Plan a road trip in Costa Rica

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Costa Rica beach

It was that time of the year again, when you get the travel itches and nothing holds you back in your hometown. The time for new, wild adventures and delirious enterprises, time to discover another distant country. It was time to flee the general sluggishness and book our next journey: A road trip in Costa Rica!

Now, planning a road trip in Costa Rica, is quite easy if you have some common sense and a healthy taste for adventure. Thus, you need to keep in mind a few things for the planning of your road trip. This and the following posts will relate my road trip in Costa Rica, the twists and turns of the journey and highlight its different legs. This will be my Costa Rican travel journal.

But first things first, here’s some handy stuff for planning a road trip in Costa Rica:

Costa Rica, why should you go?

If you are a keen explorer and a fierce globetrotter, Costa Rica is exactly the country you should visit. From hiking up volcanoes, trekking through the lush tropical forests, surfing the waves of the pacific beaches or scuba diving along the Caribbean shores (lined with coconut trees, of course) to discovering the amazing wildlife; Costa Rica has it all!
The Costa Ricans are very friendly people. Costa Rica is the only nation in the world without an army. Click To Tweet Yes, ladies and gentleman, Costa Rica’s government decided on a constitutional abolishment of its army to invest instead in the education, nature preservation and thus improve the living standards of the Ticos (that’s how the Costa Rican people call themselves).

The lush, green hills of La Fortuna, next to El Arenal volcano
Beautiful beach in Nosara

All in all, Costa Rica is a thriving paradise for globetrotters of all sorts, seeking for exotic adventures and bringing back prodigious anecdotes in their backpacks.

I have to admit that the startling reports of friends who’d recently been to this amazing country prompted an immediate interest in this destination.

Visas and the red tape

Inform yourself about the visa formalities; depending on your nationality you might not need one for a less than 90-day-stay in Costa Rica. Make sure you have a return plane ticket or a flight connection ticket out of the country to prove that you don’t have the attention to stay there forever (although, staying in Costa Rica triggered a childish “I don’t want to go home” reaction for my part).

A few car hire tips

If I have one suggestion to make: Hire your car in advance! Why? Because, you’ll have the choice to actually pick the car you need for your trip, you’ll be able to analyse and compare various car rental offers (yeah, this can be a tricky business!) and not rush into an expensive rip-off, as well as because you can start your adventure right away without wasting precious time on car offers!

Insurance, security deposit & GPS

  • If you ask for an estimate, make sure insurance is included! Adding insurance to a relatively low car rental price often doubles or even triples the rental price per day!
  • Choose your insurance well, and try to know exactly what is included in the various packages in relation with your driving capacities and the degree of reassurance you need. You often have the choice between basic, premium or full coverage insurance.
  • Make sure you have enough left over on your credit card limit for the security deposit. This can range from 500$ to 1500$ depending on the car you hire and the agency.
  • Make a thorough inspection of the car before you sign anything. Take pictures if need be.
  • Decide if you need a GPS or not. You can either use an app like Waze (you’d need phone credit, though) or download free maps with GPS tracker on your mobile phone. A good old paper map might seem outdated to some, but comes in quite handy when technology fails!
  • A prepaid Costa Rican mobile phone card is an extra security, if ever your car breaks down or you get stuck in a river or the tropical forest… just sayin’!
  • All you need to rent a car is your passport, driver’s license (if you’re from the US, Canada or Europe, you just need your home country’s driver’s license) and a valid credit card.
  • Choose your car with respect to what roads you want to drive on and the type of holidays you are planning to have. If you just want to drive on the big highways, you won’t need a 4WD. But if you decide to go for the whole shebang, like driving off-road, cruising through the jungle and doing some river crossing (fun, fun, fun) a 4×4 car is an absolute must.
Our loyal friend and best 4WD car ever!

We rented our car at Wild Rider Costa Rica. They have fair prices, very friendly staff and they give great advice on choosing routes and things to do!

Planning the route

My best road trips or holidays in general are manly planed on a day-to-day basis. Click To Tweet Of course you can check out travel guides and blogs or get advice from people who’ve been to the destination beforehand. Write down everything that you are interested in or that you’d absolutely like to see.
Ask the locals you meet on your trip or refer to the car-renting agency if they have hot tips or things that are not to be found in travel guides.
Brainstorm on a daily basis and be ready to improvise and change plans.
Since we traveled during low season, we didn’t book any hotel in advance and always tried to negotiate the best price.

Here’s our route of our 13-day road trip in Costa Rica

Our route through Costa Rica

San José – Manuel Antonio National Park – Rainmaker, Quepos – – Jaco – Puntarenas – Montezuma – Santa Teresa – Nosara – Rincon de la Vieja – La Fortuna – Monteverde – San José.

NB: In Costa Rica it really depends on what time of the year you’ll be travelling the country. For example, it’ll be almost impossible to find last-minute availabilities in hotels during high season.

Driving tips

The usual speed limit on highways is 90 Km/h.

You shouldn’t drive when it’s dark, a lot of roads are not lit at night and you might not see people or animals walking along roads.
Don’t drive during heavy rain, because when it rains it pours (don’t forget, you’re in the tropics). The visibility is quite poor, you might be surprised by mudflows, river crossing can be dangerous and roads often get flooded like crazy.

If you are going for the river crossings, check the level of water first before you go in with the car… noticing the depth of a river when your car is already halfway in, might already be too late.

Always be alert, you never know what awaits you around the next border.
On the paper map, when a road is marked as red and reads “lastre”… it means that it’s a fairly difficult track to drive on for a common mortal.

Packing your suitcase or your backpack

  • Mosquito repellent, mosquito repellent and mosquito repellent
  • Trekking gear (shoes, shorts, T-shirts)
  • Warmer clothes if you are going to Monteverde, Puntearenas or other higher elevations
  • River/ reef or trekking sandals can com in handy as well
  • Bathing suits & flip-flops
  • Did I already mention mosquito repellent?
  • First aid kit, because you never know
  • A flashlight
  • A hat, sunscreen and sunglasses
  • Toiletries
  • Your documents
  • Your camera
  • A ferocious desire to spend an amazing time in this stunning country!

Start of my journey

After sleeping off our jet lag in San José we started our adventure and speeded of off to the first leg of our journey: National Park Manuel Antonio.

Well, “speeded off” is not even a euphemism; it’s a sheer lie! With the GPS signal lost, and me being the worst co-driver in the entire universe, we ended up driving cross-country instead of bypassing the mountains on the highway. we drove up the hills and slipped down endless and obscure and muddy gravel tracks, floated through pouring rain, across the black of the night and needed over 4 hours for only 100km. Little did we know that this was only the beginning of an exceptional adventure.

Read about Leg #1 of my road trip in Costa Rica: National Park Manuel Antonio

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