When planning our trip to Costa Rica, my dad and I waffled briefly over whether to splurge on a rental car or get around by public bus. Ultimately, we decided to rent a car and drive ourselves around the country. This was the right decision for us, but we definitely learned a thing or two about renting a car and driving in Costa Rica. If you’re thinking of doing the same, we’d like to pass along the following tidbits of wisdom:
Rent a 4WD vehicle.
Unless you plan on sticking near San Juan or any specifically established city, you will need a four-wheel-drive vehicle. We were originally just going to rent a basic car, but when we mentioned that we wanted to head up to Monteverde and La Fortuna (heavily traveled areas), the guy at the car rental place strongly suggested we go with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. I’m really glad we listened to him.
If you suspect a road might be unpaved, it will not only be unpaved but is very likely practically impassable. Log truck roads in the United States are in better condition that a few of the roads we drove on. For miles on end, we drove over boulders and avoided potholes the size of small cows. I read a description for one of the roads we drove that strongly suggested those with neck and back problems avoid using it.
Simply put, without a 4WD, your options for getting around are limited.
It takes a long time to get anywhere.
These underdeveloped roads combined with windy, one-lane roads mean that it takes a long time to get anywhere. What you think might be a two-hour drive can easily take five or six hours. Always give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination, and don’t try to cram too much into a single day unless you’ll be staying within a very limited area.
Watch out for bridges.
There are many small bridges in Costa Rica that cross streams and ditches. These bridges are generally only wide enough for a single car, and they are marked as such. One side of the bridge or the other will have a yield sign, and drivers on that side will be expected to wait on that side until all traffic coming the other direction has passed over the bridge. There is no standard rule regarding what side of the bridge has the yield sign, so keep your eyes open as you approach, just in case you’re the one who has to yield.
Don’t expect to get around based on street signs. They are few and far between. Instead, people find their way around by landmarks. Ask directions when you necessary and take note of specific landmarks—a blue sign, a green building, the farm with the red house. Get a good map and use it as a guide, but still rely on local advice. Roads noted as developed may be gaping with holes and thin lines that barely represent roads may be well developed.
Measure distances by kilometers … sort of.
The other reason why you should pay attention to landmarks that people mention when asking directions is because distances are all relevant. First of all, Costa Rica uses kilometers, not miles, so keep that in mind. But you can ask two different people standing in the exact same location how far away something is, and they could very well give you two very, very different answers … but they’ll both agree there’s a blue sign, green house or a farm with a red house.
If you are lucky enough to happen across a street sign that notes distances, don’t take these numbers as gospel either. Everything is approximate.
Stop for gas when you can.
Gas stations are few and between, so when you hit half a tank, stop for gas when you can. Cities with gas stations are noted on some maps. If a city has a gas station marked, assume it only has one. Don’t look for the lowest price; just fill up when possible.
Take note of where your rental car return is.
You’ll likely be a bit overwhelmed and excited when you arrive in Costa Rica, but set all that aside for a few moments to take careful note of where your rental car company is located. You’ll probably take a shuttle to the office, and then you’ll just drive off once you have your car, eager to get started with your vacation, but if you don’t take time to note local landmarks and how to get to the office, you will likely struggle to find it when you attempt to return your car several days later. Because street signs and addresses are basically only suggestions, it’s essential to note landmarks. What way did you turn when you left the main road? What hotels or businesses are nearby? These might seem like small details now, but you’ll be glad you made note later.
We definitely learned a lot about renting a car in Costa Rica, but our number one tip is that you should do it. Yes, you need a certain kind of vehicle and it can be a bit of a struggle to get around, but that’s just a part of the adventure. Having a car offers you unlimited freedom to go where you want, when you want. Though hopping around the country by bus might be more economical, the flexibility you gain from renting a car far outweighs what you pay for it. When we go back, I have no doubt we’ll rent again.