Because we value independent travel, we were pretty set on having our own transport while in Costa Rica. As ever, every corner of the internet warned us about the treacherous driving conditions in Costa Rica, and as usual we were skeptical. Here’s the reality: everyone but the most timid drivers can drive a car in Costa Rica.
Sure. Traffic can be a little lawless and yes, there might be more pedestrians and cyclists and wildlife on the road than you are used to in America. Isn’t that part of the travel experience? Guaranteed, you’ll need to slow down, drive carefully, and try to avoid driving after dark if you’re nervous, but you’ll be fine. Having a car gives you incredible freedom to visit less touristy spots and to arrive early to big attractions before they get too busy. It also enabled us to easily find nice places to camp.
Once we’d determined that we wanted a car, the next point of deliberation was whether to upgrade to a four wheel drive vehicle. We drive regular sedans at home and we’ve rented a menagerie of various tiny cars to carry us across Western Europe, Romania, and frequently unpaved Sweden with no problems, so it seemed sort of crazy to use up the gas and incur the financial expense of a larger vehicle if we didn’t need one but ultimately, the reports we’d read on line pushed us to disregard old habits and go with the smallest 4×4 available. We were glad we did.
Most of the main roads in Costa Rica were fine, albeit a little rough for regular small cars, but we have a propensity for getting lost or intentionally taking the back way and in those instances our car with slightly more clearance was a huge asset in making sure we didn’t put a hole in the undercarriage of our rental, especially on our way through Santa Rosa National Park. If you however, intend to stay on more established routes, you will probably be fine in a smaller, less expensive vehicle.
We also had really mixed reports about the affordability of Costa Rica, and our experiences were similar. Car rentals are quite expensive, even by American standards. Hotels cross a bizarre range from very basic and questionable ($24) to basic but tidy with breakfast ($20) all the way to ultimate luxury resorts ($450+) which we obviously didn’t stay in. Camping was only marginally less expensive than the cheap rooms we used, running us upwards of $16, usually with access to a bathroom and sometimes a shower or wifi.
Our guidebook repeatedly warned against traveling without reservations during high season, so being the busy week of New Years we were terribly nervous we’d find ourselves struggling to find accommodation, but even in the most popular towns we were never turned away even once. If you are used to traveling without an agenda, I wouldn’t stress at all about whether or not you’ll be able to find a room, even during peak times.
We found being able to speak a little of the language to be great fun and also a luxury, since we’re used to miming our way around foreign countries. Though many Ticos speak beautiful English, many others don’t speak any at all. Some basic Spanish vocabulary goes a long way in getting around, but plenty of people get around just fine speaking nothing more than a gracious “gracias”. Locals were friendly, kind, and a pleasure to do business with.
For such a short trip, we opted not to bring our camp stove, which was a regrettable decision simply because we don’t like being resigned to eat out all the time. “Sodas” as they are known in Costa Rica, provide hearty portions of rice, beans, meat, and sometimes vegetables for between $5-7 and about 90 minutes of your time. The food was plentiful, making it an ok value if you’re looking for a substantial meal, but dining is a slow affair. Restaurants aren’t always in ample supply near the National Parks either, which left us quite hungry by mid-day. Local grocery stores lacked the volume of easy picnic supplies we’ve found in other places, which left me wishing I had my stove so that we could prepare more substantial meals. Our peanut butter and jam provisions turned out to be a staple for us during the day when we were busy hiking and exploring.
Safety was another issue that concerned us- both the guidebook and the internet were full of stories of car break-ins and muggings. Though we were careful not to park in remote places, we left our luggage in the car while we hiked multiple times and never had any problems. If you opt for this strategy, I’d suggest taking your valuables and passports with you just in case. Physically, I never felt unsafe during our time in Costa Rica. Use your best common sense and don’t travel with so many valuables that you can really enjoy Costa Rica instead of worrying about your stuff.
As always, if you are a student, bring your ID card and ask about discounts. We saved anything from a couple of dollars to half the admission prices at a number of the parks that we visited.