Top 10 Things I Learned About Driving in Costa Rica

My sister’s rented van navigating the hills around the Arenal volcano. It looks a lot worse and steep in person!

It’s been three weeks since we came back from our epic trip to Costa Rica. I must say that it was a quite an adjustment to go from the pura vida lifestyle in Costa Rica to the one we designed for ourselves at home. Work, daycare, errands and the ever-present feeling of having to get stuff done all stand in stark contrast to the Costa Rican vibe. I can spend hours talking about it but I’ve already done that, at least to some extent, here and here. Today I actually wanted to talk about something else – another example of why you can’t just go by what you read on the internet. In this case I’m talking about renting a car and driving in Costa Rica.

After paying off our ridiculous mortgage I felt it is time to celebrate by treating ourselves to something really nice. Perhaps we could trade my wife’s 13-year old Mercedes for a lease on a brand new C-class. Monthly payments would be a sliver of what we used to spend on our mortgage and we’d get to ride in style! Our Sony TV is so old that the projection technology that it uses is obsolete plus there is a ghost image clearly visible whenever the screen goes dark. A slick flat screen TV can be bought for a fraction of what we used to send to the bank every month.

Of course we didn’t do any of that. Instead we decided to spend (lots of) money on something that we know will make us truly happy – travelling internationally. Every time we go overseas we return with new perspectives that end up changing our lives for the better. In terms of a return on investment – no material possession will ever come close.

We booked airbnb accommodations in 4 different locations spread all over the Nicoya peninsula. We had 3 adults and one toddler so we definitely wanted a car to be able to go and explore on our own schedule. We’d be flying into Liberia in Costa Rica which is only 30 minutes away from the closest beaches.

The first decision I had to make was whether to get an SUV or a compact sedan. Google “driving in Costa Rica” and you will hear some say that a 4-wheel/all wheel drive is an absolute requirement and some say that a compact car is fine. Then some will say that it also depends on when you are going since the roads get worse during the rainy season.

After lots of research I was even more confused than when I started. I wanted to avoid the additional costs associated with renting and driving a gas-guzzling SUV in Costa Rica – as long as I wasn’t putting our safety at risk. I reached out to our airbnb hosts and asked for advice. Three out of 4 said that we shouldn’t have any issues in a sedan. The fourth one, the owner of a house near the Arenal volcano said it would be better to have a 4×4… followed by his partner chiming in a few minutes later to say that he drove a Toyota Yaris to the house without any issues. “Doable” was the word he used.

I decided to go with my original plan of getting a compact 4-door sedan. After driving extensively in all kinds of environments (including beach roads, mountain roads, jungle roads, “highways”) for two weeks in August I came up with the following list. If you are planning to go to Costa Rica and rent a car you might find these observations useful.

Top 10 Things I Learned About Driving in Costa Rica

Lesson #1

Driving in Costa Rica is NOT as scary as all the stories you’ve read. Yes, people will pass you on a double yellow. Yes, pedestrians, bicyclists, cows, horses and lizards will leisurely take up most of the road at times. Cars will park wherever they want impeding traffic – if that’s what it takes to be where they need to be at that moment in time. In other words, if you’ve ever driven in New York City you will be right at home (minus the cows, horses and lizards).

Lesson #2

Driving after dark WILL be an adventure since most of the obstacles that you could see during the day will now be illuminated only by the weak halogen headlamps of your rental car. Just know that all those pedestrians, bicyclists, cows, horses and lizards are still sharing the road with you – they are just in stealth mode. I’d like to go back to Costa Rica and give out a few bicycle blinking lights and put a reflective vest on each kid to hopefully start a trend.

Lesson #3

It is true – there are no street signs in Costa Rica. I have no idea how/if people get their mail nor did I see a single building that resembled a post office. All the directions you get will be something like “take the main road into town, turn left at the grocery store, go straight about 200 meters, look for a red and blue sign with a rooster, turn right, climb a hill until you pass 2 barking dogs and our house will be 3rd on the left after a small house with a black fence”. I’m really not kidding. So how the hell do you navigate? Read on.

Lesson #4

Some of your navigation options include:

  • You could get a GPS unit with your rental car but it will cost around $10 per day. On our trip it would mean $160 so I passed. Most car rental places use NavSat maps – supposedly the best in Costa Rica.
  • You could download maps from NavSat onto your own GPS unit for under $100. That’s a pretty good option if you don’t mind spending $$. BTW, I had a Garmin version of Costa Rican maps on my nüvi and they were garbage. We’d be lost on the first non-major road… which is most of them. I love the nüvi in the US but it’s just not detailed enough in Costa Rica.
  • You could bring your unlocked GSM phone and buy a Costa Rican sim card so that you can use Google Maps or Waze navigation that require a data connection. This is a pretty good option but I didn’t want to deal with buying a sim card (which I would need right after we landed) or worrying about having data access in a remote location.
  • You could buy a good paper map. Some swear by this option but after trying it ourselves I can tell you that I’d hate to have this as my only navigation option in Costa Rica. Still, it’s good to have one in case your electronic gizmo fails in the middle of nowhere. It will definitely make you feel a bit safer to have a backup in your back pocket.
  • Asking for directions. None of us knows Spanish so that’s out.
  • So what did work for us after all? A completely free map program available on iOS, Android and other platforms. Just go to your favorite store and download a program called MAPS.ME along with a map of Costa Rica. It uses crowd-sourced maps constantly updated by people around the world that can be downloaded for offline viewing. Your phone can be in airplane mode and the MAPS.ME application will work beautifully. It never crashed and we always knew where we were and where we were heading, which is half the battle.

It’s not perfect – some streets might not be mapped but I would say that it had 90% of the roads, which in Costa Rica is as close to 100% as you can get. It has turn-by-turn navigation as well although it doesn’t have spoken instructions, which I didn’t find necessary anyway. I brought my magnetic phone holder (which I love!) along with a mini usb car charger and this set up worked great in the rental car.

We still managed to get lost a couple of times but getting back on track was a lot easier and much less nerve-racking than it would’ve been. We usually found it easiest to navigate by looking up one of the landmarks on Google Maps at home on WI-FI, then putting a pin in MAPS.ME on a street closest to whatever we found on Google, then navigating there using MAPS.ME and then switching over to the directions provided by airbnb hosts for the last mile or so to get to the door. I pinned a bunch of places we were going to visit while still at home so all I had to do was click on the pin and click “Go!”.

I can’t overstate how important and comforting the feeling of knowing exactly where you are now and where you are going is while driving in Costa Rica! I have no affiliation with MAPS.ME – but I just wanted to say that it worked very well and saved us a bunch of times, especially considering the price – free! I really can’t understand why some people cling to their flip phones. Using a smart phone with a free navigation app alone makes it well worth it to me!      

Lesson #5

If there is a road on the map it does not mean that you should take it. The route may look much shorter but once you get on that road you might realize that you could really use that lifted bad boy truck you’ve made fun of all these years.

So how do you know whether to take a shortcut or go around? When in doubt, stick to the roads marked with fatter lines on the map, if that’s an option. If you really want to take a smaller road, do yourself a favor and talk to someone who’s done it within the last couple of days. And bring plenty of water.

Lesson #6

Most cars are not designed to handle Costa Rican roads. Our rental car was just a couple of years old but stuff was constantly falling apart. Our trunk latch broke off clean within the first couple of days so we had to use a bungee cord to keep the trunk somewhat closed. I noticed a couple of other bungee-brothers on the road so it wasn’t just us. The bumper kept coming off in a couple of places where the clips were not strong enough to hold it in place over all the potholes. Other plastic pieces were always trying to liberate themselves from the clips – door moldings, trim, you name it. Turn signal lenses were falling off.

Plastic clips used on all modern cars are not made for Costa Rica. No worries though, just pop it all back in before you return the car. As my millennial nephew would say –  pura vida, bro!

Lesson #7

Renting a sedan instead of an SUV is probably OK – if you’re prepared to live with a few limitations. We had no issues for the most part but in some places it would’ve been really nice to have an SUV, mostly due to the higher ground clearance. The most hair-raising part of the trip was climbing a steep dirt road on a hill that led to the Arenal volcano house. The mistake I made was continuing the climb with all 4 passengers and luggage, which meant that the shocks were compressed and we were even lower to the ground. I had to stop several times in the middle of the climb because it sounded like we were completely destroying the undercarriage. With my heart pumping I would get out of the car expecting to find the muffler ripped off, but everything looked fine so I would continue on.

We made it to the top where the caretaker, who drove a quad, told us with a smile “that’s not what you want to drive around here”. On the way back I made everyone else walk down the hill and the car had zero issues at all. Of course descending is always easier.

There was another time when we went to Playa Conchal where an SUV would’ve been better. In order to get to Playa Conchal beach you had to crest this big hill full of ruts. Solution? We parked in a shady spot before the hill and just walked 3 minutes to the beach. As we were walking we saw plenty of locals navigating the hill in their tiny cars, so it’s definitely doable – but in this case not even necessary if you don’t mind a short walk.

Most locals don’t drive SUV’s. If they have a car it’s usually an older compact and they fly all over the place unfazed by the roads. There is no question that an SUV would work much better in Costa Rica, but it would also be at least double the price to rent plus more in gas, which is expensive there.  

If we went back I’d still get a sedan – strictly for the savings. What I’d really like to do is go back and explore some remote areas on a 250-400 cc dirt bike because that’s a perfect vehicle for Costa Rica…

…unless you can get your hands on this bad boy that our Playa Ocotal hosts were rocking:  

Lesson #8

Going slow and waving other cars to go around is perfectly normal. I did this a lot – first because I was getting used to the roads and then because I wanted to see things. It’s not unusual to see people slowing down and then stopping in the middle of the road because they want to look at some monkeys or toucans or some other wildlife. This is also a good way to spot all the tourists.

Lesson #9

You will rarely go over 40 mph. You will often go 10 mph so don’t go by “oh, it’s only 100 miles!” because that can easily turn into a 4-hour trip. Slow down and enjoy the scenery.

Lesson #10

Get ready to feel like you are piloting a rocket ship when you get back into your own car and hit 70 mph on a highway.

In Conclusion

If you are going to Costa Rica for a week to an all-inclusive resort you’re probably don’t need to rent a car and worry about everything that comes along with it. Your hotel will have all the transportation options and tours that you can ever want and I’d say just let them do all the work.

However, if you’re going to be staying in Costa Rica a bit longer and there is no one picking you up at the airport, go ahead and get a rental car. You should get used to the roads after a day or two and then you will be able to appreciate the freedom that only your own vehicle can bring. We were able to visit and explore so many places and stop along the way on our own schedule. It was also a lot more convenient to be able to put our toddler’s car seat in the beginning and take it out just once 2 weeks later. Plus having a car to move our stuff between the 4 places that we stayed at made the whole moving process much simpler.

Just figure out whether you want and SUV or a sedan, load the maps on your phone and go!


3 thoughts on “Top 10 Things I Learned About Driving in Costa Rica

  1. Pingback: It’s Time for a New Phone | Insourcelife

  2. Sounds like a fantastic trip!

    The description of the roads brings back memories of our time in S.America but we never hired a car, the buses, trains and taxis were thrill rides alone so god knows what it would have been like driving yourself 🙂

    We took a tourist train one time and the thing became derailed, we had to all get off while they somehow got it back on with bits of wood then successfully carried on our way! And this train was going up and down the edge of a cliff. Imagine if that happened in UK or USA, haha!

    Thanks for the tip off about MAPS.ME, I’ve downloaded and it’s ready to go for our next trip somewhere!

    • I have no issues leaving the driving to someone else, especially in a foreign country. In this case it just made sense to go the DIY route because of the amount of travelling we did, especially with a toddler. When we go to Europe we always rely on your fantastic public transportation system, especially the fast inter-city trains. I just wanted to give a first-hand experience since there is so much misinformation about driving in Costa Rica it seems.

      I think you’ll like MAPS.ME. Just remember that, like Wikipedia, it’s mostly right but not always. I would recommend cross-checking with Google Maps on Wi-Fi just to be on a safe side.

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