How to Take a Road Trip Through Costa Rica

20 Mar 2018

When I told people I was planning on driving around Costa Rica on my two-week trip, I was met with a mixture of surprise, admiration and shock. I admit I was a little nervous about the roads before we jetted off, but we’d hired a trusty 4X4 and we’d carefully planned our route – how hard could it be? After a slightly hairy first half hour escaping the busy roads of capital city San Jose, my boyfriend Nick and I quickly lost the nerves, put pedal to the metal and embraced the incredible scenery. Here are my top things to know before you take a road trip through Costa Rica:

Road conditions vary

Our route took us from San Jose down through Manuel Antonio on the central Pacific Coast, onto Corcovado on the Osa Peninsula and back up to Jaco. Here, we dropped off the car before taking a boat over to the beach town of Santa Teresa. We’d expected the road conditions to be tricky in places and, while driving in San Jose was relatively smooth (albeit very busy!), our suspicions proved true as soon as we got down into Corcovado, when the roads quickly became bumpy and uneven. But it was nothing our faithful 4X4 couldn’t handle, and we were immediately grateful we’d opted to hire a bigger car.

Don’t forget toll booth cash

Make sure you have some cash if you’re leaving San Jose via the Caldera Toll Road, as you’ll pass several booths on your way out of the city. Costs are low – no more than a dollar or so – and the road conditions here are among the best we found on our trip. Pick the ‘manual’ or regular lane and you’ll hand your cash over and receive change. If you’re in a hurry, you can opt for the ‘voluntary’ lane, where you pay with 100 colones (less than a dollar) and forgo any change.

Know where the nearest petrol station is

While petrol stations in Costa Rica can be found across the country, they are often pretty spread out, so be warned - make sure you have plenty of petrol if you’re headed on a long journey. After completing the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Manuel Antonio to Corcovado, we had to continue to another town to find petrol, after foolishly thinking we’d come across a gas station en-route. When you do reach one, it’s full service, and the friendly staff will fill up your tank for you before settling your bill.

Beware of rain and animals

If you’re travelling in rainy season (May to November), beware of washouts and landslides. As some roads are already uneven, they’re more prone to becoming impassable during this time, so it’s always best to check your route before you travel. It’s also wise to watch out for animals, even on the main routes. On the drive back up to Jaco from Corcovado, we had to manoeuvre around three dogs sleeping in the road, as well as a chicken and two turkeys!

Take care with overtaking

One of the biggest things to be wary of when you’re on the road is overtaking. A number of drivers overtake, even when it isn’t possible to see the oncoming traffic, which can be scary but it’s the way of the road here. The best way to combat this is to leave enough space between you and the car in front, and of course, stick to the speed limit.

What to do in an accident

While nobody wants to have to deal with this on holiday, accidents happen and it’s always good to be prepared if disaster strikes. If you find yourself in an accident, call 911 and your rental car company. It’s also important to remember not to move your car; you should wait until the police arrive to assess the scene.

Enjoy it!

We passed some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable on our trip. Roads lined with bright-pink bougainvillea, shimmering cerulean lakes surrounded by lush green foliage, incredible rainforests filled with birds every colour of the rainbow. On the drive through Uvita in the south, we hugged the coastline as it twisted and turned away from the ocean. I was craning my neck from the passenger seat to catch tantalising glimpses of the waves, before persuading Nick to pull over so we could take it all in properly.

When the time came to drop our car off in Jaco so we could catch the boat over to Santa Teresa, I felt a pang of sadness at leaving our trusty wheels behind. I’d relished the freedom of experiencing Costa Rica from the great open road, and I know I’ll be back to explore more of this beautiful destination.


Explore Costa Rica on one of our group tours, or chat to a Travel Expert about tailor making your own Journey.


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Tessa Watkins

Formerly a local news editor and reporter covering court cases and crime stories, I’m obsessed with all things travel. Often found exploring a new city and seeking out the world’s best beaches, there are a plethora of destinations I remain desperate to discover. Tweet me @tess1977