Driving in Costa Rica
Nothing beats the thrill of hitting the open road and exploring a new destination by car, and this is especially true in Costa Rica. Boasting some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, Costa Rica is the perfect place for an adventurous road trip, and some of the country’s most famous destinations, such as the lush mountaindrop paradise of Monteverde cloud forest reserves, sometimes only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles, making driving the ideal way to get off the paved roads and discover a whole new world of tropical excitement.
Rules of the road
Compared to some other countries, Costa Rica has a relatively lax approach to highway regulations. Speed limits are posted on the busier highways, but such guidance is usually a mere suggestion on rural backroads. However, there are some crucial points to be aware of when driving in Costa Rica.
The first is that you should always carry both your current (valid) driver’s license and your passport when driving in Costa Rica. In the event you’re stopped by police or involved in an accident, this documentation will often be required, and if you don’t have it, you could find yourself in hot water with the authorities. Another important point that many tourists are unaware of is that, in the event you do get into a fender-bender with another vehicle, you must not move your car until instructed to do so by a police officer. If you move your car without authorization after an accident, there could be potential legal ramifications.
You should also wear a seatbelt at all times when driving. This isn’t just good sense, it’s also the law, so buckle up before venturing out on your vacation into the Costa Rican countryside.
Driving in Costa Rica can be an adventure in itself, and the views from some of the lesser-traveled highways and backroads can be amazing. If you’re visiting Arenal Volcano area from the Central Valley, you might opt for an exciting drive via Poas volcano and visit stunning La Paz Waterfall Gardens on your way. Other remarkable site you should’t miss out if you’re going to South Pacific from the San Jose area is the Cerro the la Muerte pass, offering amazing views of the Pacific Coast from the elevation of 11000 ft.
Play it safe
Even if you’ve visited Costa Rica before, it pays to be cautious when driving here. In rural areas, roads can become particularly narrow, and blind corners are common. Even if roads aren’t particularly congested, it’s best to drive at a safe speed and exercise caution. During the green season, some roads are impassable due to landslides, flooding and muddy conditions, so double-check your route depending on when and where you plan to visit. Also, keep an eye out for animals – many roads are surrounded by dense forests, and creatures often walk out into roads with little warning.
First-time drivers in Costa Rica may want to stick to the roads during the day. Driving at night can be riskier, as few rural roads have overhead lights. If you have to drive at night, try to avoid long journeys, especially trips that take you to areas you haven’t visited before, as this can minimize the chances you’ll be involved in an accident. If you plan on crossing any borders to Panama or Nicaragua, bear in mind that they open at 6am and close at 6pm, so don’t count on showing up there during night time.
Once you venture out into Costa Rica’s more rural areas, gas stations can be hard to find. To complicate matters, signage advertising fuel stations is uncommon, so try and ensure you’ve got at least half a tank of gas before making your trip unless you know definitively where a gas station is located.
Another useful tip worth remembering is that, it’s best to try steer clear of the Central Valley. Traffic congestion here can be intense, as more than 1 million people commute between east and west San Jose every day. For great real-time feedback on the traffic use Waze, a free app available for any smartphone out there. It’s very popular in Costa Rica and a lot of users report accidents and traffic jams, so you have some flexibility on which road to pick when driving.
Lastly, avoid leaving anything of value in your car when parking, and even when traveling. Although Costa Rica has a relatively low crime rate, opportunistic thieves will often target unsuspecting tourists, so employ a “better safe than sorry” policy when leaving your vehicle.