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.
In this post, we will share how the road conditions are for popular routes. Planning on renting a car? Get our car rental discount!
Costa Rica Road Conditions: Popular Routes and Destinations
Arenal and La Fortuna
When it comes to Costa Rica road conditions, the roads to La Fortuna are fairly good. There are a few unpaved roads in the Arenal area such as the one to Arenal Volcano 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. There may be some big potholes once you get around the lake so watch out.
We have a video of us driving from Tamarindo to La Fortuna 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 4wd/4×4 is recommended.
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). 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 have a video of us driving to Monteverde from San Jose you can watch here:
Now for Puerto Viejo, it has fairly good Costa Rica road conditions in town. 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.
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.
The road from San Jose to Puerto Viejo is on a major highway, route 32 and even passes through Braulio Carrillo National Park but it is all on a well paved road with lines.
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 mountains or if you want to explore this area, it is required to have a 4×4.
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.
Some hotels in the mountains outside the cities may have unpaved roads but most of them are not too bad. I would check with the hotel just in case if yours is out in the hills.
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.
If Manuel Antonio is the only destination you’re going to, or Jaco + Manuel Antonio from San Jose, you can rent a sedan for your whole trip.
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.
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.
So if you’re only visiting Jaco from either San Jose or Liberia, you can rent a sedan.
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 in the heart of rainy season.
In peak rainy season months like September – November, 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. This road is paved but super narrow and curvy so drive carefully.
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.
If you plan to visit other beaches around like Conchal and Flamingo, a sedan is fine too. If you plan to go down south to Negra, Junquillal, San Juanillo or further, a 4wd is recommended.
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 is all paved and goes mostly on the highway.
From Liberia to Ostional, it is about a 2.5 hour drive via Route 21 and Route 160. From Tamarindo, we take Route 160 going down the coast.
We recommend getting a SUV to go to Ostional as that road is extremely bumpy being unpaved with lots of potholes. There are some steep hills and there is a river before you reach Ostional.
This bridge is sometimes under construction because it’s not the best quality so if you are visiting in peak rainy season months like October and November, check the Ostional Guide Association Facebook page for updates. You can watch the video below (the one for Nosara) to see how the road is to Ostional and the river.
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 (Route 21 and Route 150).
A 4×4/4wd is required for Nosara. The best way is via Route 160 and this road is completely unpaved all the way through. You have to cross two rivers to get to Nosara. You can watch our video of driving from Tamarindo to Nosara below (Mid April).
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/4×4.
If you are coming from Liberia, make sure to take paved road around the Nicoya Peninsula (route 21). There is no road going straight down the coast connecting Liberia to Santa Teresa completely.
4×4 highly recommended the last section of the road towards Turrialba Volcano National Park is not paved and goes up the mountains.
Playas del Coco/Hermosa/Ocotal/Panama
The Gulf of Papagayo including Playas del Coco are easily accessible and on a good road. The road to other beaches like Hermosa, Panama and Ocotal is also on a good road. A 4×4 is not necessary for the Riu Guanacaste Resort.
Rio Celeste (Tenorio Volcano National Park and Bijagua)
There are 2 ways to Rio Celeste in 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.
It is still recommended to have a 4wd/4×4 for Rio Celeste in the rainy season because it is kind of hilly and gets slippery when it’s wet.
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.
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!