Renting a Car and Driving in Costa Rica

A white suv parked on the sand in Costa Rica with a surfboard.

If you’ve already chosen Costa Rica as your travel destination, the next step is to figure out which attractions to visit, if you settle on more than a couple, then renting a car in Costa Rica is your best option.

Driving in Costa Rica is an adventure in and of itself, I will explain this in detail later, but it is also the most convenient way to get from one place to another. Public transport is limited to buses, but there few connecting bus routes outside the urban areas, in most cases you will need to travel back to San José to catch a bus that will take you to your next destination.

Car Rental Companies in Costa Rica

Being such a popular tourist destination means there are lots of options for renting a car, big international rental car agencies such as Avis, Budget, Hertz, and Alamo operate in the country alongside local rental car operators.

Out of the local options I recommend Abode Rent a Car as they have superb customer service and great pricing compared to their international counterparts. They are also conveniently located throughout the country making it easy for you to pick up or drop off your car.

Their fleet is less than 2-years old, and the cars are expertly maintained so you don’t have to worry about your car breaking down and ruining your vacation.

Choosing the Right Vehicle

Renting a car in Costa Rica is a relatively easy task, all you need is a valid driver’s license and a credit card to pay for your rental.

One of the most important aspects of renting a car here is choosing the one that fits your travel needs the best.

Most rent a car companies offer a range of vehicles to choose from, 4-door sedans, minivans, small SUVs and larger 4×4 vehicles and you can choose manual or automatic transmission.

Knowing which one serves your needs best depends on a few factors:

Places You Want to Visit

If your trip includes a drive to Monteverde, Dominical, Osa Peninsula, or some of the more remote beaches then you definitely need to rent a 4×4, as part of the drive will be on dirt roads and in some cases maybe even off-road.

The roads to popular beaches like Jaco, Manuel Antonio, Tamarindo, and El Coco, as well as the road to Arenal, are all paved, so a sedan will be sufficient to reach your destination. However, if you are here to surf and have brought your own surfboards I recommend renting a small SUV, so you can comfortably fit your surfing gear.


When it comes to pricing, clearly the smaller the vehicle the more economical it will be, a 4×4 will cost more than a sedan for example.

Pricing for rental cars is higher during the high season which spans from December to April, you can find some excellent deals during the rainy season, so if you are on a budget this is something to consider.

Are You Visiting During the Rainy Season?

Driving in Costa Rica during the rainy season means you could encounter some flooded roads, my recommendation is to rent a small SUV during this time of year, even if you will be traveling on paved roads.

Understanding Rental Car Insurance in Costa Rica

The toughest part of renting a car in Costa Rica is understanding how insurance policies work, in fact, this is one of the most frequent complaints from tourists.

It is important to understand there are different tiers of insurance applied to rental cars:

Mandatory – Third-Party Liability

The government requires all rental car companies to issue a mandatory third-party liability policy insurance, the cost of this depends on the type of car you rent, this insurance does not cover any damages to the car only damages to third parties.

Optional – Basic Collision Damage Waiver (CDW)

This is the first tier of optional insurance you can purchase, it is designed to reduce your liability to just the amount of the deductible, however, this won’t cover any damages due to negligence, vandalism, theft, or damages caused by road conditions.

Saving Money on CDW coverage

Basic CDW’s may be covered by your credit card company, if so, you will need to present written proof of your credit card CDW coverage to the rental company, the letter should include the full name of the cardholder and the last 4 digits of the card that will be used to rent the vehicle.

Additionally, ask your credit card company the following:

  •         Does their CDW cover the type of car you plan on renting
  •         Does it cover additional drivers or just the cardholder?
  •         Rental Period (some limit the number of rental days)
  •         Restrictions on where the car can be driven (off-road, etc.)

Optional – Zero Liability Collision Damage Waiver

A full Collision Damage Waiver will free you from any financial responsibility in the event of a crash, theft, vandalism, or total loss, except in the case of negligence.

What to Expect When Driving in Costa Rica?

I told you earlier driving in Costa Rica is an adventure, but, it should be one you enjoy and not regret, knowing what to expect can make your trip a lot more fun and adventurous.

Daredevils on the Road

Costa Rican’s can be a little reckless when driving, they consider speed limits more a suggestion than an actual mandate, they will honk at you 0.001 seconds after the traffic light turns green, they are reluctant to use turn signals, and if they find themselves stuck in traffic it is not unusual to see them making a U-turn to seek an alternate route regardless of whether this is allowed or not.

So, my advice to you is, always drive defensively! Once you get used to it you will almost find their daredevil maneuvers comical.

Road Signs and Navigating the Streets

Costa Rica uses the international symbolism for its traffic signs, so you should have no issues with that.

You will notice there aren’t that many signs indicating the name of towns, or street names or numbers in Costa Rica which could pose a challenge for most tourists since the rental cars are not equipped with a GPS system.

Don’t worry, I have a perfect solution for this, it’s called Wase, a community-based traffic and navigation app, you can download it on your phone. Costa Rican’s love this app, for this reason virtually every road in the country has been mapped, this means it will work regardless of where you are. The app does require an internet connection so consider buying a prepaid plan from a local provider.

Wildlife on the Roads

One of the things I love the most while driving in Costa Rica is the chance to encounter wildlife. In urban areas you will see cats or dogs crossing the streets and birds flying so low they almost crash into you.

But when you get to the rural areas, you may encounter cattle walking down a dirt road, a family of coatis running alongside your car, and maybe even a sloth slowly trying to reach the other side of the road.

I advise you to drive slowly to take in the beauty around you and avoid injuring any animals.

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