Wild and wonderful Costa Rica is about the size of West Virginia meaning you could drive around the entire country pending you were staying long enough. While major highways are paved, many other side roads are not. Combine this with how much rain the rainforest gets and you’ll want to carefully consider what type of vehicle you rent while in the beautiful Central American country.
You have your choice of international brands like Enterprise and Hertz or you can opt for a local company like Adobe. We went with Vamos Rent-A-Car based on some solid reviews and the availability of their fleet.
We knew that a few places on our potential visit list involved driving along unpaved roads and because we were going in the beginning of rainy season, we didn’t want to risk getting stuck in a muddy puddle. So we chose to go with a 4×4.
Upon flying into Liberia, we met with a rep outside of the airport holding a sign with the company logo. We introduced ourselves and he called up a colleague who was there with a shuttle van within a few minutes. After a short drive over to their office and some quick paperwork, we were handed the keys to a Toyota Rush, a cellphone with access to Waze, and a cooler to keep things cold while we drove between destinations.
Our vehicle was beat up – there were dings and scratches all over. One of the bike rack arms was even missing! Was this because of our age? Was it because we chose the economical budget option? Either way, I’m not complaining. The rest of the cars on the lot were in a lot better condition (read as: would lead to more anxious driving)
There’s something anti-climatic about driving away in a car that’s not yours. It should be the whole new experience, but in reality, it’s just driving, a mundane task that you’ve done countless times before. We made a left out of the parking lot to go fill up the gas (we were given it with about 3/8 of a tank) and start our journey.
Gas is not self-served in Costa Rica. You will likely pull into one of a few major companies and an attendant will approach you and ask what kind of gas and how much. I guesstimated how much would get us a full tank and asked for regular. You can use a card, so I suggest using one with no foreign transaction fees and if they ever ask if you want to charge in USD or Costa Rican Colónes, always pick your home currency. Your bank will almost assuredly give you a better exchange rate.
Driving requires full attention here. The speed limit will increase and decrease constantly depending on if you are on open highway, passing through a village, or if there is a school nearby. Be ready to slow down from 80kph to 20 and speed back up all within a very short period of time. While we had no interactions with police, we did see someone get waved down at a speed trap and have heard bad stories about what happens after that. Hint: it’s very expensive.
We were told by our first AirBnB that if you’re going the speed limit, you’re going too slow. I didn’t want to risk it, so unless I was 100% positive that there wasn’t anyone around, I kept pretty close to the posted limit. This led to a number of occasions where cars would be riding very close behind. Don’t worry if this happens, as they will pass you as soon as they can, even double yellow lines and approaching blind curves.
Besides the police, there is another major player in keeping you from speeding – speedbumps. These nasty little terrors will sneak up on you a lot. Most of the time, there will be a reductor sign giving ample warning and they’re often painted so you can see them approaching. Not always, however. Be very aware that speedbumps are prevalent.
There are also a lot of signs asking you to be cautious of any local fauna that may be crossing the road. We really only ran into this on our road to Monteverde.
The last bit to consider is what kind of roads you’ll be driving on. The paved roads are fine, as are most of the gravel roads in the touristy areas; however, there are plenty of instances where you will want to slow down to a crawl and let your 4×4 mode kick in and help you up the inclines, avoiding any and all potholes that you can.
Slow down, be safe, and have fun!