Hiring a car with a driver makes the most sense for sightseeing in and around San José. You can also usually hire a taxi driver to ferry you around; most will stick to the meter, which at this writing will tick at a rate of about $15 per hour for the time the driver is waiting for you. At $100 to $130 per day plus the driver's food, hiring a driver for areas outside the San José area costs almost the same as renting a 4WD, but is more expensive for multiday trips, when you'll also have to pay for the driver's room. Some drivers are also knowledgeable guides; others just drive. Unless they're driving large passenger vans for established companies, it's doubtful that drivers have any special training or licensing. Hotels can usually direct you to trusted drivers; you can also find recommendations on www.fodors.com. Alternatively, Alamo provides professional car-and-driver services for minimum three-day rentals (available May to November only). You pay $75 on top of the rental fee, plus the driver's food and lodging. Costa Rica Shuttle (Bus Travel) provides drivers on similar terms for $100–$250 per day.
Most rental companies have an office close to Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría where you can drop off your car (even if you picked up the car at another San José branch) and provide transport to get you to your flight. Leave yourself a half hour for the return time and shuttle.
There is no self-service gas in Costa Rica; 24-hour stations are generally available only in San José or on the Pan-American Highway. Most other stations are open from about 7 to 7, some until midnight. It is not customary to tip attendants.
Gas prices are fixed by the government, and gas stations around the country are legally bound to stick to the determined prices. Ten-percent-ethanol gas is gradually being introduced. Try to fill your tank in cities—gas is more expensive (and more likely to be dirty) at informal fill-up places in rural areas, where gas stations can be few and far between. Major credit cards are widely accepted. Ask the attendant if you want a factura (receipt). Regular unleaded gasoline is called regular and high-octane unleaded, required in most modern vehicles, is called súper. Gas is sold by the liter.
On-street parking is scarce in downtown San José; where you find it, you'll also find guachimanes (informal, usually self-appointed guards). They freely admit they don't get paid enough to actually get involved if someone tries something with your car, but it's best to give them a couple of hundred colones per hour anyway. In centers such as San José, Alajuela, and Heredia, you'll find several signs with a large E in a red circle, and the words con boleto (with a ticket). These tickets can be bought for ½ hour (250 colones), 1 hour (500 colones), or 2 hours (1,000 colones) at the respective municipal hall. It's a 4,000-colón fine (about $8) if you're caught in one of these spaces without a ticket.
Safer and ubiquitous are the public lots (parqueos), which average flat rates of approximately $2 per hour. Most are open late, especially near hopping nightspots or theaters, but check beforehand. Never leave anything inside the car. It is illegal to park in the zones marked by yellow curb paint, or in front of garage doors or driveways, usually marked with signs reading "No Estacionar" ("No Parking"). Downtown parking laws are strictly enforced; the fine for illegal parking is 5,000 colones (about $10). However, the city center's narrow throughways are often bottlenecked by "waiting" cars and taxis—double-parked with someone in the car. Despite the cacophonic honking, this is largely tolerated. Outside the main hubs of the Central Valley, parking rules are far more lax, and guachimanes, private walled, and guarded hotel or restaurant parking are the rule, with few public lots.
When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties, taxes, drop-off charges (if you're planning to pick up the car in one city and leave it in another), and surcharges (for being under or over a certain age, for additional drivers, or for driving across state or country borders or beyond a specific distance from your point of rental). All these things can add substantially to your costs. Request such extras as car seats and GPS devices when you book.
Rates are sometimes—but not always—better if you book in advance or reserve through a rental agency's website. There are other reasons to book ahead, though: for popular destinations, during busy times of the year, or to ensure that you get certain types of cars (vans, SUVs, exotic sports cars).
If you're planning to go to only one or two major areas, taking a shuttle van or a domestic flight is usually a better and cheaper option than driving. Renting is a good choice if you're destination hopping, staying at a hotel that's a trek to town, or going well off the beaten path. Car trips to northern Guanacaste from San José can take an entire day, so flying is probably better if you don't have long to spend in the country. Flying is definitely better than driving for visiting the South Pacific.
A standard vehicle is fine for most destinations, but a doble-tracción (4WD) is often essential to reach the remoter parts of the country, especially during the rainy season. Even in the dry season, you must have a 4WD vehicle to reach Monteverde and some destinations in Guanacaste. The big 4WD vehicles, such as a Suzuki Grand Vitara, can cost roughly twice as much as an economy car, but compact 4WDs, such as the Daihatsu Terios, are more reasonable, and should be booked well in advance. Most cars in Costa Rica have manual transmissions. Specify when making the reservation if you want an automatic transmission; it usually costs about $5 more per day, but some companies, such as Alamo and Hertz, don't charge extra. Larger, more expensive automatic Montero and Sorento models are also available.
If you plan to rent any kind of vehicle between December 15 and January 3, or during Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter)—when most Costa Ricans are on vacation—reserve several months ahead of time.
Costa Rica has around 30 car-rental firms. Most local firms are affiliated with international car-rental chains and offer the same guarantees and services as their branches abroad; local company Tricolor gets high marks from travelers on our Fodor's Forum. At least a dozen rental offices line San José's Paseo Colón; some large hotels and Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría have representatives. Renting in or near San José is by far the easiest way to go. It's getting easier to rent outside San José, particularly on the Pacific coast. Several rental companies have set up branches in Liberia, Quepos, Jacó, Tamarindo, and La Fortuna. In most other places across the country, it's either impossible or very difficult and expensive to rent a car.
Car seats are compulsory for children under four years old, and can be rented for about $5 per day; reserve in advance. Rental cars may not be driven across borders to Nicaragua and Panama. For a $50 fee, National and Alamo will let you drop off a Costa Rican rental car at the Nicaragua border and provide you with a Nicaraguan rental on the other side. Seat-belt use is compulsory for all passengers. Fuel-efficiency measures restrict certain cars from San José's city center during rush hours once a week, according to the final license-plate number (e.g., plates that end in 9 are restricted on Friday). This also applies to rental cars; if you are stopped, do not pay a bribe. To rent a car, you need a driver's license, a valid passport, and a credit card. The minimum renter age varies; agencies such as Economy, Budget, and Alamo rent to anyone over 21; Avis sets the limit at 23, Hertz at 25. Though it's rare, some agencies have a maximum age limit.
High-season rates in San José begin at $45 a day and $180 a week for an economy car with air-conditioning, manual transmission, unlimited mileage, plus obligatory insurance; but rates fluctuate considerably according to demand, season, and company. Rates for a 4WD vehicle during high season are $70 to $90 a day and $450 to $550 per week. Often companies will also require a $1,000 deposit, payable by credit card.
Cars picked up at or returned to Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría incur a 12% surcharge. Arrangements can be made to pick up cars directly at the Liberia airport, but a range of firms have offices nearby and transport you from the airport free of charge—and with no surcharge for an airport pickup. Check cars thoroughly for damage before you sign the rental contract. Even tough-looking 4WD vehicles should be coddled. The charges levied by rental companies for damage—no matter how minor—are outrageous even by U.S. or European standards. It's very wise to opt for full-coverage insurance. One-way service surcharges are $50 to $150, depending on the drop-off point; National allows travelers free car drop-off at any of its offices with a minimum three-day rental. To avoid a hefty refueling fee, fill the tank just before you turn in the car. It's almost never a deal to buy the tank of gas that's in the car when you rent it; the understanding is that you'll return it empty, but some fuel usually remains. Additional drivers are about $10 per day if there is any charge at all. Almost all agencies, with the exception of Budget Rent-a-Car, have cell-phone rental; prices range between $3 and $8 per day, with national per-minute costs between 50¢ and $2.
International driving permits (IDPs), which are used only in conjunction with a valid driver's license and translate your license into 10 languages, are not necessary in Costa Rica. Your own driver's license is good for the length of your initial tourist visa. You must carry your passport, or a copy of it with the entry stamp, to prove when you entered the country.
Economy (877/326-7368 in North America; 2299-2000 in Costa Rica. www.economyrentacar.com.)
Tricolor (800/949-0234 in North America; 2440-3333 in Costa Rica. www.tricolorcarrental.com.)
Alamo (2242-7733 in Costa Rica; 877/222-9075 in North America. www.alamocostarica.com.)
Avis (2293-2222 in Costa Rica; 800/331-1084 in North America. www.avis.co.cr.)
Budget (2436-2000 in Costa Rica; 800/472-3325 in North America. www.budget.co.cr.)
Dollar (877/767-8651 in North America; 2443-2950 in Costa Rica. www.dollarcostarica.com.)
Hertz (888/437-8927 in North America; 2221-1818 in Costa Rica. www.costaricarentacar.net.)
National Car Rental (877/862-8227 in North America; 2242-7878 in Costa Rica. www.natcar.com.)
Many travelers shy away from renting a car in Costa Rica, if only for fear of the road conditions. Indeed, this is not an ideal place to drive: in San José traffic is bad and car theft is rampant (look for guarded parking lots or hotels with lots); in rural areas roads are often unpaved or potholed—and tires aren't usually covered by the basic insurance. And Ticos are reckless drivers—with one of the highest accident rates in the world. But though driving can be a challenge, it's a great way to explore certain regions, especially the North Pacific, the Northern Plains, and the Caribbean coast (apart from roadless Tortuguero and Barra del Colorado). Keep in mind that mountains and poor road conditions make most trips longer than you'd normally expect.
San José is terribly congested during weekday morning and afternoon rush hours (7 to 9 am and 4 to 6 pm). Avoid returning to the city on Sunday evening, when traffic to San José from the Pacific coast beaches can back up for hours. The winding Pan-American Highway south of the capital is notorious for long snakes of traffic stuck behind slow-moving trucks. Look out for potholes, even in the smoothest sections of the best roads. Also watch for unmarked speed bumps where you'd least expect them, particularly on rural main thoroughfares. During the rainy season roads are in much worse shape. Check with your destination before setting out; roads, especially in Limón Province, are prone to washouts and landslides.
San José has many one-way streets and traffic circles. Streets in the capital are narrow. Pedestrians are supposed to have the right-of-way but do not in reality, so be alert when walking. The local driving style is erratic and aggressive but not fast, because road conditions don't permit too much speed. Frequent fender benders tie up traffic. Keep your windows rolled up in the center of the city, because thieves may reach into your car at stoplights and snatch your purse, jewelry, and so on.
Signage is notoriously bad, but improving. Watch carefully for "No Hay Paso" ("Do Not Enter") signs; one-way streets are common, and it's not unusual for a street to transform from a two-way to a one-way. Streetlights are often out of service and key signs missing or knocked down because of accidents.
Outside San José you'll run into long stretches of unpaved road. Frequent hazards in the countryside are potholes, landslides during the rainy season, and cattle on the roads. Drunk drivers are a hazard throughout the country on weekend nights. Driving at night is not recommended anyway, because roads are poorly lighted and many don't have painted center lines or shoulder lines.
Costa Rica has no highway emergency service organization. In Costa Rica 911 is the nationwide number for accidents. Traffic police (tránsitos) are scattered around the country, but Costa Ricans are very good about stopping for people with car trouble. Whatever happens, don't move the car after an accident, even if a monstrous traffic jam ensues. Call 911 first if the accident is serious (nearly everyone has a cell phone here and it's almost a given that someone will offer to help). Also be sure to call the emergency number your car-rental agency has given you. For fender benders, contact the Traffic Police, who will try to locate a person to assist you in English—but don't count on it. If you don't speak Spanish, you may want to contact the rental agency before trying the police. If your own car is stolen, call the Judicial Investigative Police (OIJ, pronounced oh-ee-hota), which will find an English-speaking representative to assist you.
Ambulance and Police (911.)
Rules of the Road
Obey traffic laws religiously, even if Costa Ricans appear not to. Fines are frightfully high—a speeding ticket could set you back more than $600—and evidence exists that transit police target foreigners for infractions.
Driving is on the right side of the road in Costa Rica. The highway speed limit is usually 90 kph (54 mph), which drops to 60 kph (36 mph) in residential areas. In towns, limits range from 30 to 50 kph (18 to 31 mph). Speed limits are enforced in all regions of the country. Seat belts are required, and an awareness campaign has increased enforcement. "Alto" means "stop" and "ceda" means "yield." Right turns on red are permitted except where signs indicate otherwise, but in San José this is usually not possible because of one-way streets and pedestrian crossings.
Local drunk driving laws are strict. You'll also get nailed with a $450 fine if you're caught driving in a "predrunk" state (blood alcohol levels of 0.049% to 0.099%). If your level is higher than that, you'll pay $900, the car will be confiscated, and your license will be taken away. Police officers who stop drivers for speeding and drunk driving are often looking for payment on the spot—essentially a bribe. Whether you're guilty or not, you'll get a ticket if you don't give in. Asking for a ticket instead of paying the bribe discourages corruption and does not compromise your safety. You can generally pay the ticket at your car-rental company, which will remit it on your behalf.
Seat-belt use is mandatory. Car seats are required for children ages four and under, but car-seat laws are not rigorously enforced. Children over 12 are allowed in the front seat. Drivers are prohibited from texting or using handheld cell phones.
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