Driving in Costa Rica is a topic that is often discussed in the planning stages of a Costa Rica Escapes’ itinerary. Very rarely do we recommend or suggest that our clients handle their own driving, and if we do, the traveler(s) have asked us about the practicality of renting a car for their trip. The majority of focus as it pertains to Costa Rica driving has to do with (1) safety. The distant second-most discussed topic on this subject has to do with (2) cost comparison.
Is it Safe to Drive in Costa Rica?
The question of “is it safe to drive in Costa Rica?” is a relative one and depends on various factors. In the end, the answer to this question is: yes, but only under certain conditions. These conditions have to do with (1) who is driving and (2) where you are driving.
Driving on Costa Rican Roads
Most of the main roads in Costa Rica are in great shape; however, if you are exploring Costa Rica on a family travel experience or adventure tour, the chances are high that you will not be traveling on the main roads for very long. This is where the safety issues begin to surface with Costa Rica driving. Secondary roads and side roads are often unpaved and rarely maintained. Even on the main roads, directional signage is difficult to find.
Lighting at night can be virtually non-existent and often times rain, fog or other weather conditions (such as landslides) can complicate driving in Costa Rica. Most of the roads in Costa Rica are quite narrow, and the vast majority of the roads are only two lanes with no substantial shoulder.
Passing Other Cars
Passing on blind turns and double-yellow striped roads is common and there is an unwritten code to passing. This is quite often a terrifying aspect of driving in Costa Rica. The roads of Costa Rica are often filled with large buses moving people between locations and there are a fair number of tractor-trailers and cargo moving vehicles, as well.
Aggression on the Road
On the whole, as compared to most places, Costa Rican drivers are quite aggressive with their style of driving and like to drive fast. This is something that has been an issue in this country for many years.
Dangers of Rental Cars & Costa Rica Driving
More often than not, we find that when travelers from the United States, Canada, and even Europe are exposed to transportation in Costa Rica, their impression is not positive. They are typically happy they did not have to drive and in many cases have told us that they would have returned the car after the first day had they decided to rent the car. The crater-sized potholes and narrow roads with severe drops are almost always brought to attention as this discussion is initiated.
The Safe Choice
When handled by a professional driver from a reputable transportation company, the driving is by far as safe as it gets. These drivers and companies have the most experience doing this and it is in their best interest to make sure everything goes smoothly.
Our Policy on Driving in Costa Rica
As a rule for our adventure travel tours, Costa Rica Escapes strongly recommends leaving the driving up to the professionals. We strongly suggest coordinating private or shared transportation between locations. In the end, it tends to be much less stressful to leave the driving to someone else and it ensures that travelers will arrive at their destination in a timely fashion without incident.
Taxis vs Rental Cars
In most towns, taxis are plentiful and not terribly expensive. Rental cars tend to be targeted by robbers and are often broken in to and must be secured in a very safe place each night. While it is nice to have the flexibility to come and go as you please, a rental car is very expensive in Costa Rica. The daily rates are high, there is a mandatory insurance for drivers from another country and gasoline prices and tax rates are expensive. For certain groups, mainly those looking to follow swells and waves for surfing, we do suggest a rental car because it will allow you to do this, but for virtually all other travelers it is best o hire a friendly Tico driver to get you around.
John Rabenau has been working in the eco-tourism & adventure travel industry in Costa Rica since 2002. He has worked in a variety of capacities from Outdoor Educator & Principle Guide to Itinerary Design Manager & Business Owner for numerous organizations. He has grown Costa Rica Escapes into one of the most reputable Costa Rica travel agencies since its creation in 2006, hosting more than 5,000 people with custom vacation itineraries.