When vacationing in Costa Rica, renting a car gives you a lot more freedom to go wherever you want, when you want – for many, the best way to experience the country. The roads in Costa Rica are mostly paved and form an extensive road system that provides access to most parts of the country.
The highway system in the capital city of San José is comprised of modern freeways. Road rules are similar to those in other large cities around the world. Keep in mind that Costa Rica uses the metric system; all road signs present distances in kilometers (1.6 kilometers = 1 mile).
San Jose’s midtown traffic is often heavy and you may find driving ‘etiquette’ to be somewhat different, as some drivers neglect the rules of the road and can be little aggressive in their maneuvers. Taking this into consideration, many tourists opt for using public transportation while exploring the Metropolitan Area, and then rent a car when heading out to the countryside.
Although road conditions are generally pretty good, expect to find large deep potholes on some of the roads. During rainy season, flash floods have been known to deteriorate and even wash out roads and bridges. If you travel during this reason, we recommend you to inquire about road conditions ahead and rent a 4WD car.
Night driving should be avoided if possible, as night makes it more difficult to see and many Costa Rican roads are two lanes curving through mountains.
Gas, tire repair and snacks are available in all most urban and touristy areas. There are several gas stations in San José, so fill up while in the city and do not head up into the mountains without gassing up. Gas costs about $2 per gallon, although it’s actually sold by the liter.
The main routes from San José to Arenal Volcano, Tamarindo and Jacó Beach (some of the most popular destinations in the country) are in excellent conditions. However, between Jacó and Manuel Antonio, parts of the road aren’t paved, so be careful and do not speed up.
On January 28th, 2010, Costa Rica’s government officially opened the new Autopistas del Sol San José to Caldera Pacific Highway. The new highway’s main strategy is to connect Costa Rica’s main industrial/business area to one of its main ports. It has greatly benefited its users by reducing travel times, the number of road accidents, fuel consumption, deterioration of vehicle parts and tires, and other costs associated to heavy traffic conditions.
Posted speed limits on the new highway range from 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour) to 100 kph (62 mph) - speeds never before available on the previous twisting and mountainous two-lane route known as the Aguacate pass.
The new travel time from the center of San José to Caldera on the Pacific Coast, is quoted to be as little as one hour – which reduces overall travel times to many popular coastal destinations such as Jacó, Playa Hermosa and Manuel Antonio, by as much as one-half.
The route south on the Pan American highway over Cerro de la Muerte (the Pass of Death) is the highest paved pass on the Pan American highway. It reaches just under 10,000 feet and goes through the cloud forest. It's a spectacular drive with breathtaking views, but do it slow and during daytime.
It is quite difficult to provide accurate driving times as road conditions, time of day, traffic and weather affect how long it can take to go between Costa Rica destinations. Typically, one can average around 70 kilometers per hour on highways, and 40 kilometers per hour on side roads.
Even though Costa Rica is the third-smallest country in Central America, with only 51,100 sq km, it could take you up to 12-14 hours to cross the country from one border to the other. Driving from the nearest point in the Pacific, to the nearest point in the Caribbean can be as long 4 hours.Below you will find other estimated travel times for some of the most popular Costa Rica destinations: