The short answer is yes.
This is a question we got asked a lot after our trip to Costa Rica last year, and periodically I still get asked about any safety issues during that road trip. Now that we are planning another road trip across yet another Central American country, I figured I would put the question to rest.
Our daughter was six months old when we visited Costa Rica. Since we wanted to see more than just one area of this relatively small country, and we had an infant with us, we decided to rent a car and drive instead of using a shuttle. For us, it just makes sense to rent a car when traveling with a baby or toddler in
case we have to make additional stops because she gets fussy or irritable. And that is exactly what we did. We broke up the drive through Costa Rica and stopped at a beautiful waterfall one day to give our daughter a break from the car seat. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip!
So back to safety, we never felt unsafe in Costa Rica. Not once. Of course, we weren’t driving around at night because our daughter has an early bedtime, but I wouldn’t recommend it anyway (more on that below).
The people of Costa Rica are friendly and laid back for the most part. Yes, we drove through some small towns where every building seemed to have bars on the windows, and a good amount of poverty, but please don’t always assume poverty = crime. And if those towns make you nervous, just don’t stop in them. There are plenty of other towns to stop in that will feel more inviting and safer.
Here are a few things you need to know if you want to rent a car and drive in Costa Rica:
- Don’t get scammed: Rental car companies, even the big American ones, will try to scam you. They will try to upgrade you to a larger, more expensive car without telling you. Tell them no. They will try to sell you expensive insurance that your credit card already includes. Tell them no. They will try to tell you that you need insurance on the wheels and tires. (That one we actually did buy because the roads are somewhat terrible in Costa Rica). We were polite, but firm, and it saved us about $500.
- Don’t drive after dark: This isn’t necessarily a safety issue as much as a car maintenance issue. As I said earlier, a lot of the roads are in bad shape. They are passable, but pot holes, downed trees, and erosion issues don’t always get fixed. And it rains a lot in Costa Rica so the issues are pretty widespread. Some of the roads aren’t even paved, creating yet another issue if you’re driving. The highways are in good shape, but a lot of the smaller roads, which ultimately you will have to take to get to just about any tourist area, can often present unforeseen hazards after nightfall, and no one wants to be stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire and a bent wheel in a foreign country because they hit a pothole the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. (A bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point.)
- Don’t expect road signs: Streets aren’t marked. Signage is few and far between. Even the exits off the highway aren’t even that noticeable. It would be a good idea to use a GPS or at the very least grab a map from the rental car agency, and have a clear idea where you are going. Getting from town-to-town wasn’t that bad, but finding various attractions along the way is much trickier. You won’t find big, bold signs pointing you toward a waterfall, great lookout, or free hot springs, so do your research in advance so you know where you are going. And those sites will feel that much more special because you found something others might have driven right passed.
- Your drive will be longer than you think: At some point while planning a road trip to Costa Rica, you look at a map and say “that can’t be more than a one hour drive.” The country is small, geographically speaking, but it is mountainous, and the roads twist and turn to take you around those mountains. For this reason, getting from point A to point B will inevitably always take you longer than you expect. Don’t get frustrated, just enjoy the drive and the scenery and accept it for what it is.
- You don’t need an international driver’s license: Your US driver’s license (or native country’s license) will work just fine, although we never got pulled over. I’ve also heard tickets for breaking the traffic laws are quite expensive in Costa Rica, so I would recommend following the posted speed limit, even if the natives are zipping passed you.
- Gas stations are full-services: Gas stations are full service in Costa Rica, and you are strongly encouraged to tip if you need to fill up. I’ve heard tipping isn’t a requirement, but the recommended gratuity is posted at the station, so don’t be that guy who doesn’t tip. We didn’t purchase a lot of gas, but I believe the recommended tip was a couple of bucks, and the gas station we used did take US dollars (although the tip was posted in colones, the currency of Costa Rica).
We’ve also written a complete review of our trip to Costa Rica, including hotels, tourist sights and activities to help you plan your trip. I would definitely recommend driving in the country. Not only is it safe, but it’s a beautiful country and you will get to see more of it if you drive.