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 international airports SJO and LIR 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 also 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 is highly recommended to have a 4×4 and is required in rainy season because the roads around Monteverde are unpaved and has big holes. The routes up to Monteverde have a section where it is steep, bumpy with lots of holes and curvy.
Both routes to Monteverde, Las Juntas and Sardinal have a section of 20 kilometers or so that is unpaved and goes around the mountains so it is highly recommended to get a 4×4. In rainy season, the holes get bigger and you will need to have a 4×4 for more traction.
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 how traffic is.
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 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, all 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 the 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 mostly all 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 -2.5 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)
Go by way of the friendship bridge, it’s faster than going to Liberia. All paved roads in good condition.
Jaco town has one of the nicest roads with painted lines and even parking lines! 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 viewpoint up to the abandoned white building requires a 4×4 (or you can walk, a lot of people hike up) and the waterfalls up in the mountains require a 4×4. 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 can rent a sedan and drive that fine.
San Jose to Jaco (~1 hour)
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, a4×4 is absolutely necessary. The main road down to the Osa Peninsula from the east side (Puerto Jimenez) is all paved but that’s it.
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 very bumpy. 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 rainy season since you could get rained in. You should take the boat from Sierpe 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. The road to Playa Langosta is unpaved but they are planning on paving it soon (it has been in the works for awhile). The road to Playa Avellanas and Negra are unpaved and gets pretty bumpy in rainy season.
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 and there is a river right before you enter the town. If you visit during rainy season, the river may be too high to cross. We visited in November 2017 and we couldn’t cross so everyone parked before the river and walked the last 2 kilometers (a little over a mile). ***Please note that river crossing is not covered under any type of car rental insurance. If your rental car gets damaged from crossing a river, no insurance will cover this damge.***
The road gets bumpy as soon as you turn left from the road along Playa Junquillal and San Juanillo. If you’re going to that area, specifically towards Playa San Juanillo, it is highly recommended to have a 4×4. It gets pretty hilly and is completely unpaved the entire way.
Once you enter Ostional, the town has some paved roads but most of it is still unpaved.
Santa Teresa/Mal Pais/Montezuma
Even if you’re taking the ferry and going through Cobano, rent a 4×4. The section is mostly paved but there are some that are not and the roads around Santa Teresa and Montezuma are largely unpaved and are dirt roads.
If you’re driving all the way around (not taking the ferry), make sure you keep on the road towards the ferry so you have more paved roads. It’s longer but is in much better condition.
If you are using Waze, make sure it takes you all the way around the Nicoya Peninsula and not the shortcut. The shortcut has very bad roads and gets washed out in rainy season or flooded since there are around 5-6 rivers to cross.
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 is 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, you don’t need a 4×4. It’s a bumpy road but nothing too bad and no hills.
Liberia to Coco (20 minutes)
Super easy short drive on a well paved road.
San Jose to Coco (3.5 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 make it in with a sedan if you go very slow but during rainy season, we do recommend a 4×4 or 4wd.
You can watch in the video below hat the road is like from Bijagua to the entrance of the park.
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. You can also go by way of Tilaran, Canas and InterAmericana highway 1.
Liberia (1 hour)
Rincon de la Vieja National Park
Irazu Volcano National Park
Palo Verde National Park
Poas Volcano and La Paz waterfalls
All great roads, well paved. No lines and gets very curvy so be careful (there have been major accidents).
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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!
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