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Car & Motorcycle

  • Foreign drivers in Costa Rica are required to have a valid driver’s license from their home country. Many places will also accept an International Driving Permit (IDP), issued by the automobile association in your country of origin. After 90 days, however, you will need to get a Costa Rican driver’s license.
  • Gasoline (petrol) and diesel are widely available, and 24-hour service stations are along the Interamericana. At the time of research, fuel prices averaged just over US$1 per liter.
  • In more remote areas, fuel will be more expensive and might be sold at the neighborhood pulpería (corner store).
  • Spare parts may be hard to find, especially for vehicles with sophisticated electronics and emissions-control systems.

Rental & Insurance

  • There are car-rental agencies in San José and in popular tourist destinations on the Pacific coast.
  • All of the major international car-rental agencies have outlets in Costa Rica, though you can sometimes get better deals from local companies.
  • Due to road conditions, it's necessary to invest in a 4WD unless travel is limited to the Interamericana.
  • Many agencies will insist on 4WD in the rainy season, when driving through rivers is a matter of course.
  • To rent a car you'll need a valid driver’s license, a major credit card and a passport. The minimum age for car rental is 21 years. It’s possible to rent with a debit card, but only if you agree to pay full insurance and leave a deposit for traffic violations.
  • Carefully inspect rented cars for minor damage and make sure that any damage is noted on the rental agreement. If your car breaks down, call the rental company. Don’t attempt to get the car fixed yourself – most companies won’t reimburse expenses without prior authorization.
  • Prices vary considerably; on average you can expect to pay more than US$200 per week for a standard SUV, including kilometraje libre (unlimited mileage). Economy cars are much cheaper: as little as US$80 a week.
  • Costa Rican insurance is mandatory, even if you have insurance at home. Expect to pay about US$10 to US$30 per day. Many rental companies won’t rent you a car without it. The basic insurance that all drivers must buy is from a government monopoly, the Instituto Nacional de Seguros. This insurance does not cover your rental car at all, only damages to other people and their car or property. It is legal to drive with this insurance only, but it can be difficult to negotiate with a rental agency to allow you to drive away with just this minimum standard. Full insurance through the rental agency can be up to US$50 a day.
  • Some roads in Costa Rica are rough and rugged, meaning that minor accidents or car damage are common.
  • Note that if you pay basic insurance with a gold or platinum credit card, the card company may take responsibility for damage to the car, in which case you can forgo the cost of the full insurance. Make sure you verify this with your credit-card company ahead of time.
  • Most insurance policies do not cover damage caused by flooding or driving through a river, so be aware of the extent of your policy.
  • Rental rates fluctuate wildly, so shop around. Some agencies offer discounts for extended rentals. Note that rental offices at the airport charge a 12% fee in addition to regular rates.
  • Thieves can easily recognize rental cars. Never leave anything in sight in a parked car – nothing! – and remove all luggage from the trunk overnight. If possible, park the car in a guarded parking lot rather than on the street.
  • Motorcycles (including Harley-Davidsons) can be rented in San José and Escazú, but considering the condition of the roads it's not recommended.

Road Conditions & Hazards

  • The quality of roads varies, from the quite smoothly paved Interamericana to the barely passable, bumpy, potholed, rural back roads. Any can suffer from landslides, sudden flooding and fog.
  • Many roads are single lane and winding; mountain roads have huge gutters at the sides and lack hard shoulders; other roads are rock-strewn, dirt-and-mud affairs that traverse rivers.
  • Drive defensively and expect a variety of obstructions, from cyclists and pedestrians to broken-down cars and cattle. Unsigned speed bumps are placed on some stretches of road.
  • Roads around major tourist areas are adequately marked; all others are not.
  • Always ask about road conditions before setting out, especially in the rainy season, when a number of roads become impassable.

Road Rules

  • There are speed limits of 100km/h to 120km/h or less on highways; limits will be posted. The minimum driving speed on highways is 40km/h. The speed limit is 60km/h or less on secondary roads.
  • Traffic police use radar, and speed limits are sometimes enforced with speeding tickets.
  • Tickets are issued to drivers operating vehicles without a seat belt.
  • It’s illegal to stop in an intersection or make a right turn on a red.
  • At unmarked intersections, yield to the car on your right.
  • Drive on the right. Passing is allowed only on the left.
  • If you are issued with a ticket, you have to pay the fine at a bank; instructions are given on the ticket. If you are driving a rental car, the rental company may be able to arrange your payment for you – the amount of the fine should be on the ticket. A portion of the money from these fines goes to a children’s charity.
  • Police have no right to ask for money, and they shouldn’t confiscate a car unless the driver cannot produce a license and ownership papers, the car lacks license plates, the driver is drunk or the driver has been involved in an accident causing serious injury.
  • If you are driving and see oncoming cars with headlights flashing, it often means that there is a road problem or a radar speed trap ahead. Slow down immediately.

Driving Through Rivers

Driving in Costa Rica will likely necessitate a river crossing at some point. Unfortunately, too many travelers have picked up their off-road skills from watching TV, and every season Ticos get a good chuckle out of the number of dead vehicles they help wayward travelers fish out of waterways.

If you’re driving through water, follow the rules below:

Only do this in a 4WD, with 4WD turned on Don’t drive through a river in a car. (It may seem ridiculous to have to say this, but it’s attempted all the time.) Getting out of a steep, gravel riverbed requires a 4WD. Besides, car engines flood very easily.

Check the depth of the water before driving through To accommodate an average rental 4WD, the water should be no deeper than above the knee. In a sturdier vehicle (Toyota 4Runner or equivalent), water can be waist deep. If you’re nervous, wait for a local car to come along, and follow their lead.

The water should be calm If the river is gushing so that there are white crests on the water, do not try to cross. The force of the water will not only flood the engine but could also sweep the car away.

Drive very, very slowly The pressure of driving through a river too quickly will send the water right into the engine and will impair the electrical system. Keep steady pressure on the accelerator so that the tailpipe doesn’t fill with water, but go slowly; if driving a stick shift, go in first gear.

Err on the side of caution Car-rental agencies in Costa Rica do not insure for water damage, so ruining a car in a river can come at an extremely high cost.

Flat-Tire Scam

For years Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría has suffered from a scam involving sudden flat tires on rental cars. Though it's commonly reported, it continues to happen.

It goes like this: after you pick up a rental car and drive out of the city, the car gets a flat; as you pull over to fix it, the disabled vehicle is approached by a group of locals, ostensibly to help. There is inevitably some confusion with the changing of the tire, and in the commotion you are relieved of your wallet, luggage or other valuables.

This incident has happened enough times to suggest that you should be very wary if somebody pulls over to help after you get a flat on a recently rented car. Keep your wallet and passport on your person whenever you get out of a car.