Wooden Bridge Driving in Costa Rica

Driving in Costa Rica, Rental Cars & GPS

Andy Travel Central America, Costa Rica Leave a Comment

If you’re searching the internet for information on driving in Costa Rica, you’re going to find a lot of different opinions. I know because it was something that I was a little concerned about before we traveled there at the end of 2013. I did a few searches looking for information on what to expect when driving in Costa Rica. Some people say it’s CRAZY, while others will tell you it’s not really a big deal. I’m not going to tell you what it is or isn’t, but I’ll give you some information on what to expect when driving in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica Rental Cars

If you plan on driving in Costa Rica, you’ll probably need a rental car. I just hope you don’t have the same issues that we had. Although, after speaking to the front desk associate at our hotel (who was amazing), we found out that what happened to us was fairly common. It’s quite a long story, but the short version is that we had a rental car reservation, and when we arrived at the airport the rental desk was closed with a sign that said “Sold Out.” So, after seeing that we took a cab to our hotel in San Jose and ended up calling the rental car company early the next morning. We were told that there were no cars left, but with the help of the amazing front desk associate at the Aloft San Jose hotel we were able to get our rental car… Four and a half hours after we had planned to leave that morning, but we still got it.

Here are some things you should know and consider when renting a car in Costa Rica:

  • Reserve a car early online and make sure that if your flight info changes, you call to inform the rental car company
  • The majority of rental cars in Costa Rica are manual (stick shift) and you will end up paying more for a rental car with an automatic transmission
  • This also means that rental cars with an automatic transmission sell out faster
  • We almost settled for a rental car with a manual transmission, but we’re glad we didn’t because there were quite a few hills that we had to stop and start on. We both have experience driving a manual, but were not overly comfortable.
  • Some people will say that you need a SUV or something with 4-wheel drive, but we got a midsize car and had no issues
  • If the rental car company gives away the car you reserved, don’t take “we have no cars” as an answer. Keep fighting for them to get you a car ASAP. If you’re at a hotel, see if someone at the front desk can help you if you’re worried about the language barrier.

Driving in Costa Rica

So, what can you expect when driving in Costa Rica? Let me tell you, I was a little worried because of some of the articles we were reading about the roads, but there was really no reason to worry. The majority of the roads that we traveled on were paved and just as wide as any roads in the U.S.

Here are some things to know about driving in Costa Rica:

  • Costa Rican drivers can be a little more aggressive and it could take some getting used to for some people
  • Keep an eye out for people walking or riding their bikes on the side of the road. There were constantly women and children walking on the side of the road, but they didn’t seem to be bothered by the cars zipping by them.
  • There are quite a few single lane bridges, which a good GPS can inform you of (see below for more info)
  • You can’t always rely on passing zones. People will pass when the coast is clear and they feel like passing (basically, there are no rules when it comes to passing)
  • Dirt roads exist, and so do dirt roads embedded with large stones. It’s best to just take your time on these roads and try to avoid the biggest stones and/or potholes.
  • Some roads can be narrow, so if you see a car coming the opposite direction and it looks tight, just pull over to the side as far as you can. Most Costa Ricans are used to this, so let them do the maneuvering!
  • Once you get away from the major cities, Costa Rica doesn’t have a lot of street signs or addresses. GPS can help you see where you are, but it’s not always possible to find exactly what you’re looking for. Look in the GPS section below for a tip on finding places.
A bumpy dirt and stone road in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

A bumpy dirt and stone road in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

I only mention some of these things because I want you to be informed. To be honest with you, the craziest road that we drove on was outside of La Fortuna on our way to hike in Rio Celeste. It was about 20 miles of bumpy road that was pretty narrow at times. I would have to say that 95% of the time we were on paved roads. The one lane bridges were interesting, but all you had to do was stop and wait if you saw a car coming across the bridge. I think the best part about driving in Costa Rica was getting used to the constant passing. I was a little apprehensive at first, but once I got used to it I was enjoying the open roads, beautiful scenery and the freedom to pass whenever I wanted!

Driving in Costa Rica with GPS

I’m pretty sure that you can get a GPS unit when you rent your car in Costa Rica, but I think it’s also pretty expensive. Since we own a GPS unit, Lynn decided to look online for deals on GPS maps for Costa Rica that we could download. She read a bunch of reviews from different people and we decided that this GPS Garmin map for Costa Rica was be best one to get. The great thing about it is that it gives little warning noises when there are single lane bridges up ahead. You can choose between three different map versions: 10 day, 30 day, and unlimited. I guess it all depends on how long you plan to be there and if you plan to go back again at some point. This is a great map though. I didn’t know if we would really need the bridge notifications, but they were very helpful, especially for those bridges that were right around a corner or over a small hill.

If you do decide to purchase this GPS map, there are a couple things you should know:

  • Once you purchase the map, it takes a couple days to process before you can download it. Make sure you give yourself enough time before your trip.
  • As I mentioned earlier, there are not a lot of street names or addresses in Costa Rica. Our B&B in La Fortuna didn’t even have an address. Most of the time we knew the general area we needed to get to, but we wanted the GPS to give us turn by turn directions on how to get there. Our solution was to find a landmark on the GPS for the town we were headed to. Then once we got to the right area we would keep our eyes open for signs or we would end up asking someone for exact directions.

In conclusion, I don’t really think there is anything to worry about when driving in Costa Rica. It’s a beautiful country and there are so many great areas to see as you’re driving around. I would hate if anyone was so nervous about driving that they couldn’t truly enjoy it all.

Did you have a different experience driving in Costa Rica? Please let us know in the comments!

Share this article:

About the Author


Born with a sense of wanderlust, it's only natural that Andy would be traveling and writing about it. He has traveled extensively throughout the U.S., even golfing in each of the 50 states. When he's not updating this blog, you can probably find him riding his bicycle, baking desserts, or working on his goal of attaining the "best credit ever."