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.
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
- Driving at Night
- Directions and Addresses
- Accidents and Tickets
- Driving Restrictions
Click the section to skip to it.
Who Can Drive in Costa Rica and What are the Requirements?
If you plan on renting a car or driving in Costa Rica as a foreigner, you need to have 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.
For those renting a car, you will need to have a valid drivers license that has at least been issued for 2 years, you must be at least 23 years old and have a valid passport.
Most important thing first: Costa Rica drives on the same side of the road as USA and Canada.
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
- Puente en mal estado – bridge 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 toll boths)
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 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 paved.
Farming areas/rural areas
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.
It is common to 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 and into mountain areas, a 4×4 is highly recommended. Roads to national parks, some beaches, restaurants, waterfalls and the little country towns are not paved. Those require a car that will be able to pass through muddy or steep unpaved roads.
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.
Example of Rural Roads
We decided to take the “fun” route back from Mal Pais to Playas del Coco which meant crossing rivers and going through the jungle. It was also the beginning of August, right in the middle of rainy season when 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.
Check out our detailed guide to road conditions for various routes and destinations in Costa Rica with picture and videos.
Driving at Night
Should you drive at night? You’ll read many blogs saying no, absolutely not. But what if your flights lands at 8 PM and you want to drive to your hotel? Or you need to drive into the city for dinner?
You can drive at night in Costa Rica, especially if you’re using a GPS or Waze. The only times we do not recommend driving at night is if it’s raining very hard, it is a long route (San Jose to Puerto Viejo, Liberia to Montezuma, San Jose to Monteverde etc.), the route is unpaved and requires a 4×4 or if you do not have a GPS or Waze. It is much better to book a hotel for the night and leave early the next morning.
If you’re landing late in LIR airport, driving at night is not that bad. You can even drive from LIR airport to Tamarindo, that takes about 1 hour and it’s a very easy, nice drive. But just make sure you have a GPS because there is signage, but it’s easy to miss at night.
If you are landing late in SJO airport, you can drive to your hotel depending on how far away your hotel is and what time you land. San Jose traffic is downright awful so if you don’t want to deal with traffic and the crazy city driving, it’s best to get a shuttle to your airport and have the car rental company deliver the car to your hotel the next day.
Something very important to be aware of when driving at night are the pedestrians and bikers. Locals here are not used to wearing reflexive clothing or using flashlights and since sidewalks are pretty much non-existent in Costa Rica, they will be walking on the side of the road. Drive slow is the best advice for driving at night in Costa Rica.
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 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.
- Never tail gate. Because most locals never signal, you don’t want to be too close.
- 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
- Bring your passport with you or 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. I have seen babies, chickens, and dogs riding scooters with at least 2 or 3 people.
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.”
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.
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
When driving in Costa Rica and 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 nobody 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. This does not apply to rental cars but in case you are not driving a rental car, you need to note the restrictions.
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!
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).
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.