Is a self-drive trip in Costa Rica right for me?
When booking a Costa Rica trip with kimkim you'll have a few options on how you want to travel—each with their own set of pros and cons. We've laid them out here so you can decide if a self-drive trip makes the most sense for you.
Renting a Car (Self-Drive)
If you want to experience Costa Rica with the freedom to go with the flow and make as many stops as you wish—when you wish—including hard-to-reach places, then a self-guided road trip is the best way to get around. It may be more challenging (in a good way!) and expensive (for smaller groups) but the adventure factor of getting yourself around a country as beautiful as Costa Rica is priceless. We've laid out questions you may have about a self-drive trip below so you can decide for yourself.
Shared Shuttle Service
This is the most common mode of transportation. Shuttles operate multiple times a day between all of the major destinations in Costa Rica, so if you're not planning on venturing too far off the beaten track, then this is a good option. The vehicles are safe and dependable, and you don't have to worry about driving and finding your way around. The cons? Operators tend to sell out in the high season so you'd want to book them in advance. Plus, drivers tend to make multiple stops to pick up passengers, so you could spend up to an hour (if you're the first to be picked up) loading up at various hotels before you even get on the road towards your destination. The seats can also be small, especially for tall people.
Private transfers are a great option for those who like to have a flexible schedule with fewer stops and more comfort than a shuttle. The cons are that these routes are more costly and might not travel to some of the more remote parts of the country. But if you're traveling with a bigger group, say 6+ passengers, booking a private transfer is likely to be just as economical as a self-drive trip.
To learn more about our local specialists, please read How kimkim Trips Work in Costa Rica.
What kinds of things can I see and do along the way?
The options for discovery are endless while traveling on the road in Costa Rica. You can always stop at a national park or a wildlife preserve (and you’re sure to drive near one since they make up more than 25% of the country) to stretch your legs, spot some wildlife, and/or go for a hike. If you’re traveling along either of the coasts, you’re sure to spot many beautiful beaches along the way. Having your own car gives you the ability to pull over for spontaneous photographs, beach walks, and dips in the ocean.
For some sustenance in the form of Tico food and drink, you can also stop at one of the many sodas, local eateries serving traditional Costa Rican dishes on the side of the road where you’ll taste authentic cuisine and fresh juices, and of course, traditional Costa Rican coffee. Your local specialist can offer some options depending on where you are going.
For more information, read Unique Ways to Experience Costa Rica.
How long are typical driving distances?
Costa Rica may be physically small in terms of land mass but don't let that fool you. It's a country of mountains, rainforests, plains, and windy river valleys, which prevent the construction of expressways making it more difficult to get from point A to point B. The average driving time between one destination to the next is 3.5 hours, but it's easy to split the trip into enjoyable distances. For instance, if headed to Guanacaste from San Jose (the capital), consider stopping for a night or two in La Fortuna to see Arenal Volcano and soak in the hot springs.
If leaving from San Jose (the capital), factor in an extra hour if traveling during rush hour, which can get brutal. Once you're on the highway, the normal speed limit is 55 miles per hour (90 km/h) and you'll want to stick to this as speeding tickets are expensive (upwards of $500 USD). It's also not wise to drive after dark, especially in the jungle. If arriving in the late afternoon or evening, stay the night near the airport and set off the next day armed with a good cup of coffee.
For more information, read Costa Rica - 5 Must Visit Volcanoes.
What are the road conditions like?
Despite stories you may have heard, main roads and highways in Costa Rica are generally good. In and outside the metropolitan areas, for instance, roads and highways have well-marked signage (in Spanish) and are mostly paved with painted lines. Some exceptions are Route 606 (Arenal to Monteverde) and Route 160 (Montezuma and Santa Teresa). These are a mix between paved and dirt roads with some bumpy and slow parts, however, the landscape you get is simply breathtaking. Keep in mind that conditions are also constantly changing due to weather, construction, or natural disasters.
The more rural and isolated you get, the more you'll be glad to have a 4WD (highly recommended no matter where you travel in Costa Rica) to navigate the dirt roads, potholes, and potentially muddy conditions—and, yes, even a river crossing or two. When exploring areas near either coast, you'll likely encounter inlets, bays, rivers, estuaries, and mangrove forests, and terrain not easily built into roads. Again, we'll stress the point: 4WD.
For more information on weather, read Best Time of Year to Visit Costa Rica and Yes, You Can Visit Costa Rica During Rainy Season.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
How will I find my way around?
The best way to navigate your way around Costa Rica is to reserve a GPS unit with your rental car reservation. This is extremely helpful and many locals use it as well. Though main roads and destinations have signage, the GPS can be a tremendous tool, especially when hooked up to BlueTooth for hands-free audio directions. Alternatively, if you have a smartphone with a good international data plan, download an app called WAZE, which works great in Costa Rica. You can also get a WiFi device for your car so you don't have to use roaming.
One thing to note for rural areas, like getting around Nicoya Peninsula, for instance: technology may tell you to take a route thinking it's faster when it's actually much slower due to poor road conditions, rivers, and/or closures due to recent rain. When traveling in rural areas, make sure to check with your local specialist before setting off on a two-track road that your GPS or app is telling you to take despite your concerns.
For more information, read How Many Days Should You Spend in Costa Rica.
What kind of vehicle is recommended (and why)?
We covered this already but it's worth repeating! The best kind of vehicle to drive around Costa Rica is a 4WD SUV vehicle since it will let you ascend steep hills and explore dirt roads, muddy ruts, and large rocks without getting stuck.
Speaking of hills, many of Costa Rica's best small hotels are located uphill on narrow, dirt driveways, so even if you're not planning on doing too much off-roading, you may end up off-roading just the same. These harder-to-get-to and wonderfully authentic hotels will give you glorious views, so they're well worth the trepidatious arrival process.
Is it safe?
It is absolutely safe to drive around Costa Rica when you take the proper precautions. Once you have your GPS and/or WiFi device— and have double-checked your route with your local specialist—you’re set to go to your destination without getting lost. It is always recommended that you drive during daylight since many roads don’t have traffic lights which can make it difficult to see after dark.
Also, avoid leaving visible objects (valuables and otherwise) in your vehicle since petty theft can be quite common.
Do I need an international driver's license?
Thankfully, this is not necessary. In Costa Rica, anyone can drive with their home country driver’s license as long as they have a valid “tourist visa.” The only documents you need at the rental car desk is your valid driver’s license from your country of origin, and your passport with an entry stamp (or a color copy of it). It’s also necessary to present a valid credit card for the security deposit that will be authorized until the end of your trip (more on this later).
What are the best regions for a self-drive trip?
Most regions of Costa Rica are well-suited for a self-drive trip, especially those off-the-beaten-path destinations like Turrialba, San Gerardo de Dota, Rincón de la Vieja, and Río Celeste since they lack shuttle service. It won't be easy finding private transfers who will take you there either.
Some regions you might want to avoid if you don’t love driving on constantly bumpy roads are Monteverde and Santa Teresa in the Nicoya Peninsula, especially during the rainy season. Otherwise, settle in, be patient, and enjoy the ride.
For more information, please read Essential Costa Rica: 4 Regions to Visit.
Will all taxes and fees be included or will there be additional fees when I pick the car up?
This is where it gets tricky—and sometimes maddening—but once you have it down (and come prepared), renting a car in Costa Rica becomes a cinch.
Upon arrival, a security deposit will be held on your credit card for the rental vehicle and, in some cases, for the GPS. The average range for the rental vehicle security deposit goes between $750 USD to $2500 USD even when you have only purchased the basic insurance, so make sure to have room on the card (see below for another option). This price range also varies depending on the type of vehicle.
As for insurance, per Costa Rican law, all rental car agencies require basic mandatory insurance called "PLI" or liability insurance, which cannot be declined. "PLI" will cover you in the event that you cause damage to a physical person as well as damage a third-party property. There's no getting around this one.
Agencies will then also offer two additional kinds of optional insurance. "LDW" or car protection covers damages to the rented car and can be declined if you have a credit card that covers the rented vehicle during the rental period. If you wish to decline this insurance you must provide a document from the credit card company stating that you are fully covered in Costa Rica as well as the type of car you have selected and the type of roads you will transit.
In addition, some people choose to add Extended Protection or Supplementary Protection Plan called "SPP" to avoid paying anything extra if there is an accident. The best part of adding this coverage is that in most cases it reduces the rental vehicle security deposit to a range between $100 USD to $500 USD held on your credit card, versus the larger amount stated in the first paragraph.
And yes, taxes are added to the final bill. Beware of cars rented "from the airport", which are subject to an additional tax on the total cost of the rental.
Can I rent a car seat?
Yes! You can always rent a baby seat or a booster for your trip. In Costa Rica, it’s mandatory to use a baby seat or booster if you’re traveling with children under the age of 12, despite the fact that you may see local families riding on the same scooter without helmets. It's best to stick to the law.
For more information on traveling as a family, read Why Costa Rica is Great For Families.