Note: The following is a guest post from my mom, Lea Ann Christenson, who graciously — and safely– drove us around Costa Rica during her recent visit.
Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting my daughter Lauren in Costa Rica. To see more of the country and maximize our time together, we decided to rent a car. We drove from San Jose to Playa Jaco to La Fortuna to Puerto Viejo and back to San Jose. Overall, we had a great time but in the interest of full disclosure we had a few ‘nail biting’ moments as driving in Costa Rica is not like driving in the states. I have driven in quite a few countries other than the United States, but still found Costa Rica to be one of the most difficult places I have ever drove. Wondering, “Should I rent a car in Costa Rica?” Considering driving during your vacation to Costa Rica? Here are a few questions to ask yourself beforehand and tips.
Tips for Driving in Costa Rica During Your Vacation
1. Are you covered?
Before you leave for your vacation, check with your auto insurance company to see if they cover you when you are driving in a country other than the United States. Depending on the country you are driving in and/or your company you may not be covered.
2. Beware of the price quoted for your rental car
I reserved a compact car for one week in Costa Rica online before I left for the very reasonable price of $137. When we arrived to pick up the car the rate nearly quadrupled due to insurance required by the rental company. This company still required additional insurance even if my regular car insurance would cover me in a rental vehicle. This happened to me once before when we rented a car in England, so a good rule of thumb when renting a car internationally is to make sure to check to see if the quote includes insurance. This may be something you do not find out until you pick up your car.
3. Can you drive a manual transmission?
If you cannot drive a manual transmission, you may be out of luck driving in Costa Rica. The company we rented from which is a well-known, international brand, did not have any automatic transmission cars at all. The rental agent from whom we picked the car up said this is a common problem and that people who cannot drive a stick are forced to leave and end take public transportation.
4. Can you really drive a stick?
Have you driven a stick in heavy traffic and up and down very steep hills and winding roads? To drive successfully in Costa Rica, you will need to have some serious stick skills. Having driven a stick one time on an isolated road won’t cut it. If you have not logged many, many hours behind the wheel of a manual transmission car do not attempt to learn in Costa Rica. The roads are narrow and winding. Every imaginable thing will happen: cows and people on the road, a truck stopped on the opposite of the road in the dark and semis trying to pass on your side, grid locked traffic in the city, etc. It is like all the distractions in a driver’s training simulation times ten!
In Costa Rica you need to drive by instinct. I have decided that the probability of being able to only rent a stick shift car is in direct proportion to how hard the driving conditions are. I drove in Ireland and Australia where they drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and yes you guessed it — the only cars available were stick shifts.
5. Do you know how to read a map?
No, knowing how to follow the voice of your GPS doesn’t count. You will need to really know how to read a road map in Costa Rica. We did not have cell service during much of our drive so in other words — no GPS while we were driving. We relied on the map that the rental car company gave us and it was not the best. I wish I had invested in a real road map ahead of time and highly recommend doing do.
6. Beware of estimated driving times
“It will only take you an hour and a half.” We heard this statement many times, but seldom did it prove true. Many helpful locals gave us directions and driving times, but it took us nearly twice as long as they estimated to reach our destination. This was probably due to the fact I was driving pretty slow at least in the beginning due to the unique driving conditions. On the first few days I was a very cautious driver, but by the end I was as aggressive as the ‘ticos’ on the road. Allow plenty of time to get to your destination.
The advantage of a driving vacation is that you get to see things on your own timeline. We had a wonderful time seeing the sites from the Pacific to the Caribbean and the volcanoes and back. It was worth every one of those ‘nail biting ‘ moments. Right Lauren? You may want to ask her for her side of the story!
Where to Stay in Costa Rica
Costa Rica Travel Planning Resources