Driving in Costa Rica
Renting your own set of wheels can be one of the most rewarding ways to explore Costa Rica. Without bus schedule constraints you have the freedom to travel at your own pace, with opportunities to stop and discover interesting people and places along the way. Your current driver's license from your home country is accepted in Costa Rica, as are International Driver's Permits issued by the American Automobile Association.
Car rental agencies offer both standard and 4WD vehicles, and visitors can choose either manual or automatic transmission, though the latter is often more expensive. For travel to many of Costa Rica’s popular vacation destinations (Arenal, Manuel Antonio, Jaco, Tamarindo, etc.), a standard, non-4WD vehicle is sufficient. If Monteverde or some of the country’s more remote areas are on your itinerary, a 4WD vehicle will be necessary, especially during the rainy season months of May through November.
- Travel with your current drivers license and passport, or a copy of your passport and entry stamp page and rental car papers.
- The law requires all car drivers/passengers to wear a seat belt.
- First-time drivers in Costa Rica are advised to drive during daylight hours or at least avoid long trips at night.
- If you're driving in rural parts of the country, be wary of animals that may stray onto the highway.
- Slow down if an approaching vehicle is flashing its head lights or if you see a makeshift traffic cone fashioned from branches, there is probably a broken down vehicle ahead.
- Never leave anything of value in your car.
- If you're in an accident, do not move your vehicle. Wait until a police officer arrives and prepares a report. You can also report the accident by calling 911.
Popular tourist towns are always well-signed, and travelers will be hard-pressed to lose their way en route to Jaco or Quepos. Costa Rica’s more rural routes, although spectacularly scenic, offer minimal or no signage along with plenty of opportunities to get lost. If you find yourself astray on a backcountry road, just ask any local for help. Costa Ricans are famously friendly people and are happy to help point you in the right direction. Local taxi drivers are another wonderful resource, and have been known to guide lost tourists to the correct highway or turnoff. Another option is to rent a GPS system from your car rental agency; most cost between $7-$10 per day.
Most major roads have speed limits of 62 miles (100 km) per hour, while secondary roads are 37 miles (60 km) per hour. Visitors may see checkpoints manned by traffic police; they use radar and can stop you for speeding or not wearing a seatbelt. If you get stopped for such an offense, do not pay a bribe to avoid getting a ticket. Look for the amount and directions on where to pay the fine on the ticket. If you are driving a rental car, note that most rental agencies will pay your speeding ticket for an additional fee.
Points to Consider
When planning your Costa Rican vacation, consider how much time you have in-country and the places you’d like to explore. A car rental makes the most sense for those who have at least a week and who want to experience the many flavors of Costa Rica – from active volcanoes to sultry rainforests. As long as you exercise patience and drive defensively, your driving experiences in Costa Rica will be safe and, most likely, unforgettable.
San Jose Vehicle Restriction Laws
Costa Rica's vehicle restriction laws, known as "restriccion vehicular" or "Pico y Placa" (Rush Hour and License Plate), govern traffic flow within San Jose. Vehicle usage is restricted according to day of the week and the final digit of a vehicle's license plate. There are no restrictions for weekend driving, and taxis, buses and handicap vehicles are always exempt. The restriction is often lifted during holidays. As of 2012, the current fine is 36,060 CRC (about $72).
The affected area stretches roughly from Cinco Esquinas in Tibas, east through Guadalupe and the Fuente de la Hispanidad in San Pedro, south to the Walmart in San Sebastian, and west past the Hatillos circunvalacion and into Pavas. Private, non-commercial vehicles are banned from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. depending on their plate numbers:
Day License Plate Ending in:
Monday 1 or 2
Tuesday 3 or 4
Wednesday 5 or 6
Thursday 7 or 8
Friday 9 or 0