Known for volcanoes and beaches, cloud forests and jungles, Costa Rica has a little bit of everything. The best part is that with its small, compact size, you can easily visit all of the country’s major highlights in a short visit. Now most backpackers are accustom to the hop-on, hop-off bus routine but if you have a little bit of extra room in your budget, I have a better option. Rent a car!
Costa Rica is one of the few countries in Latin America where I won’t feel bad for suggesting that option. The roads, in general, are decent and the other drivers aren’t as bad as many in Central America. There are also a lot more English speaking tourists visiting Costa Rica so if you do get lost, help is a bit easier to find.
Renting a Car
Renting a car in Costa Rica is very simple and common among travelers. Your normal driver’s license, from whichever country you live in, will be fine for the duration of your visa. Most of the major rental car companies are located in San Jose. The best method is to do a loop around the country, returning your car to San Jose at the end of your trip.
A good 4WD car can run your about $70/day, including tax and insurance. Always opt for a 4WD vehicle. The roads in Costa Rica can go from perfect, newly paved to dirt and dust in a heartbeat. Thankfully, most places are within a 2 – 5 hour drive of San Jose, so even if you do end up on a lousy road, it won’t be for long.
Road Trip Benefits
Jumping on a bus or plane to see a country sure makes it easy but just think about all the things you miss. In Costa Rica, taking even a short regional flight means missing half the country. Busses are great, unless you want to stop in random, remote areas. How many times have you passed something really cool looking on a bus, with no option of just hopping off for a second or two to check it out.
Driving around Costa Rica meant we were able to stop at any and all waterfalls. We stopped in the middle of a cloud forest and patiently waited for the clouds to part, giving us the perfect moment of sunshine. After a mudslide blocked our route, we had the opportunity to just drive around, finding interesting things we never even planned on seeing. We were in control and it was definitely a nice change from the usual stuck-on-a-bus routine.
I wouldn’t suggest renting a car in many countries… it’s simple to dangerous and stressful. Costa Rica travel though is greatly enhanced but this affordable, comfortable, go at your own pace option.
Couple Travel Tips
- Put your luggage in the trunk and if you leave anything of value in the car, be sure it’s out of sight. A $500 camera sitting on the front seat will get you robbed in a country where that is what some people make in a whole month of working.
- As we said before, rent a 4WD and don’t race down any dirt roads. Potholes here are more like pot-craters and the last thing you want is a flat tire or busted up car in the middle of nowhere.
- Plan for lots of extra time in your trip. On our trip we ended up delayed for hours on two different occasions; once by a mudslide and once by a broken down, hand-repaired wood bridge.