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Lessons Learned from my Costa Rica Road Trip

Costa Rica Road Trip

My sister and I have been on a Costa Rica road trip for the past week, and even though we are both well seasoned travlers, we have learned a few new things on this adventure. Some of this advice is pretty specific to Costa Rica, while the rest applies to travel anywhere.

I should start off by saying that I absolutely love Costa Rica. It is my second time here, and it is one of my favorite places to vacation. While you won’t find the ruins like in Mexico or Belize, you will find endless amounts of adventurous activities ranging from sky tram rides to zip lining, hiking, horseback riding, and repelling down waterfalls. It is a stunning country with a diverse landscape, wonderful food, and friendly people. I have seen honeymooners, retirees, and families with young children vacationing – there is something for everyone, and it’s really affordable.

  • In Costa Rica, most places accept credit cards and everyone will accept US dollars (at a fair exchange rate). You don’t need to bother with Colones, you can just hit the ATM at home before you leave.
  • Much of Costa Rica is rainforest, and there are critters. Keep your bags zipped up at all times, and check your shoes before you put them on. We were told that scorpions like to hide in sneakers.
  • Speaking of sneakers – you might want to buy waterproof hiking boots, or bring an extra pair of sneakers. Expect them to get wet. Also bring a rain jacket – opt for a thicker, more heavy duty one since when it rains, it rains really hard.


  • Locals tend not to use street names or numbers, so instead focus on asking about getting to a location, they know the towns and major attractions, but will give directions in their own way. If you start the conversation by asking for route 155 they will probably say they don’t know, but if you give the name of the town you are going to, they can probably help.
  • Don’t always trust Google maps. We drove for an hour down some dirt roads only to be told that the only way to make it to where were were going was to have 4 wheel drive and an SUV. We had no choice but to turn around and take a paved, but less direct, path.
  • But don’t trust old fashioned maps either. Apparently route 162 involves crossing two rivers without bridges… this isn’t clear when you look at a map.
  • Regarding those rental cars, bring your proof of car insurance with you – otherwise they will make you buy additional insurance.
  • Costa Rica has a couple major roads that are great, but if you are venturing off of 1 or 21, you should get an SUV – or research your route on TripAdvisor first.


  • You will encounter horses, herds of cattle, cowboys on horseback, iguana, monkeys, sloths, etc on even the major roads, so just pay attend and be ready to brake.
  • I recommend timing your car travel so that you won’t have to drive at night. And allow an extra 45 minutes for you to get lost, because it is bound to happen.
  • Have extra water and snacks in the car. It’s really hot in Costa Rica, and some of the roads don’t get much traffic, so if your car breaks down, be prepared be to stuck for a little while.
  • Generally speaking, the roads on the Pacific side of Costa Rica are a bit better, and I think it is easier to get to the Arenal Volcano/La Fortuna area from the Liberia airport than the San Jose airport. It’s almost the same driving time, but the roads from Liberia to La Fortuna are nearly all freshly paved and easy to drive.
  • Speaking of La Fortuna – there are two towns with this name. They are both referred to as Fortuna and/or La Fortuna. One is by the Arenal Volcano – this is the area you will likely want to visit.
  • La Fortuna also has some strange rules about parking. You park with your car facing the road so that if the volcano erupts you can drive away a little bit faster.
  • People stay that Costa Rica is the size of West Virginia. While that might be true, Costa Rica lacks the infrastructure that makes driving around West Virginia so easy. If you have the attitude that it is such a small country that everything must be close together, you will be proven wrong. A 120 mile drive can be done in about 2 hours in the US, but it can easily take 4 hours in Costa Rica.
  • Make sure your rental car has a spare tire, we needed to use it and were lucky we had it. Kelly and I are physically active and we know how to change a tire, but we were not strong enough to get the lug nuts off the flat tire with the tools in the rental car. We were extremely lucky that we were on a major road and a very kind local man stopped to help. He said, I don’t speak English but I am going to help you, and proceeded to take his own professional tools out of the car and replace the tire in 5 minutes. If you can’t physically change a tire, consider paying for airport transfers or taking a bus. Also, many roads are very narrow and there is no place to pull over, again we got really lucky.
  • Smokers, I don’t think Costa Rica is for you. They just passed a strict law forbidding smoking in public places, I don’t know exact details but you can learn more online. I haven’t seen a single person smoking at a hotel though.
  • Don’t trust Priceline. While I raved about my experience with Priceline Express Deals when I went to LA, it turned into a nightmare in Costa Rica. If you are unfamiliar with the Express Deal option, you read descriptions of hotels, and book before you know the exact hotel. When we saw a deal for $192 a night for a 4 star all inclusive hotel in Guanacaste, we thought we were booking The Westin. Priceline even names The Westin as an example of a 4 star hotel. But no. We ended up at the Riu Guanacaste, a hotel so terrible that we left after an hour and went to a new hotel. It was not a 4 star hotel, it might be a 2 star hotel. The room was filthy – the bathrooms were not cleaned and the trash hadn’t been taken out before we checked in. To make matters worse, we heard about people having items stolen while they were at the pool, and in reviews of the hotel people complained of having items stolen from their rooms while they slept, and from their safes. A couple reviews mentioned people waking up a night to find hotel staff going through their things. We looked at the door and saw that there was only 1 lock – accessible with an actual key – not an electronic key, and there was no way to securely lock the door from the inside. We left and are trying to work with Priceline to get a refund. The lesson here is not to use the Express Deals option when booking international travel.

Have you been to Costa Rica? Do you have any tips? Please share them in the comments. I will be following up with posts about the things we did and the places we stayed  in the next few weeks. And, I will keep you up to date on the Priceline/Riu situation and the flat tire/rental car situation on Twitter as things develop.