Car Rental and Driving in Costa Rica

Renting a vehicle in Costa Rica gives you access to the entire country – and all the fascinating little nuances that make daily life so colorful. The freedom of piloting your own vehicle allows you to pause and watch a pickup soccer game unfold; to stop at a little roadside stand and try some queso palmito; to splash under a picturesque cascade for as long as you want.

Driving In Costa Rica Can Be Challenging

Of course, before turning the key and heading out into the countryside, all drivers should understand that driving conditions will be different from their home countries. Signage and road conditions will most likely be more precarious than you’re used to, and distances on a map are actually much longer than they seem. For example, you’ll find that it’s only 60 miles (100 kilometers) from San José to Jacó, but those 60 miles frequently take over two hours to drive.

The terrain is partly at fault. With steep mountain ranges running the length of the country, Costa Rica’s roads wind up and down some impressive slopes. While this means that passing a slow-moving cattle truck is nearly futile, you do have the chance to enjoy some truly spectacular views as you drive.

Local driving habits are most likely different, too. Drivers dart in and out of lanes, pass on curves and treat traffic signs as suggestions and not law. Motorcycles weave through traffic with abandon. Still, most people find driving here a rewarding way to explore the country. Drive defensively and you should be fine.

Once you’re comfortable with the roads, you’ve got to get a vehicle. First of all, according to members of the industry, you should know where you’re going and what your needs will be. This will help you rent the best car for your trip, thus avoiding unnecessarily pummeling a sedan on unpaved roads. Next, choose a rental agency with experience in the field. Knowledgeable companies can help you with roadside assistance and customer service, ensuring you recourse and advice in the case of an emergency or breakdown.

Some Advice For Driving in Costa Rica

• When in Rome… You’ll quickly learn that Ticos have a complex language for the highway. A car driving in the other lane who flashes his lights usually is signaling either a traffic cop ahead or some kind of obstacle in the road. Slow down. Also, Ticos will flash their high beams to ask for space to make a turn. Watch what others do and try to understand. Piles of sticks or leaves on the side of the road may signal a car stopped in the lane ahead.

• Save the grease.  In event that you are pulled over by the transit police, don’t sweat it. The best policy is to accept the ticket and turn it over to the rental company. Should the officer ask for payment on the spot, use your own judgment, but know that bribes only encourage corruption. It’s better to let the rental company apply the ticket to your bill.

• Watch the water. Don’t drive on any beaches and be extremely careful when fording rivers. In addition to being dangerous, most rental contracts include a clause that negates insurance benefits for persons violating these two spaces. During the rainy season (May to November), roads or bridges in the countryside might be affected by the weather; ask about local conditions before heading out. Read the fine print on your rental contract to see what exactly is covered – and what isn’t.

• Gas it up. Check your rental papers before returning the car to the agency. On it you’ll find where the gas gauge was when you picked it up. You should make sure you return it with at least that level of gas or risk paying a hefty gasoline fee.

• Direction in life. If you’re unsure about navigating a land with no street names, a GPS unit can make driving easier. Units are relatively inexpensive, and available at the rental agency. If you have a smartphone and a data connection, that will work, too.

• Car phones. Many companies rent cellular phones for a small daily fee, plus a charge for minutes used. If you have an unblocked cell phone from your home country, you can buy an inexpensive chip from one of Costa Rica’s wireless providers.

When making the reservation be sure you know what your insurance covers (be aware of the contract’s clauses) and how much it costs. To give you an example, the National Insurance Institute (INS) doesn’t insure the car’s tires or antennas. Make sure that the reservation doesn’t include additional costs and that the price the rental company quotes you includes everything, such as an additional driver. Once you understand what your insurance covers, pay the deposit with a credit card and not a debit card. If you pay with the latter, you could have your deposit money frozen for a month.

Tips For Taking Your Rental Vehicle On The Road In Costa Rica

There are safety aspects that you shouldn’t ignore. Your car shouldn’t have the rental company’s name on it, and you shouldn’t leave luggage, cameras or any other belongings that make you look like a tourist in the vehicle. Also, don’t leave the car out of sight for long.

In the case of a breakdown, call your rental company’s mechanic shop. If you have an accident call the INS and the transit police (911). Do not move the car until the traffic officials instruct you to do so. You’ll have to be patient until they arrive (it’s usually no more than an hour) and don’t make any “deals” with other drivers. If a transit police officer stops you it’s better, in case of doubt, to call your rental agency and have them speak directly with the official.

In Costa Rica, most companies use the “regular days” system. This means that if you rent a car for one week starting on Tuesday at 9 a.m., you’ll have to return it to the same agency the following Tuesday before 9 a.m. If you don’t return it by that time, you run the risk of being charged a late fee, although many companies will give you a few hours of cushion.

Most car rental agencies have a 24-hour customer support number. However, it’s important to carry a phone number for an on-call customer support representative that corresponds to a cellular phone and not an office phone.