Late afternoon sun shines across the ocean with a white sand beach in the foreground. In the sea in the distance two young boys play

Driving in Costa Rica – how difficult is it really? A Guide (2024)

I thought I’d add a short guide to driving to our Costa Rica collection of blog posts, with a bit of info on car hire in the country, since it was one of the things we struggled to decide on before we arrived.

During the (extended) planning phase for Costa Rica I was adamant that we weren’t going to hire a car – mainly based on a mildly terrifying image in the Lonely Planet guide of a 4×4 powering through a pretty fast looking river, and accompanying info in said Lonely Planet detailing how many river crossings you could expect to come across when driving in Costa Rica and how to navigate them. Attempting to drive a hire car across a tropical river had ‘divorce level argument’ written all over it!

There were several factors that made us reconsider this though once we’d arrived in Costa Rica; I’ll go through the pros and cons below in this guide to driving in Costa Rica.

Benefits of hiring a car in Costa Rica

We thought we could do Costa Rica without hiring a car. However. When we arrived (with my Mum in tow) it quickly became apparent how difficult it was going to be to get around without our own wheels. There were very few Ubers in San Jose that would seat all five of us (which lead to a very, very long wait at the airport on arrival, and then an uncomfortable journey with four of us squished on the back seat).

I re-looked at the travel plans and then looked again (in a bit more depth) at car hire. It turned out that there was very little cost difference between all the buses/taxis etc we’d need to take (for five of us) vs car hire for the bulk of my Mum’s stay.

Plus, given how much of the country we wanted to see, it just made life so much easier. There were several journeys that we could have done without a car, but these would have involved either multiple buses or very expensive private/shared shuttles for five of us. There were a few destinations on our itinerary that in the end it would have been very difficult/expensive to get to without a hire car – in particular Montezuma, Cabuya and Playa Conchal.

And obviously, hiring a car makes exploring so much more flexible – you can stop anywhere you want, you have complete control over your travel times and, best of all, you don’t have to pack everything perfectly each time you move between destinations as you can just sling your bags in the boot of the car!

How to hire a car in Costa Rica

I would recommend using for any car hire in Costa Rica – we used them a few times across Costa Rica and Mexico and the service was great every time.

They connect you with a range of car hire companies and generally we found the best prices through here. Don’t forget that if you have a QuidCo account you can also get cashback on your bookings through – we got over £20 in cashback as I clicked through to the website from QuidCo.

How much does it cost to hire a family-sized car in Costa Rica?

This will obviously depend on the size of vehicle you need and what specification you want to go for.

We paid £530 for 9 days hire of a compact SUV via As we were a family group of five at this stage, we felt we needed a bit more room than a standard family sedan type vehicle would offer, and we wanted the security of having an SUV too for some of those pesky unpaved roads that we knew we’d encounter.

You can pay a bit less than this, and you can pay a lot more for a top of the range SUV. We had paid around £60 for a global car hire excess policy before we left the UK; I would highly recommend this if you’re travelling for a longer period as it means you can avoid taking out the more expensive insurance at the car hire desk to cover your excess.

Planning your route in Costa Rica

One of the things that swung the decision for me was this insanely helpful blog post that goes through all of the main highways in Costa Rica and gives them ratings for road conditions, terrain, whether there are any river crossings, traffic levels, tolls and whether you need a 4×4 vehicle. I would highly recommend checking this out before you leave to determine what your drive will actually look like. If there are any river crossings involved it’s much better to know in advance.

I used this to map out our entire route and once I’d figured out that there were no pesky river crossings I was much happier about the prospect of driving!

Challenges of driving in Costa Rica

Whilst we did avoid crossing rivers in our hire car, there were plenty of unpaved roads, heaving downpours while driving (which made things tricky!) and animals in the way at times.

Don’t expect any lighting on the smaller roads at night; if at all possible avoid driving these smaller roads at night and plan your journey during the day.

The unpaved roads vary hugely in terms of quality and how rough they are to drive on – in general we didn’t find any of the unpaved roads we came across too challenging, they just made travel very slow going at times.

Whilst Costa Rica is a very safe country to travel in overall, don’t leave belongings in your car unattended as theft from vehicles is not unheard of.

It’s also a good idea to check ahead to make sure your accommodation has parking available; most places will do but smaller guesthouses and hotels may have limited space.

Is it worth hiring a car in Costa Rica?

Despite the sometimes slow-going on the unpaved roads, hiring a car was still so much easier than using public transport (especially as a group of five) and both me and Steve really enjoyed the driving in the end.

It also saved us money as a family of five on the road, compared to both buses and shared/private shuttles (which we would probably have ended up using a combination of).

Check your route, plan your journey times so you can drive during the day and take your time on the unpaved roads and driving in Costa Rica can be an enjoyable experience!

If you want to find out more about our travels in Costa Rica as part of our family gap year, check out these other posts:

Our budget for five weeks in Costa Rica (2024)

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Seeing nesting turtles in Costa Rica with kids (2024)

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Swimming in the bioluminescence in Costa Rica – a guide (2024)

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Where to see sloths in Costa Rica (2024)

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