Driving in Costa Rica is the best way to get around the country.

Driving in Costa Rica: Everything You Need to Know

Welcome to the enchanting land of Costa Rica, where every road leads to a new adventure. If you’re planning on driving in Costa Rica, buckle up for an experience like no other. This guide is your roadmap. It’ll cover the ins and outs of navigating the Pura Vida roads, covering everything from road signs to rental cars and the unique driving requirements in this tropical paradise.

What You Need to Know for a Safe Driving Experience

Driving in Costa Rica may take you on this rural dirt road to Rainmaker park.

Important Things to Know About Driving in Costa Rica

I have driven in a few foreign countries as a US citizen. To me, it’s always a little nerve-racking navigating in a new place, where the language and signage are different from what I am used to. That being said, driving in Costa Rica overall is not difficult. I drove in Costa Rica solo, and I was a passenger with friends. 

My Top Tips

🚘 Map out your route ahead of time, whether this is using an old-school paper map, or a GPS. I used Google Maps with very few issues. But be extra prepared because Google may send you down some dirt roads you are not expecting.

🚘 Avoid driving at night if possible. You’re in unfamiliar territory and navigating wildlife, potholes, and other obstructions is exponentially more difficult in the dark. Sometimes there’s no avoiding it but if possible, I recommend it.

Driving in Costa Rica comes with its own set of challenges, but with the right mindset, you’ll navigate them like a local. Renting a car opens up the possibility of exploring Costa Rica at your own pace. Here’s what you need to know to be successful. 

If driving in Costa Rica, it's important to understand road signs like this one.
Photo by Jay Galvin

Costa Rica Road Signs

Costa Rican road signs may seem like an exotic language of their own. Understanding these signs is crucial for a smooth journey. Understanding a few common words and signs will make driving in Costa Rica that much easier. 

Here are some common signs you may encounter in Costa Rica:

  • Yellow Triangle with Exclamation Mark – Slow and proceed with caution
  • Rectangular Blue Signs with White Arrow – Signifies the direction of traffic. This will help you differentiate between one and two-way streets.
  • Red Octagon with “Alto” – Stop
  • Red & White Triangle with Ceda – Yield

Other Spanish words you will see on Costa Rica road signs include:

  • Despacio = Slow
  • Velocidad maxima = Maximum Speed. For my fellow Americans, please note that these will be in kilometers, not miles!
  • No estacionar = No Parking
  • Puente angosto = Narrow Bridge
  • Una via = One Way
  • No hay paso = Do Not Enter
  • Calle sin salida = Dead End
  • Desvio = Detour
If driving in Costa Rica, you'll find paved roads like this in Tamarindo.
A road in Tamarindo

Driving in Cities vs Rural Areas in Costa Rica

Driving in San Jose and Costa Rica Cities

In Costa Rica’s cities, roads are paved, and you’ll have familiar street lights and sidewalks. Most lanes are also painted. Like most cities, traffic here can get a little crazy, and certain intersections or roundabouts can be stressful to navigate. 

Driving in Costa Rica – Rural Areas

In more rural areas, some roads will be paved and others will not. This can get tricky when following Google and Apple Maps, where roads look normal in the app, but turn out to be more of the dirt variety in real life. 

Costa Rica boasts rich biodiversity, and animals may cross roads unexpectedly. It’s not uncommon to see sloths, monkeys, and other critters sharing the road with you. Drive cautiously, especially in national parks and rural areas.

These roads are, in general, less maintained so be cognizant of potholes, uneven terrain, unexpected curves, and unfamiliar things like narrow, one-lane bridges.

Speed Limits and Speeding

The speed limit on highways is 80 km/h or 50 mph on average, but they can vary. When driving in Costa Rica, always check road signs for specific limits.

One difference, depending on where you are visiting from, is that they measure the speed limit in kilometers in Costa Rica. On highways, the speed limit will vary between 25mph or 40 km/h and 74mph or 120 km/h. Just like at home, speed limits will be lower on secondary roads and in school or hospital zones.

Do your best to avoid speeding when driving in Costa Rica. The police do give out tickets to foreign drivers and tickets can cost you $300-$400 on average. 

Sometimes when driving in Costa Rica you have to deal with fog and rain.
Foggy, rainy weather in Costa Rica

Costa Rica Weather: Rainy Season – Washouts and Landslides

Costa Rica’s weather can be as diverse as its landscapes, impacting your driving experience. One big thing to consider is which season you are visiting during. 

How does the rainy season affect driving in Costa Rica?

From May to November, expect heavy rainfall. Roads can get slippery, and landslides are common, so exercise caution and plan accordingly. This is less of a concern on major highways where they maintain the roads better. Rural and unpaved roads can be challenging or impossible to navigate. We’ll talk more about river crossing later, but attempting to pass through flooded roads can be very dangerous and costly, especially if you are renting a car.

Are there any areas prone to fog?

Yes, in higher altitudes, especially around Monteverde, you might encounter dense fog. Use low-beam headlights and drive at a reduced speed.

Sometimes when tourists drive in Costa Rica, they make the decision to cross a river.

River Crossing

I am not one to scare my fellow travelers or write sensational content for clicks, but the truth is that river crossings can destroy your vehicle, or even result in injury or death. It’s not something to take lightly, especially if you are unfamiliar with the area and the car you are driving.

Luckily, as tourism has grown in Costa Rica, they have built more bridges to avoid river fording. This alone has made driving in Costa Rica a little easier over the years.

That being said, in certain areas like the Osa and Nicoya peninsulas, heavy rain still floods unpaved, rural roads. When I visited Costa Rica, it was not the rainy season, but I still came across areas that were damaged by previous heavy storms and therefore impassable. In one instance, a road that showed as accessible on Google was not, and I instead drove an extra two hours to get to my destination.

If driving in Costa Rica and deciding where to cross a river, always take into consideration the depth of the water and the current. Rental car insurance does not cover water damage under any circumstances, so it’s likely not worth it if you’re on the fence. 

What to Do if You Have an Accident Or Get a Ticket

Call 911 in case of emergencies. Costa Rica has a well-established emergency response system. If you are driving in Costa Rica with a rental car, phone the rental car company. 

Beyond this, the best thing to do is to stay put. It is against the law in Costa Rica to move your vehicle after being in an accident. This is true even if you are blocking traffic. The police will come to investigate and properly assess the damage, if any. Your rental car company should be able to provide a replacement vehicle if needed.

If you receive a speeding ticket, a parking ticket, or any other driving violation, you need to pay the ticket to the rental car company. The company will provide a receipt for proof of payment that you may need later on.

Police checkpoints can be common and nothing to be worried about if you're driving in Costa Rica.

What to Do if a Police Officer Stops You

Checkpoints are routine, and even common near international borders. Most of the time, they will wave through rental cars with tourists. In some cases, they may ask to see your passport or ask where you are headed. As long as you cooperate, you have nothing to worry about.

It is legal for police to ask both tourists and residents for paperwork like a driver’s license, passport, or visa. You can always tell an officer, “No hablo Español” if you do not speak Spanish. Unlike in other countries, police do not typically target tourists for bribes, and it is illegal. If an officer does try to bribe you, you can take down information like their name, badge ID, and license plate. 

A road in Nosara, Costa Rica

Pros and Cons of Driving in Costa Rica

Pros of Driving in Costa Rica:

✅ You will be able to explore Costa Rica at your own pace, without having to adhere to bus schedules. You will have a lot more time to spend actually sightseeing or enjoying the beach rather than on a bus or shuttle.

✅ You can avoid public transportation. The key word here is the public. Many of you have relied on it in the past, so you already know the cons of being piled into tight quarters, having to listen to other peoples’ music or conversation, etc.

✅ Flexibility! No bus schedules mean being able to stop spontaneously or spend more time in a specific place.

Cons of Driving in Costa Rica:

❌ You have to drive. If you don’t like driving at home, you likely won’t enjoy it while traveling.

❌ Driving on rural or unpaved roads can be challenging, especially with unpredictable weather.

❌ Renting a car can be stressful if you have to deal with the wrong company, or if someone scams you into overpaying.

Is it Safe to Drive in Costa Rica?

Generally yes, driving in Costa Rica is safe. Like driving any place, there are challenges and dangers. Traffic, weather, and other obstacles can make it stressful but overall I personally never felt unsafe while I was driving in Costa Rica.

On the road from Nosara to Samara

Renting a Car in Costa Rica

If you read one too many TripAdvisor reviews, you’ll convince yourself to NOT rent a car, but I’m here to tell you that it’s totally doable.

Here’s a little of my personal experience with renting a car and driving in Costa Rica…

The first leg of our trip took us from Liberia airport to La Fortuna. I was told by fellow travelers that the trip on a public bus would take 5 hours so that only solidified my decision to drive. Via car, the drive is closer to three hours, but we had to keep our eyes peeled for some massive potholes and one-lane bridges. They could truly ruin your day if you hit one too hard. Reflectors on the edges of the dark, windy roads are absolute lifesavers.

My description above may be a bit off-putting but if you have your route mapped out, plenty of gas, and ample time, you’ll reach your destination safe and sound.

Requirements for Renting a Car in Costa Rica

Age Requirements For Renting A Car

Before you hit the road, it’s crucial to understand the driving requirements in Costa Rica. The legal age for driving is 18 years old, and you must possess a valid driver’s license from your home country. You will need to provide proof of your age via your license and passport when renting a car. If you need to drive for longer than three months, you will have to apply for a Costa Rica license.

International Driver’s License

Most visitors do not need an international driver’s license. However, if your license is in a different alphabet, like Arabic, Hebrew, or Mandarin, it is necessary. It can also be beneficial in case of any language barriers during traffic stops if you are particularly worried about that.

What Type of Car to Rent in Costa Rica

For the vast majority of travelers, a 4×4 vehicle is not necessary for driving in Costa Rica. However, renting a 4×4 or a larger vehicle like an SUV with more road clearance is a very good idea. During my trip, we reserved a Jeep but the company gave our car away. They stuck us with a Hyundai Solaris (pictured below) which got the job done, but my anxiety heightened along the way with every bump and divot.

If you can secure an SUV, you will not only have a more comfortable ride on those gravel roads, but you’ll be safer in the rare case of a collision.

Reputable Car Rental Companies in Costa Rica

Major international companies operate in Costa Rica, providing a range of vehicles to suit your needs. These companies include:

  • Avis
  • Alamo
  • Budget
  • Economy
  • Enterprise
  • Europcar
  • National
  • Sixt
  • U-Save

If you rent through one of the above companies, I advise going through the company directly instead of a third party like Expedia or Kayak. Spend some time reading recent reviews as well. The highest rated (via customer reviews) amongst this list is Alamo.

Another option is to go through a local rental car company in Costa Rica. This may be a good option to consider if you’ll be driving in Costa Rica. Many of these companies go out of their way to avoid hidden fees and to be upfront with customers.

Local Car Rental Companies in Costa Rica Include:

  • Adobe
  • Vamos
  • Mapache
  • Tricolor

Car Rental Insurance In Costa Rica

If you’ve started researching your rental car in Costa Rica, you may be asking yourself, why is this so complicated? And why are prices so different from one website to the next?

The answer here is car insurance. There is a particular level of insurance coverage that is required according to Costa Rica law. This insurance is often not baked into the first price you see online! Many companies hide it and you, the consumer, don’t see it until you’ve already made the reservation and are picking up your vehicle.

When booking a rental car in Costa Rica, be sure to look for the following things on your quote and rental agreement. If you don’t see them initially, know that they will be charged eventually.

Types of Car Insurance in Costa Rica

🔵 Base Price – This is the daily price for the car itself. It will most certainly be included in your initial quote (that’s how they reel you in), but it will vary between companies and websites.

🔵 Liability Insurance – This is the insurance required by law in Costa Rica. Although it will cover damage you may cause to third parties, it is limited. Make sure you check the specifics here as there is usually a deductible. It is very often not included in that initial quote that you see when booking online and can tack on $12-25 per day. The amount will differ depending on what type of vehicle you rent. You may see different verbiage on your agreement but it will likely be something like third-party insurance or liability protection.

🔵 CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) or LDW (Loss Damage Waiver) – This last piece is not actually insurance. It is a waiver of financial responsibility and covers damage to the rental car itself if you’re in an accident or the car is stolen. 

This is required by rental companies but credit card holders often already have this as a benefit. Before you travel, look online or contact your credit card company to see if this applies to you. If it does, the credit card company can provide you with proof of coverage which you can show to the rental car company. If you do need to purchase this through the rental agency, it typically costs $5-15 per day. 

Car Seats and Booster Seats in Costa Rica

Driving in Costa Rica with children? You may be surprised to discover that Costa Rica has much stricter car seat laws than the United States. All children are required to ride in a car seat or booster seat until they reach the age of 12 or a height of 4 ft. 9 in. 

Here’s a more specific breakdown of car seat requirements in Costa Rica:

  • Infants Under 1 Year Old: Rear-facing car seat in the middle seat
  • Children Ages 1-4: Front-facing car seat in the middle seat
  • Children Ages 4-6: Booster seat with a back
  • Children Ages 6-12: Booster seat without a back

You can rent car seats and booster seats through your car rental company for a daily fee.

The public bus from downtown Quepos to Manuel Antonio Park

Other Transportation Options in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has a bus system that covers the entire country, but I can’t honestly recommend it as your only means of transportation. One positive is that the bus is affordable. The system is complicated and requires a lot of research. It can also be unpredictable and unreliable. 

I did take one public bus while in Costa Rica. It was quick and easy and took me from downtown Quepos to Manuel Antonio National Park. This exception was perfect as I only needed to go a few miles and I didn’t want to deal with driving and parking at the park itself. 

Over longer distances, it will take far more time to reach your destination via bus than car. If you are staying at one resort or in one general area for the length of your stay, a private shuttle is an option for traveling between the airport and your final destination.


What is the best car rental company in Costa Rica?

Based on ratings and reviews online, the best international car rental company in Costa Rica is Alamo.

What is the average price to rent a car in Costa Rica?

On average a rental car in Costa Rica can cost $30 – $60 per day. Keep in mind that these quotes may be the base car price only, and insurance will make the final amount considerably higher.

Is it safe to drive in Costa Rica?

 Yes, Costa Rica is generally safe for driving, but exercise caution in rural areas and during adverse weather conditions.

How far in advance should I book a rental car in Costa Rica?

The most expensive and competitive time of year to rent a car in Costa Rica is high season. This season runs from mid-December to the end of April. If your trip falls within this high season, try to book your rental car three to four months in advance.

Should I get GPS with my rental car in Costa Rica?

I have had a rented GPS stolen out of a rental car before, which cost me a pretty penny to replace. This happened in Curacao, not Costa Rica, but since then I’m not a fan of renting a GPS unless I need to.  T-Mobile is my cell provider and through them I have international service. This made it possible to use Google Maps and other navigation like I do at home.

Most carriers have similar international plans and options that can be turned on and off for your travels. I would look into those before you rent a GPS but if you need to, make sure you take the GPS with you or hide it out of sight so that thieves aren’t tempted.

How are gas prices in Costa Rica?

As of January 2024, gas prices in Costa Rica are around $1.35 per liter. Since we Americans are used to prices per gallon, this is a little over $5 per gallon, which is significantly higher than the current prices in the United States (at least in the north where I am located).

Gas stations are government-regulated in Costa Rica, so you do not need to compare or shop around between different locations. Depending on where you are, gas stations can be far apart, so it’s a good practice to fill up where and when you can.

How do you get around Costa Rica without a car?

As mentioned above, Costa Rica does have a bus system and it’s the cheapest transportation option. However, you may find it inefficient and complicated.

A tuk tuk sighting in Nosara

Conclusion: Staying Safe in Costa Rica

In conclusion, driving in Costa Rica offers a unique blend of challenges and wonders. By understanding the driving requirements, decoding road signs, renting the right car, being mindful of weather conditions, and following safety tips, you’re set for an unforgettable journey. Embrace the Pura Vida driving experience, where every turn reveals a new facet of this mesmerizing country.

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