Rent a car if you want total freedom of movement. Costa Rica has 30,000 kilometers of highway (20 percent paved). The MOPT (Ministry of Public Transport) has invested considerably in road improvements in recent years, particularly in the highlands. However, beyond the Central Highlands, roads generally deteriorate with distance and can shake both a car and its occupants until their doors and teeth rattle. Parts of the country are often impenetrable by road during the rainy season, when flooding and landslides are common and roads get washed out.
Hitchhiking is far from safe and I do not endorse it. Women should never hitchhike alone.
You must be at least 21 years old and hold a passport to drive in Costa Rica. Foreign driver’s licenses are valid for three months upon arrival. . For longer, you’ll need a Costa Rican driver’s license; apply at Consejo de Seguridad Vial (COSEVI, Avenida 20, Calle 11 in San José, tel. 506/2257-7200). The speed limit on highways is 80 kilometers per hour, and 60 kilometers per hour on secondary roads. Speed limits are vigorously enforced, although the number of traffic police is relatively few. (Costa Rican drivers typically flash their high beams at other drivers to warn of traffic police ahead.)
Seat belt use is mandatory, and motorcyclists must wear helmets. Insurance—a state monopoly—is also mandatory; car rental companies sell insurance with rentals.
Remember that cars coming uphill have the right of way. It is illegal to:
Tico males display unbelievable recklessness, often driving at warp speed, flouting traffic laws, holding traffic lights in disdain, crawling up your tailpipe at 100 kilometers per hour, and overtaking on blind corners with a total disregard for anyone else’s safety. Costa Rica’s fatality statistics are sobering!
Roads usually lack sidewalks, so pedestrians—and even livestock—walk the road. Be particularly wary at night. And treat mountain roads with extra caution: They’re often blocked by thick fog, floods, and landslides. The old mountain roads from San José to Puntarenas; the road linking San José to Limón; and the Pan-American Highway between the Nicaraguan border and Panamá are notoriously dangerous.
Potholes are a particular problem. Hit a big one and you may damage a tire or even destroy a wheel. Vehicles often swerve into your path to avoid potholes. And slower-moving vehicles ahead of you often turn on their left-turn indicator to signal that you can overtake—a dangerous practice that is the cause of many accidents with vehicles that really are turning left!
Consider driving with your lights on at all times to ensure being seen.
The law states that you must carry fluorescent triangles in case of breakdown. Locals, however, generally pile leaves, rocks, or small branches in the road or at the roadside to warn approaching drivers of a car in trouble. If your car is rented, call the rental agency: It will arrange a tow. Otherwise call 800/800-8001 for roadside assistance.
After an accident, never move the vehicles until the police arrive. Get the names, license plate numbers, and cedulas (legal identification numbers) of any witnesses. Make a sketch of the accident. And call the traffic police (tráfico) (tel. 117 or 800/872-6748).
Do not offer statements to anyone other than the police. In case of injury, call the Red Cross (tel. 128 or 911 or 506/2410-0599, www.cruzroja.or.cr ). Try not to leave the accident scene, or at least keep an eye on your car: The other party may tamper with the evidence. And don’t let honking traffic—there’ll be plenty!—pressure you into moving the cars.
Show the tráfico your license and vehicle registration. Make sure you get them back: He is not allowed to keep any documents unless you’ve been drinking (if you suspect the other driver has been drinking, ask the tráfico to administer a Breathalyzer test, or alcolemia). Nor can the tráfico assess a fine. The police will issue you a green ticket or “summons.” You must present this to the nearest municipal office (alcaldía) or traffic court (tribunal de tránsito) within eight days to make your declaración about the accident. Wait a few days so that the police report is on record. Don’t skip this! The driver who doesn’t show is often found at blame by default. Then take your driver’s license, insurance policy, and a police report to the INS (Avenida 7, Calles 9/11, San José, tel. 506/2287-6000 or 800/800-8000, ext. 1, www.ins.go.cr ), the state insurance monopoly, to process your claim. Car rental companies will take care of this if your car is rented.
Warning: A sudden flat tire should be treated as a set-up for a potential robbery. Drive to a secure place before stopping, otherwise you may find that you’ve been followed by robbers pretending to be good Samaritans. It’s a major problem in Costa Rica.
The leading U.S. car rental companies have franchises in Costa Rica, though not always as reliable as their U.S. parents. There are many local rental companies (some reputable, some not), with slightly cheaper rates. Several agencies have offices at or near Juan Santamaría Airport, plus representatives in popular resort towns.
I highly recommend U-Save (tel. 560/2430-4647, in North America tel. 866/267-1070, www.usavecostarica.com ). The staff and service have proved consistently professional each time I’ve used it, and its vehicles have always been in good repair.
Other agencies include Alamo (tel. 506/2233-7733, www.alamocostarica.com ), Budget (tel. 506/2436-2000, www.budget.co.cr ), Europcar (tel. 506/2440-9990, www.europcar.co.cr ), Hertz (tel. 506/2221-1818, www.costaricarentacar.net ) and National (tel. 506/2242-7878, www.natcar.com ).
Regardless of where you plan to go, rent a 4WD vehicle! If you don’t, you’ll regret it the first time you hit one of Costa Rica’s infamous dirt and/or potholed roads. A 4WD vehicle is essential for off-the-beaten-path destinations. Many rental agencies will insist you rent a four-wheel drive for specific regions, especially in rainy season.
Minimum age for drivers ranges 21–25, depending on the agency. You’ll need a valid driver’s license plus a credit card. Without a credit card you’ll have to pay a hefty cash deposit. Most agencies offer discounts during the low season (May–Oct.) and for making your reservations from abroad before departure. Stick shift is the norm; you’ll pay extra for automatic.
Reserve as far in advance as possible, especially in dry season and for Christmas and holidays. Make sure you clarify any one-way drop-off fees, late-return penalties, and other charges. Take a copy of your reservation with you. And be prepared to defend against mysterious new charges that may be tagged on in Costa Rica. You must rent for a minimum of three days to qualify for unlimited mileage.
Economy cars such as the Toyota Yaris begin at about $40 daily, $250 weekly low season; $50 daily, $290 weekly in high season with unlimited mileage. Compact (midsize) cars such as the Toyota Corolla cost about $52 daily, $300 weekly low season; $55 daily, $320 weekly high season with unlimited mileage. Smaller 4WD models such as the Suzuki Sidekick begin at about $65 daily, $380 weekly with unlimited mileage. A midsize 4WD such as the Toyota RAV-4 will cost $75 daily, $400 weekly low season; $80 daily, $480 weekly high season. A full-size 4WD such as the Toyota 4-Runner will cost about $90 daily, $460 weekly low season; $115 daily, $700 weekly high season.
Discover Costa Rica (tel. 506/2293-8109, www.allcostaricadestinations.com ) is an “open voucher” package that includes hotel, breakfast, and 4WD car rental for $39 per person per day.
Readers constantly write to report of scams pulled by unscrupulous agencies. Always leave one person with the car when you return it to the car rental office, especially if unforeseen billing problems arise (there are numerous examples of renters having their belongings stolen from the vehicle while their attention is distracted). And thieves have been known to slash tires, or deflate them, while you’re picking up or dropping off your car; while you’re occupied changing the tire, the thieves pounce and strip your vehicle of its contents, then drive off! If you experience a flat, be suspicious; drive to the nearest secure public place.
María Alexandra Tours (tel. 506/2289-5552, www.costaricamotorcycles.com ) rents Harley-Davidsons (from $150 per day, $900 per week). A valid motorcycle license is required, and you must be 25 years old. Wild Rider Motorcycles (tel. 506/258-4604, www.wild-rider.com ) rents three types of dirt bikes.
Motorcycling in Costa Rica is not recommended except for experienced riders, as road conditions can be challenging. Organized tours are another option, offered by the following companies: Wild Rider (tel. 506/2258-4604, www.wild-rider.com ); María Alexandra Tours (tel. 506/2289-5552, www.costaricamotorcycles.com ); Harley Rentals (tel. 506/2288-6362, www.harleytourscostarica.com ); Moto-Discovery Tours (tel. 830/438-7744 or 800/233-0564, www.motodiscovery.com ); MotoAdventures (tel. 506/2228-8494, in North America tel. 440/256-8508, www.motoadventuring.com ); and Moto Tours Costa Rica (tel. 540/980-7675, www.mototourscostarica.com ).
Insurance is mandatory, and you will need to accept the obligatory ,collision damage waiver (CDW) charged by car rental companies. If you make a reservation through a rental agency abroad and are told the rate includes insurance, or that one of your existing policies will cover it, get it in writing! Otherwise, once you arrive in Costa Rica, you may find that you have to pay the mandatory insurance fee on top of your quoted rate. The insurance does not cover your car’s contents or personal possessions, nor a deductible. Each company determines its own deductible—ranging $500–1,000—even though the INS sets this at 20 percent of damages. Rates range from $12 per day for smaller vehicles to $15 daily for larger vehicles.
Inspect your vehicle for damage before departing. Note even the smallest nick and dent on the diagram you’ll be presented to sign. Don’t forget the inside, as well as the radio antenna, and check that all the switches and buttons function.
Don’t assume the rental agency has taken care of oil, water, brakes, fluids, or tire pressure: Check them yourself before setting off. Most agencies provide 24-hour road service.
Unleaded gasoline is either high-octane “super” or lesser-octane “regular.” Many service stations (bombas or gasolineras) are open 24 hours; in rural areas they’re usually open dawn to dusk only, and they’re often far apart. Gasoline prices fluctuate, but at press time were about $4.50 per gallon (600 colones a liter). In the boondocks, there’s sure to be someone nearby selling from their backyard stock at a premium.
The past few years have seen signposts erected in major cities and along major highways, but don’t count on a sign being there when you need it. In towns, many signs point the wrong way: they were placed by crews who hadn’t the foggiest idea which street was a Calle and which an Avenida. Ticos often use left-pointing arrows to indicate straight ahead.
You’ll need the best road map you can obtain. I recommend the Costa Rica Nature Atlas-Guidebook, which has detailed 1:200,000 road maps that are mostly accurate, but not entirely.
You can rent GPS from most car rental agencies.
Traffic police patrol the highways and since 2010 have ostensibly been getting serious about enforcing new traffic regulations. In the past they’ve been fond of rental cars (the TUR on rental car license plates gives the game away) in the hope of extorting bribes, although such instances now seem rare.
If you’re stopped, the police will request to see your license, passport, and rental contract. Tránsitos use radar guns, and you will get no special treatment as a tourist if you’re caught speeding. Speeding fines are paid at a bank; the ticket provides instructions. Don’t think you can get away with not paying a fine. Delinquent fines are reported to the immigration authorities, and people have been refused exit from the country. Normally, the car rental agency will handle the tickets, although you pay the fine.
Never pay a fine to police on the road. The police cannot legally request payment on-site. If he (I’ve never seen a female traffic cop) demands payment, note the policeman’s name and number from his MOPT badge (he is legally required to show his carnet upon request). The police oversight body is getting serious about eradicating crooked tránsitos. If a traffic cop attempts to solicit a bribe, authorities advise victims to take down the policeman’s name and badge number and call 800/800-0645 or report the incident to the Office for the Reception of Complaints (Oficina de Recepción de Denuncias, tel. 506/2295-3272 or 506/2295-3273, 24 hours) or the closest OIJ office.
Oncoming vehicles will often flash their lights at you to warn you of traffic police—or an accident or disabled vehicle—ahead.