Driving in Costa Rica
Everything you need to know about driving in Costa Rica.
One of the common misconceptions about Costa Rica is that it’s super quick and easy to get around by road. You can look at a map and check out some distances between places and think you’re all set to get wherever you want in the space of a morning.
But looking at a map and checking out distances isn’t the same as actually being on the ground and being in the driving seat. A distance of, say, 50 miles in Costa Rica is completely different to 50 miles in the United States, Canada, Europe, or wherever you’re used to driving.
Where you’re used to driving, chances are you’ll clear 50 miles in an hour or so, tops, depending on traffic. You’ll be on a good, multi-lane freeway and it’ll be a breeze. Maybe you do it every day, commuting to and from work. Either way, it’s nothing.
Costa Rica driving is a different kettle of fish, though. Costa Rica roads are, for the most part, nothing like the ones you’re used to, and those 50 miles can easily take much longer than you thought.
So what is driving like in Costa Rica?
Let’s look at this in two ways. Driving in Costa Rica depends on both the state of the roads and conditions on the ground (including other drivers!) and how you are as a driver. Here we’ll look at the rules of the road and what you need to look out for as a motorist.
What side of the road do you drive on in Costa Rica?
The first thing to know is that Costa Rica drives on the right side of the road. That means the Costa Rica driving side is the same as the United States, Canada, and mainland Europe. British and Irish drivers, used to driving on the left, will notice the change, but everyone else will feel at home.
What’s the legal driving age in Costa Rica?
The legal driving age in Costa Rica is 18. Be aware though, that’s for private vehicles. If you’re renting a car in Costa Rica, you’ll find the rental company won’t allow 18 year olds, or anyone under the age of 21, to drive their cars. Anyone between the ages of 21 and 25 will also pay a surcharge when renting a car in Costa Rica.
Can I use my foreign driving license in Costa Rica and if so, how long for?
Your driving license from your home country is valid to use in Costa Rica, if you’re in the country as a tourist. Most tourists in Costa Rica can stay for up to 90 days (this can change for citizens of some countries, but North Americans and Europeans get up to 90 days). When they arrive in the country, they’ll have a number written on the stamp put into their passport. This number is how many days they have in the country before their tourist visa expires.
Once a tourist visa expires, so does the right to drive in Costa Rica with your foreign license.
You will need to either leave the country and reenter to renew the legality of your foreign license, or get a Costa Rican driving license. Note that only legal residents can get a Costa Rican license.
Drinking and driving in Costa Rica (and other rules of the road)
Another rule to be aware of when driving a car in Costa Rica is, like where you’re from, the rule on drinking and driving. Drinking and driving in Costa Rica is not cool, not funny, and not legal. You might hear that drinking and driving is almost like a national sport here, but that doesn’t mean you should partake.
The alcohol limit for driving in Costa Rica is 0.50-0.75 grams (when breathalyzed), or 0.25-0.38 milligrams in a blood test. If you’re over these limits when stopped while driving in Costa Rica, you can expect a MINIMUM fine of 327,713 colones (approx. $510) and possibly 1-3 years in jail. If you have a Costa Rican license, you can also lose it for up to two years, and have your vehicle confiscated.
Despite these penalties, drinking and driving is relatively common in Costa Rica, especially around Christmas and Easter. Don’t think you can join the party here and do this yourself. Be extra careful on the roads during these times.
Some other infractions on the roads in Costa Rica to be aware of include:
- Driving without a seatbelt ($175 fine)
- Driving while talking on your cell ($175 fine)
- Driving with small children (under the age of 12 and less than 1.45 meters tall) without a child seat ($350 fine)
- Illegal parking ($86 fine)
- Illegal overtaking/passing (on a bend/curve, double-lined road, railroad crossing, bridge) ($515 fine)
- Overtaking through the middle of rows of vehicles on a motorcycle/moped ($175 fine)
- Carrying children under the age of 5 on a motorcycle or ATV ($348 fine)
- Driving with more people than the vehicle’s capacity ($175 fine)
- Not having a fire extinguisher, two triangles, and a safety reflective vest in your car ($36 fine)
- Driving without the vehicle’s documents ($86 fine)
- Driving without a valid license or with an expired foreign license ($86 fine)
- Offering public transportation without authorization ($175 fine)
- Driving with an expired or suspended Costa Rican license ($515 fine)
- Avoiding payment on toll roads ($38 fine)
- Misusing the horn ($38 fine)
- Littering/throwing garbage from a vehicle ($38 fine)
- Illegal use of loudspeakers ($38 fine)
- Driving on the beach ($86 fine)
- Having damaged headlights/blinkers ($38 fine)
- Driving with headlights off between 6:00 PM and 6:00 AM ($175 fine)
- Driving without a valid Marchamo ($86 fine)
- Riding a moped/motorbike/quad without a helmet ($175 fine)
- Riding a moped/motorbike without a reflective vest ($86 fine)
- Tailgating ($38 fine)
- Illegal U-turning ($515 fine)
- Speeding ($86-$515 fine depending on location, speed, and circumstances)
- Ignoring or not stopping at red lights ($348 fine)
Looking at the list above might make many experienced drivers in Costa Rica laugh, especially those rules concerning motorbikes. When driving in Costa Rica, the rules often seem more suggestions than anything else. But they do exist, and the police can stop you for any of the infractions listed above, and more.
As a tourist, you’re most likely to fall foul of the helmet laws (when you rent a bike or quad at the beach, you’ll see no one else with a helmet on, but that won’t stop a zealous cop from targeting the foreigner), the laws about headlights, and the speeding laws.
Speeding laws can be tricky, as signs telling you the maximum speed on the road you’re driving on are rare. When you do see a sign, remember it’s in kilometers NOT miles (as is the speedometer in your car). Tourists often get hit for speeding because they mixed up their kilometers and miles. Don’t be that tourist.
Being forewarned is being prepared.
So what happens if I get stopped by the police while driving in Costa Rica?
If you’re driving in Costa Rica, especially outside of the Central Valley, chances are you will be stopped by the police – or transitos, as they’re called – at some point. The first thing to remember is that you should always carry both your current (valid) driver’s license and your passport. They will ask you for this info, if you’re stopped.
The second thing to remember to do is relax. The vast majority of the time, they’re looking for drugs or some other illegal contraband, but unless you’re acting super weird, they won’t search your vehicle. If you’re cool, they’ll ask where you’re going, ask to see your documents, and send you on your way.
This goes double for tourists in rental cars, which are distinguishable in Costa Rica.
If you’re stopped for speeding, for not wearing a seat belt, for suspicion of drunk driving, or for breaking any of the other infractions listed above, also don’t panic. Unless you’re drunk, where they’ll take you away and impound your car, what will happen is you’ll get a ticket. You can pay the fine at any Banco de Costa Rica. In a rental car, you can present your ticket to the car rental company when handing back the keys at the end of your trip. They’ll add the fine to your bill and take care of paying it themselves.
Do not offer to pay the fine on the spot with the police. Back in the day, bribing police in Costa Rica was a common enough event that everyone spoke about it. Those days are over.
Attempting to bribe a transito can get you in big trouble.
Now we’ve covered some of the rules and regulations you may encounter, now let’s look at some of the other factors determining what driving is like in Costa Rica.
We’ll talk here about Costa Rica’s roads, driving culture, and general safety. Unlike the official rules we’ve mentioned already, it’s here where most foreigners notice a massive difference between driving in their home countries and driving in Costa Rica. Let’s look at the burning question first:
Is driving in Costa Rica safe?
According to WorldLifeExpectancy.com, an organization which ranks global life expectancy, health, and causes of death around the world, Costa Rica has a death rate of 14.57 per 100,000 people for road traffic accidents.
To give this some perspective, the United States has a rate of 10.92. Canada is 5.17, Mexico is 12.29, and the UK is 2.42. Statistically then, Costa Rica’s roads are more dangerous than all these countries, although in the cases of the United States and Mexico, not that much more.
On the ground, you can see why for two reasons. The first reason is the state of many of the roads, and the second is your fellow Costa Rican drivers.
Many tourists driving in Costa Rica are shocked by the roads. While it’s true they are now much better than they used to be, we’re not talking gleaming flattops here.
Even the best highways have a maximum of two lanes each way, which can shrink into one in a heartbeat with little to no warning, especially over bridges. You can expect winding switchbacks and thundering trucks pounding down on you as you attempt to navigate said switchbacks. Road signs are often nonexistent, and off the main highways and outside the main cities and tourist areas, paving is often optional. If you’re renting a car in Costa Rica, a 4x4 is always wise.
And then there’s the weather. During the dry season, things aren’t a problem. But the rainy season can turn dirt roads into quagmires you need to be careful of. Those potholes you see everywhere suddenly become small lakes of uncertain depth. And did we mention other hazards like animals, potholes, and landslides?
Now, it’s fair to say that bad roads don’t always mean unsafe roads. The worst roads we’re talking about here are not the main highways. But once you’re off the main highways, things can deteriorate fast. It all depends on your prowess as a driver, and if you’re happy enough to drive under adventurous conditions, then all good. Have at it and have fun.
But if you’re not, if you’re a more nervous driver, then maybe driving in Costa Rica isn’t for you.
What really makes the difference are other drivers on the road.
We already mentioned how many of the rules and regulations listed above seem more like suggestions. You’ll find people breaking every single one of them with impunity every time you’re on the road.
Driving in Costa Rica, especially in San Jose and other large cities where there’s lots of traffic, means having your wits about you. Despite the rules listed above, people will tailgate, honk, overtake you on either side, and generally act aggressive.
It’s an old cliche in Costa Rica that Ticos are peaceful, passive people, except for when they’re behind the wheel.
Driving in Costa Rica means driving with confidence. Nervous drivers won’t get very far here.
Should I drive at night in Costa Rica?
This is a much debated question in Costa Rica tourism and expat circles. “Night” in Costa Rica starts at around 6:00 PM year round. It gets light at around 6:00 AM.
The general recommendation to offer to our clients is no, don’t drive at night. All the hazards we mention above are magnified to the max after dark, and oftentimes street lights are no more than something you hope for rather than a reality.
Nighttime also brings out the drunk drivers to give you something extra to stress out about.
However, not all driving at night is bad. If you’re in a town or tourist area with well-lit, well-paved streets, you’re fine. Also, if you have a short journey after dark, it’s no problem.
What we don’t recommend is longer distance drives between, say, the airport and the beach. If you’re picking up a rental car from the airport and you arrive at night, we’ll always recommend you stay in a nearby hotel your first night, and get going in the morning.
What about other aspects of driving safely in Costa Rica? Like car crime?
Car crime isn’t so much a problem in Costa Rica in that you have to worry about carjackings or anything like that. That’s not an issue here.
What you do need to worry about is theft – and by that, we mean theft from your car more than theft of your car itself. Never, ever, leave anything in your car when you park. Whether it’s at the beach or in front of a roadside restaurant, if something’s visible in your car when you leave it, chances are it won’t be there when you return.
Always try to leave your car in a spot where you can keep an eye on it, or park it in a secure area with guards. You’ll also find informal guards, called “watchimen” (watchmen) on most streets and parking areas. They’ll keep an eye on your car for a few hundred colones. Be aware that like the police, criminals can identify rental cars. Be extra careful about leaving your stuff in a rental.
Buying gas in Costa Rica.
Buying gas in Costa Rica is as simple a process as filling up anywhere in the world. The thing to remember is that gas stations in Costa Rica are not self service, so the attendant does it for you, and you pay him/her after.
What most people do is tell the attendant how much money they want to spend, meaning how many colones worth of gas they should put into the car. So it’s worth finding out from your rental company how much it would cost to fill up the tank, and adjust accordingly.
Three types of gas are available in Costa Rica: Plus 91, super, and diesel. Plus is the cheapest, and most rental cars run on it, although a lot of SUVs use diesel. Again, clear this with your car rental company.
Gas prices fluctuate somewhat, like everywhere in the world, but right now, in November 2021, a liter of Plus 91 comes to about $1.13, while Super is about $1.15 per liter. Diesel costs a little under a dollar per liter.
Renting a car in Costa Rica.
As you’re here on a travel site, we assume you’re a tourist and don’t own a car in Costa Rica.
Which means you’ll be renting one if you want to drive in this country. There are plenty of car rental companies in Costa Rica, and we recommend three in particular:
With offices in San Jose and Liberia, Thrifty offers a varied array of rental options including economy, compact, midsize and SUVs.
Adobe is the largest rental company with the youngest fleet of cars in Costa Rica, and offers amenities like zero deductible insurance and free delivery to hotels near the main offices.
Alamo prides itself in offering a car for every customer. With endless choices that range from compact cars to Premium 4x4s they also have some of the best insurance policies in the business.
Whether you should rent a car in Costa Rica depends on your preferences.
If you’ve read this guide and feel freaked out about the road conditions and so on, then you shouldn’t. If the idea of driving in a foreign country stresses you out, ditto. You’re here to relax, after all, so let someone else drive, or use domestic flights instead.
But if you value your freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want, and you have an adventurous spirit, then renting a car is a no brainer.
Compared to private transfers – and even semi-private transfers, car rentals work out cheaper, especially if you’re driving a lot.
If you’re just using your car rental to go from Hotel A to Hotel B and leaving your car in the parking lot the rest of the time, though, you’re better off not renting a car. What’s the point in paying a daily rate to not use your car?
Please note that under 21s can not rent cars in Costa Rica (we mentioned this already but it’s worth repeating here), and 21-25 year-olds will pay more. Something else to be aware of is insurance.
This can be a little confusing, so it’s worth speaking to your rental car company or – if we’re handling things – your Costa Rican Vacations Travel Consultant to find out what you’re paying for.
To offer a quick guide here, know that liability insurance is mandatory in Costa Rica, and there’s no getting around that. The amount depends on your car type, but factor in a price of around $15-$30 per day. For example, Adobe’s mandatory insurance covers the following:
- Damages to third parties’ property: US$20.000. 20% deductible or a minimum of US$250.
- Injury or death of third persons not traveling in the rental car: US$100.000 per accident. No deductible.
It does not cover damages to the rental car. Note that if you’re in an accident while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, your insurance will not apply. Ditto if someone else, not authorized to drive the car, is driving at the time of the accident. Other exclusions include damage done if you’re driving in rivers, or on the beach, or anywhere else you shouldn’t be.
Failing to report your accident to your car rental company will also invalidate your insurance.
Car rental companies also offer other, optional, insurance plans too, from a more extensive full coverage to car protection insurance. Oftentimes these can be included on your credit card, but check in advance. Also note that the prices you see on many car rental sites, or even third party vendors like Expedia, won’t mention the mandatory insurance in their rates. That’s a little surprise for later.
If you book your rental car as part of one of our Costa Rican Vacations packages, your price will include your insurance with no nasty shocks for you.
What if I have a road traffic accident in Costa Rica?
First off, we hope you’re okay, and no one is hurt. Assuming that’s the case, if 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 legal ramifications. Some say it implies you’re the guilty party.
This rule has changed slightly for less serious accidents; now you can take pictures with your phone and move cars out of the way of traffic while you wait for the police to arrive.
Also, if you’re booked with us, contact our Travel Experience Team who are on call 24/7 to assist and guide you through any potential incidents like this.
So now you have an idea about what driving is like in Costa Rica and renting a car, let’s look at some distances around the country.
As we spoke about at the top of this page, the distances you see on a map don’t mean that it’ll take the same time to drive them as it would in your home country. The conditions and topography put pay to that. So expect your journey times to take much longer than they would at home, and factor in what we said about driving at night into your estimates.
Below is a guide showing you approximate travel times and distances from San Jose to the major tourist spots around Costa Rica if you were driving yourself:
San Jose to:
- La Fortuna (Arenal Volcano area): 158 km / 98 miles (3 hours drive time)
- Manuel Antonio: 105 km / 65 miles (2.5 hours drive time)
- Tamarindo: 259 km / 161 miles (4 hours drive time)
- Monteverde: 138 km / 86 miles (3.5 hours drive time)
- Playa Conchal: 262 km / 163 miles (4 hours drive time)
- Papagayo: 244 km / 152 miles (4 hours drive time)
- Jaco: 98 km / 61 miles (1.5 hours drive time)
- Playa Nosara: 246 km / 153 miles (5 hours drive time)
- Playas del Coco: Papagayo: 244 km / 152 miles (4 hours drive time)
- Puerto Viejo: 217 km / 135 miles (4.5 hours drive time)
If you’re booking your vacation with us, your itinerary will show all estimated travel times between each place you’re visiting.
A final note about getting around Costa Rica concerns directions. Costa Rica is famous for not having addresses or street names. Back in the day, this could be very confusing for locals and tourists alike. Especially tourists.
Nowadays though, in the age of Waze and other apps to help you navigate your way around, this is no longer such an issue. But take note: You will need Waze or a decent GPS to make your life easier when driving in Costa Rica.
So that’s your guide to driving in Costa Rica!
We hope you found it useful. Again, we know driving isn’t for everyone. There are plenty of other ways to get around Costa Rica, from domestic flights to private, semi-private, and public transportation.
But we hope we gave you a good idea of things here, and if you want to get on the road in Costa Rica and explore the country for yourself, know it can be one of the most exhilarating experiences you can have.