A common misconception about Costa Rica is that the roads are horrible. This is far from the truth. Most of the main roads are paved and fairly well maintained. Whereas the side roads can be a different story depending on where you are heading. These get worse in the rainy season (late September through early November) with dumping rain which washes out the roads substantially in some areas. Of course, you will encounter a mortar blast size pothole in any road on occasion, but most local governments have become much better about road repair. Even better, is a large national highway extending East to West across the entirety of Costa Rica which is kept in particularly good repair.
As for the driving itself, it takes a little adapting to, but can actually be quite fun. First, you have to understand that anything can enter the roadway at any time: people, dogs, cats, coatis, monkeys, raccoons, squirrels, etc. Costa Rica law does not give pedestrians the right of way, yet they feel it does anyway. Many people feel free to walk into a roadway without looking, will walk down a middle of the street, or just stand in the street blocking traffic with little or no concern. There are many free roaming children and animals which will dart in of front of you. For this reason, driving around the townships requires a much lower speed and greater alertness.
Finding places in Costa Rica has been made much easier with the availability of satellite services such as Google maps and Waze. You can just look up the name of a business and go right to it with little or no problem. Unfortunately, personal residences require a bit more directions and time to locate. In Costa Rica, there are no physical addresses such as 10 Cherrytree Lane. For example, the PriceSmart in Liberia is located across the street to the entrance to the Liberia Airport. Of course, that is much simpler that its official address, which is Solarium, frente al Aeropuerto Oduber, 10km oeste del cruce de, Provincia Guanacaste, Liberia. Now, that’s a mouthful. It is common to receive directions as take the right-hand turn after the supermercado with the location on the left side of the road next to the barber shop. Again, this all becomes part of the adventure of driving in Costa Rica.
Finding towns is much easier as all the main roads have large green sides which direct you to all the towns and beaches, telling you the kilometer distance until you arrive. You know you are in the center of town as there will be a church with a soccer field nearby, both located off the town square.
As for choosing the vehicle to drive, it is best to get some sort of four-wheel drive vehicle as these have better suspensions and lower gears for problem traction areas. You don’t need a monster vehicle, smaller four-wheel drive vehicles such as a Suzuki Jimny, Toyota Rav4 or Prado, D, Nissan Xtera, etc. are just fine to get around. You don’t need a Range Rover or other larger vehicle unless you are transporting extra people or cargo or are expecting to go out into the wilderness.
Parking in Costa Rica can vary in its level of difficulty. Some cities have pay parking with designated space numbers. You can pay for these using the DigiPare Costa Rica application which you download to your phone and put in your credit card to pay. In crowded beach towns, you will need to use crowded pay parking lots as nearby parking will be completely saturated. In the evenings in restaurant areas will be people wearing flag vests who will direct you to parking spaces and will tell you that they “will look after” your car in exchange for some sum of money. These people have no official capacity of any kind but are dependent upon the generosity of others to earn a living. I will offer them a tip of a couple hundred colones ($.50 US) for their services.
Once you have reviewed these ins and outs of driving in Costa Rica, you can now just enjoy your experience and be ready to tell your friends about what you encountered on the road.
Some of my favorite road encounters included:
Rounding a blind curve to find a cow looking directly in my face (I rolled down my window the told it to “Moooove”) A pregnant woman holding a baby while riding a unicycle on a pock-marked road with speed bumps. Avoid a family-on-a-bike (Dad peddling, Mom on lap holding baby, with son and daughter on front and rear fenders) which crossed in front of me one night. Coatis standing in the roadway begging for food. Monkey loping across the street in search of better tree situation