Everything You Need to Know About Driving in Costa Rica

Getting around Costa Rica by car, bus or taxi can be a challenge. Here are a few tips to help you make your way around safely.

Majestic Volcan Arenal looming over the town of La Fortuna Photo © iStock/repistu

Over a million people from around the globe make beautiful Costa Rica their travel destination of choice each year. 

Here are a few tips and suggestions to help you make your way around Costa Rica safely.

Rental Cars in Costa Rica

Rental cars are clearly marked as such, which is supposed to either warn other drivers you're not familiar with the road rules, or give locals a chance to be extra helpful. Instead it makes them easy for thieves to spot, like painting a great big "rob me!" sign on each one. Lock up and don't leave valuables in them (a tip: the thieves have worked out the camera is probably in the trunk).

If you do decide to throw caution to the wind and rent a car, here are some things to watch out for.

Costa Rican Roads

The state of the roads in Costa Rica is quite sad, with potholes nearly everywhere you turn and dangerous sinkholes caused by the landslides that occur during the rainy season.

Additionally, manholes are often missing their covers. If you happen upon a pole or tree branch protruding from the middle of the road, avoid it! It's usually there as a warning marker of a dangerous road hazard.

There's also the issue of road signs, or rather lack thereof. Some streets are marked incorrectly; others are not marked at all. You'll need a good map that lists all the town names, including the smaller locations, otherwise you might easily end up lost.

Night Driving

Forget it. Driving in Costa Rica under the best circumstances is a challenge, doing so at night is downright dangerous. Many roads don't have adequate lighting making visibility difficult. Additionally, unless you know your way around, routes can be unpredictable with hills and sharp turns and no safety features such as guard rails to protect you should you misjudge a bend.

Dangerous Driving

Local drivers are notorious for speeding and driving recklessly. Always remain aware of those around you, drive defensively and err on the side of caution whenever there is a question of safety. If you see someone driving erratically in your direction, yield and let them go by. Even if you have the right of way, it's not worth the risk.

Violent crime and theft are both issues in Costa Rica, so it's advised that you always drive with your doors locked and windows up. Some criminals deliberately cause accidents as a way to get unsuspecting tourists to pull over so they can approach the vehicle and rob them, sometimes at gun or knifepoint. If you are involved in an accident, regardless of who caused it, you should drive until you reach a safe place to pull over (preferably a police station).

Large demonstrations and protests occur rather frequently in Costa Rica and may result in road blocks being placed in surrounding areas. If you come to a road blockade, you're advised not to cross it, even if there is no one around or it appears to be there for no good reason. You never know what's on the other side.

Fines on Costa Rican Roads

Recent laws have been enacted increasing traffic related fines and penalties, so be careful to obey all the local laws when on the road. Expensive fines are assessed for those caught speeding, drunk driving, not wearing safety belts and driving while using a mobile phone.

Whatever you do, don't try and talk a police officer out of giving you a ticket if you get pulled over you may be charged with trying to bribe a law officer and fined as much as $400. 

Are Costa Rican Taxis Safe?

Given all the risks associated with renting a vehicle and driving yourself around Costa Rica, it's not surprising that hailing a taxi is often the preferred method of transportation. They're widely available and relatively cheap, provided you are careful not to get ripped off.

Be sure the taxi has a working meter (called 'la maria') and that it's not already running. Once you get in, insist the driver start the meter, otherwise you may end up paying whatever exorbitant fee the driver makes up in his head.

You should only use official taxis, which are designated by their red color and yellow triangles on the side panels. Travelers who've taken a chance using unofficial taxis have been robbed, assaulted or worse.

Female travelers should avoid riding in taxis alone, and should always sit in the back seat. When riding, insist that the driver not pick up additional passengers as it may be a set up.

Bus Safety in Costa Rica

Another popular mode of travel within Costa Rica is bus. Just keep in mind that the buses themselves and their stations are havens for thieves.

On short trips, remain alert and keep your belongings concealed or held tightly in front of you. On longer treks, it's advised that you avoid using the overhead bins to store baggage as they are not safe.

Don't fall asleep during your trip or you may wake to find your belongings missing. Or, if you're traveling with another person, take turns resting so the bags are always being guarded.

Be Prepared

Regardless of how you choose to get around, being able to see the natural beauty and experience the endless adventure that Costa Rica has to offer is a journey not to be forgotten. Just know what to expect beforehand, make careful choices and use common sense and you're travels there will go off without a hitch.

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4 Comments

  • Jeremy Martin said

    I'd second and third your point about "clearly marking rental cars" being useful for little else than painting a bullseye on your belongings for car thieves. My wife and I recently spent 12 days in Costa Rica, and had a fantastic time. We did have a rental the whole time (which I'd emphatically recommend to other travelers as well), but we did receive many warnings about leaving valuables in the car, as rentals in particular tend to get targeted. If you'll pardon the backlink, I actually put my own guide together on driving in Costa Rica as well, which your readers may find complementary to this post: http://notjustabroad.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-driving-in-costa-rica/

  • Julie said

    i read that visitors and gringos get stop and ticketed with expensive fines on a regular basis for nothing ! As I was looking to retire in Costa Rica, this is really scary to me. The amount for traffic ticket s are ridiculous! It's making me reconsider my decision. I wanted to move from Canada to have more freedom, it doesn't look like its the case. 😢. Is bribing officers still common, I can't see paying a few fines without breaking the bank, and ruining your stay.

  • David D said

    Hi Phil.. I have been to Costa Rica two months back and what i realized in Costa Rica that roads are not smooth. So we had only option to hire a taxi, shuttle or something else. There are so many taxi owner that provide such kind of services. But the main bet was for me to find the best traveling company. So, I Google it and make a thorough research. I was with 3-4 options and finally i hired the traveling company TicoRide.com. They work with the best suppliers in the town and provide Transportation services at unbeatable prices. For female alone tourists they also have the option to hire a Private transportation. I made a batter choice So i am sharing it with you. Cheers!

  • Alex said

    This is fear mongering. We've been in Costa Rica for a month and have encountered only friendly, smiling police. They are helpful and having met many people here from all over, exactly none have had a problem with the police. Roads are in very good shape in some places, not so good in hard to reach, out lying places. ( I drove the entire coast, including to Drake Bay) People drive faster, pass more often, there are serious river crossings in outer areas, but there isn't the road rage you see in any United States city. Violent crime is almost non existent. I feel safer here than in the US, just be smart when traveling, as you would anywhere in the world.

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