Ready to hit the open road and discover the Pura Vida lifestyle? Read on for your complete guide to planning a road trip through Costa Rica!
I have a complicated relationship with road trips
For some Americans (hiiiiiii!), the thought of a road trip conjures up childhood memories of piling in the car, fighting with your siblings, and driving for hours on end to see some less than exciting sites. I’m looking at you, Goodland, Kansas, home of the “World’s Biggest Painting Easel”. Like, why?.
Growing up in a geographically dispersed area, I dreadeddddd road trips. We would spend at least eight hours driving through flat, boring (albeit, necessary) farmland until we would reach our destination. We’d spend a few days exploring, and then turn around and drive the same eight+ hours home.
It was on one of these trips I declared (as a child, mind you) “Time is money! Why drive when you can fly?” Ha, as if I was paying for our trips back then!
It’s a philosophy I’ve carried into my adult travels, though. And, for the most part, I still firmly believe and practice. We mostly travel as a couple, where two plane tickets are more reasonable than a one- or two-week car rental. Not to mention, we are still holding down full-time jobs, where we treat our vacation days like GOLD.
So, nine times out of 10, you’ll find us in an airport lounge, sipping on some pre-flight cocktails, and waiting for our chauffer (uh, pilot) to take us to our destination.
I know what you’re thinking “I thought this was a road trip guide and you’re telling me you don’t like road trips??”. I didn’t like road trips…until I roadtripped in Central America.
Central America is where I fell in love with road trips
I challenge you to find a more perfect region of the world to road trip through. The countries that comprise Central America are compact and each is home to an unbelievable amount of diversity in their landscapes, cultures, and activities. Within two hours, you could visit the ocean, a colonial city, or a volcano. Combine their beauty with their affordability and (somewhat) reliable roads, and you have the makings of some epic road trip destinations.
It was on my first road trip in Central America, in Belize to be specific, that I realized that my idea of what a road trip entailed was incredibly narrow-minded. Instead of lamenting about the hours “wasted” in the car, I now realize that the beauty of road trips is in the journey itself (am I turning into one of those people?).
Now, I describe road trips using one word: freedom. Freedom. Road trips provide you full freedom and control over your vacation and your travels. You own your agenda, you stop when you want, see what you want, and leave when you want. As a self-proclaimed control freak and who some might say struggles in the patience department, I quickly realized that road trips might be my PERFECT form of traveling. What’s not to love?
Road trips offer an intimate experience that allows you to really see a country, culture, and local life. You can check out our full guide to embracing the slow travel movement here!
What makes Costa Rica a perfect road trip destination?
Spanning from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, Costa Rica offers-up the type of beauty I have yet to see outside of Hawaii. Lush jungles, cloud forests, wide and wild beaches, volcanoes. You name it, you’ll find it in Costa Rica. It would be such a shame to miss out on the full beauty of this country because you’re stuck in an all-inclusive resort or tied to a tour guide’s schedule, right?
Costa Rica is also widely regarded as the most developed and hospitable country in Central America. Because of this, the country is built for tourism, making it a great place for first-time road trippers.
The roads are well-maintained (although a bit winding, so pack that Dramamine if motion sickness is an issue). The people are friendly. And, for non-Spanish speakers, English is widely spoken.
Or, if you’re like me and like to practice your Spanish skills with the locals, Costa Rican Spanish is one of the easiest to understand in Latin America for non-native speakers.
Renting a car for your Costa Rica road trip
I am, admittedly, not a rental car expert. And I am definitely not a rental car expert in Costa Rica. Luckily, that’s where Yeison and Samantha of My Tan Feet come in. They have the ultimate insight and guide to renting cars in Costa Rica, from the insurance requirements to the most reputable vendors, to the price of gasoline.
Based on their recommendations, we rented an SUV through Adobe Rent a Car, and had absolutely zero issues. The car was clean and tidy, and the rental process was a breeze. They’re also 100% Costa Rican-owned, and I like to support the local economy over international chains as much as I can when traveling.
Next time we visit Costa Rica (or Panama!), we’re also going to check out Nomad America. They offer fully-equipped overlanding vehicles, complete with a rooftop tent, camping essentials, and all the 4X4 gear you could need.
We have an overlanding vehicle and rooftop tent at home that we love (I guess you could say we’ve realllllllllllly done a 180 and are pretty into roadtripping these days…). I can only imagine how amazing it is to have a similar experience in the Costa Rican jungle!
Getting around during your Costa Rica road trip
As with all destinations, I always recommend downloading an offline version of Google Maps, so you can navigate with or without WiFi. Not sure how to do this? Check out Google’s guide here.
In Costa Rica, though, an app called Waze is the…ahem…way to go. Turns out, most places in the country don’t actually have addresses, rendering Google sometimes useless. Because Waze is a crowd-sourced app (meaning, real-life people with real-life, on-the-ground travel experience are contributing to the navigation, instead of a satellite), it is a much better source for directions.
We used both during our trip. Google did steer us astray a few times. But hey, you’re road tripping through Costa Rica. Getting lost is part of the fun.
Where to go on your Costa Rica road trip in 7 days
Your starting point is likely either San Jose or Liberia
Unless you’re continuing a road trip south from Nicaragua or north from Panama, chances are your trip will begin after touching down at one of Costa Rica’s two international airports in Liberia or San Jose.
Liberia is little more than an airport town, but is centrally-located to a majority of the most popular destinations in Costa Rica. On the other hand, San Jose is a bustling metropolis and offers a variety of restaurants, cafes, and museums to explore.
You can’t go wrong flying into either one. Just keep in mind: Liberia really only has one hotel I would recommend: the Hilton Garden Inn. So if you’re arriving late at night (and I most certainly do NOT recommend driving in Costa Rica at night), be sure to book a room as far in advance as you can. Get a good night’s rest, and set out on your Costa Rica road trip the following morning.
Experience the volcanic beauty of La Fortuna
- Recommended time spent here: 3 days
- Distance from Liberia: 134 km or 2.5 hours
- Distance from San Jose: 130 km or 3 hours
La Fortuna is home to the Arenal Volcano National Park and the hub for adventure seekers in the country. You can zip line, go white water rafting, repel down a waterfall, go ATV or horseback riding in the jungle, or walk across hanging bridges. We did a half-day excursion with Sky Adventures, called the Sky Limit, which ticked a lot of the adventure boxes. We lucked out with a private tour, and had a blast. Watch out for the Tarzan swing!
If you’re looking for a little relaxation, there are numerous hot springs throughout the area, thanks to the active volcano looming overhead! You can find free, public options around town. Or, if you’re looking to treat yourself, we loved our time at Ecotermales. Oh, and don’t forget to look up! You’re in sloth territory!
Nature is abundant in the Monteverde Cloud Forest
- Recommended time spent here: 1 full day
- Distance from La Fortuna: 120 km or 3 hours
Monteverde provides many of the same adrenaline-spiking activities as La Fortuna, but with a twist. Monteverde is a biological preserve where the clouds meet the forest. From the many hanging bridges in the region, you can literally walk among the clouds. The preserve is also home to a variety of birds, insects, and animals, making your walk through the forest anything but boring.
Ready for the beach? Head to Guanacaste
- Recommended time here: 3 days
- Distance from Monteverde: 160 km or 3 hours
Technically a Province, Guanacaste is home to some of the best beach towns in Central America. If you want to be in the heart of the action, check out Tamarindo. If you’re looking for a more low-key vibe, head further south toward Sámara or even further south to Santa Teresa in Puntarenas Province.
This is when having a car realllly comes in handy: you are free to explore and beach hop at your own pace! No matter where you land, you have endless beaches to explore, fresh coconut water to drink, and famous Costa Rican sunsets to experience.
Bonus! Check out Manuel Antonio if you have a little more time to explore
Located on the Pacific coast, Manuel Antonio National Park is home to monkeys, sloths, coatis, tropical birds, and more. If you’re looking for wildlife, this is your spot. If you have the time, head here after Monteverde. After you explore the park, head north to catch the ferry from Puntarenas to Paquera, which will you put you on the Nicoya Peninsula and ready to explore Guanacaste. For more information on the ferry, check out this full guide from Matt & Jen of Two Weeks in Costa Rica.
From well-maintained roads to friendly locals, road tripping through Costa Rica makes for a safe, beautiful, and enjoyable trip. Throughout every kilometer of your drive, you’ll experience unmatched beauty from your windshield. Don’t let the fear of driving in a foreign country prevent you from experiencing the pure freedom of the open road and discovering spontaneous gems.