Climbing up the gravel road, our rental car bucks and jerks as if shaken by a toddler who missed a nap. We weave among a herd of tired cattle ascending the windy mountain pass. Their cowboy tips his brimmed hat as we bounce by. Boulders and rocks stick up from the grown like worn teeth, obstacles waiting to bludgeon the vehicle’s undercarriage if I stop paying attention for an instant.
But I can’t help it.
I sneak glances out of the driver-side window and peer down into the rolling, dry northwestern highlands of Costa Rica. The beauty screams out in pura vida style. Between dodging vacation-ruining hazards, I try to record the fleeting images and ignore the rail-less ledge just inches beyond the SUV’s punished tires.
Four of us are a day into our trip and on the way to explore the cloud forests of Monteverde, home to some of the richest biodiversity on the planet. And it’s going well. Really, really well. I want to kiss the car’s four-wheel differential gear. Write a song for the brakes. Make love to the cooling system. Have children with our GPS — a device without which we would surely be the most pathetically lost tourists in all of Central America.
If you don’t speak Spanish and have never been to Costa Rica, few things are more anxiety inducing than parachuting in with a rental car waiting for you. What you read in Internet chatter truly runs the gamut from terrifying to worry absolving.
They say Costa Rican roads are endless stretches of potholes crumbling into gritty dust, or visages of U.S. highways that are steamrolled to within a micron of roadworthy perfection.
They say Costa Rican roads are the most accident-prone in the world, or just the ones with the greatest number of stupid tourists who don’t know how to operate a four-wheel drive.
They say your car is a target for thieves before it even rolls out of the parking lot, or that the previous fact is purely the product of overblown anecdotes.
Fear not, ye wary travelers. This Spanish-ignorant Anglo-Saxon tourist drove 10 days across most of Costa Rica and lived to tell the tale.
Yes, there are some things you need to be wary of (see any of the scarier points above). But don’t let that discourage you from taking control of your destiny. You will be able to see and experience far more than someone in a plane, bus or taxi. Plus, it’s cheaper with more than two people in your cadre.
Stop in a roadside cafe and watch surfers catch 15-foot waves out of the back? That’s you. Dodge machete-wielding bicycle riders and heaps of burning trash? Check. Swing by families hawking trucks full of fresh mangoes and moms strolling babies down the side of the road? Yep. Pull over whenever you have to pee, poop or vomit? Let personal freedom ring.
What the roads are like
Costa Rican roads are, like most things in life, not generalizable, predictable or easy. The amount of gray area is stunning. A few truths, however, apply to almost all of them.
The following descriptions aren’t meant to frighten anyone out of driving, but I don’t want to lie, either. As G.I. Joe would say, Knowing is half the battle!
- The roads aren’t in nearly as bad a condition as everyone says. The government has reinvested a lot of tourist money back into the roads within the past decade, and they are almost all paved, painted, and maintained. The best drags stem out of San Jose and wind toward popular destinations such as Arenal volcano, Monteverde mountain and Manuel Antonio park.
- There aren’t really any highways. Imagine driving down a Midwestern country road with two lanes — one going the direction you’re headed on the right, another going the opposite direction on the left. That’s 99 percent of Costa Rican roads.
- Expect semi-trucks. Lots and lots of big, noisy, slow-to-go-uphill, lane-hogging, rock-spitting, wide-turning trucks. Now put them on windy up-and-down country roads. Yes, there will at times be mind-boggling traffic, impatient jerks and extremely close-calls with opposing traffic as people try to pass the trucks. Your patience will wear thin.
- Construction sites are not well-marked, if at all. You will be driving on a perfect stretch when, all of the sudden, the road disappears into chewed-up asphalt that’s partially repaved. Get used to it.
- People treat roads as sidewalks. Shoulders on Costa Rican roads are few and far between. As a result, people walk on the road to get a bus stop, the next town or to peddle their wares. (Hey — would you prefer traversing a thick jungle or a smoothly paved stretch?) You will encounter people walking the roads at all locations, times and driving conditions. On a blind-curve stretch. In the middle of moonless night. With thick fog. And rain. With their children in strollers. In short: Always keep your eyes peeled for people, or you may hit them.
- Don’t count on lines or reflectors. You’ll learn to savor a stretch of road with painted lines on and reflectors embedded in the asphalt. Costa Rica is a rainy, warm place with lots of fog.
- Cities are a tad crazy. By this I primarily mean San Jose. Do not plan on driving in around San Jose as a primary form of transporation. I repeat: Do. Not. Drive. In. San. Jose. Not unless you’re either leaving or returning your rental car. Take a cab for everything else. Trust me, it is not worth it.
- Street lights are endangered species. Don’t count on them being anywhere. Zeus forbid, but if both of your head lights burn out? You, my friend, are fucked. You can always flag a car with lights down and, while they drive a few feet in front of you, you follow them to the nearest gas station. (We saw this in progress on at least three occasions.) A non-fun way to burn vacation time. Make sure the lights are good on your car.
- Curves, curves everywhere. If windy mountain roads aren’t your thing, don’t go to Costa Rica. If you’re not driving them, your bus driver will.
- Speeding tickets are astronomically expensive. It’s not often a cop will pull you over (we lucked out), as everyone speeds well over the limit. Also, the semi trucks mentioned above will generally keep you in check. But one couple we spoke with almost got smacked with a $450 ticket — yes, that’s in U.S. dollars — for going 90 or so kilometers per hour (kph) in a 50- or 60-kph zone. Like in the U.S., being nice and apologetic and at least looking like you feel bad goes a long way. (That’s how the couple we spoke with got out of it.) Also, don’t bribe the cops. They’re cracking down on that.
Driving and car-renting rules
A few guidelines will help you get through and actually enjoy a road trip through Costa Rica. I’ve tried to distill them here.
- Get a GPS. There is no possible way I could overstate this point: Do not get into a rental car without a good GPS loaded with a good map of Costa Rica. The roads aren’t marked and the signage for hotels and stores in general is terrible. I spent hours researching GPS units, third-party maps, and ultimately programming all of our hotels and destinations as favorites in before we left. precisely locating anything in Costa Rica, by the way, is a research-intensive cat-and-mouse game — most things have no listed physical address (Google Maps is your friend!). I ultimately went with a Garmin nuvi GPS and a NAVSAT Ezfind map. This combo worked perfectly, and I won’t recommend any other solution.
- Do not hand-wave the walk-around damage report. Costa Rican cars are abused like no other, so be sure to point out all interior and exterior damage that you possibly can. Otherwise you may get a surprise bill at the end of the trip.
- When renting your car, don’t be cheap. It’s fine to be thrifty, but don’t go for the basement-bargain places. That usually means a rental company will recoup the costs with fine print and other trickery. Too-good-to-be-true may also mean the vehicles are more older and worn-out than you’d care for. We had a decent experience with Economy, but I’ll go with an international and more trusted brand the next trip out.
- Study the insurance policies and laws. This can be confusing, but the options go something like this:
1) Your credit card’s policy, if you have one, only covers theft, damage and otherwise anything else done to or inside of your car. That’s it. The end. It doesn’t cover other people’s property or medical expenses.
2) All Costa Rican rental car companies are required by law to make you pay for basic liability insurance — i.e. the damage to others that is not covered by your credit card. Most of the policies cover 80 percent of damage, leaving you to pay the other 20 percent in case of an accident.
3) Most rental companies offer a zero-percent-liability policy. They’re generally not much more per day. Don’t be a cheap-ass and get it for peace of mind.
- Get a four-wheel drive with good ground clearance. If you’re driving, chances are you’ll be pulling off a stunt like the one that introduced this post. You will need that four-wheel drive, especially in the wet season.
- Always pay attention. The moment you stop focusing on the road, something will surprise you. Could be a pothole, a pedestrian, perhaps a three-toed sloth bumbling across the road.
- Do not drive alone. Driving is exhausting, as you might well imagine by now. It really helps to have someone help you look out for hazards, take over if you get tired, etc.
- Carry bottled water and snacks with you. Some stretches have few attractive pit stops, so it pays to have extra food and water as an insurance policy. Water also happens to be a fine coolant if your radiator springs a leak.
- Don’t leave valuables in the car or in sight. We didn’t experience theft, but then again we never left anything in the car. Use common sense, people.
- Know the tricks thieves use. Costa Rica is supposed to be full of the nicest people on Earth, a point which I wouldn’t disagree with. But there are some unsavory folks in any land. This is one apparently popular trick: Just a few miles down the road from the rental car company, you get a flat. A car full of friendly folks will pull over almost immediately and help you retrieve your tire out of the back. To get it, however, you need to unload all of your gear out of the back and onto the side of the road. While you’re focusing on the whole vacation-ruining-flat-tire thing, your gear will magically migrate to the other car and disappear. Oops.
This may scare some of you out of driving around the country, and rightfully so, depending on who you are. But I want to emphasize how fun and amazing our road trip was. Driving is the absolute best way to see the country and tap into the and witness lives of the people who live there.
No risks, no rewards.
Oh, and for the curious: Below is a snapshot of the 10-day route our group took. It was a lot of driving, and I wouldn’t recommend something this intense. On long driving days, block out some time for unplanned stops so you can check out small towns, hit up a remote beach or just pull over and admire the scenery.
Top photo: courtesy of the lovely Kendra Snyder. Bottom image: Dave Mosher/Google.