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8 Essential things to know about driving in Costa Rica

If you come across this article, chances are you want to drive in Costa Rica but the idea scares you. To ensure safety, this article covers all you need to know about how driving in your rental car in Costa Rica actually works.
Traffic in Costa Rica is no different from what you are used to in your native country: right-hand traffic, classical stop, yield road signs, and so on. First off, let’s start with the basics:
In Costa Rica, vehicles drive on the right-handed side of the road in Costa Rica;
Spanish is used on road signs, yet you will easily recognize the familiar shapes on them. What might be challenging is locating those signs on the road;
Costa Rica uses kilometers (common on speed limit signs) and liters as you fill up your tank;
The minimum age to drive in Costa Rica is 18 years old. Car Rental Costa Rica, however, sets its own minimum age, ranging from 21 to 23, on average.

Can tourists drive in Costa Rica?

drive in Costa Rica - tourist

The answer is yes and many tourists are driving in Costa Rica. All tourists in Costa Rica are allowed to drive on the roads provided they have a valid driver's license, for driving your rental car in Costa Rica.So, just make sure you have your driver's license, which doesn't have to be an international one, your passport, and a valid tourist visa. That's it, no big deal! You may want to get a rental car to drive around in Costa Rica. This allows much more flexibility, and makes you save a lot of time and energy. That way, your travel will be more enjoyable and you can drive serenely in your rental car on the roads of Costa Rica.

Is it difficult driving in Costa Rica?

Daytime driving in Costa Rica is very simple on the road

When non-residents are driving around in their rental cars in Costa Rica, it can be intimidating and it's totally normal. Truth is, it follows the same logic as what you are familiar with back in your native country, so if you are a confident driver, then there's nothing to worry about. You may simply need to learn or review a bit of Spanish, as road signs are all in Spanish.

Costa Rica Road Signs

Here are a few common words and phrases you will need to remember.

  • ALTO, for stop;
  • VELOCIDAD MAXIMA, for speed limit;
  • CEDA EL PASO, for yield;
  • DESPACIO, for slow;
  • UNA VIA, for one way;
  • PUENTE ANGOSTO, for narrow bridge;
  • NO ESTACIONAR, for no parking;
  • CARRETERA EN MAL ESTADO, warning about a road in a bad condition;
  • NO HAY PASO, meaning do not enter;
  • NO VIRAR EN U, for no U turns.

The good news, when it comes to road signs in Costa Rica, is that you will easily recognize the symbols used. Just to name a few, stop signs are red octagons while yield signs are red and white triangles. Words printed only add clarification to road signs.

Driving in Costa Rica: Cities vs. Rural Areas

Driving in Costa Rica is different, depending on where you are. Main roads in big cities, such as San Jose and San Ramon, are generally in good condition — well-paved and few potholes. One thing that may astonish when you are driving on the roads of costa rica, is that roundabouts look messy as drivers just go when it’s free. When you are driving in Costa Rica, you will have to pay attention to speed bumps on the highways, because most of the time there is no warning.
In big cities, including San Jose, during rush hour, traffic may be frustrating on the roads, so you will need to be very patient. Bikers are everywhere and may appear from nowhere. Other drivers may fail to yield the right of way. Pedestrians may cross the road anytime and anywhere. And in the middle of all when you go driving, you will have to be careful with potholes on the roads. You will get used to this sort of road culture soon enough.
In rural areas, only main roads are well paved. Markings are scarce, and sidewalks are quasi-inexistant. There is only one lane, so overtakings should be done with a lot of precaution. You will not have to deal with heavy traffic, but instead, you will need to watch out for animals and pedestrians on the road in Costa Rica. There is usually no bike line, so you need to be careful as you pass bikers.

What should I avoid in Costa Rica?

The Most Important Tips for drive safely in Costa Rica

  • Driving in Costa Rica may cause you a lot of problems if you do not take the right precautions. You may end up in a car accident out of a simple misunderstanding, or we can immobilize your car. You may get pulled over for a ticket. In short, you may get in trouble, such a bad experience for visitors. Follow these simple tips to have an enjoyable driving experience in Costa Rica.
  • Do not drink or take drugs when you driving. If you are going to go somewhere for a drink, it is better if you have a backup plan, as it is a terrible idea. You may get tickets or even go to jail for that;
  • Make sure your doors of the car are locked before you drive;
  • Remember that the right of way is not always respected in Costa Rica, and all you can do is be careful on the road. This applies as you drive at an intersection or even in a parking lot;
  • Know that turn signals are not enough if you want to change lanes. You will need to look more than twice to safely move to the other lane;
  • Do not panic if pedestrians look as though they are going to run into your car as they want to cross the road. They are used to cars not stopping, but remain careful. If you let them cross the road, make sure you turn on your emergency lights, so other cars know you are stopping;
  • Be careful when you drive at intersections. Other drivers may not warn you as they try to squeeze in front of you;
  • Always expect to hit potholes on the roads;
  • Most roads only have one lane, so only overtake when your turn signals are on and that you are sure no other car is on the other side. If you do not have a clear view of cars driving on the other side, do not pass. Wait until the road is free;
  • Make sure you always respect the speed limits, even when other drivers do not;
  • Be careful when you cross rivers, which is by the way quite common in rural areas, as for rental cars, water damage is not covered by insurance. Flash floods are also common in rainy seasons. Safety comes first in these situations;
  • If possible, long road trips are to be avoided at night. It is always better to search for nearby hotels and stay for the night;
  • If you ever have an accident, call 911 and your car rental company the soonest possible. Be careful with anyone who would try to help you, as he or she might be a scammer targeting tourists;
  • Also call your car rental company if you ever get a ticket. You will have to pay the ticket;
  • If you get pulled over by a police officer, “No hablo Espanõl” may be needed. Remember they will check your passport, driver’s license, and tourist visa. There should not be any problem if you do not have anything illegal with you;
  • Make sure you have local currency (CRC) with you for paying your tolls. Toll booths accept USD and credit cards, but rate exchanges may annoy you;
  • Remember that gas stations do not offer self-service, so you may say “leno de regular por favor” to the attendant.

How long does it take to drive around Costa Rica?

travel time to drive in Costa Rica

Driving around Costa Rica may take longer than you expect for a small country, mainly due to road conditions. It will take you four hours to travel from La Fortuna to Monteverde, for a short distance of 15 kilometers. Below is an estimation of example drive times from San Jose:

  • San Jose to Arenal: 2 hours and a half;
  • San Jose to Bocas del Toro: 8 hours;
  • San Jose to Cahuita: 4 hours;
  • San Jose to Liberia: 3 hours;
  • San Jose to Limon: 3 hours;
  • San Jose to San Carlos: 2 hours and a half.

What is the price of gasoline in Costa Rica? 

The price of gasoline in Costa Rica is set by the state. So while gasoline is a major expense in your vacation budget, the good news is that no matter if you go to a gas station in San Jose, Jaco, La Fortuna or the airport, the prices will be the same.

As in France, gasoline is measured in liters. The average price of gasoline in Costa Rica is $5 a gallon of gas, or about 1.4$ USD and 1.35€ in France. Compared to the United States, it’s expensive and your wallet may take a hit, so plan accordingly.

In Costa Rica, you can pay by credit card or cash. It's probably a blessing in disguise, but be aware that in Costa Rica you will not pump your own gas. Someone will do it for you, but make sure the tank has been properly filled before you pay that person.


Do I need a 4x4 to drive in Costa Rica?4x4 to drive in Costa Rica

As you drive around Costa Rica, you should expect poor road conditions—potholes, mountainous terrain, and river crossing are all included. So, a 4x4 will work better, more versatile and practical on the worst kinds of roads. But renting a 4x4 is much more expensive than a standard rental car. Therefore, we recommend you inquire about your destinations before you choose your best fit. If you are planning on staying in San Jose where roads are well-paved, you may want to get a standard car, but if you are planning on exploring rural areas, a 4x4 renta car is necessary in Costa Rica.