Costa Rica: Road Trip Across Country

Car Rental in Costa Rica:

In April 2019, we planned to take a two week trip to Costa Rica. We wanted to see many different areas of the country, so we started exploring the idea of renting a car to get around. We solicited opinions from friends who had been before and scouted the Internet for advice. In the end, we decided to go for it and rent a car for the majority of our trip.

Having done so, here’s our advice about car rentals in Costa Rica:

  1. Rent a 4-Wheel Drive Vehicle: It will not be the cheapest option available, but many Costa Rican roads are not passable without the extra maneuverability and horsepower of a 4-Wheel drive car. We ended up with a Toyota Fortuna and loved it!
  2. Get Car Insurance: All car rental companies will require you to get basic insurance through them. It’s a National law. We recommend getting extra insurance that will cover a bit more just in case!
  3. Choose a Reputable Rental Company: We decided to go with Alamo since we were familiar with them from trips in the United States. Our experience with them in Costa Rica was positive.
Man driving Toyota Fortuna in Costa Rica
The road trip begins…

Driving in Costa Rica:

Take Google Maps with a Grain of Salt

We heavily relied on Google Maps for navigation. Typically, one of us would drive while the other navigated. We brought an old fashioned map just in case but it turned out to be relatively useless since we were hard pressed to find any street signs, especially in the smaller Costa Rica towns.

Google Maps was flawless in terms of locating available roads. However, more than once it took us on “roads” that were little more than goat paths. These were the moments we were most grateful for our four wheel drive car.

So, the lesson here is to take Google Maps with a grain of salt. You may end up getting more of an adventure than you bargained for!

The best quote from my navigation: “When the road ends, turn right!”

Man standing in front of Toyota Fortuna in Costa Rica
Aaron with our Toyota Fortuna

Road Conditions in Costa Rica:

Road conditions in Costa Rica vary widely all over the country. During our two week road trip we encountered everything from four lane asphalt highways to single track “roads” where the mud was so thick it threatened to immobilize the tires. These diverse conditions are precisely why we recommend renting a car with four wheel drive.

We also asked locals at our hotels for advice on which roads to take. This is crucial in the rainy season since many roads get flooded and become impassable.

Toyota Fortuna on muddy road in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Road Near Manuel Antonio
One Lane Bridge Costa Rica
Beware the One Lane Bridges

Driving in Monteverde

The most challenging driving we encountered was in the area around Monteverde in the center of the country. Most of the roads were unpaved and required slow speeds to avoid obstacles like rocks and ruts. Even the few paved roads in the area were in rough shape.

Silver Toyota Fortuna on steep road near Monteverde
Steep Road Near Monteverde

Traffic from San Jose to the Beaches on the West Coast

We had a couple of long driving days on our road trip including the drive from the Arenal Volcano area to Manual Antonio.

This drive wasn’t technically difficult, but the traffic was horrendous once we reached Highway 27, the paved, four lane road going west from San Jose to the coast.

We were driving to Manuel Antonio just before the Easter holiday weekend which likely explains the crazy traffic we encountered. We spent hours baking in the hot sun waiting to exit the highway and make our way south.

We learned that if you are road tripping through Costa Rica around a holiday, you’ll likely be joined by many locals who are also looking to celebrate away from home.

Traffic Jam Highway 27 Costa Rica
Traffic Jam on Highway 27

Freedom and Flexibility to Explore:

For us, the best part about renting a car was the freedom and flexibility it afforded us. We were able to explore the country at our own pace and see exactly what we wanted to see. Want to take a detour to a small town off the beaten path? Done. Want to spend a couple extra hours at a favorite spot? Easy.

When we were still considering whether renting a vehicle was a good idea, we came across many transportation services for hire to bring you from one place to the next. We even met folks along the way who used such companies. In the end, we were grateful we could determine our own time schedule and itinerary.

If you are considering renting a car in Costa Rica, please know that it is totally doable, and we highly recommend it!

-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel

Woman  Driving  Toyota  Fortuna  Costa  Rica

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