Let’s get to the point.
You’re planning a vacation to Costa Rica and you’re wondering if you should rent a car. The simple answer to that is yes, yes you should.
You’re probably going for a limited time, and if you’re considering renting a car it probably means you’ve already decided against traveling with a tour or with a group.
Of course, nothing is that simple. Consider if you’re traveling alone and happen to (God forbid) get in an accident, break down, etc. What would you do? Would you be able to handle it all by yourself? Also, if you’re traveling alone it will be considerably more expensive to rent a car without being able to share the cost. Maybe you’re just scared to death of driving in another country, that’s ok too. You don’t have to rent a car, you will just save a significant amount of travel time if you can.
Let’s take this in two sections:
- Things to remember when renting a car in Costa Rica.
- What to do if you can’t rent a car in Costa Rica.
1. 9 Things to remember when renting a car and driving in Costa Rica
1. Insurance fees
Don’t be surprised by the insurance fees in Costa Rica. There is a fee that everyone has to pay regardless of your insurance. It’s required by the Instituto National de Seguros and actually only covers other people, their cars, and property. There’s no way out of paying this. It can average around $10 – $20 extra a day. ***You can, however, choose not to buy extra insurance based on personal choice. Check your personal insurance and travel credit card companies for recommendations.
At a hostel in Monteverde I came across a guy who said to me, “Man they really bull shit you with the hidden fees, don’t they?” Do your research, and pay attention and ask the rental company if the quote includes the SLI, TPL, SLC or API fees.
For more details check this link http://costa-rica-guide.com/travel/transportation/car/rental-car-insurance/
2. Be careful of discount rental companies
I’ve always been told, “you get what you pay for,” take precautions when renting from companies that offer rates like $5 a day. Check their reviews before you commit. You don’t want to be that unhappy customer who has their vacation ruined because you thought “that person just had bad luck.” It’s really not worth the stress and I prefer to rend a car with 4 solid wheels.
Some issues that I’ve heard, are of companies over-renting vehicles and not having yours when you arrive. You could lose an entire day because of a company mistake.
3. Type of car
Not all roads are paved in Costa Rica. I can relate to the flexible traveler, but this decision will be based on what time of the year you’re traveling, and where you’re planning to go.
For most of the well-visited places, a somewhat high-clearance vehicle will provide peace of mind. The roads on the Nicoya peninsula are dirt, but not steep (that is, if you don’t get lost). In my experience, we never needed the 4×4 feature that we opted for. We did, however, appreciate that it wasn’t a sedan as we drove to Rio Celeste.
We came to shortcut to Monteverde from Lake Arenal which requires you to drive through a river. The water was up to my knees and driving through it, even with 4-wheel drive just seemed like a risk. 4-wheel drive doesn’t mean it will stop water water damage.
4. Check, check, and re-check
I know you’re excited, I know that you’ve been on a plane, I know that you’re tired, but take the time to do it right. Take pictures of your vehicle when you get it. Look it over the right way. Focus on what you’re doing at that moment, not where you’re trying to go as quickly as possible. Assume that it will take an hour to complete the rental process. It only took me about 20 minutes, but by thinking it was going to take longer, I took my time and didn’t feel rushed. Make a note of gas stations on your way out so that you can fill up before you return.
5. Gas stations
In Costa Rica they fill up the tank for you. Pull in and they will come to your window. If you say “lleno” (geno – soft “g”), they will know you want a full tank. Look behind you at the pump before they fill it to assure that it’s starting at 0 gallons. I’ve heard that some people will try to cheat you by continuing to fill from the last persons purchase.
6. Driving etiquette
Don’t spend time driving around San Jose. Get your car, and get going. Driving in the city (like everywhere) is different from driving around other places. The majority of Ticos drive terribly in the city. For them, stop signs are merely suggestions, one way streets are always congested, and there is always traffic.
However, outside the city is an endless windy two-lane road with few opportunities to pass. Many accidents on these roads happen because of people trying to pass on two lane curvy roads. Unlike in the U.S. Costa Rican roads seem to work around the terrain, instead of changing the terrain to make it work for them. Be patient if passing. Don’t take unnecessary risks.
Beeping the horn is also a sign of saying thanks. If you do someone a favor on the road (like letting someone over), you may hear a little “chirp chirp” from their horn as to say thanks.
Overall, I found driving in Costa Rica pretty simple. I had never driven in another country, and I don’t particularly like driving at all, but I didn’t feel incapable of driving in this country.
7. Always ask a real person for directions
Always ask someone. Even if you think you know exactly where you’re going, even if you have the map, the GPS, Trip Advisor, and a tracking device, ask someone for directions.
Our GPS, map, and phone GPS all suggested different routes. Too proud to ask for directions, we found ourselves in the middle of a farm field on a road that suddenly disappeared, adding 2 hours to my trip because of choosing the wrong map to follow. The road conditions can be like playing the lottery. You don’t want to play the lottery with roads in Costa Rica.
Even the most prepared traveler should confirm information with a person who knows more about the area than you.
8. Hide the valuables
Common sense tells us not to walk around with money hanging out of our pockets while walking through congested streets. The same applies to leaving things in your rented car. It will be obvious that you’re in a rental car because it will be nicer than the locals’ cars. The beach is a common place for people to get their cars broken into. If you must keep things in your vehicle, hide them. Particularly I found it useful to hide things in spare tire compartment in the back. Try to use a jacket or something to cover your bag or suitcase while away from your vehicle if you can’t take it with you. Also lock things in the glove compartment.
9. Be aware of the “Watch-e-man”
Usually in the city, there is a man in a reflector vest that will stand in parking lots of establishments and direct you when parking your car and when you back out. These are what the locals call “watch-e-man” They are not affiliated with the business nor hired by any entity. They work for tips. Keep some coins handy to tip these guys (it’s also a good idea to have coins on hand for the few toll roads), it’s rumored that some will key your car if you don’t tip them.
The local attitude of Costa Rica is that the “Watch-e-man” are annoying.
What to do if you can’t rent a car in Costa Rica
If you still want to go to Costa Rica and have more than the average amount of time than the normal tourist (multiple weeks, months) then you can get around relying on a combination of public transportation and private shuttles. Many popular tourist destinations I visited, had multiple companies that offered transportation from one tourist spot to the next. In Montezuma there are shuttles to Jaco and Manuel Antonio, in Arenal there is a “taxi-boat-taxi” to take you across the lake and onward to Monteverde.
However these shuttles are through private companies and I will cost an average between $30-$50 a trip (depending on the route).
Public transportation will only get you directly to your destination if you start from San Jose.
Terminal 7-10 offers trips to:
San Carlos (La Fortuna),
Guanacaste (Tamarindo, Sámara, Nosara),
For other destinations, this website has all of the information you should need. https://centrocoasting.com/costarica/
The challenge comes with linking the destinations. There are rarely any direct routes from one tourist attraction to the other by means of public transportation. It isn’t impossible, but sometimes it involves double-backing all the way to San Jose or by changing buses in cities that are in opposite directions of where you’re going. The public bus from La Fortuna to Monteverde will take you about 9 hours. As much as I love “traveling like a local”, let’s face it, you’re not a local, and you only have a limited amount of time, fork over the $30, take the taxi-boat-taxi, and get there in 3-4 hours (actually faster than the car)