12 Tips for your Perfect Costa Rica Roadtrip
Updated: Oct 4, 2022
A roadtrip is one of the best ways to see the diverse scenery of Costa Rica. Driving across the country you will see volcanoes, rainforests and beautiful beaches from up close. In order to not be surprised, we share our top twelve tips for your perfect Costa Rica roadtrip.
1. Don’t underestimate distances.
Costa Rica may be a small country in size, but don‘t be fooled into believing that you can get from A to B in no time. Whereas destinations may look close on a map, it usually takes much longer than expected to arrive somewhere. The reasons are manifold ranging from heavy traffic in the cities to winding roads and foggy mountain passes. Truck traffic on the one-lane highways will further slow you down.
2. Be prepared for bad roads.
Whereas the road infrastructure is mostly excellent, some areas such as the Nicoya Peninsula are known for their rough road conditions. Even the main roads are riddled by potholes. Often you cannot drive faster than 30 km/h. Small forest trails with river crossing can be even more challenging, which brings us to the next point.
3. Don't trust Google blindly.
A navigation app like Google Maps or Maps.me can be a live saver in the remote areas of a foreign country where road signage is often considered optional. However, in Costa Rica navigation apps don‘t get everything right. It happened several times on our journey, that Google sent us on little-used backroads, instead of following the main road. If it looks as if your app is sending you the wrong way, it probably is. Use your own best judgement.
Aside from not always being correct, a navigation app often doesn't give you the same sense of scale compared to a paper map. If you have some space to spare in your luggage, we recommend bringing a paper map for your roadtrip, and in Costa Rica that means a Waterproof Travel Map. This will help you to gain a better sense of scale and, in a pinch, it will help you navigate when your phone isn't working.
4. Get the right car.
The most important piece of equipment for every roadtrip is your car. Make sure to check the available options before making a decision. A small sedan can be great for fuel efficiency on the steep mountain roads, whereas a 4x4 will allow you to also explore more remote areas of the country. Before you rent a car, make sure you know where you want to go. If you intend to visit the Osa Peninsula, a 4x4 vehicle is a must.
5. Plan for plenty of stops.
The point of a roadtrip is to enjoy the landscape along the way. In Costa Rica, you will have plenty of opportunities to do so. Make sure to plan in enough time to make a stop here and there to marvel at the beautiful scenery. This is especially true for the northern Central Valley where one waterfall along the roadside chases another.
6. Don‘t overplan.
The fascination of a roadtrip often comes from the many surprises that travellers encounter along the way. In comparison to a guided group tour, a roadtrip allows you to explore a country at your own pace. Instead of planning out every day to the fullest and leaving little space for chance, we recommend travelling without a plan set in stone. This allows you to be positively surprised by places you didn’t have on your radar ahead of time.
7. Have a plan B for rainy days.
Costa Rica is situated in the tropics, so be prepared to encounter at least some rain during your trip. Especially during the rainy season, it is likely that there will be plenty of rain in the afternoons, so getting up early in the morning is paramount. Some days, however, all you will get is rain, without any respite. It‘s important to stay flexible and have a plan B for such a situation. Maybe just sit in a cafe and listen to the tropical thunder, it can be a magical experience.
8. Speak at least some basic Spanish.
Whereas many people in the major tourist destinations speak English, the language is less commonly used in smaller towns and more remote areas. A basic understanding of Spanish will be of great help in understanding signage or starting a simple conversation with locals. It comes especially handy when you are in trouble or in need of help, say because your car battery is empty or you are stuck in the mud.
9. Avoid cities, explore nature.
Of course, tastes are different, however, there is little discussion that Costa Rica’s treasure is its beautiful nature and not its (boring) cities. That means that you should leave the cities of the Central Valley in your rearview mirror as quickly as you can, while you make your way towards one of the many nature reserves of the country.
10. Don‘t be hassled by reckless drivers.
Some Ticos drive like maniacs. It is not uncommon to be overtaken on a winding mountain road in dense fog just before there is a road lip. Even when visibility is zero. Nonetheless, some people think they are in such a rush to feel the need to overtake you. Just to be stuck behind the vehicle in front of you. These drivers are a danger to themselves and to everybody else on the road, but there is not much you can do. Except for staying calm and patient. Don‘t let yourself be hassled or drive faster because they are close behind you. Stick to the speed limit and let common sense reign. Costa Rica’s roads can be challenging as they are, don‘t make it more dangerous as it needs to be.
11. Get up early in the morning
Due to its location in the tropics, the time of sunrise and sunset barely changes over the course of the year in Costa Rica. Sunrise tends to be between 5 - 6 am and sunset around 5 - 6 pm. That means you'll have around 12 h each day for exploring. In order to make the most of your stay, we recommend to get up at 5 am each day. This is especially true if you intend to go on a camping roadtrip, as there is little to do in the dark.
12. Don't drive at night!
Driving at night is a bad idea for several reasons. Not only are you missing all the beautiful scenery along the roadside, but you'll also put yourself in unnecessary danger. Wildlife might cross the road unexpectedly, other drivers might not have turned on their lights or you might lose your orientation on the winding mountain roads. If it is not absolutely needed, don't drive at night.
If you are ready for your Costa Rica offroad roadtrip then get 10% off your 4x4 rental using our discount code LUCAS10 at Nomad America.
Make sure to watch our full Costa Rica adventure travel documentary on YouTube: