Getting Around: Driving in Costa Rica
To rent a car is a good alternative, especially if you want to get to more remote areas, off the tourist regions and into the wilderness. If you want to discover untouched nature that is difficult to access, a car is almost indispensable – unless you prefer a personal driver or an individual transfer.
A car is not only time-saving (e.g. 3.5 instead of 5 hours from San José to Arenal), it is also possible to stop for sights on the way (e.g. for some minutes of crocodile-watching on Rio Tarcoles).
However, as car rental is a costlier option than public buses, you might want to plan some things ahead: combine the destinations you won’t need your car for (e.g. resorts like Tortuguero) and only rent a vehicle to explore destinations that are harder to reach (for instance, Manuel Antonio, Tamarindo, Puerto Viejo can be reached easily by bus. Bijagua, Uvita, Rincon de la Vieja are much more conveniently accessible by car).
Traffic is basically easy to handle in Costa Rica: only in San José you might get stuck in traffic jams at inconvenient rush-hour times. In general, roads and highways are acceptably good to drive on. Traffic does not impose a problem, but make sure not to drive at night-time in areas you are not familiar with as it is easier to get lost in such circumstances. When calculating distances within the country be aware that even highwyas (as the Panamerican highway) are not as well-maintained as in the US or Europe. As a general rule of thumb you make 60-80 kilometres per hour on major roads.
The police are regularly performing speed checks. Should the police stop you, we advise never to pay fines directly to the police officer (this is not intended in Costa Rican law). The authorities are bound to write an accident record, which you will receive in order to pay the fine to your car rental agency. If the police insist on your paying the fine/bribe, ask for his identification badge and write down the number in the lower left corner and report the incident to the Dirección de Transito in San José.
Be careful with the fixed speed cameras. Since 2011, the Costa Rican Government is establishing a network of speed radars throughout the country. If you are caught with 20km/h over the allowed speed limit, you will be fined an amount of $600 USD. This will be charged to your credit card by the card rental company. (The car rental company will have to make a blank credit card imprint for this reason).
Driving a Car in Costa Rica
Costa Rican roads are getting better and better. The government puts a lot of effort in maintaining and improving the roads, especially to touristy areas. Still, most remote areas are only accessible over simple dirt tracks that can turn into mudholes during rainy season. As you have a wide selection of 4x4’s to rent, this is not a real problem – it only takes more time and attention. (Don’t forget that Costa Rica is situated in the tropics and the roads are therefore more difficult to maintain – heavy rains and mudslides do not improve the situation).
A bigger problem than the road infrastructure is sometimes the lack of direction signs. They do occur, but often junctions are badly signed, or it is unclear which roads are the indicated ones. To avoid getting lost or losing too much time you can always ask locals about directions to make sure you’re on the right track. This will provide for frequent contact with the Ticos, giving you the opportunity to train what Spanish you speak.
If you rent a car with us and know what destinations you’re heading for, Imagenes Tropicales will provide you with detailed road descriptions to find the right track without problems! This is one of our free included service features.
Another time-saving and convenient alternative for transport are individual transfers. You can get a personal (or shared) bus to drop you off at the desired destination. This is the cheaper option if you stay longer in one place without needing your car (e.g. Tortuguero, Corcovado National Park). Individual transfers are more convenient and mostly quicker, as your driver is familiar with the roads. Individual transfers can be hired for single transports or for longer durations – in which case you will have your personal driver.
Public Tranportation: Buses
Costa Rica’s public buses are fairly reliable and larger towns have frequent connections. Due to state subsidies the fares are inexpensive. But be aware that buses are often booked out if you decide to take them on short call. While this is the cheapest way to get around you might often lose a day by travelling on public transportation. So if you don’t have much time and you would rather see something of the country than sit in a bus, rental cars or transfer services (such as Interbus) are a time-saving option.
Be aware: despite of their relative reliability it can occur that you have to wait for five hours for the next bus. And it does happen that buses break down – which can mean another couple of hours of lost time. So, unless you are a backpacker with lots of time on your hand, private transportation is the best alternative to actually enjoy the country’s attractions.