making a case for driving in costa rica

theromanticHaving successfully driven us through Florence and around the Tuscan countryside, shared the road with wild horses in Vieques, and navigated the streets of Manhattan in a bright yellow Mini Cooper, I fully trust the hubs’s driving skills. But when we told people that we would be driving ourselves from San Jose to Arenal to Quepos and back, I’ll admit– their “Wait, WHAT? You’re DRIVING?” reactions made me question my faith, just a little bit. Worse than the reactions were the first-person horror stories, including one about a scam involving popped tires and literal highway robbery. I think it’s fair to admit that I had a little bit of anxiety about the whole thing.

Still, that didn’t stop us from taking the airport shuttle to Hertz Rent-a-Car in San Jose immediately upon arrival and hopping into our very own little Daihatsu Terios (gesundheit). I have to say–the staff at the Hertz was so friendly, it put me instantly at ease. They helped us get our GPS set up with the proper British accent, gave us tons of info on what to do if we’re in an accident, and though their overly cautious advice probably should have made me nervous, it just made me feel like they would be able to help us if, God forbid, anything happened.

Luckily, as we’ve often found, things were not as bleak as we’d imagined. Two major upsides? Most of the roads were paved and had two lanes. Not exactly what we were expecting from our research.

However, despite our relief, it wasn’t all sunshine and butterflies, and we did come away with a few words of wisdom. What type of travel blogger would I be if I didn’t offer up some insight on taking to the open roads of Costa Rica?

#1. The weather can change at any second.

Technically, July and August in Costa Rica is their winter–aka, their rainy season. I don’t think that the weather is as volatile throughout the rest of the year, but during our visit, it would literally go from partly sunny to heavy downpours in a matter of seconds:

#2. Fog is worse than rain.

Though the visibility was definitely hindered during the manic rainstorms, it was worse during the few instances when the weather took a gradual turn and inserted a layer of fog between the sun and the monsoon.

Oh, that’s just harmless and kind of pretty fog, you say? Take a look at what was in front of us:

Oh wait, you CAN’T.

#3. The views, when it’s clear, can be seriously distracting.

I know this because my co-piloting duties slipped more than a few times to take pictures of the gorgeous scenery passing us by. And also because I physically cannot stay awake on most car rides, but for about 80% of the time we were driving in Costa Rica, I was awake and looking out the window. Ok, maybe that was the fear? But part of it was the view. Oh, also part of it was my mission to see a sloth. So, like, 30% view-watching.

#4. Don’t let the road signs psych you out.

Because they will really psych you out:

Seriously, what is the message, here?

#5. You will share the road with both large…

…and small:

So don’t drive like an idiot. (I’m really good at passing judgement on other drivers despite the fact that I drive, hmmm, once a year?).

All in all, we were pleasantly surprised. Our hosts at Finca Rosa Blanca told us that the roads have gone under major repairs in the last few years–so much so that one of the managers told us that he used to drive eight hours to a city that now, due to road construction, only takes him two and a half hours to reach.

We weren’t naive enough to think it would be an easy drive, and this worked to our advantage. So the best advice I can offer? If you decide to take to the Costa Rican roads, and I do think that you should, do your research and be prepared for anything.

BUT, if you have a Costa Rican driving horror story or post, share it below! For real–I think it’s important to hear both sides before you hop in a rental car and vamanos.


the romantic



  1. August 9, 2012 / 22:49

    Yay, you survived!! Of course you were nervous/afraid; if you weren’t, I’d be worried that you weren’t human. But it’s manageable, right? One drawback we didn’t have to deal with was the weather. We were there in January so our experience actually was all sunshine and butterflies.
    Francesca recently posted..Chicago’s Festa Italiana 2012My Profile

    • August 10, 2012 / 11:58

      soo manageable, even despite the weather. though i did hear that the caribbean side was having crazy mudslides and tons of road closings… so maybe a lot of it is dependent on where you are in the country?
      Lazy Travelers recently posted..making a case for driving in costa ricaMy Profile

  2. August 13, 2012 / 00:11

    Wow.. paved roads – not what I expected at all. If I lived anywhere other than San Francisco, that road sign would have scared me. Haha. We know a thing or two about hills. 😉
    Kieu ~ GQ trippin recently posted..GQ trippin’ Turns 1 Year Old!My Profile

    • August 13, 2012 / 08:01

      right?? we really didn’t think the roads would all be paved! and growing up on the east coast didn’t introduce us to too many steep hills, so the signs were definitely more disconcerting than anything else.
      Lazy Travelers recently posted..laws to travel by – #22My Profile

  3. August 13, 2012 / 10:05

    So glad you survived to tell the story 😉 and love that you got your “satnav” with a British accent- I carry mine with me at all times (well, wouldn’t go very far in Costa Rica as it only covers the US and Europe), and we call her Serena as it is the name of the voice.

    The weather changes can be shocking – we had the same around Venice and all of a sudden, you couldn’t see a thing – on an Italian motorway (highway, baby!).
    @mrsoaroundworld recently posted..Is cruising for me? My honest opinionMy Profile

    • August 13, 2012 / 11:04

      i’ve never heard of it called a satnav before, but now i’m exclusively calling it that AND with a british accent.

      driving in a foreign place can be stressful enough, but when bad weather comes into play, it really can be horrifying! luckily, as long as all goes well, you come away with a good story 🙂
      Lazy Travelers recently posted..laws to travel by – #22My Profile

  4. August 13, 2012 / 15:40

    Oh, my, I’ve done this drive on a bus (!) and in a giant van. Neither were ideal, but I survived. Just be glad that you didn’t do this drive in 1997. Your car might have gotten lost in a sinkhole never to be seen or heard from again. Yes, the roads have improved.
    Leah Travels (@L_e_a_h) recently posted..The Weird and Wonderful in TokyoMy Profile

    • August 13, 2012 / 15:53

      oooh my god, i can’t imagine doing it in a bus or giant van. our car was the perfect size for this adventure–and bonus points that it was just me and the hubs. i don’t do well in shaky situations on public transit. also, sinkholes = serious fear.
      Lazy Travelers recently travel requiredMy Profile

  5. August 13, 2012 / 19:29

    Too funny! I think these apply to many parts of the world! In Trinidad and Tobago, my friends told me I became McIver as we ran into a segment of the northern road in Tobago that had the blacktop washed away and littered with stones. In the end, my McIver skills didn’t matter, my friend gunned the car and it survived the rough patch!
    Raul (ilivetotravel in Twitter) recently posted..A Big Ego Needs A Big Building: the Palace of Parliament in BucharestMy Profile

  6. August 13, 2012 / 19:39

    Oh my gosh we had a very different experience! We drove from San Jose to Arenal to Samara and Malpais, and the roads were insane! Sometimes we didn’t know if we were even on a road, they were all dirt roads and they would go through rivers and up literally the steepest hills I have ever seen. I can’t believe that those are the only roads to get in and out of places like that! Also it was crazy driving through San Jose because there were NO street signs, we were completely totally hopelessly lost on our way to our hostel, my boyfriend had just been making random turns, then I stopped somewhere to ask for directions and it turns out we were only a block away! We also had to bribe a police officer to get out of a “speeding” ticket (we weren’t actually speeding). It was full of adventures!
    payje recently posted..Whale Watching in Resurrection Bay, Seward AlaskaMy Profile

    • August 13, 2012 / 20:01

      jeez, how long ago were you there??! this sounds horrifying but was basically what i was expected. i was REALLY nervous that we would run into weird scams, too, but everyone we met was absurdly nice. except for the rangers at manuel antonio. i wonder if stuff like that is more prevalent in the high season?

      sorry that your experience was such a mess, but at least you came away with some serious stories!
      Lazy Travelers recently travel requiredMy Profile

      • August 13, 2012 / 20:44

        We were there in 09, son only a couple of years ago! But you’re right, we definitely have some memorable stories that we took away from it… when we first rented our car we noticed that the hubcaps had been ziptied on and we thought it was really strange, but by the time we returned the car we had driven on enough bumpy dirt roads to figure out why!
        payje recently posted..Whale Watching in Resurrection Bay, Seward AlaskaMy Profile

        • _theHubs
          August 16, 2012 / 10:04

          Crazy story! The GPS that Hertz gave us definitely made things much easier. Most of the roads didn’t have names, so “Turn right HERE” was about the only way we would have figured it out.

  7. August 13, 2012 / 20:57

    SOOOO not surprised that it wasn’t as bad as thought to be. GLAD you lived to tell the tale but really, we all knew you would. 😉 you are tough AND you weren’t going to mars for petey sake!!! 😉 not yet anyway
    lola recently 3 favorite travel memories…My Profile

    • August 13, 2012 / 21:20

      ooh, based on some of the warnings we received it might as well have been mars! luckily, it all worked out. i think that was just the general theme of this entire trip, really.
      Lazy Travelers recently posted..and to our north…My Profile

  8. January 27, 2014 / 14:33

    It’s funny how some places have unpredictable weather. When I was on Madeira, locals looked surprised when I asked them about the weather. One young guy said “just look and wait to see what happens”, it’s so unpredictable!

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