If you plan a 4x4 roadtrip through Costa Rica, you’ll have to answer one question early on: Which car do I pick? If you intend to visit any of the more remote areas of the country, a sturdy vehicle is an absolute must. Several areas, such as the Osa Peninsula, are only accessible with a rugged 4x4 offroad vehicle. If you plan to hire a car from a rental agency, do some research as to what they cover and where they allow you to drive. If you plan to do any beach camping make sure to check out Nomad America, the 4x4 camping rental we used in Costa Rica.
1. Volcano Barva - Braulio Carrillo National Park
Just north of Costa Rica‘s capital San José, Braulio Carrillo National Park gives you a first taste of the offroad trails that you‘ll encounter on your Costa Rica roadtrip. After making your way through the city and its many suburbs you‘ll continuously climb up towards the volcano. As the road gets steeper and more narrow, the asphalt gives way to rocks and gravel. The drive is not technical, but you want to make sure your suspension is working properly. After about 5 km crawling up the rugged mountain road, you‘ll arrive at the gate to the national park. From here you can take a walk to the lagoon of Volcano Barva.
2. Tapanti National Park
If you intend to visit Tapanti National Park in the fertile Orosi Valley, be prepared to encounter several gravel offroad trails leading to the park. At the same time, the only road running through the park is gravel, although in good condition. Follow its winding course through the lush rainforest until you reach the end to spot a waterfall in the distance.
3. Irazú Campsite Trail
On the mountainside of Volcano Irazú, just north of Chicua, a short offroad trail invites you to climb up to a large meadow which is also a great spot to camp. The trail requires some ground clearance, as you‘ll have to cross several earth bumps. While you slowly make your way up the trail, you’ll pass pastures on each side, before coming upon the meadow to your left. The trailhead is very well hidden, so keep your eyes peeled.
4. El Castillo - Road south of Lake Arenal
Close to the small town of El Castillo on the southern shore of Lake Arenal, the road climbs up to a viewpoint before dropping down to the lake again. Before you arrive at the lake, you’ll encounter a dangerous river crossing. The water runs fast, and there are very large boulders submerged. Only cross the river when the water level is low enough for you to judge if the crossing is safe or not. Ideally wait until you see a local cross first to judge which line they are taking.
5. Ruta 143 - Mountain Pass to Tenorio National Park
North of the town of Nuevo Arenal, the road leads up across a mountain pass on your way to Tenorio National Park. After a steep climb on tarred roads, the asphalt gives way to gravel as you descent into a wall of fog. The road is narrow and the sight can be very poor as these high mountain passes are often veiled in clouds. Be aware that many motorbikes do not use their headlights (let alone carry helmets), so it is very hard to see them. Drive slowly and carefully along the winding road.
6. Calle Vieja - Rincon de la Vieja National Park
Close to Rincon de la Vieja National Park, Calle Vieja, or ‚Old Road‘, keeps what its name promises. Instead of taking the smooth new road, Calle Vieja will have some surprises for you. After an initial narrow gravel path, there are some steeper rock ledges you‘ll have to navigate. Shortly afterward you arrive at Rio Blanco, which is not white but incredibly blue and invites you to take a quick swim. Eventually you’ll have to cross the river, before you’ll meet up with a larger gravel road again.
7. Playa Naranjo - Santa Rosa National Park
In the northwest of Costa Rica, Santa Rosa National Park invites you to explore a 12 km long offroad trail through dense forest. The path gets progressively more intense as you go along. The gravel surface soon changes to rock and mud passages. If you arrive in the wet season, be prepared for deep mudholes. Just before you arrive at Playa Naranjo, you‘ll have to cross a narrow wooden bridge. At the end of the trail, you‘ll arrive at a ranger station and campsite. A 100m long walk brings you to the beach.
Monteverde is one of Costa Rica‘s mountain fortresses. Surrounded by cloud forest on all sides, Monteverde is tough to get to. The inhabitants have long lobbied to keep all access roads in a purposefully poor state to discourage too many tourists from taking the trip. Saying that, the southern access road is almost completely tarred by now. The access road from the northwest, however, brings you across several scenic mountain passes on narrow gravel roads, that are well worth the offroad trip.
9. Monkey Trail - Nicoya Peninsula
Close to the town of Sardinal de Carrillo, the Monkey Trail and several other small trails offer a scenic route to get to the fancy settlement of Las Catalinas. The gravel path climbs steeply up a hillside, where you have to navigate several deep ruts and cross a number of small creeks. Before long you’ll arrive at a beautiful viewpoint on the roadside, from where you‘ll have a good view of some of the beautiful beaches the Nicoya Peninsula has to offer.
10. Nicoya Peninsula
If you intend to visit the Nicoya Peninsula, you better come prepared with a 4x4 vehicle and proper suspension. Most of the roads on the western flank of the Peninsula are pothole-riddled gravel roads. Occasionally, if you blindly trust your navigation app, you’ll also end up on small forest trails with fallen trees and river crossings. Don‘t plan to cover large distances in a day, your average speed is unlikely to exceed 30km/h here.
11. Cerro de la Muerte - Quetzal National Park
Just as you are about to reach the Cerro de la Muerte mountain pass south of the Central Valley, Quetzal National Park beckons you for a visit. Initially the road is tarred, however, after some time you’ll go offroad and only drive on steep, winding, mountainous gravel paths. The views are absolutely marvelous though and there is little traffic, so take your time and enjoy the ride.
12. Sierpe River - Osa Peninsula
One of the biggest adventures in Costa Rica is crossing the Sierpe River with the old, rickety Sierpe River Ferry. After you made your way to the other side of the river, you’ll enter the Osa Peninsula, which is well-known for its remoteness. Along the scenic offroad trail that follows, you are unlikely to encounter many other vehicles. Enjoy the scenery but keep an open eye for straying cattle.
13. Drake Bay
One of the most well-known offroad trails in Costa Rica is the road to the village of Drake Bay. About 56 km of rough gravel are ahead of you, whose state much depends on when the grader last passed through. In total, you’ll have to cross seven rivers. During the rainy season, access to the town might not be possible as the water levels of the rivers are too high. If you are uncertain about a river crossing, wait until you see a local do it. Once you arrive in Drake Bay, the offroad doesn’t stop. The entire village is busy with plenty of pedestrians on unpaved, narrow, and bumpy roads.
14. Playa San Josecito
Following a small road from Drake Bay for another 15 km brings you to the very remote and beautiful Playa San Josecito. Along the way you'll have to cross several more rivers, traverse a narrow bridge and drive down a steep hill towards the beach. You’ll be rewarded with a completely empty beach and plenty of coconuts from the palm trees.
15. Puerto Jiménez to Carate
The southern part of the Osa Peninsula is arguably even more remote. After leaving the town of Puerto Jiménez, the road turns to gravel with plenty of potholes and narrow bridge crossings. You’ll pass both beautiful rainforest and pastures with livestock, before coming across several river crossings again. After climbing up a steep hill, the view opens up on the beautiful Laguna Peje Perrito below. Following the road even further brings you to the tiny village of Carate, the gateway to Corcovado National Park.
16. La Luna Lodge Trail
If driving to Carate did not yet satisfy your offroad adventure urge, you can follow a dry riverbed all the way to La Luna Lodge. After crossing the rocky riverbed several times, you will climb up a steep path through the forest towards the lodge. Once you arrive, you will be greeted by the friendly lodge staff, who will invite you to take a hike on their private rainforest trails or stay for lunch, if you like.
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: