Costa Rica’s epic landscapes make it prime road-trip territory, from its wild Pacific coastline to the relaxed vibe of its Caribbean beaches, lush wildlife-filled forests and still-smoldering volcanoes.
While most highways are well maintained, driving can still be a nerve-jangling experience – from bumper-to-bumper traffic to river crossings and unpredictable drivers everywhere. But whether you want to beach-hop, ride the waves, whizz over the rainforest on a zip wire, or go in search of sloths, nothing beats the freedom of the open road and exploring at your own pace.
Here are our top picks for the best road trips in Costa Rica.
1. San José to La Fortuna
Best road trip for outdoor adventures
San José to La Fortuna; 130km (81 miles); allow three and a half hours
You don’t have to drive far from the urban jungle to come across Costa Rica’s wild and wonderful nature. And after you’ve negotiated San José's traffic, the drive is straightforward – a mix of major highways (Rte 1, part of the Pan-American Highway) and curvy paved roads flanked by small towns.
Once you reach La Fortuna, there is no end to the adventures on offer. Around 7km (10.5 miles) to the west, the postcard-perfect cone of Arenal Volcano dominates the landscape of its namesake national park.
Hike over ancient lava fields or try mountain biking, horseback riding and white water rafting. There’s windsurfing and kayaking on Lake Arenal too, then unwind with a soak in volcanic hot springs.
Planning tip: The roads are quieter mid-morning, except on weekends when locals travel to La Fortuna to spend time at the hot springs.
2. La Fortuna to Monteverde
Best road trip for scenic views
La Fortuna to Monteverde; 183km (114 miles); allow three and a half hours
From La Fortuna, the scenic route to Monteverde takes you around Lake Arenal on Rte 142 towards Tilaran, connecting with Rte 145 where paved road turns to steep, winding dirt roads – a 4WD is ideal.
Finally, Rte 606 passes small farms and coffee fincas as you climb towards the mist-wreathed cloud forest, dripping in vegetation and bursting with wildlife.
On a clear day from a lofty viewpoint, you can see both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts from this biodiverse hot spot. Birdwatchers and nature lovers will be in their element on awe-inspiring day and night hikes, and for a monkey’s eye view of the forest, you can zip over the forest canopy at adrenaline-inducing speeds with Sky Trek Monteverde.
Planning tip: Fill up at a gas station in La Fortuna, Nuevo Arenal or Tilaran; there’s nothing after that until Monteverde.
3. Drake Bay and the Osa Peninsula
Best road trip for getting off-the-beaten-path
Manuel Antonio National Park to Drake Bay; 211km (130 miles); allow five hours
If you hanker after untouched beaches, steamy jungle where monkeys and jaguars roam and an adventurous road trip, look no further than the far-flung Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica’s southwestern corner.
You can fly from San José to Drake Bay or take a small boat from Sierpe, but taking the road less traveled means the chance to spot scarlet macaws, scampering squirrel monkeys and other wild things en route.
You should be confident in a 4WD: there are multiple rivers to cross – sometimes a passenger will need to get out and test the waters – and after you turn off Rte 245 at Rincón de Osa, the roads are unpaved.
Drake Bay is the jumping-off point for snorkeling and scuba diving tours to the underwater playground of the Caño Island marine reserve, as well as dolphin and whale-spotting trips.
Or hike the trails of the untamed Corcovado National Park, where the tropical lowland forest is home to a wealth of wildlife, then kick back in a hammock for some superb sunset-watching.
Detour: Break up the journey along Rte 34 at Parque Nacional Marino Ballena, where you can spot dolphins, migrating humpback whales (from December to April and July to November) and nesting sea turtles (from June to December, particularly September and October).
4. Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula
Best road trip for beach bums
Liberia to Santa Teresa; 265km (165 miles); around six hours but allow a few days for beach hopping
For a blissful beach break, you can’t beat the province of Guanacaste, where superlative stretches of sand, world-class surf and spectacular sunsets come as standard. To get there, go west from San José on Rte 27 or if you’ve flown into Liberia, head south on Rte 21.
At the northern end of the Nicoya Peninsula, the booming beach town of Tamarindo is a prime spot for water-based adventures, from surfing to snorkeling and dolphin-spotting, or bask in the calm waters of Playa Sámara, where you can kayak across to Isla Chora to snorkel with sea turtles.
From Sámara, it’s a further 171km (106 miles) on Rte 21 and Rte 160 to the peninsula’s southern tip and the bohemian beach town of Santa Teresa, where you can spend your days surfing, saluting the sun from a yoga shala and feasting on top-notch sushi.
Planning tip: Don’t be tempted to take the Pacific Coast-hugging Rte 160 all the way south; it can be treacherous, especially in the rainy season.
5. The Monkey Trail
Best road trip for thrill seekers
Playa Hermosa to Potrero, Guanacaste; 30km (19 miles); 40 minutes but allow longer
This beach-hopping shortcut (aka Rte 911) takes you between the sheltered bay of Playa Hermosa and Potrero. This curvy mountain pass isn’t for the fainthearted, but offers more adrenaline-fuelled fun than the sedate Rte 21.
It snakes through a river where the depth of the water can vary wildly – don’t attempt it in the rainy season without a 4WD; there’s even a Facebook group dedicated to the crossing.
The muddy track takes you on a roller-coaster ride toward the Pacific, where you’ll emerge at the low-key town of Potrero, where gentle waves lap a dark-sand beach, perfect for swimming, kayaking and SUP.
If you want more action – on and off the water – the sugar-white sand of Playa Flamingo, its restaurants and resorts are a 10-minute drive south around a rocky headland.
Top tips for road-tripping around Costa Rica
To rent a car you’ll need a valid driving license, a passport with a tourist visa stamp and a credit card to cover the excess charges. Check the rental agreement's small print and know what your insurance covers.
Prices rise from mid-December to the end of April, especially around Christmas, New Year and Easter – book vehicles well in advance.
Highways are well maintained, but if you plan to go off-road, opt for a 4WD (added cost for rentals). Rural roads can be winding, potholed and occasionally flooded (the rainy season runs from May to November), so check conditions before setting out and download an offline map – Waze is the most popular navigation app.
Avoid driving long distances after dark, especially in the rainy season, as lighting and road markings can be in short supply. And, thanks to poor road conditions, inclement weather, driving defensively or just stopping to explore, journeys often take longer than planned.
Rental cars are easy to identify, so don’t leave your possessions on view and take everything out overnight. If possible, park in a guarded parking lot rather than on the street.