Renting a car is the best way to explore Costa Rica and get around. You have the flexibility, freedom and convenience of a car and you can go wherever you want! However, if you’re renting a car in Costa Rica, then you have to research beforehand how the road conditions in Costa Rica are because roads here aren’t known for being in great shape.
It’s hard to find thorough up to date information about certain destinations and routes so I created this handy guide detailing what the road conditions in Costa Rica are like. Find out if you need a 4×4, what the routes are like from both San Jose and Liberia international airports and more tips!
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Road Conditions in Costa Rica: Popular Routes and Destinations
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- Puerto Viejo
- Costa Ballena
- Central Valley
- Manuel Antonio
- Osa Peninsula
- Perez Zeledon
- Santa Teresa
- Playas del Coco
- Rio Celeste
- Rincon de la Vieja National Park
- Irazu Volcano National Park
- Palo Verde National Park
- Poas Volcano National Park
Arenal and La Fortuna
The roads around Arenal are in good condition. There are a few unpaved roads, such as the one to the national park and to some of the hotels located out in the hills but they are not that bad, just gravel.
You don’t need a 4×4 for Arenal, you can drive a sedan perfectly fine around Arenal and Fortuna.
San Jose to Arenal (3-3.5 hours)
The route from San Jose to Arenal is in good shape. It gets a bit windy and curvy after San Ramon so go slow, but you won’t run into bumpy roads or need a 4×4. You can see what the drive from San Jose to La Fortuna is like here.
Liberia to Arenal (3 hours)
Liberia to Arenal is also in good shape. You go on the InterAmericana highway 1 for a little bit from Liberia to Canas and then you will pass through Tilaran and around Nuevo Arenal. It’s a beautiful route and does get very curvy around the lake.
We have a video of us driving from Liberia to Arenal you can watch here:
Arenal to Monteverde (3 hours)
You can also drive from Arenal to Monteverde. You can go through Tilaran or get back on Highway 1. This is an unpaved road for most of it but has gorgeous views. A 4×4 is recommended since you’re driving to Monteverde where the roads in that area are not in good shape.
Monteverde is one of the destinations in Costa Rica where it is highly recommended to have a high car. Several roads around Monteverde are unpaved and has big holes. There are two main routes going to Monteverde, Route 145 (Las Juntas) and Route 606 (Sardinal). The 606 is much smoother going up the mountain with a completely asphalted road, 145 has many concrete sections but is super narrow. Read our detailed post about Monteverde road conditions for more information.
You can take either of these routes from San Jose and Liberia. Las Juntas is closer from Liberia, the Sardinal route is closer from San Jose. It takes about 3.5 hours both ways depending on how fast you drive and we recommend to go slow. We personally recommend to drive on Route 606 instead of Route 145 because 606 is in much better condition.
We have a video of us driving to Monteverde from San Jose you can watch here:
The roads around Puerto Viejo are in fairly good shape for the most part. The main road that goes into town and along the beaches is paved. There aren’t any painted lines but at least the road is paved. You can watch our video to see what the roads in Puerto Viejo are like.
San Jose to Puerto Viejo (4-5 hours)
You don’t need a 4×4 to Puerto Viejo. There are some unpaved roads around Puerto Viejo but no steep hills or that it’s so bad you will need a 4×4. We took our sedan there back in 2010 when there were a lot more unpaved roads and our car was fine.
Costa Ballena (Dominical, Uvita, Ojochal)
For the Costa Ballena in the South Pacific, it is highly recommended to have a 4×4. Though the main road through this area, the Costanera Sur is a very well paved road. In fact, this particular Costanera Sur highway has probably the best road conditions in Costa Rica! However, the roads going up into the mountains and into Ojochal town are unpaved and steep.
If your hotel is up in the mountains of Uvita or Ojochal, definitely get a 4×4. Hotels like Oxygen Jungle Villas and Manoas require a 4×4. Some restaurants like Jolly Roger also require a 4×4 s so it is worth renting one but if you plan to book a hotel/hostel in town and stay in the town area, you may not need one.
San Jose to Costa Ballena via Interamericanca 1 and Costanera Sur (~3 hours)
This route is goes part of the time on the highway which is well paved and then onto the Costanera Sur, which is a very well paved road. It is super easy to drive since there aren’t a lot of cars and it has nicely painted lines.
San Jose to Costa Ballena via Cerro de la Muerte (~3.5 hours)
The Cerro de la Muerte is the route that goes from Cartago down past San Isidro de Perez Zeledon, Platanillo and ends up in Dominical. It’s paved but super curvy (hence the name which means hill of death). It’s more straightforward to go through the Costanera Sur and you can drive a lot faster on it since it’s just a straight road instead of tons of curves.
Dominical, Uvita and Ojocal
The town of Dominical has unpaved roads but it is not too bad. Uvita has paved roads through the town and Ojochal has unpaved roads. If your hotel is up in the hills of Uvita or Ojochal, it is required to have a 4×4.
We have a video of us driving through Dominical you can see here:
Central Valley (Alajuela, San Jose, Heredia, Cartago including Grecia, San Ramon and Zarcero)
Since these are small cities, roads are paved. There are pot holes here and there (especially San Jose) but not really any unpaved roads. Most of the city Costa Ricans drive small compact cars so you don’t need a big car if you’ll be going around these areas.
Some roads may not have painted lines and raised pavement markers aren’t very common. But roads are paved with a pot hole here and there.
The roads around Manuel Antonio are paved and in good shape. There is a pretty steep hill going from Quepos to the national park but it is paved so you won’t need a 4×4, you can drive a sedan.
This route is the same as it is down to the Costa Ballena since Manuel Antonio is on the way. You’ll get onto the highway, exit at Jaco and then go all the way south on the Costanera Sur.
San Jose to Manuel Antonio (2.5-3 hours)
Depending on how traffic is getting out of San Jose, this will take roughly 2 hours. It’s all on paved roads as it’s only through major highways.
Liberia to Manuel Antonio (4 hours)
Paved road. You’ll get onto the Interamericana highway like you’re going to San Jose and then exit at the same exit on the highway to Jaco.
Tamarindo to Manuel Antonio (5 hours)
The best route from Tamarindo to Manuel Antonio is via Route 21, Route 18 (Friendship Bridge), Route 1 and Route 34. All paved roads.
Jaco town has one of the nicest roads with painted lines and even parking lines! Make sure to pay attention to the parking signs because the police does give parking tickets. You can see what the town looks like in this video:
But there are a couple spots outside of Jaco that do require a 4×4 if you want to explore. The road is the one that goes up to Rainforest Adventures and continues through the mountain.
But if you don’t plan to go to those spots, you don’t need a high car at all.
San Jose to Jaco (1.5 hours)
Route goes onto the highway, past Tarcoles bridge and to Jaco. Great well paved road.
Liberia to Jaco (~3 hours)
Same route as Liberia to Manuel Antonio as Jaco is just 1 hour north of Manuel Antonio.
Tamarindo to Jaco (4 hours)
Same as the route from Tamarindo to Manuel Antonio.
As a very remote destination in Costa Rica, a 4wd/4×4 is absolutely necessary. The main road down to the Osa Peninsula from the east side (Puerto Jimenez) is all paved but that’s it, it ends in town.
The main road to Puerto Jimenez is very nicely paved since it goes from the Costanera Sur, past Palmar and all the way down south but it ends once you get to town.
The road to Carate/Matapalo is extremely bumpy and has a ton of holes. If you’re going all the way to Carate, make sure you check tides because there’s a couple of rivers and in rainy season, they get very full.
Drake Bay road is very bumpy and has one of the worst road conditions in Costa Rica. You can drive it in dry season but you do need to cross a couple of rivers so it is recommended not to drive at all, especially in rainy season. In rainy season, you can even get rained in since the rivers may flood! You should take the boat from Sierpe to Drake Bay instead.
The roads to Perez Zeledon are on well paved roads as you go by way from Cartago and the route Cerro de la Muerte. The roads around town are paved and if you go outside of town, there are some unpaved roads but nothing too bad.
From Perez Zeledon, you can keep going on the Cerro de la Muerte road down to Dominical.
The roads around Tamarindo are in good shape. You don’t need a 4×4 and can rent a sedan if you’re only staying in Tamarindo or the area.
You can see what Playa Tamarindo looks like in this video:
Liberia to Tamarindo (1 hour)
All on a well paved road. A section of it doesn’t have lines or street lights so drive carefully as that part is also a little curvy.
San Jose to Tamarindo (4 hours)
This route goes by way of the Friendship bridge and is all paved. A lot of it doesn’t have painted lines or lights but it’s all paved.
There are some roads to nearby beaches that have bumpy roads. The road to Playa Avellana, Negra, Junquillal and to the JW Marriott is on a bumpy unpaved road. But they recently re-did the first section so it’s a lot better. You can drive a sedan but you will need to go slow to avoid all the holes, it’ll be a very bumpy ride.
We recommend getting a SUV to go to Ostional as that road is extremely bumpy. Update 2019: They have now built a small bridge over the last river before reaching town. We still recommend a high car in rainy season but in dry season, a standard car can make it and they fill the pot holes. It’ll be a bumpy drive so if you’re visiting in rainy season when the holes get big, a high car is best for that area.
Once you enter Ostional, the town has some paved roads but most of it is still unpaved.
Samara town has paved roads and doesn’t require a 4×4. A section is unpaved but it is nothing bad and can be driven to with a sedan. Make sure you take the route through Nicoya when driving from Liberia as it’s all paved.
Santa Teresa/Mal Pais/Montezuma
From San Jose, the best route is to take the Puntarenas ferry to Paquera. That route is completely paved and the road from the Paquera ferry to Montezuma is paved. Beyond Montezuma starting at Cabuyal towards Mal Pais and Santa Teresa, the road is not paved at all. For Santa Teresa and Mal Pais, it is recommended to have a 4wd.
You can get by without a 4×4. The road up to the Turrialba Volcano National Park is mostly paved, the last several kilometers are dirt but not bad. It gets unpaved around Guayabo monument but it is nothing horrible.
Playas del Coco/Hermosa/Ocotal/Panama
The Gulf of Papagayo and Playas del Coco beaches are easily accessible via Liberia and on a good road. You can see what Playas del Coco town looks like here:
The roads to the other beaches nearby like Hermosa, Ocotal, Panama and Four Seasons are all on a good road as well. There are just some “hidden” beaches that require a 4×4 like Playa Iguanita.
If you’re staying at the Riu Guanacaste, you don’t need a 4×4.
Liberia to Coco (20 minutes)
Super easy short drive on a well paved road.
San Jose to Coco (4 hours)
Tenorio Volcano National Park (Rio Celeste)
There are 2 ways to Tenorio Volcano National Park: from La Fortuna or Liberia in Guanacaste. Both ways now have freshly new paved roads to the national park, with only an short unpaved section.
You can watch in the video below hat the road is like from Bijagua to the entrance of the park. As of December 2018, the road from Bijagua to Tenorio Volcano National Park is completely paved!
La Fortuna (1.5 hours)
This route takes you by way of Guatuso and Upala and is unpaved for a small section to the national park entrance but is a very nice and beautiful route.
Liberia (1 hour)
Rincon de la Vieja National Park
The road to both sector entrances of the Rincon de la Vieja National Park are unpaved but you don’t necessarily need a 4×4 since it’s a flat road. We drove our sedan once and though super bumpy, we made it.
Irazu Volcano National Park
You can drive a sedan up to Irazu Volcano National Park from San Jose, the road is all paved. It is a bit curvy as you’re going high up into the mountains of Cartago.
Palo Verde National Park
Though this road to Palo Verde National Park is unpaved, no 4×4 is necessary since it’s flat with no hills.
Poas Volcano National Park
The road up to Poas Volcano National Park is completely paved but narrow and curvy. Drive slowly!
La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Peace Lodge
The road to Peace Lodge and La Paz Waterfall Gardens is completely paved but is narrow, curvy and windy. Make sure to drive slowly, especially in rainy season.
Now you know what the road conditions in Costa Rica are like for popular destinations and routes and it will help make your trip planning a lot easier since you know what to expect!