How are the roads in Costa Rica?
We at Adobe Rent a Car are committed to making your Costa Rica experience a positive one. Below we’ve compiled a list of the country’s most frequented highways as well as some useful driving tips to keep you safe and informed.
When you pick up your rental car, we’ll provide you with the most updated road conditions for your itinerary. We’ll also give you a hardcopy Costa Rica highways map to carry with you as you travel.
Road conditions and driving in Costa Rica can vary depending on the weather, time of day, national holidays, or other unforeseen events. Even though this is a small country, the topography and climate vary from place to place. This is just one of the reasons why we have 15 full-service Adobe Rent Car offices located strategically around the country.
If you have questions or need help, there’s always an Adobe office nearby.
Driving tips and general road conditions, Costa Rica
Visitors will usually find good road conditions in and around major cities and popular commercial or tourist destinations. Unlike in the past, guard rails, yields, and hazard-ahead markers are standard but not always present when required. Drivers should always remain vigilant and expect the unexpected.
What is the car culture like in Costa Rica?
Costa Ricans follow the same international driving laws as in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. That said, enforcement of these laws tends to be less rigid than in other countries, and the rules of the road aren’t always closely observed.
Some examples include motorcycles and passing. It is legal for motorcycles to pass on the center lanes as long as they don’t exceed the speed limit on most Costa Rican roads.
Passing on the left is another exception. Despite traffic laws and signage indicating the contrary, Costa Ricans prefer to pass in the right lane. Not only is this custom dangerous, but it also eliminates a designated lane for slower traffic. This means that drivers should take extra care when changing lanes and anticipate slow traffic when doing so.
Stop signs and intersections. There’s an informal understanding in Costa Rica that it’s not always necessary to come to a full stop at stop signs or intersections. If no other vehicles are present, it’s likely that Costa Rican drivers will roll through the intersection instead of stopping.
Road Signage and Street Names
One of the first things drivers should know is that not all roads are marked with street signs. Especially the smaller ones. Thankfully, the Costa Rican Government has been taking strides to correct the lack of signage, in addition to improving the general quantity and quality of its roads and highways.
Costa Ricans, in general, are used to giving (and receiving) directions using geographical landmarks, meters (distance), and cardinal points (north, south, east, west). For example, if you’re asking someone where the nearest bank is, don’t be surprised if you get an answer resembling “from the football field (cancha), go 200 meters south to the Musmani (a popular bakery) and 100 meters west…”
We recommended that drivers use some form of GPS while traveling in Costa Rica. Virtually all streets are named and registered geographically, so GPS is a sure shot. No, GPS isn’t 100 percent necessary, but it will save you a considerable amount of time, not to mention headaches. Most Costa Rica rental car agencies rent internet or GPS devices to facilitate getting around.
Internet Hotspots: These handy devices provide internet service for up to five devices at a time. If you opt for renting this option, we recommend you download Costa Rica’s preferred navigational APP, WAZE. Waze is an interactive platform that uses vital information from its tens of thousands of users to continuously update road conditions and GPS. Make sure to configure your preferred settings to avoid dirt roads or you may end up crossing a cow field in the middle of nowhere.
GPS Device: Adobe also offers the option of renting a GPS device for your rental car. Drivers can pre-program their itinerary destinations ahead of time in addition to other helpful features.
Blackout areas: Keep in mind that blackout areas with no internet or satellite connection are common because of Costa Rica’s diverse and mountainous topography.
Road Conditions of Specific Routes in Costa Rica
When traveling in Costa Rica, especially during the rainy season or during major holidays, it’s helpful to know the road and traffic conditions ahead of time. Check the National Transit Police website for updates on road conditions, construction activity, and closures.
WAZE is also a useful tool for obtaining present road conditions in Costa Rica, up-to-the-minute information, and alternate routes that maximize travel time. The application also provides alerts warning drivers of roadblock and slowdown locations.
Major Costa Rican roads, highways, and thoroughfares
The following is a list of Costa Rica’s roads and highways, including alternative highway names and highway conditions and design. You’ll also find the Costa Rica highway conditions by route. Keep in mind that extensive road improvements are underway across the country, so current road conditions in Costa Rica may vary.
Highways 1, 2, 27, 32, and 34, are the most common driving routes in Costa Rica leading out of the capital city, San José, and the northern city of Liberia. Costa Rica’s two international airports are located in or nearby these cities. Juan Santamaria International Airport in Alajuela (near San José) and the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in Liberia.
Route 1 – the Inter-American Highway North (Panamericana o Interamericana Norte)
Route 1 is a major highway and forms part of the Pan-American Highway that connects the Americas from Alaska to Argentina (unofficially). In Costa Rica, the Pan-American is Route 1 between the border of Nicaragua (Peñas Blancas) and San José and becomes Route 2 from San José to the Panama border.
Important destinations along Route1 and connecting thoroughfares: Alajuela, Palmares, San Ramón, Esparza, Barranca, Cañas, Bagaces, Liberia, La Cruz de Guanacaste, and Peñas Blancas, San Carlos (Arenal), Puntarenas (and the Nicoya Peninsula), Monteverde, Liberia (northwest Pacific beaches), and the Rincón de la Vieja, Tenorio, Santa Rosa, and Miravalles National Parks.
Despite being one of the country’s principal highways, driving time is often hindered due to heavy traffic and the highway’s generally poor infrastructure. Except for around the capital city and Liberia, most of the road is two-lanes only with occasional third lanes for passing.
Fortunately, significant improvements are underway, and a large segment of the highway has already been expanded between mile marker 86 and Liberia. The modern four-lane stretch resembles a modern U.S. highway and is a good indicator of improvements to come.
Route 2 – Inter-American Highway (Panamericana o Interamericana Sur)
Route 2 is also part of the Pan-American Highway and connects San José to Paso Canoas on the Panama border. It transects the country along the central mountain ranges and is one of three major routes into the Southern Zone.
It is a major four-lane highway that runs through the former Colonial capital of Cartago and popular nearby destinations such as the Orósi Valley and the Turrialba and Irazú Volcano National Parks. Leaving Cartago, Route 2 ascends into the steep Talamanca mountains as a two-lane highway.
Drivers should be especially careful navigating the stretch between Cartago and San Isidro de General because curvy road and steep elevations are prone to traffic, blind curves, and dense fog. The road is not recommended at night.
Important destinations along Route 2 and connecting thoroughfares: San Gerardo de Dota, Buenos Aires, Pérez de Zeledón, San Isidro del General, Paso Canoas, and the Los Quetzales, Tapantí, and Chirripó National Parks.
Route 3 – Heredia Highway (Carretera a Heredia)
Route 3 is a paved two-lane road that connects three provinces in the Central Valley: San José, Heredia, and Alajuela. It also serves as an alternative to Route 27, passing through Atenas en route to Orotina. Route 27 is a faster alternative to Route 1 and unites the Capital with the Pacific Central Coast, Orotina, and Puntarenas (gateway to the Nicoya Peninsula).
Important destinations along Route 2 and connecting thoroughfares: La Uruca, Heredia, San Joaquín de Flores, Río Segundo, Alajuela, La Garita, Atenas, San Mateo, and Orotina.
Route 4 – North Atlantic Corredor (Corredor Noratlántico)
Route 4 connects northern Guanacaste Province near the western Nicaraguan border to Highway 32 and Guapiles, Limon, and south Caribbean beach towns. It is a paved secondary two-lane road with proper signage and scenery.
Important destinations along Route 4 and connecting thoroughfares: La Cruz, Upala, San Rafael de Guatuso, Pital San Carlos, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, and the Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Route 6 – Cañas to Upala
Route 6 connects the Inter-American Highway North near Cañas with Route 4 in northern Guanacaste. It is a paved but hilly two-lane secondary road.
Important destinations along Route 6 and connecting thoroughfares: The towns of Upala, Bijagua de Upala, and the Tenorio Volcano National Park and Rio Celeste River.
Route 10 – Cartago to Siquirres
Route 10 connects Cartago to the Caribbean town of Siquirres. It is a scenic paved two-lane secondary road that crosses the rolling hills and mountain slopes of Turrialba Volcano.
Important destinations along Route 10 and connecting thoroughfares: Cartago, Paraiso, Turrialba, Cervantes, and Siquirres.
Route 14 – Rio Claro to Golfito and the Golfito Bay
Route 14 is a paved two-lane secondary road that connects the Inter-American Highway South at Rio Claro with Golfito and the towns along the Golfito Bay.
Important destinations along Route 14 and connecting thoroughfares: Golfito, the Free trade Zone, and the Golfito Pier and launching point for the ferry to Puerto Jimenez on the Osa Peninsula.
Route 17 – Barranca to Puntarenas
Route 17 is a paved secondary two-lane road that connects Highway 27 to Puntarenas.
Important destinations along Route 17 and connecting thoroughfares: The road passes through Puntarenas and ends at the Tambor and Coonatramar Ferry piers accessing the Nicoya Peninsula. It also passes a popular stop-off for international cruise ships.
Route 18 – Tempisque Bridge to the Nicoya Peninsula
Route 18 is a scenic paved secondary two-lane road that connects central Nicoya Peninsula with the Inter-American Highway on the mainland. The road crosses over the Tempisque Bridge (Puente de la Amistad) en route to the peninsula.
Important destinations along Route 18 and connecting thoroughfares: Route 18 is used to access the central beach towns of the Nicoya Peninsula, including Nosara, Samara, Guiones, Ostional, and the Barra Honda National Park.
Route 21 – Liberia to Paquera
Route 21 is a major thoroughfare that originates in Liberia and the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport and ends at the port town of Paquera on the southern coast of the Nicoya Peninsula.
Important destinations along Route 21 and connecting thoroughfares: this roadway is used to access the beaches and towns between Liberia and Paquera, which is the launching point of the Tambor Ferry to Puntarenas. Principal cities include Belen, Santa Cruz, Nicoya, Jicaral, Lepanto and Paquera.
Ruta 22 – Ciudad Colón to Santa Ana
Route 22 connects Ciudad Colón (at the Los Angeles gas station) to Santa Ana and Route 27. It is also the route that connects Ciudad Colón and Puriscal with the capital.
Important destinations along Route 22 and connecting thoroughfares: Santa Ana, Brasil de Mora, Ciudad Colon (Puriscal).
Route 23 – Caldera to Barranca
Route 23 is the continuation of Route 27, which originates in San José. The two-lane highway is a major thoroughfare that terminates at the Inter-American Highway North.
Important destinations along Route 23 and connecting thoroughfares: Caldera Port, Mata de Limon, Caldera, Barranca, El Roble, Route 17 to Puntarenas and the Inter-American Highway North.
Route 27 – Próspero Fernández (San José) and José María Castro Madriz (west from San José)
Route 27 is a major four-lane highway in the metropolitan area. It becomes a two-lane toll-highway after Santa Ana with occasional third lanes for passing. It is Costa Rica’s newest highway connecting the Central Valley to the Pacific Coast and is often congested due to heavy traffic.
Important destinations along Route 27 and connecting thoroughfares: San José, Santa Ana, Ciudad Colón, Atenas, Orotina, Highway 34 to the Central Pacific Coast, and the Port of Caldera.
Route 32 – Braulio Carrillo Highway and José Joaquín Trejos Fernández Highway (near Limón)
Route 32 is a major two-lane highway with occasional third lanes for passing. It connects San José with the Caribbean Region and is considered dangerous as it descends through the Braulio Carrillo National Park with its steep, winding, and often foggy terrain. Road closures are frequent due to landslides. Especially during the rainy season.
Important destinations along Route 32 and connecting thoroughfares: San José, Guápiles (gateway to Tortuguero), Guácimo, Siquirres, Limón and Route 36 to the South Caribbean beach towns.
Route 34 – Costanera Highway
Route 34 is a major two-lane thoroughfare connecting Route 27 to the Central Pacific Beaches and the Inter-American Highway South. It terminates at Palmar Norte, which is also the northern access point to the Osa Peninsula.
Important destinations along Route 34 and connecting thoroughfares: Tarcoles, Punta Leona, Herradura, Jaco, Parrita, Quepos, Dominical, Uvita, Ojochal, Palmar Norte, and the Marino Ballena National Park.
Route 35 – Florencia to Los Chiles
Route 35 is a paved, two-lane secondary road connecting Route 4 to the Nicaragua border town of Los Chiles.
Important destinations along Route 35 and connecting thoroughfares: La Florencia, Los Chiles, and the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge.
Route 36 – Limon to Sixaola
Route 36 is a paved secondary highway connecting the Caribbean Port city of Limon to the South Atlantic beaches. It was recently overhauled and is in good condition.
Important destinations along Route 36 and connecting thoroughfares: Limon, Cahuita, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Punta Uva, Punta Manzanillo, Sixaola, Cahuita and the Gandoca Manzanillo National Parks.
Ruta 39 – San José Turnpike (Circunvalación)
Route 39 serves as the San José Metropolitan Area turnpike connecting traffic from the major routes 1, 2, and 27. It is a major, four-lane thoroughfare with several exits to the various metropolitan suburbs of San José.
Important destinations along Route 39 and connecting thoroughfares: The principal cantons of San José Metropolitan Area connect to Circunvalacion 39. Traffic is generally heavy and congested, especially during peak hours.
National Route 160 (also known as Route 21)
Although the National Route 160 isn’t a major highway, it connects the Naranjo and Paquera ferries to Cobano and popular beach towns on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Important destinations along National Route 160 and connecting thoroughfares: Naranjo, Paquera, Tambor, Cobano, Montezuma, Mal País, Santa Teresa, Curu Wildlife Refuge, and the Cabo Blanco Absolute Reserve.
Costa Rica highway ranking system
According to unofficial sources, Costa Rica’s highways now rate between 7 out of 10 and 9 out of 10. This is because of recent efforts to improve overall road conditions and signage.