Car Travel

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 will tick at a rate of about $20 for each hour the driver spends 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 four-wheel-drive vehicle, but is more expensive for multiday trips because you also have to pay for the driver's lodging. 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. Alamo provides professional car-and-driver services for a minimum of three days. On top of the rental fee, you pay $80 for the driver, plus food and lodging.

Gasoline

You'll usually find 24-hour stations only in San José or along the Pan-American Highway. Most stations are open 7 to 7, although some are open until midnight. Regular unleaded gasoline is called regular, and high-octane unleaded, required in most modern vehicles, is called súper. Gas is sold by the liter.

Try to fill your tank in cities—gas is more expensive (and more likely to be dirtier) at informal fill-up places in rural areas, where gas stations can be few and far between. Major credit cards are widely accepted. There are no self-service gas stations in Costa Rica. It is not customary to tip attendants. If you want a factura (receipt), ask for it.

Parking

On-street parking is scarce in downtown San José. Where you find a spot, you'll also find guachimanes ("watchmen," informal, usually self-appointed guards). They won't 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. It's illegal to park in zones marked by yellow curb paint, or in front of garage doors or driveways, usually marked no estacionar (no parking). Downtown parking laws are strictly enforced; the fine for illegal parking is 5,000 colones (about $10). In places like San José, Alajuela, and Heredia, you'll find 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), one-hour (500 colones), or two-hour (1,000 colones) increments.

Safer and ubiquitous are the public lots (parqueos), which average about $2 per hour. Most are open late, especially near hopping nightspots or theaters, but check beforehand. Never leave anything inside the car.

Outside San José and the surrounding communities, parking rules are far more lax. Guarded hotel or restaurant parking lots are the rule, with few public lots.

Rental Cars

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), insurance, and surcharges (for being under or over a certain age, for additional drivers, or for driving beyond a specific distance). 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. Book ahead during the busier times of the year and to ensure that you get a certain type of vehicle (a van, SUV, or sports car, for instance).

If you're only visiting one or two major areas, taking a shuttle van or a domestic flight is cheaper and more convenient than driving. Renting is a good choice if you're destination hopping, staying at a hotel outside town, or going well off the beaten path. Car trips to northern Guanacaste from San José can take an entire day, so flying is a better option if you don't have a lot of time. Flying is definitely better than driving for visiting the South Pacific.

A standard vehicle is fine for most destinations, but a doble-tracción (four-wheel-drive vehicle) is often essential to reach the remote parts of the country, especially during the rainy season. Even in the dry season, a 4WD vehicle is necessary to reach Monteverde and some off-the-beaten-path destinations on the North and South Pacific coasts. The biggest 4WD vehicles can cost twice as much as an economy car, but compact 4WDs are more reasonable.

Most cars in Costa Rica have manual transmissions. Specify when making a reservation if you want automatic transmission; it usually costs $5 to $10 more per day. If you plan to rent a car between December 15 and January 3 or during 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 chains and offer the same guarantees and services. Tricolor, a local company, gets high marks from travelers on www.fodors.com. Renting in or near San José is by far the easiest way to go. At least a dozen rental offices line San José's Paseo Colón. It's getting easier to rent outside San José, particularly on the Pacific coast. Several rental companies have set up branches in Liberia, Quepos, Manuel Antonio, 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.

Rental cars may not be driven across borders to Nicaragua and Panama. For a $50 fee, Alamo will let you drop off a Costa Rican rental car at the Nicaragua border at Peñas Blancas and provide you with a Nicaraguan rental on the other side. Fuel-efficiency measures restrict cars from much of San José and the neighboring suburb of San Pedro between 6 am and 7 pm once a week, according to the final license-plate number (plates that end in 1 and 2 are restricted on Monday; 3 and 4, on Tuesday; 5 and 6, on Wednesday; 7 and 8, on Thursday; and 9 and 0 on Friday). This also applies to rental cars.

To rent a car, you need a driver's license, a valid passport, and a credit card. The minimum age varies; agencies such as Economy, Budget, and Alamo rent to anyone over 21; Avis sets the limit at 23, Hertz at 25. If you are under 25 and the firm will rent to you, you may pay a higher rate. Though it's rare, some agencies have a maximum age limit.

High-season rates in San José begin at $60 a day and $220 a week for an economy car with air-conditioning, manual transmission, and unlimited mileage, along with obligatory insurance. Rates fluctuate considerably according to demand, season, and company. Rates for a 4WD vehicle during high season are $80 to $100 a day and $500 to $600 per week. Companies often require a $1,000 deposit, payable by credit card.

Cars picked up at or returned to San José's Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría incur a 12% surcharge. You can 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 contract. Even tough-looking 4WD vehicles should be coddled. Repair charges levied by rental companies for damage—no matter how minor—are outrageous even by U.S. or European standards. 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 return the car. It's almost never a good 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 can cost $10 per day. Almost all agencies have cell-phone rental; prices range between $5 and $10 per day, with national per-minute costs between 50¢ and $2.

It’s wise to opt for full insurance coverage. Auto insurance in Costa Rica is a government monopoly. At a minimum, you are required to purchase collision-damage waiver as well as third-party liability insurance through the rental agency to cover damages to other persons and vehicles. Your own credit-card coverage does not exempt you from this charge. Some rental agencies include such costs in your quoted rates. Many do not, however, and we hear numerous tales of clients shocked at the final tally when they pick up the car. Always ask what is included when you reserve.

International driving permits (IDPs), which 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.

Local Agencies

Economy. 877/326–7368; 2299–2000; www.economyrentacar.com.

Tricolor. 800/949–0234; 2440–3333; www.tricolorcarrental.com.

Vamos. 4000–0557; 800/950–8426; www.vamosrentacar.com.

Major Agencies

Alamo. 2242–7733; 877/222–9075; www.alamocostarica.com.

Avis. 2293–2222; 800/331–1084; www.avis.cr.

Budget. 2436–2000; 800/424–5431; www.budget.co.cr.

Dollar. 877/767–8651; 2443–2950; www.dollarcostarica.com.

Enterprise. 855/266-9289; 2242-7800; www.enterprise.com.

Hertz. 800/654–3001; 2221–1818; www.hertzcostarica.com.

National Car Rental. 877/862–8227; 2242–7878; www.natcar.com.

Road Conditions

Many travelers shy away from renting a car in Costa Rica. Indeed, this is not an ideal place to drive. In San José, traffic is bad and car theft is rampant (look for guarded lots or hotels with parking). Roads in rural areas are often unpaved or potholed—and tires usually aren't covered by the basic insurance. And Ticos are reckless drivers—with one of the highest accident rates in the world. But although driving can be a challenge, it's a great way to explore certain regions, especially the North Pacific, the Northern Lowlands, and the Caribbean coast (apart from roadless Tortuguero). Keep in mind that winding roads and poor conditions make most trips longer than you'd normally expect.

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 main thoroughfares in rural areas. 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 is terribly congested during weekday rush hours (7 to 9 am and 4 to 6 pm). Try to avoid returning to the city on Sunday evening, when traffic from the beaches can be backed up for miles. 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 purses, jewelry, and valuables.

Signage is notoriously bad off main highways, but improving. Distances are given in kilometers (1 km = 0.6 miles). Watch carefully for "No Hay Paso" ("Do Not Enter") signs; one-way streets are common, and it's not unusual for a two-way street to suddenly become one way. Single-lane bridges are common in rural areas. A "Ceda El Paso" ("Yield") sign facing you means just that: let oncoming traffic proceed before you enter the bridge.

Highways are numbered on signs and maps, but few people use or even know the numbering system. Asking for directions to "Highway 27" will probably be met with a blank stare. Everyone calls it the "Carretera a Caldera" (highway to Caldera, on the Pacific coast) instead. Outside San José you may run into long stretches of unpaved road. Look out for potholes, landslides during the rainy season, and cattle on the roads. Drunk drivers are a hazard on weekend nights. Driving at night outside cities and towns is not recommended, because roads are poorly lighted and many don't have painted center lines or shoulder lines. The sun sets here around 5:30 pm all year long. Make a point to arrive at your destination before then.

Roadside Emergencies

Costa Rica has no highway emergency service organization. In Costa Rica, 911 is the nationwide number for accidents and all emergencies. 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), then call the emergency number of your car-rental agency.

Emergency Services

Ambulance and Police. 911.

Traffic Police. 911.

Rules of the Road

Obey traffic laws religiously, even if Costa Ricans don't. Fines are frightfully high—a speeding ticket could set you back $580—and evidence exists that transit police target foreigners. Don’t get too complacent if you don't see any police; cameras monitor traffic on the highways around San José. Your rental agency may charge you for a speeding ticket it receives after your return home.

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. "Alto" means "stop" and "Ceda el Paso" 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 get nailed with a $580 fine if you're caught driving in a "predrunk" state (blood alcohol levels of 0.05% to 0.075%). If your level is higher than that, the car will be confiscated, your license will be taken away, and you risk jail time. Police officers who stop drivers for speeding and drunk driving are often looking for payment on the spot—essentially a bribe. 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 pay it on your behalf.

Seat-belt use is mandatory. Car seats are required for children ages four and under. Children over 12 are allowed in the front seat. Drivers are prohibited from texting or using handheld cell phones. Any such infraction means a $390 fine.

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