First-Timer’s Guide to Driving in Costa Rica – 101 Reference
Driving in Costa Rica can be an exciting experience, often seen as an adventure within an adventure. However, you should consider the full picture before booking your car, especially if driving there for the first time.
In this reference guide, I cover aspects ranging from understanding the Costa Rican road practice, rules, and regulations, to practical tips and important emergency contacts offering valuable insights to ensure a memorable and hassle-free experience when you drive in Costa Rica.
This comprehensive guide covers all you need to know about driving in the country. I have included also a quick chapter about hiring a car, however, for that, I suggest checking out my dedicated post on renting a vehicle in Costa Rica where I have included also a few scams you should avoid.
But let’s get into it.
Driving in Costa Rica – Key Points
Here is a quick summary of all the key points I discuss in this guide. Click on the subject to see the full description. Swipe left or right on the mobile to see the entire table.
|Understanding Costa Rican Road Culture
|Costa Rica has a unique, relaxed driving style with unexpected road conditions and different road etiquette.
|Navigating Costa Rican Roads
|Road conditions vary greatly with urban driving and more relaxed rural driving. Primary roadways are properly paved and maintained, but once off the main highways, you may encounter roads of lesser quality.
|Safety on the Roads
|Hazards include potholes, sudden showers, low clouds, and fog. In accidents, wait for the police. Seat belts are mandatory.
|Rules and Regulations
|Tourists can drive with a valid foreign license for three months. No mobile phone use while driving. No drinking and driving
|Costa Rican Driving Conditions
|The tropical climate with distinct wet and dry seasons significantly affects road conditions. Conversely, the rainy season can make driving more challenging.
|Renting a Vehicle
|Renting a car will enhance the travel experience. Be aware of potential scams and understand the rental agreement.
|Dealing with Gas Stations and Refueling
|Gas stations in Costa Rica are full-service, meaning attendants will fill your tank for you at no extra cost. They typically accept cash (Colones or sometimes US Dollars), as well as credit and debit cards.
|Parking in Costa Rica
|Parking is regulated in cities, but less defined in smaller towns and rural areas. Don’t park in dark streets and unattended spots overnight.
|Understanding Road Signs
|To navigate safely, understanding local road signs is key. These signs offer guidance, warn about possible dangers, and set rules for travel..
|Toll Roads in Costa Rica
|Highways and major routes feature toll roads. Tolls in Costa Rica are reasonably affordable, ranging from 75 colones to 800 colones (roughly $0.15 to $1.30 USD).
|Tips for Driving Comfort and Convenience
|Choose a suitable car, use a reliable GPS, consider a local SIM card, and have emergency numbers ready are some of the most common tips
|Emergency Contacts and Assistance
|The general emergency number in Costa Rica is 911, where you can reach the police, fire department, and medical services.
Understanding Costa Rican Road Culture
The road culture in Costa Rica has its unique aspects that set it apart from other countries. If you’re coming from a Western country, it’s crucial to be aware that the driving style might be more relaxed and less regulated in Costa Rica.
Road etiquette in Costa Rica also differs. Potholes and unexpected road conditions can lead to last-minute maneuvers, so it’s important to be alert and flexible. Honking is commonplace and is usually a friendly reminder, not an expression of road rage. In many cases, the size of a vehicle may determine the ‘right of way’ more than traffic regulations.
The road signs may not provide the same level of detail or consistency that you are accustomed to. In rural areas, you may come across roads without marked lanes, and in the city, traffic lights are sometimes considered mere suggestions rather than rules.
Patience is essential when navigating Costa Rican roads. The ‘Pura Vida’ lifestyle of the locals extends to the roads too, meaning things tend to move at a slower, more relaxed pace.
Finally, this is a right-hand drive country. If you are used to left-hand (UK or Australia, for instance), try renting an automatic car and driving carefully in the first few days. This will help to adapt smoothly to the new system.
Navigating Costa Rican Roads
In Costa Rica, the conditions of the roads can greatly vary. Generally, the primary roadways, such as Interamericana’s Route 1 and Route 27, are properly paved and maintained. These major thoroughfares connect the principal cities and tourist destinations. However, once off the main highways, you may encounter roads of lesser quality.
Urban driving in cities like San Jose or Liberia can be quite a challenge due to dense traffic, particularly during rush hours. In saying that, they are not as bad as in the big Western cities, to be honest with you. Signage may also be insufficient or confusing.
In contrast, rural driving offers a more relaxed pace, with less traffic. Many roads are unpaved and can become really bad in the rainy season. In the mountains, roads are often narrow, winding, and they may not have any guardrails.
You may encounter pedestrians, cyclists, slow-moving farm equipment, or even livestock on these roads. Also, bridges in rural areas are frequently single-lane, meaning traffic from one direction must yield to oncoming vehicles.
The scenic routes, although beautiful, can often be more challenging due to their curvy nature and steep inclines. Route 32, which goes to the Caribbean side, is one such route that offers amazing views but requires careful driving, especially with fog or heavy rain.
Google Maps and Waze are widely used for navigation and are pretty accurate (Waze is my favorite). However, based on my experience, they may suggest shortcuts that are not doable unless you have a 4×4 (stay on the main roads when possible).
Always consult with locals when uncertain, and keep a traditional map as backup. When renting a car in Costa Rica, make sure to have on board a spare tire, tools, and possibly a first-aid kit.
Consider renting a 4×4 vehicle in Costa Rica if you plan to venture off the main highways.
Safety on the Roads
In Costa Rica, there are more unique hazards that you may be used to in your country. For example, big potholes are common, particularly in rural areas, and you could damage the car quite significantly. Drive at a reduced speed and only during daylight to avoid them.
On one occasion, our flight was delayed and we picked up the rented vehicle in the late afternoon when it was already dark. We drove to our accommodation on a secondary road and we went straight into a pothole.
We found out the day after that we had a flat. Luckily a local helped us in fixing the problem. Usually, Costa Ricans are very friendly and helpful (remember to tip them if they do any manual work for you, of course)
Weather conditions also pose a threat. Sudden showers can dramatically reduce visibility and render roads slippery. Likewise, low clouds (fog) are a common issue in mountainous regions (that’s why they are called cloud forests). When faced with such conditions, lower your speed, use low-beam headlights, and keep a safe distance from other vehicles.
In case of a big accident, you should not leave. Wait for the police to come as you would do back in your home country. Dial 911 for immediate assistance. If a breakdown occurs, move the vehicle off the road, if possible, and reach out to the rental company.
Remember, seat belts are mandatory for everyone in the vehicle. Drinking and driving is strictly prohibited. Your safety and the safety of others should always come first while on Costa Rican roads.
Rules and Regulations
Traffic rules and regulations in Costa Rica are similar to many other countries but have their own distinct aspects as well. Here are some key points to bear in mind:
- Driving License: Tourists can drive using their valid foreign license for up to three months.
- Seat Belts: Seat belts are mandatory for all passengers.
- Mobile Phones: Using a mobile phone while driving is illegal (hands-free is allowed).
- Drinking and Driving: Strictly prohibited. The legal blood alcohol content is 0.05%.
Penalties for violations are significant in Costa Rica. Here’s a table to illustrate some of the key violations and the respective fines:
|Fine (Costa Rican Colón)
|From 52,000 to 309,000
|From 280,000 and suspension of license
|Not Wearing Seat Belts
|Using a Mobile Phone While Driving
If you are traveling with kids, children who are under the age of 12 or shorter than 145 cm are required to travel in a child seat. In the table below I have summarized the requirements.
|Type of Child Seat
|Up to 10 kg
|Rear-facing infant carrier
|Forward or rear-facing baby seat
|Forward-facing child seat
|Booster seat with back
|Over 12 years or taller than 145 cm
|Over 36 kg
You can usually rent the child seat from the rental companies during the booking phase, or even better, take it from home to save some money and get a better quality one.
Essentially, while driving in Costa Rica you should follow the rules as you would back at home. Besides avoiding fines, it will make your trip much safer.
Costa Rican Driving Conditions
Driving across Costa Rica can be a diverse experience largely due to the country’s wide-ranging weather conditions. The nation’s tropical climate has a distinct wet and dry season, significantly influencing road conditions.
During the dry season, from December to April, roads are typically in better shape and easier to navigate. Conversely, the rainy season, spanning from May to November, can make driving more challenging. Paved roads can become slick and treacherous, while dirt roads might turn muddy and impassable, particularly in remote areas.
Rain often leads to decreased visibility, which necessitates extra caution. Potholes or landslides are not as uncommon during heavy rains. Drive carefully and check the weather on a regular basis. I usually use the Weawow App for the most up-to-date weather conditions. There is also a rain radar too which is so helpful!
Also, let me cut it short here. Avoid night driving in Costa Rica. Reduced visibility due to limited street lighting, combined with the potential for unpredictable wildlife on the road, can make for precarious conditions. Furthermore, pedestrians, cyclists, or vehicles without adequate lighting often use the roads at night.
If you have to drive at night, like it happened to me because of a delayed flight, try to do it only for a few miles, stay alert and reduce your speed.
Renting a Vehicle
I talked extensively in my ultimate guide to renting a car in Costa Rica about all the pros and cons, the documents you need to have, how the daily rentals work, the insurance you need, the scams, how to avoid them and so much more.
Here I just say that experiencing Costa Rica with a rented car is the best decision you can take. Your adventure will be so much better. There are so many hidden beaches, secret forests, and amazing walks that you can reach with a car but not with public transportation.
I usually rent my cars with DiscoverCars (a rental aggregator) for two great reasons. Firstly because they offer full insurance (no excess) at just $7-8/day and secondly because they have a rating of all the hiring companies so you know what to expect from the rental agencies (a sort of AirBnb of cars).
Besides my 101 guide to renting a car in Costa Rica, I wrote other specific guides that you should check out
Dealing with Gas Stations and Refueling
Gas stations in Costa Rica, known as ‘bombas‘, are widespread and easy to find in urban areas. However, when journeying through rural or remote regions, you may encounter longer stretches without a gas station. Just keep your tank at least half full to avoid running out of fuel.
Gas stations in Costa Rica are full-service, meaning attendants will fill your tank for you at no extra cost. The process is straightforward. If you don’t specify, they will likely fill the tank.
In Costa Rica, there are typically two kinds of fuel, the super (high octane) and the regular. Diesel is also available for certain vehicles. If you are hiring a car you will be using very likely super.
Payment methods at Costa Rican gas stations are flexible. They typically accept cash (Colones or sometimes US Dollars), as well as credit and debit cards. Bring always with you some cash, just in case, you never know.
Remember to check your fuel gauge regularly and plan your refueling stops, especially on longer drives. Given the country’s varied terrain and occasional traffic delays, a little foresight regarding fuel can go a long way in ensuring a smooth trip.
Parking in Costa Rica
Parking in Costa Rica is usually not as complicated. In cities like San Jose and Liberia, parking is mostly regulated and you’ll often find both street parking and private parking lots.
Street parking usually involves a marked spot on the road and may have a time limit. Be sure to check any signs for payment requirements or restrictions, as fines for illegal parking can be hefty.
Private parking lots, meanwhile, are typically secure and monitored, but they do charge fees, typically based on the duration of your stay.
In smaller towns and rural areas, parking rules can be less defined. For example, you can park along the side of the road but make sure you don’t block the traffic. Also, always consider safety and security.
Avoid leaving your car unattended in isolated or poorly lit areas, especially overnight. Paying for private parking, especially in cities, can be worth the peace of mind.
In most tourist destinations you will find unofficial parking attendants that will look after your car in exchange for a tip (usually $2-$3, sometimes more for the entire day). Once again this works better when you leave the car unattended for a long time.
Make sure to not leave belonging in your car, doesn’t matter if valuable or not, and if you must, ensure they are out of sight.
If you have bags in your boot, make sure they are not visible from outside and, very importantly, do not open your boot once you park the car. People around can see the content.
I also avoid leaving maps of similar things that clearly highlight it is a rented car by a tourist.
Understanding Road Signs
To navigate safely, understanding local road signs is key. These signs offer guidance, warn about possible dangers, and set rules for travel.
Common signs include the internationally recognized red and white “STOP” sign, which demands a full stop. Another is the speed limit sign, indicating maximum permissible speeds. There are also specific signs like the “CEDA EL PASO” sign, meaning ‘yield’, or “ZONA ESCOLAR,” indicating a school zone where drivers need to slow down.
Warning signs in Costa Rica are usually in a yellow diamond shape, indicating potential hazards. Examples include “Cruce de Peatones” for pedestrian crossing, “Curva Peligrosa” for dangerous curves, and “Peligro” indicating general danger.
If you are new to driving in Costa Rica, familiarize yourself with these signs before starting your trip. In the below table, I have summarized the top 15 signs you should be aware of.
|The maximum speed allowed on this road.
|Prohibido el Paso
|Entry is forbidden into the area.
|Ceda el Paso
|Allow other road users to pass before you proceed.
|Límite de Velocidad
|Caution, construction work is ahead.
|Overtaking other vehicles is forbidden.
|Parking is not permitted.
|A circular intersection where traffic flows around a central island.
|Trabajo en la Vía
|Caution, construction work ahead.
|Designated area for pedestrians to cross.
|Caution, area where children might cross.
|Caution, the road may be slippery when wet.
|Warning, the road goes steeply uphill.
|Warning, the road goes steeply downhill.
|Warning, the road ahead winds.
|Caída de Rocas
|Caution, possibility of rocks falling onto the road.
Toll Roads in Costa Rica
In Costa Rica, highways and major routes feature toll roads designed to fund the maintenance and improvement of transportation infrastructure. Most notably, Route 27, connecting the capital San José with the Pacific Coast, is a toll road. Also, the North Inter-American Highway, Route 1, has several toll booths.
Tolls in Costa Rica are reasonably affordable, ranging from 75 colones to 800 colones (roughly $0.15 to $1.30 USD), with costs varying depending on the type of vehicle and distance of the route.
Payment methods at these tolls are usually flexible. They accept Costa Rican colones and US Dollars. Some may even accept credit cards. I personally suggest always taking with you colones and you will be sure to avoid any issues.
As for the frequency of tolls, on a typical drive from San José to popular beach destinations on Route 27, you might encounter four or five toll booths. Always have some small bills or coins handy to make things quicker.
Below is a table with the approximate toll costs for popular routes:
|Approximate Toll Cost
|San José – Alajuela (Route 1)
|San José – Caldera (Route 27)
|San José – Limón (Route 32)
|San José – Cartago (Route 2)
|0 colones (No Toll)
These are approximate prices, take more cash with you because things may vary from one day to another and it’s always best to keep some extra change handy. The updated rates can be found on the official Roadway Safety Council (COSEVI) website.
Tips for Driving Comfort and Convenience
There are plenty of tips to give when driving in Costa Rica. These are probably the top 10 but leave a comment if you have any questions.
|1. Car Selection
|Choose a car that fits your travel needs and comfort level.
|2. Navigation App
|Use a reliable GPS or navigation app like Waze or Google Maps. Update the maps before the journey.
|3. Local SIM Card
|Consider buying a local SIM card for better connectivity and data service while driving.
|4. Emergency Numbers
|Have local emergency numbers readily available. If you hire a car, have handy the rental company number
|5. Check Weather Conditions
|Use a reliable weather app to stay informed about potential storms or severe weather conditions that could affect your route.
|6. Spare Tire & Toolkit
|Ensure your car has a spare tire, jack, and toolkit. Know how to use them.
|7. First Aid Kit
|Keep a basic first aid kit in the car.
|8. Wear Appropriate Clothing
|Dress comfortably and be prepared for changing weather conditions.
|9. Refuel Timely
|Don’t wait until the tank is empty to refuel, especially in remote areas where gas stations may be sparse.
|10. Respect Local Driving Customs
|Understanding and respecting local driving customs can enhance safety and make your trip more enjoyable. Don’t rush, and adapt to the ‘Pura Vida’ driving style.
Emergency Contacts and Assistance
When driving in Costa Rica, it’s essential to have a list of emergency contacts at hand. Emergencies can occur unexpectedly, and having these numbers readily available can help you get assistance quickly. Note that the general emergency number in Costa Rica is 911, where you can reach the police, fire department, and medical services.
Are you involved in an accident? First step, make sure everyone is safe. Next, contact the local authorities (911). Call the rental company as soon as possible, if driving a rental car. If there are injuries, request an ambulance. Always cooperate with local authorities and provide accurate information about the accident.
The table below outlines some important contact numbers in Costa Rica:
|General Emergencies (Police, Fire, Ambulance)
|National Roadside Assistance
|ICT Tourist Information
|National Insurance Institute (INS)
|OIJ (Judicial Investigation Agency)
Conclusion and Recap
Driving in Costa Rica can be a rewarding experience. It is going to open up so many opportunities, you will discover so many hidden gems, secret beaches, and amazing forests and waterfalls.
It is in my opinion the best way to experience Costa Rica but be vigilant and alert on the road conditions and the essential regulations.
Obeying traffic laws and understanding local signage is crucial, along with being aware of the processes around refueling, toll payments, and parking. Always keep necessary emergency contacts handy and know what to do if an accident occurs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I need an International Driver’s License in Costa Rica?
You can drive with your home country license for up to 90 days
How safe is it to drive in Costa Rica?
While roads vary in condition, driving safely and cautiously should ensure a comfortable journey
Are there many toll roads in Costa Rica?
There are several toll roads, particularly around San Jose. Costs vary and payment can usually be made in colones or dollars
Can I use a GPS for navigation in Costa Rica?
Yes, GPS or smartphone apps like Waze and Google Maps can be useful for navigating Costa Rican roads. I never use the Car GPS system because it is usually outdated and it’s not connected online (no traffic conditions and police check alarms)
What’s the speed limit in Costa Rica?
Speed limits vary. Highways are typically 80-100 km/h, urban areas are around 40 km/h, and residential zones are 25 km/h
What to do in case of a road accident in Costa Rica?
Call 911 for emergencies and contact your rental car company and insurance provider immediately
Are Costa Rican road signs in English?
Road signs are usually in Spanish. Familiarize yourself with common signs before your journey
Are car rental scams common in Costa Rica?
While not common, there are a few scams in Costa Rica when renting a car, mostly related to insurance and hidden fees.