Driving in Costa Rica – Useful Tips and Advice for Navigating Paradise

Travel Costa Rica

car rental gps services costa rica

Costa Rica is one of the world’s top vacation destinations for many reasons. Its sun-drenched beaches and volcanoes attract every type of tourist – from sun worshippers to eco-adventurers. There’s so much to see and do in this fascinating country. For this reason, it’s best to plan your trip itinerary ahead of time. And make sure to consider the driving time between destinations.

Try to get the most out of your experience. It’s a good idea to limit your trip to a few choice locations. For example, two to three destinations for a week-long vacation is perfect. Attempting to see more will mean you’re spending more time on the road than enjoying yourself.

Getting around

Visitors to Costa Rica often ask, “Should I drive in Costa Rica?”

The answer is Yes! Nothing beats the freedom that having your own transportation gives you. Having a car means you can access off-the-beaten-track destinations like secluded beaches, hiking trails, and hidden waterfalls. You also have the option to leave and arrive when you want. Or, change courses, backtrack, and take cover in the event of an unexpected rainstorm.

Is it safe to drive in Costa Rica? Yes, and driving customs are similar to what you find in the United States, Canada, and Europe. International driving laws and driving on the right side of the road apply. Most drivers also observe the same “rules of the road.”

Families, in particular, appreciate the comfort and convenience that having a car provides. Traveling with multiple suitcases is much easier with your own transportation. We at Adobe Rent a Car offer infant boosters and car seats at a low daily cost. We also offer coolers to facilitate traveling with snacks and beverages.

Renting a car

Rental car companies in Costa Rica range from international franchises to small family-owned operations with limited options to choose from. We at Adobe Rent a Car take pride in being a national favorite among visitors and locals alike. Not only are we locally owned, we’ve been in business for over thirty years. We also promise straightforward rental quotes, quality vehicles, professional service, and no hidden fees.

How old do you have to be to drive in Costa Rica?

Adobe Rent a Car requires that drivers are at least 23 years old. Additional rental requirements include:

  • An original driver’s license from the driver’s home country. In most cases, the license should be valid for more than two consecutive years after the date of issue.
  • A valid International Driver’s License is required for visitors whose home license is written in a different alphabet; i.e. Arabic, Hebrew, Mandarin.
  • Driver’s licenses are considered valid as long as the 90-day immigration visa is current. This is the Costa Rican entry and exit visa stamped in your passport at the airport.
  • An original and valid passport (with the immigration entry stamp).
  • A valid MasterCard, VISA or American Express Credit Card.
  • A (major credit card) deposit of $1,000 or more. Rental car agencies require damage deposits for every rental. Rates run between $1,000 and $3,000 depending on the company, and/or the vehicle rented. Adobe Costa Rica asks a flat-rate of $1,000 for every rental.

General requirements for renting a car in Costa Rica

Visitors to Costa Rica should be aware of the following requirements for renting a car:

Firstly, most companies require a damage deposit ranging anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000. We at Adobe Rent a Car ask only $1,000 for each rental. Deposits are made using a major credit card. Deposit reimbursements will be made within 3 days to 3 weeks after the contract’s termination.

If no damages or fines are incurred during the rental, then damages are usually refunded within the minimum time frame. Examples of deposit deductions include minor body damage or any fines such as speeding tickets incurred during the rental.

Insurance and Vehicle Coverage. Costa Rican law dictates that all car rentals have mandatory Liability Protection Insurance (PLI or third-party liability). PLI rates run from $10 to $20 per day depending on the type of vehicle rented. Costa Rica’s mandatory PLI does not cover the rental car or its inhabitants. However, it does provide up to $20,000 in limited liability coverage for third parties. The PLI also covers up to $100,000 per accident. This usually means no deductible in the event of injury or death of a third party.

In addition to the PLI, renters must have another form of insurance coverage. Collision Damage Coverage (LDW or CDW) is the most affordable option offered. Take into account that many major credit cards provide their customers with LDW coverage. In order to waive the rental car company’s CDW, clients must present a letter from the credit card provider. The letter should indicate that the LDW corresponds to the driver and is valid in Costa Rica.

The final and most recommended coverage type is a Full-Coverage Protection Plan, which is the zero-liability option. We at Adobe Rent a Car include 24/7 roadside assistance, vehicle exchanges, and other benefits with tour Full Coverage Protection Plan.

Drivers should remember that “off-roading” is not covered by any rental car insurance package. This includes driving on the beach and river crossings. Even if the road you’re driving on passes through a river.   

Driving Recommendations

Some say that driving in Costa Rica is challenging. Even though the same driving laws apply, they’re often interpreted differently.  Nonetheless, if you take it slow, remain vigilant, and avoid driving at night, your experience should be positive.

Common road hazards to be aware of:

  • There is a lack of distinction between fast and slow lanes. It’s possible to encounter a Semi driving slowly in the left lane while other drivers pass on the right.
    • Motorcyclists often ignore lane restrictions and drive down the middle or shoulder of occupied lanes.
    • Guardrails and road signs indicating hazards ahead are uncommon. For this reason alone, it’s important to use extreme caution when driving through unfamiliar terrain. Especially when adverse weather conditions like fog and rain are present.
    • Two-lane highways often narrow down to one-lane bridge crossings with little or no prior warning. This applies to major highways as well as secondary roads.
  • Because of the extreme variations in climate, many of the roads in Costa Rica are plagued with potholes. Heavy fog, washouts, and even landslides are common during the rainy season as well.
  • Local drivers are notorious for tailgating and passing on curves or double yellow lines. Your best course of action in these cases is to pull aside and let the driver pass.
  • Remember that speed limits and odometers are in kilometers.
  • There are fewer gas stations in rural areas so it’s best to refuel frequently.

Road safety and security – Driving advice for tourists

Numerous visitors ask if it’s safe to rent a car in Costa Rica? Again, the answer is Yes – as long as you use common sense and take basic security precautions. The majority of crimes affecting tourists are related to the petty theft of personal belongings that are poorly guarded.

As in most countries, tourist and foreigners tend to stand out. Costa Rica is no exception. For this reason, rental cars are no longer marked with identifiable license plates like they were in the past. Nonetheless, similar vehicle makes and models, and the foreigner behind the wheel, do make rental cars stand out. Nonetheless, taking these simple precautions will greatly minimize potential risks:

  • Never leave valuables unattended in your vehicle, even if it’s locked.
  • Always keep your valuables out of sight and away from easy access by a third party. This means carrying your money and documents in a safe place on your person or in the hotel safe.
  • Use common sense when parking. If possible, always leave your vehicle in a guarded lot or within eyesight. Many popular tourist spots have guards on the streets that will watch your car for a tip. Many such guards work freelance. However, they are usually reliable. Nothing beats another set of eyes watching out for your best interest. A tip of 500 colones (or approximately $1 USD) is a good tip for every half-hour your vehicle is guarded.
  • Don’t pull over immediately if you get a flat tire soon after leaving the airport or rental agency. Try to make it to the nearest service station and call the car rental company. If you must stop, flag down a police officer before accepting assistance from a stranger.
  • Do not attempt to bribe a police officer if you are pulled over for speeding or another infraction. The same goes if the officer offers a bribe. It’s better to play it safe when the law is concerned.

Costa Rica directions – getting from A to B

Approximately 70% of the population lives in the greater metropolitan area of San José resulting in heavy traffic. Try to avoid peak hours when driving in the capital. Traffic in rural areas is less of an issue, leaving you free to enjoy the beautiful scenery.

Navigating paradise isn’t as straightforward as it looks. The diverse and sometimes rugged terrain means slower travel times. The country’s road system also lacks many road signs, especially in rural areas, so using GPS is very helpful.

It’s highly recommended to rent a GPS device from the rental car company. Waze is the most trusted navigational app in Costa Rica and is generally more accurate here than Google Maps. Thousands of Waze users mean that road and traffic conditions are constantly updated.

We at Adobe Rent a Car offer the following navigational devices at a low daily rate:

  • GPS Navigational Device
  • Internet Hotspot
  • Cell Phone with local internet service

We’ll also provide you with a good hard-copy map of the country. This will further facilitate getting around when internet service is absent.

Major Costa Rican Highways

These are a few of Costa Rica’s principal thoroughfares that connect San José to popular destinations.

Route 1:

Also known as the Panamerican (Interamericana) Highway. Connects San José to Guanacaste, Liberia, the North-Pacific Coast, and Nicaragua.

Route 2:

Connects San José to the southern zone, Talamanca Mountains, and South-Pacific Beaches, including Dominical and the Osa Peninsula.

Route 21:

Connects Liberia to the North-Pacific Coast, including Tamarindo, Playa del Coco, and others.

Route 27:

Connects San José to Route 34 and the Central-Pacific beaches. It also connects with Route 17 that leads to Puntarenas and the ferryboat crossing for the Nicoya Peninsula.

Route 32:

Connects San José to the Caribbean Coast and the Port of Limón.

Route 34:

The Coastal Highway (Costanera) connects Route 27 to the Central and Southern Pacific beaches. This includes Jaco, Manuel Antonio, and Dominical.

Route 34:

Connects the Port of Limón to Cahuita and Puerto Viejo beach towns and the Panama border.

Route 39:

Also known as the metropolitan turnpike (Circunvalación). It connects San José to most major thoroughfares. It also connects to most downtown locations.

Route 702:

Connects Route 1 to La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano.

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