Costa Rica is famous for many things: coffee, sea turtles, their amazing wildlife but they are not famous for having good roads. As a country that fiercely protects their wildlife and nature, paved roads doesn’t seem to be a priority here.
In the city yes, but in rural areas, it’s a well known fact that if you’re going to be driving off the path, you need a good 4X4 car. Driving in Costa Rica is … well a little crazy to be honest. For a country so pura vida and laid back, the way they drive is completely opposite!
It’s not quite as nice as some other places and sometimes it really tests your reflexes. It’s not just people you have to worry about, you need to keep your eyes open for dogs, chickens, cats and other animals that might run out into the road not to mention all the potholes in the roads!
So from someone who has been driving in Costa Rica all their life and from someone who grew up in the United States and just started driving in Costa Rica, here are our in-depth tips.
What you’ll read about in this post:
- Driver License
- Road Signs
- Road Conditions
- Rural Roads
- Directions and Addresses
- Accidents and Tickets
- Driving Restrictions
(Click the section to skip to it)
Driving in Costa Rica
Costa Rica drives on the same side of the road as the US and Canada.
If you plan on renting a car or driving in Costa Rica as a foreigner, you are allowed to drive using your drivers license that was issued by your home country. You can only use it within the time of your visa so if you are here on a tourist visa (90 days) then you can drive for those 90 days.
All the road signs are in Spanish so if you are driving, it’s good to know them. They use the same symbols so you can recognize the stop sign and things like that, but it’s always good to familiarize yourself with them.
Here are the most common signs you’ll see.
- Alto – stop
- Velocidad maxima – maximum speed. Remember they use kilometers so you’ll see KPH
- Ceda el paso – yield
- Puente angosto – narrow bridge
- Desvio – detour
- Despacio – slow
- Cruce de monos – monkey crossing (or could be another animal)
- Una via – one way
- Carretera en mal estado – road in bad condition
- Curvas peligrosas adelante – dangerous curves ahead
- No hay paso – don’t enter
- No estacionar – no parking
- No virar en u – no U turns
- Calle sin salida – dead end
- Tarifa liviano – lightweight fare (you will see this at the tollboths)
Road conditions will depend on what part of the country you are in. In San Jose, most of the roads are paved and yes there are freeways in case you’re wondering!
The cities do have nice paved roads with painted lines and signs but one thing that you will not see too much here are traffic lights.
There are a few roundabouts in the city but it can get kind of crazy as everyone goes when they can and there are no painted lines within the roundabout.
You also need to be careful on freeways because roads can end with no warning and you’ll have to merge with little space. They have speed bumps here too but they don’t always have the reflective lane markers to warn you.
The main highways, like Pan American and Inter American are wide, have a couple lanes for both directions and are nicely done. The Inter America is under construction right now to add more lanes from Liberia towards Puntarenas.
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In the smaller cities, rural areas or beach towns, the paved roads aren’t as well done as the city. Normally they don’t have any painted lines once you get inside town.
In the one street of Coco, you will see cracks and holes but they’re not bad enough to damage your car or that you’ll need a 4×4.
If you are heading out of the city, a 4×4 is highly recommended. Roads to even the national parks, some beaches, waterfalls and the little country towns are not paved and require a car that will be able to pass through muddy roads, sand and rivers.
One of the worst road conditions we’ve ever encountered was down at Mal Pais. There is just one road that goes through Mal Pais, Santa Teresa and Playa Carmen and when we were there, someone decided to take a tractor and dig up one side of the road.
I’m not sure what their goal was but they left it like that. I’m just glad we were going the other way!
Example of Rural Roads
We decided to take the “fun” route back from Mal Pais to Playas del Coco which meant crossing rivers, driving on Playa Paquera and going through the jungle. It was also the beginning of August, right in the middle of rainy season where the water level is high. I just have to say it was one of the bumpiest but most interesting road trips I’ve ever taken!
Not all rural roads are as bad as these (this is one of the worst in the country) but don’t expect 100% perfect roads. There will be holes and cracks here and there. You might see a construction sign or a part of the road blocked off for some random reason but won’t see any workers.
Tips for City and Rural Driving in Costa Rica
- Do not let your road rage get the best of you. Don’t get heated if someone cuts you off because it’s bound to happen again very soon
- Be patient. That is key when driving in Costa Rica
- Drive defensively – if someone is trying to pass you, don’t get mad and speed up. It’s better to just let them go and do their thing
- Don’t drive too fast – there are a lot of curvy roads in Costa Rica without signs or mirrors. This can be very dangerous especially in the rain
- Don’t drive at night if you don’t have to – many locals walk and bike in the middle of the road without reflectors and it can be very hard to see them and there are no dedicated bike lanes or sidewalks in most places
- Don’t pass the car in front of you unless you have had experience and feel comfortable doing so. Many accident occur with the driver trying to pass and fail to see a car coming
- Always signal
- Don’t stop if someone flags you down. Make sure it is a real police offer first!
- Always pay your ticket if you get one – there is a new law that any unpaid tickets gets handled by immigration and you can be denied exit of the country
- Have a copy of your passport and entry stamp with you – there are many immigration stops on the road that will ask to see your visa
- Don’t be scared of scooters, just watch out for them since motorcycles can come out of nowhere, especially if you’re in a traffic jam
- Don’t be alarmed if you see 4 or 5 people on a scooter, not uncommon to other countries in the world. I have seen babies, chickens, and dogs riding scooters with at least 2 or 3 people. Gotta get to where you need to go somehow!
For more traveling in Costa Rica safety tips, check them out here.
Directions and Addresses
Lost? Renting a car and not sure if you need a GPS? As a foreigner, the answer is probably yes, especially if your Spanish is not at a level to be able to understand/ask for directions.
There are not really addresses or street names here in Costa Rica. Addresses go something like this “200 m norte de la iglesia, 50 m este de la pulperia, San Isidro de Heredia, Heredia, Costa Rica.”
If you are not familiar with the area, that makes pretty much no sense. Rental car companies will give you the option if you want a GPS which usually costs around $10 a day and you need to load the Costa Rica maps on there. You can buy a GPS here but it is fairly expensive and for someone living in Costa Rica, is not worth the money.
Tip: If you already have a GPS, buy the Costa Rica maps and preload them so you can use it.
If you’re living here, you will learn the roads by driving and actually knowing them. There are road signs that you can trust on freeways and in the big cities, but sometimes in the rural areas the signs are outdated, misplaced and will lead you astray. This has happened to us many times.
If you have a phone with data in Costa Rica, download this app Waze. Everyone in Costa Rica uses it because Waze has all up to date roads and conditions and users can even post messages if there is a cop, traffic jam or traffic accident. Not even Google Maps has all the roads in Costa Rica but Waze does and is incredibly helpful.
Accidents and Tickets
If you get in an accident, the laws have changed (thank goodness). In regards to moving your car, you can move your vehicle if there is an agreement between both parties (or vehicle and object) and if no person was injured, one of the drivers accept responsibility or it is necessary to move for traffic.
Before you weren’t allowed to move your car no matter what, which would cause horrible backups.
In San Jose, they try to contain traffic by restricting driving days according to the last number of your license plate.
For anyone who is complaining about the price of gas in the states, they haven’t driven here or Europe. The cost of gas per liter is around 700 colones. So 3.78 liters in a gallon equals to 2,646 colones which is a little over $5 a gallon!
If you are driving at the beach, remember that there is a law that a gas station cannot exist within a certain distance of the water. In Coco, the closest gas station is in the community Sardinal, about a 15 minute drive.
They don’t do self service at gas stations so when you pull up, tell the attendant you want llena de regular por favor (or diesel depending on the car).
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Don’t forget to check out Yeison’s in depth guide for what it’s really like to drive in Costa Rica, especially the city.
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