Driving in Costa Rica

A swallow-tailed kite soars above the landscape of Costa Rica

Driving in Costa Rica is highly recommended (by me, at least!). It’s a fabulous country to explore and having a vehicle gives you the freedom to break free of public transport schedules and tour groups and do what you want, when you want. Other drivers seem quite patient and tend to drive quite slowly, making the experience somewhat enjoyable and, crucially, it’s easy to adapt when picking the car up and taking your first drive. The only exception to this is San Jose at rush hour – we found ourselves going through it three times (we never learn) – and basically you just stand still for a couple of hours and then everything magically clears.  With this in mind, one significant tip to note is that San Jose control freight traffic – they are not allowed in the city centre until 9am so basically:

a) people tend to start work at 8am in San Jose, late-comers strggle in until 8:30.


b) If you can time your trip through the city centre from 8:30am to 8:50am you should ‘sail through’ and miss most of the traffic (we can inform you of this in hindsight having cracked it the 3rd time round!). This is very useful information if you’re driving the airport in the morning.

As we were travelling in the green (wet) season we hired a 4×4 from Vamos. I have never driven a 4×4 and was initially quite nervous of it, but I relished it once I got behind the wheel. I loved driving on gravel tracks, dodging and weaving potholes, drifting around corners and swerving to avoid snakes – it’s a much more exciting experience that I ever get on an inner city ring road!

One thing to expect / prepare for, is that as you increase your elevation, clouds roll in incredibly quickly. If you couple this with hard, driving rain and very windy roads with few markings,  you have yourself a challenging situation – which is nothing to worry about, just proceed carefully and slowly (everyone else will be doing likewise)!

We hired a sat nav (we got it free when ‘liking’ Vamos on facebook) – this was a godsend. Once you are off the main highway there is very little in the way of signage – though, to be fair, there are very little opportunities to turn off – it’s one road and you follow that until the end. However, the roads can quickly disintegrate into nothing more than a gravel trap or forest dirt track, and you will find ourself wondering if you are going the right way. This is when the sat nav comes into its own – it encourages you to carry on when you’re likely to quit and it’s right to do so, especially in the dead of night. Accompanying the sat nav was a book of ‘Eze-codes’ listing all major hotels, attractions and locations. It was  merely a case of locating the code and popping it into the sat nav – and off you went. Eze-peezy! This is what ‘saved us’ when trying to locate our hotel in the dead of night.

On this subject – we were warned not to travel at night, but this is less for security reasons and more for life saving reasons. Due to us mis-timing a trip through San Jose, and then taking 1.5 hour de-tour to find petrol, we found ourselves climbing the hillsides of Costa Rica to get to Santa Clara in the dead of night. This would have been ok if it was not for the people who walk the streets at night with no illumination (you have to swerve to avoid them) – couple this with abandoned dogs wandering the highways, thick clouds rolling in and potholes the depth of mini wells, and you have one heck of a challenging drive. Miraculously we made our way up the windy roads, avoiding plummeting to our death down the mountainside  in thick cloud – but we did not realise just how perilous the journey had been until we did the reverse trip in daylight! It was sobering to say the least.

On this note – many car hire companies do not allow you to take the vehicle to Monteverde because the roads are so bad. Please do ensure that you look for this in the small print before you travel – because it is well worth the journey but your car will suffer – so don’t risk it, as you risk a very hefty excess payment at the end of the trip, instead – choose a provider how allows the car to be taken there.  Please also be aware, it is also not an exaggeration that there are no petrol stations in Monteverde! Whilst some maps might show a petrol station – it is physically still there, but not operational. You therefore need to heed all warnings from car hire companies that you MUST fill up before you get there at the last available station – something we failed to do on account of losing our bearings and thinking we were much closer than we were – the result – we had to ‘watch’ the petrol ferociously during our 4 day stay there and just about got down off the mountain and into a petrol station in time to prevent the car from coughing to death on sand.

That reminds me – tarmac – whilst you have it, adore it! It’s a distant memory as soon as your turn off the Pan American Highway. You don’t necessarily need a 4×4 in terms of off road capability – but we were incredibly relieved that we’d hired one for the clearance it provided us with when bounding over pothole after pothole, swerving around boulders on mountain gravel traps and dodging off-road to avoid wildlife.

Safety wise, we never felt threatened – quite the opposite. Locals would holler and run after the car at the first sign of mechanical trouble to warn us ( we had a spectacular puncture on our trip back from Torteguero). We were, however, warned not to leave anything visible in the car – with a 4×4 with a non concealed boot this proved be a challenge.  When we were in the situation of having to leave luggage in the car – we were relieved that we had huge towels to cover the bags, and we always parked the car in sight of a shop or local tourist attraction that we frequented.

Our car hire was great value for money – we cannot fault it. We grew to love our wee 4×4 (and the colony of ants who lived in it and accompanied us on our every journey). To put you in the picture – when we picked the car up, there were simply too many scratches and dents to report on the inspection report – we knew then what type of a country Costa Rica was an how many adventures we’d have along the way. This pretty much set the scene for our expectations and experiences driving around this amazing country.

Go, explore! Photos from our Costa Rica adventure are now available on-line.


  1. This week we started researching a trip to Costa Rica in July, and one of big concerns was driving during the rainy season. Would it be safe with our six year old boy in tow? Your post is extremely helpful in letting us know the things to consider – 4×4, driving at night, road conditions. BTW, I wouldn’t be surprised if that tire puncture was not an accident – we’ve read about a common scam where your tire gets slashed, and when you stop by the side of the road in some out-of-the way spot…. Well, it sounds like things worked out and you got a great deal at that dentist-mechanic shop, Thanks!

  2. We had no problems at all when we travelled in the rainy season in June and I do not think that you’d have any issues. Just take it easy on the gravel roads.

    I would, however, say that the humidity at this time of the year is off the scale, so I’d recommend a car with A/C to keep your little one cool.

    You might find this post helpful – it details some of the benefits of travelling in the rainy season. http://www.tarajiblue.com/2011/08/the-benefits-of-travelling-to-costa-rica-in-the-green-season/

    Enjoy Costa Rica, it’s an incredible place.

  3. Thanks for posting this information. I am intimidated by the idea of driving in Costa Rica because of the negative reports. Now I am rethinking my decision. Also, the pictures were wonderful.

  4. Hi there, thanks for such great advice. My family of four are planning a trip in January and we want to see as much as possible in the week. Did you pre-book hotels or just find them as you went along? Also, is eating out expense or reasonable?
    Would love to hear more about your trip.

  5. We pre-booked all our accommodation – though, we largely stayed in self catering accommodation with the exception of Tortuguero.

    Apart from in Moneteverde and Tortuguero we did not eat out much – we tended to try and make our own food in our accommodation. Though when we did eat out we found it reasonable and very delicious. I can recommend a few restaurants:
    1. The Bubba cafe in Tortuguero – my review is on trip advisor here http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g309268-d1821983-r117197758-Budda_Cafe-Tortuguero_Province_of_Limon.html
    2. Miss Miriam’s in Tortguguero – my rveiew is on Trip advisor here – http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g309268-d1995778-r117198016-Miss_Miriam_s-Tortuguero_Province_of_Limon.html
    3. Chimera in Santa Elena – one of our best meals ever! My review is on trip advisor here http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g644053-d1156833-r116703606-Chimera-Santa_Elena_Monteverde_Province_of_Puntarenas.html

    I have also written reviews of accommodation on trip advisor – please see the links below
    a. Los Pinos – Cabanas y Jardines in Monteverde http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g309277-d644744-r116704485-Los_Pinos_Cabanas_y_Jardines-Monteverde_Cloud_Forest_Reserve_Monteverde_Province_.html
    b. Casa Marbella in Tortuguero http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g309268-d310537-r117197521-Casa_Marbella-Tortuguero_Province_of_Limon.html

    I hope this helps!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.