Travellers to Costa Rica fall into two basic categories.

The first group roll off the plane mouthing, “Where’s the beach?”

The rest of us, clutching our Spanish phrasebook wander through the airport muttering “Dónde puedo rentar un carro?” That part is unnecessary. Agencies deliver vehicles directly to the front door of hotels and hostels.

Left to my own timid devices I’d probably fall into the first category ....hopping into Driving in the High Country one of the always waiting turista vans for a quick trip to a hotel on the beach. Fortunately, my travel companion always insists on seeing everything. In Costa Rica that means renting a 4WD and heading for the hills ...and everything beyond, from volcanos and cloud forests to yes, beaches.

When a five-week road trip through Costa Rica was first proposed, I confess to expressing considerable trepidation. “That’s in Central America. Don’t banditos jump out of the jungle to kidnap tourists?”

Not usually. Like any country, Canada included, Costa Rica has it’s fair share of crime but is not an inherently dangerous place. Over five weeks and 3400 kilometres there was not a single moment when I felt unsafe or threatened. And frankly, I cannot say the same for trips within North America.

That doesn’t mean you can behave stupidly. I wouldn’t walk around San Jose at night and it’s always best to leave the flash jewellery at home. We were careful about where we parked the vehicle and what we left in it. We over-nighted in modest local hotels which invariably had a locked compound for guest vehicles.

When we needed to leave the vehicle on the street we didn’t normally leave baggage in it. If that was necessary we looked for a secured parking lot. About $4 buys you a carefree afternoon of wandering the streets and markets. In some places, like a market in San Jose, the moment we parked on the street a fellow jumped out of the bushes with an offer to “protect” our vehicle. We gave him a dollar and told him there would be another if our vehicle was undisturbed when we returned. He earned his second dollar.

For short stops we looked for a “Supermercado” or grocery store and parked at the front door. These shops always had several security guards wandering around the parking lot.

Supermercado’s are also reliable locations for restrooms, always a consideration on a road trip because there are no “rest stops” as we know them.

Look for “el bano” or “los servicios” to be at the front of the store off to your left or right. If it’s not there, ask a clerk, “Donde es el bano?” They will deliver the answer in a rapid-fire machine-gun style Spanish that you have no hope of grasping so ignore it. Just watch their hands. They will be pointing. Follow the hands. Works every time.

Small restaurants are also a good bet although you will be expected to pay a few colones for use of the facilities – usually the equivalent of about 50 cents.

Dirty little DiahtsuPeople always want to know if you really need a 4WD. Yes. Thinking that you can save a few bucks by renting a car and staying on the tourist trail does not guarantee good roads. The worst road in all of Costa Rica has to be the goat trail up to the Monteverde Cloud Forest, one of the most heavily promoted tourist attractions in the country.

It’s not so much that you need the traction of a 4WD. If you avoid the rainy season (although on the Caribbean coast it is pretty much always the rainy season) the roads are dry and generally navigable by 2WD. What you do need however, is the clearance that 4WD offers.

The quality of the roads in Costa Rica is erratic. One moment they are fine, in the next they deteriorate into a collection of potholes strung together by narrow asphalt Montezuma to Mal Paisbridges. And these are not polite little potholes. No, these are nuclear-bomb-sized craters that swallow Toyota Echoes whole for lunch. So don’t even think about cheaping out and renting the economy compact. The roads will tear out the undercarriage and chew up the tires.

Ticos themselves love to joke about their roads, “How can you tell when a Costa Rican driver is drunk?” The answer: “Because he drives straight.”

Guides like Lonely Planet are not much help in identifying the good versus the bad roads because by the time you are reading them the information is already several years old. The road that the guide says is “difficult” will have been graded and asphalted. The “great” road will have suffered a Richter 9 earthquake the day before you get there.

Travel guides are even less help with predicting the wet river crossings because these are entirely weather dependant. When I read the procedure for ascertaining the viability of these wet crossings I was not thrilled.

After all, Costa Rica has crocodiles doesn’t it? The notion that I would get out anWet Crossing on the Osa Peninsulad wade across the river first to see if it was too deep for the truck had my stomach in knots. So much so I had Steve do it first. “You’re a better swimmer,” was my rationale.

So he did and I watched. The water didn’t rise past mid-thigh so he declared it a safe crossing. As far as I was concerned, that still seemed a bit deep for the vehicle. What if it stalled, the river rose and it floated away?

Being both the chief navigator and the chief financial officer who would have to finance payment of this vehicle if we sank it (river crossings are not covered by insurance) I grabbed a stick and punching the river bottom in front of me as I walked, plotted out a shallower route.

After that I had no fears and happily bounced out of the truck to test the waters at each crossing.

If your idea of a great road trip is the I5 from Bellingham to San Diego ...you’ll hate driving in Costa Rica. If, on the other hand, the prospect of wheeling a peppy little 4WD up, down and around some of the world’s most scenic and exciting goat trails gets your juices flowing ....welcome to Costa Rica.

What you need to know....

Roads are not only of poor quality, but very narrow. Up, down and around mountains, they follow the original pack routes and yes, literally, the goat trails. You will be sharing even the skinniest, bumpiest country lane with huge transport trucks and fat-ass buses. You want a narrow little 4WD SUV like a Diahtsu Terios or RAV4 "Roads" from the top of the pass. ...nothing bigger. Trust me on this.

On narrow mountain roads truckers will put on their left turn signal to indicate it is safe to pass them. You will still have to use your own judgement, but if you’ve been sucking up diesel fumes for 20 minutes you will probably decide to trust them.

Essential to understand signs:

NO HAY PASO - means no entrance, probably one way
ALTO – stop
PELIGRO - danger

The Interamericana Highway runs straight through Costa Rica from the Nicaraguan border in the north to the Panamanian border in the south. It is generally a good road but as usual, be on the lookout for potholes because there will be no warning. Also be aware that even though it is an international highway, everyone uses it. At the end of the day there will be farmers with donkey carts full of sugar cane plodding down the highway home. Don’t come roaring around a corner expecting everyone to Donkey Cart on the Interamericanabe doing 100 kph.

The Interamericana has two other challenges: radar and police roadblocks. The radar is everywhere so take the speed signs seriously. If you do get caught, suggestions that you might find it most “convenient” to pay the officer directly should be resisted. Fines are paid at banks.

Roadblocks are not erected to hassle tourists. They are looking for the bad guys smuggling drugs and weapons up from Panama or down from Nicaragua. You will be asked a steady stream of questions in their machine–gun Spanish ...all of which will be more than your phrase book knowledge can handle. Answer by showing them your passport and saying “playa” which means beach. They will laugh and say “turista” at which you will laugh and say, “Si, turista.” They will wave you on your way.

Where are you going to go?

Geographically Costa Rica divides into five distinct areas. Over five weeks we saw quite a bit of each area. On a shorter trip you would need to pick one or two areas to focus on:

Central Valley
Bounded by picturesque mountain ranges to the north, south and east, the Central Valley is both the geographical and historical heartland of Costa Rica.


  • San JoseRural Central Valley
  • lush green coffee plantations of the highlands
  • Volcan Poas and La Paz Waterfalls area
  • Turrialba - river running and kayaking with Class III and IV white water
  • Sarchi crafts markets and studios
  • Braulio Carillo National Park – lush rainforest jungle
  • Butterfly Farm at La Guácima de Alajeula

Northern Plain
The promise of a spectacular eruption from Volcan Arenal draws many to this area. But the volcano is a tease, so fortunately there is more. The stunningly beautiful drive west from the volcano brings one to Lake Arenal, reportedly ranked as one of the best three windsurfing spots in the world. The Northern Plain is also home to the Monteverde Cloud Forest an ecological wonderland complete with suspension bridges and the world famous zip lines.

North Pacific
The best part of the north Pacific are the beaches and the best part of the beaches are the turtles. Visit Playa Grande between October and February to see the 1500 pound giant leathePlaya de Cocorbacks laying their eggs in the sand. Pray for a dark, moonless night. That’s what the Big Mamas like.

Central Pacific
More beaches ...this time off the Penisula de Nicoya. Tourists landing in San Jose for a beach vacation are most likely to get bussed to this area with Manuel Antonio and Montezuma having deservedly earned reputations for clean white sands and warm blue waters. Take your 4WD off the beaten track here for the more remote Mal Pais, Playa Carmen and Santa Teresa for rugged beauty and spectacular surf.

South Pacific
Not many tourists head this far south ....so this is where you will find the CBahia Drake on the Osa Peninsulaosta Rican paradise you dreamed about. Peninsula de Osa is home to Corcovado National Park, the most isolated and beautiful in the country. The park boasts over 400 species of birds including the spectacular Scarlet Macaw. The Isla del Caño is just 15 km offshore and a magnet for divers.

You are still in Costa Rica but it might as well be another country because the Caribbean coast is another world altogether. The inhabitants are primarily of Afro-Caribbean heritage and the place throbs to the beat of reggae. In the south, spectacularly powerful breaks lure the surfers to funky little beach towns like Cahuita, Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo. Not to be missed: a boat trip up the inland waterway to the tropical rain forests of Tortuguero National Park in the north.

Carolyn Usher

This trip was taken by Steve and Carolyn Usher in the Jan/Feb of 2004. Unless otherwise noted, costs are in Cdn $.