If you’re planning to drive in Costa Rica trip, it’s important to learn about the driving culture here. As soon as you get behind the wheel, you’ll see that some of the driving habits and the mentality of the Costa Rican drivers are very different than the ones you are used to back home. In this guide I will go straight to the point to tell you exactly what it’s like to drive in Costa Rica and give you my local tips for driving in Costa Rica.
Personally, I believe that the best way to get around Costa Rica is by renting a car as you can explore more on your own time and have more freedom. Also, very quickly before we get started, make sure to read our renting a car in Costa Rica guide and get our Costa Rica car rental discount!
Below you will read our tips for driving in Costa Rica such as Costa Rican road signs, Costa Rican roads, city and rural driving and much more for a safe trip. Click the section to skip to it. This post has been updated December 20, 2019.
- Important things to know about driving in Costa Rica
- Costa Rican Road Signs
- Road Conditions in City and Rural Areas in Costa Rica
- Differences between city and rural driving in Costa Rica
- Tips for driving in Costa Rica for the first time
- Driving at Night
- Accidents and Tickets
- Lights Vocabulary
- Directions and Addresses
The Most Important Tips for Driving in Costa Rica
- Costa Rica drives on the right side of the road (just like USA and Canada).
- Traffic signs are in Spanish and use the same/similar shapes as USA and Canada (red octagon for stop)
- Costa Rica uses the metric system so you will see kilometers. Costa Rican rental car odometers use kilometers.
- The normal speed limit on the highway is 90 Km/h.
- Neighborhood speed limits are 40 km/h. School zones are 25 km/h.
- Foreigners can drive in Costa Rica with a valid original driver’s license and their original passport with a valid tourist stamp. Tourists must have their original passport and valid original driver’s license with them when they drive. They can only drive for as long as their tourist visa is valid which is 90 days for USA, Canada, Australia and UK.
- The legal driving age is 18 in Costa Rica. For car rentals, the minimum age will vary depending on the agency and it can be 21 – 23 years old.
- Defensive driving is the best way to drive safely in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica Road Signs
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. Is also a red octagon
- Velocidad maxima – maximum speed. Remember they use kilometers so you’ll see KPH
- Ceda el paso – yield. Is also a red and white triangle
- Puente angosto – narrow bridge
- Desvio – detour
- Despacio – slow
- Cruce de monos – monkey crossing (or some other animal, they will put a picture of it)
- Una via – one way
- Carretera en mal estado – road in bad condition
- Puente en mal estado – bridge in bad condition
- No estacionar – no parking
- Curvas peligrosas adelante – dangerous curves ahead
- No hay paso – don’t enter
- No virar en u – no U turns
- Calle sin salida – dead end
- Tarifa liviano – lightweight fare (you will see this at the toll boths)
Costa Rican Road Conditions
Road conditions will depend on what part of the country you are in. And yes, Costa Rica does have paved roads and highways!
You will find that in the cities like San Jose, Heredia, Liberia, Cartago, Puntarenas, Alajuela, the main roads are paved. Even the smaller cities and touristic beach towns like San Ramon, Grecia, Turrialba, Limon, Zarcero, Jaco, Manuel Antonio, La Fortuna, Tamarindo, Playas del Coco and Puerto Viejo has their main roads paved.
However, one thing that you will not see too much here are traffic lights and sidewalks are not as common once you are out of the capital city of San Jose.
In San Jose, you can find some roundabouts but it can get kind of crazy as everyone goes when they can and there are no painted lines within the roundabout. It’s a bit like a free for all, just go when you can as most people don’t yield or use blinkers. Don’t freak out if people start honking at you while you wait to enter the roundabout, it is better to take your time than try to rush.
You also need to be careful on freeways because roads can end with no warning. Then 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 InterAmericana 1 are wide, have multiple lanes in both directions and are well 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 or sidewalks. You won’t find many raised pavement markers or well defined lanes. Additionally, in these areas, it is very normal for the roads to have just one lane, even if it’s a major road.
In more rural areas like Guanacaste, South Pacific and the Caribbean, you will not find as many cars or as much traffic as San Jose, but you will find other obstacles such as chickens, cows, kids, bicyclists, motorcycles and people walking on the road. Since there aren’t really sidewalks, you will need to be careful if there are people walking on the side of the road. Additionally, roads are usually narrower and curvier.
One of the best tips for driving in Costa Rica we can give you is to come prepared. So that means you need to research your itinerary to find out the best route and what the road conditions are in Costa Rica. Even if it doesn’t look very straightforward, we always recommend to take the paved roads instead of going off road. Always research to see if you need a 4×4 or 4wd for your destinations since many rural areas require that type of car.
Differences Between Driving in the City and Rural Areas
This is one of the most common questions we get on the blog when it comes to driving in Costa Rica. There are huge differences between driving in the city than driving in most of the touristic places in Costa Rica.
The City (San Jose Metropolitan Area)
More than 1.5 million Costa Ricans live and work in San Jose, representing almost half of the total population in the country. Therefore the main roads are always packed during rush hour and traffic is terrible.
One of the best tips for driving in Costa Rica is to avoid driving in the cities during rush hour which is 3-6 PM and 5-8 AM. But if you have to drive during those times, make sure to be super alert! Don’t get road rage because you will get honked at, people will cut you off and drivers won’t yield for you. It can be frustrating to drive in the city so pack your patience.
Here are some pictures I took from a recent drive through San Jose city. These kinds of traffic jams happen in all the major cities! Most of the drivers (but not all of them) act like the ones in the pictures below. My intention is to not to discourage you to drive but to show you the truth so you are aware of what it’s like.
Guanacaste and other areas
On the other hand if you are in Guanacaste or simply outside the Greater Metropolitan area of San Jose and the Central Valley, the traffic is more fluid and easy to drive because there are way less people.
On the other hand, in the rural areas, you will see less people heeding to laws like helmet and seat belt laws. Many locals will fit as many people as they can on their motorcycle or scooter or even bring a chicken or two with them. Be extra careful when driving next to them or passing them!
This is a common example of a road in areas like La Fortuna, Guanacaste, Limon and Puerto Viejo. The main road is paved, not always with well painted lines, sidewalks or road lights, but is paved. Might have some pot holes here and there.
Tips for Driving in Costa Rica for the First Time
Here are our personal tips for driving in Costa Rica for first timers from a local and foreigner. We want you to stay safe!
- There isn’t really a thing as a 4 or 3 way stop. All the stops are normal as in you have to stop and then you can go.
- Lock your doors when you drive.
- When you look up routes, add at least 30 minutes for traffic, even if you’re outside the city.
- Know that right of way is more like a suggestion in Costa Rica, many local drivers do not follow it. Same goes for traffic lights.
- If you are driving in a parking lot and you see a car ahead of you backing out, note that they may not stop even if they see you. Local drivers here aren’t used to stopping while backing out and don’t give the right of way to the car already driving.
- If you’re on the highway and you’re going to change lanes, your blinker will mean almost nothing to other drivers. Make sure to look 3 times before you do.
- If you see the car in front of you slowing down and driving around something, there’s a good indication there’s a big hole.
- Some Costa Rican drivers think that they’re ready to go to Nascar so if you are being tailgated, don’t get annoyed or speed up. They will eventually pass you since those drivers are usually a bit desperate to get ahead. Speeding up or slowing down will not help the situation.
- Because many roads have only one lane, you may need to pass. If you do not feel comfortable passing, do not do it. Only pass when you are comfortable and are 1000% sure the road is clear. Also note that before you pass, the car behind you may try to overtake you too.
- If you see that the car behind you is about to pass, don’t pull over, drive close to the shoulder, speed up or freak out. Just keep your speed or slow down a little to let them pass. It’s better to just let them go ahead.
- In rural areas, there may be people walking or riding their bike on the edge of the lane because there are no sidewalks. Unfortunately, many roads are not big enough to give a 3 meter (9 feet) distance between you and the bike/person so when you pass them, you may have to drive closer than you are used to. Only pass them when the road is clear and you are comfortable.
- Pedestrians are not used to cars stopping for them when crossing the road, so don’t be scared if you see a pedestrian getting too close to your car or if it looks like they are about to walk into your car.
- If you stop to let pedestrians cross the road, be aware of the cars behind you. They might not know that someone is crossing so they could pass you and hit the pedestrian. If you stop or brake suddenly, turn on your emergency lights to signal the driver behind you that something is up.
- If you’re driving in the city at rush hour or in a traffic jam, be very careful at interactions or the merge areas. Other drivers will completely ignore you and just try to jam themselves in front of you without using their blinker or checking.
- Assume that every car/bus/bike/person is going to walk out in front of your car without looking.
- We recommend to use the GPS app Waze. We also recommend to get a prepaid SIM card for your phone or rent a local phone from your car rental agency so you can have a local number in case of emergencies.
- Make sure you have an emergency kit in the car which includes enough food & water for 2 people for 48 hours.
Driving at Night
Should you drive at night in Costa Rica? 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 in the city? Or you want to drive to dinner? Something important to remember is that it gets dark here by 6 PM everyday!
You can drive at night in Costa Rica if you’re using a GPS. The only times we do not recommend driving at night is if it’s raining very hard, it is a long route (more than 1 hour), the route is unpaved and requires a 4×4 or if you do not have a GPS or Waze. It will be safer to book a nearby hotel for the night and leave early the next morning.
Read more Costa Rica safety tips in this post!
Driving From Liberia International Airport at Night
An exception is if you are flying into Liberia International Airport and your first destination is not very far. For example, Playas del Coco is only about a 25 minute drive Liberia Airport and Tamarindo is only 1 hour. Both routes are easy in the sense that it is on a well paved road with good signage and they are not very far. You can drive those routes at night using a GPS.
Driving from San Jose International Airport at Night
If you are landing late in San Jose International Airport, you can drive to your hotel in the city. Do note that San Jose Airport is actually in Alajuela so from the airport to downtown San Jose, it is around 20-30 minutes. However, San Jose traffic is awful so if you don’t want to deal with traffic and city driving, it’s best to book a hotel by the airport and take a taxi/Uber/shuttle to your hotel. You can pick up your rental car the next morning.
Safety tip: something very important to be aware of when driving at night are the pedestrians and bikers. Locals here don’t really use reflexive clothing or flashlights and since sidewalks are pretty much non-existent in Costa Rica, they will be walking on the side of the road. Driving slow is the best advice for driving at night in Costa Rica.
What to Do if You Have an Accident Or Get a Ticket
- If you have an accident, call 911 if there are injuries and contact your car rental company immediately.
- Also keep an eye out. Some people will try to approach and help you but use your common sense. There have been some cases where people act like they’re helping but instead rob the person.
- The emergency number is 911 and they have an English speaking line.
- You must report the incident to your car rental company immediately. If you do not, you may run into issues when it comes to insurance.
- In regards to moving your car, you can move your vehicle if there is an agreement between both parties (or vehicle and object), if nobody was injured, one of the drivers accept responsibility or if it is necessary to move for traffic.
- Do not drink and drive. You can get yourself in serious problems so do not even think about getting behind the wheel after a night of drinking. You never know what can happen and the last thing you want is to get thrown in jail in a foreign country or hurt someone!
- If a police officer stops you and you don’t speak Spanish, tell them “No hablo Español”. Usually they will want to see your driver’s license and your passport. All the police officers have access to an English line in case they need it. Just be respectful and don’t try to bribe a police officer. You might have heard stories that you can but you can get yourself in trouble if the police officer refuses and reports you.
- Police officers are legally allowed to stop anyone, anytime on the road and ask for their papers (passport, driver’s license and tourist visa). You may see police blocks on the roads where officers stop cars to ask for the driver’s papers and search their car. This is legal.
- Likewise, if a police officer tries to bribe you, ask for his name, his car or badge ID if possible and you can report him.
- If you get a ticket, call your rental car company. You will have to pay it when you drop the car off and it’s best to give your company a heads up so you can begin the payment process.
- If you do not pay your ticket, you may get stopped at the airport and not be allowed to board the plane. They may detain you so pay your ticket!
Costa Rican Driving “Lights Vocabulary”
If you see cars flashing their lights, they are actually sending a message. As a Costa Rican, this is very normal for us to see. This is what it means if you see a car flashing their lights at you.
- There is a cop ahead of you: This is very useful and it might save yourself from a ticket. If you’re on the highway and you see the car coming from the other direction flash their lights twice (one short, one long) it means that a cop is ahead of you.
- Thank you: Let’s say that the person in front of you slows down to let you pass, we usually say thank you by turning on the emergency lights for a few seconds (blink 2 or 3 times).
- Pass me: I’m not a big fan of this one but just in case you see it you’ll know what’s going on. When you drive on the main highway you’ll see big semi trucks going really slow. Since it’s hard to see, the driver will turn on his left blinker to let you know you can pass him. Like I said I don’t like this one but it’s very common.
Directions in Costa Rica
If you are driving in Costa Rica, you will see that addresses are a little different than in the United States, Canada or the UK.
Costa Ricans use referral points to get to places and these kind of directions might not work for a tourist. You’ll see addresses like “From the kids hospital turn left 3 blocks and as soon as you see the leather boots factory turn right and your destination is the second yellow building on your left.” Many times they are something like “200 meters west of the bus stop.”
You’ll find these directions all throughout the country. Main roads and destinations have signs but it’s recommended to rent a GPS or if you have a smart phone with data, download an app called WAZE. It works very well in Costa Rica.
If you rent a GPS, enter the name of your hotel, restaurant, business, etc. as your destination. You can ask the car rental agent to show you how to use the GPS and help you program your first destination.
There are a few toll booths leaving San Jose on Route 27 that range from 200-800 colones (~$.50 USD to 1.80 USD). Then there are toll booths for exits on this highway like to Jaco (180 colones), Atenas, etc.
You have to pay the Costa Rican tolls in cash. We recommend to use Costa Rican currency so you don’t have to worry about the exchange rate but if you have to use USD, you can use them but use small bills. They will give you your change back in Costa Rican colones.
You will know when tolls are coming up because there will be a sign for “Peaje” and there will be a sign with a list of prices. You just need to pay the automobile price for a car which is the first line (Automóviles liviano).
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 lleno de regular por favor (or diesel depending on the car). You can read our full guide to getting gas in Costa Rica.
If you want to see Costa Rica and explore as much as you can, driving in Costa Rica is the best way to get around. You won’t have to rely on public transportation which isn’t always reliable outside the city and you can go wherever you want. In my opinion, renting a car is the best option since you’ll save time and have more freedom. We hope our tips for driving in Costa Rica helps relieve any fears or reservations you have and now you know what to expect! Don’t forget to click below to get our Costa Rica car rental discount and get our extra benefits!
Have as much fun as you can in Costa Rica and I hope these tips for driving in Costa Rica were helpful. When it comes down to driving in Costa Rica, the most important thing is to drive defensively, don’t drink while driving and stay alert. If you have further questions, please leave a comment and we will answer you as soon as we can.
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