars, and any number of other distractions.

Jake does all the driving when we travel because I’m a bundle of nerves behind the wheel. If you’re the designated driver, here’s what you need to know.


1. Drive Defensively

Traveling by car in Costa Rica can be dangerous for a nervous or inexperienced driver. You have to think fast and make good choices while dealing with narrow roads, aggressive passing, speed traps, and motorcycles weaving through traffic.

Jake and I nearly had a heart attack when an 18-wheeler popped up on our side of the road, on a blind curve, with no warning. Another time, we watched a car try to pass two cars on a blind curve. My heart leapt out my throat when a motorcycle came around the bend, because he must have barely dodged the car.

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If you’ve ever taken a defensive driving course, Costa Rica is the place to use it. Unless you have a death wish, cut the distractions and pay attention on the road.


2. Watch Out for Aggressive Passing

This is a big enough problem to deserve it’s own mention. I’m not talking about people trying to pass you on a tight squeeze (which does happen). I mean drivers double, and sometimes triple-passing other cars. One time on our way back from Nosara, a car passed us, then stayed in the wrong lane to pass another car at least 50 yards in front of us!

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Don’t try to copy aggressive passers unless you really know what you’re doing. Pay attention, and always be ready to pull back or get out of the way!


Tips for Traveling by Car in Costa Rica


3. Pay Attention to Speed Limits

Prepare for steep drops in speed limits. You might be cruising on a road at 60kph then round a curve into a school zone where it’ll be more like 40kph or less. Speed changes can also happen quickly and erratically! As in, hopping from 60kph to 25kph, then back up within a few minutes.

Keep an eye out of speed limit signs either on the side of the road, or painted on the road itself. Some signs may just say “Despacio” which means to slow down. It’s not always easy to see signs either, so you may want to ask your passengers to help keep an eye out for them.

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Don’t rely too much on cruise control outside of highways. Even then, you should pay attention to speed limit changes.


4. Get a 4×4/AWD/SUV

Unless you’re staying around big cities, you’ll want a 4×4. The only cars we could find in Tamarindo on short notice when we rented was full-sized SUVs. They’re more expensive than compacts (think $60/day with all fees included vs. $40), but we were soon grateful we had it.

Jake and I took the coastal route from Tamarindo to Nosara, which is the fastest way but has less-than-developed infrastructure. It’d been a day since it last rained, but there were still a few streams to drive through. The dry areas were not much better. After a few hours of bumping around potholes and uneven dirt roads, my boobs were starting to hurt. (For ladies in the big boob brigade: you may want to wear a sports bra!)

The night before heading home, we had a big thunderstorm in Nosara. There was a good chance the dirt roads we took on the first day were either destroyed or flooded. We decided to take the longer route via the main highways (Route 160 and 152). Even then, there was the occasional unpaved road and paved ones that were in disrepair.

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If you’re torn about what car to get, my advice is to pay a little more for a 4×4 and don’t worry about it. Especially if you’re going long distances between towns. The last thing you want to do is get stuck somewhere, or have your car break down in a remote area!


Tips for Traveling by Car in Costa Rica

Why you need a 4×4 in Costa Rica.


5. Drive Around Potholes

As long as there are no cars coming, don’t worry about crossing over to the wrong lane to avoid a pothole. Even with a 4×4, there are enough potholes around here to make anybody nauseous! I’m also not sure how would you get help if your car got stuck in the jungle. I’ve seen tow trucks in Costa Rica, but they usually only show up for car accidents.

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Don’t think just because you’re in a 4×4 that you don’t have to be careful. Minimize what you put your car through to avoid being stranded somewhere without help.


Traveling By Car in Costa Rica

Prepare yourself for a very bumpy ride if you’re planning to take some backroads.


6. If You Don’t Have GPS, Get Google Maps

It’s almost impossible to travel around Costa Rica based on signs alone. There was a frustrating number of times that we didn’t see signs for where we wanted to go until we found the road and were already on it. Without GPS, we would have been completely lost.

What we love about Google Maps is that you can pull up directions online and it’ll have full-functionality even when you lose internet as long as you don’t close the app. (Don’t worry, you can still close your phone or switch to something else!) If you pull up turn-by-turn directions while you’re online, it’ll even continue to reroute you (e.g. when you miss an exit).

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Never, ever drive without Google Maps. It’s free, and you don’t even need Internet to use it. It’s a must-have tool when traveling without a data plan. (iPhone Users: don’t forget to leave Wi-Fi on even when you’re on Airplane mode to keep using your phone’s built-in GPS!)


Have any questions about traveling by car in Costa Rica? Let us know in the comment section, and we’ll try to answer as quickly as possible!

9 thoughts on “Tips For Traveling By Car in Costa Rica

  1. Costa Rica Rent a Car says:

    Nice tips for the people who want to travel Costa Rica this year and drive on their own. I have seen the roads are not smooth for driving and as you said that one must keep the speed limit in mind. For avoiding such hassle one can rent a car from professional travel planning company.

    • Steph says:

      Thanks so much for reading! You have a lovely blog! I love Bali, especially Nusa Dua (but for surfing instead of snorkeling!) I would never try to drive in Indonesia, it’s just too crazy. Way scarier than Costa Rica!!

  2. Kassie- The Fly Away Life says:

    Wow looks like driving would be crazy but at least you have some good stories to tell 🙂

    • Steph says:

      Haha, that’s my strategy too! Jake does all the driving thankfully but I’ve also walked and hitchhiked to get around here. I hope you get to Costa Rica soon too! Let me know if you need any help planning a trip 🙂

  3. Steph says:

    Haha, the only thing that’s missing is some land mines! I honestly think the tour companies around here can make so much money because people are afraid to drive here!!

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