Driving in Costa Rica is not for the faint of heart. All the guidebooks are full of dramatic warnings about the quality of the roads, frequent landslides and river crossings, impossible navigation, and daredevil drivers. And for the most part, they’re right. But that’s not to say that you shouldn’t rent a car in Costa Rica. We did for our last week in the country and it really opened up new areas of the country for us (and wasn’t really that bad). And it will definitely go on the list of “cultural experiences” that we won’t soon forget!
Before we hit the road though we should talk about insurance. Many people arrive at the counter of their rental agency and are in for a rude awakening when they find out the real price of their rental. In Costa Rica, liability insurance is mandatory by law, and at many rental agencies so is collision coverage. Costa Rican companies are notorious for advertising a low rate online, say $10/day, but then tacking on an extra $60/day in mandatory insurance fees when you pick up your car! And they won’t accept your US insurance or the CDW of your credit card. So if you rent a car in Costa Rica, make sure you read up about insurance and find a quote that includes these fees. We used Adobe Car Rental as they were highly recommended and easy to work with.
The quality of the roads in the country is extremely variable. The highway along the Pacific coast is flat and well-paved, but the roads in the mountains are unbelievably windy, steep, and full of axle-breaking potholes. If you are driving between major tourist destinations during the dry season then you’ll be ok with a sedan. Once you go into the mountains then you should at least get an SUV. And when in doubt, just go for a 4WD SUV. It’s pretty common for roads to be washed out due to landslides and river crossings are a regular part of life. Paved roads are a luxury you won’t find in many places.
Navigation can be frustrating, hilarious, and uniquely tico (tico is what the Costa Ricans call themselves). This is because roads are not named in Costa Rica! Directions are given in terms of landmarks, such as “take a left after the bridge.” You might even find directions such as “take a right at the old ceiba tree,” only to find out that said tree was cut down 30 years ago but people still give directions as if it were there.
And addresses, if they are written at all, are also given relative to landmarks. So if you search for a restaurant on Yelp or TripAdvisor you might see its address written as “300 meters west of the Monteverde Cheese Factory, Monte Verde, Costa Rica.” Yes, that’s the official address of Curi Cancha Reserve.
The same goes for bus stops. Sometimes you can find actual bus stops, but frequently the bus picks up and discharges passengers arbitrarily. And other times there are bus stops, but they aren’t physical bus stops. Instead you have to ask a local where to pick up the bus and they’ll say “oh it stops in front of that cafe” as if everyone would know that.
All this may sound bizarre until you realize that outside of San José, most of Costa Rica is just a collection of very small towns where everyone knows each other and life doesn’t change much day-to-day. This can make travel very… interesting… for a tourist, but you just have to relax and do as the Costa Ricans do. Pura vida, mai.