That’s a question that many tourists, visitors, and would-be investors or retirees coming to Costa Rica ask. How safe is it to rent a car in Costa Rica? The answer to that question is that it’s no more or less safe than renting a car anywhere else in the developing world, as long as you’re forewarned and forearmed with the relevant info that you need.
A better question might be, is it straightforward to rent a car in Costa Rica? And the answer to that particular one is yes – of course! Most of the same big car rental agencies that people are familiar with in the US, Canada or Europe operate in Costa Rica and the chances are that if the country was too risky or dangerous, household car rental names like Hertz, Enterprise, Thrifty, Budget, Alamo and others would not be operating within it. They are all in Costa Rica and they’re all doing well.
With that said, there are certain specifics related to renting a car in Costa Rica that the safety-conscious driver should be aware of. Most of these specifics come down to pure common sense, but when you’re driving in Costa Rica you’re made aware very quickly that you’re not at home anymore and things work differently.
Road conditions, for one thing. The first thing that a new driver in Costa Rica will see is that on the whole road conditions are awful and extra care is needed, especially in the countryside. With care, the conditions are manageable, but driving in Costa Rica is not for the nervous, not in terms of other drivers on the road, and also not in terms of the state of the actual roads themselves. For the rental car driver there are a couple of ways to make tacking the conditions slightly easier. Firstly – NEVER drive at night in Costa Rica and secondly, get yourself a car that can handle things.
A car that can handle things means an SUV, preferably a four-wheel drive one. Never underestimate the advantage of being high up in a powerful SUV that can handle the road (and what passes for the road). These vehicles were born for Costa Rican driving and an average sedan just won’t fit the bill. Expect to have to deal with mad traffic, brutal potholes, and flash floods that wash roads out and turn them into rivers. Now don’t be misunderstood, getting a 4WD doesn’t mean that you should really go off-roading – that can truly be dangerous – but it does mean that you might be better equipped to handle some certain situations that might come up. But regardless of whether your SUV has 4WD or not, make sure that it is an SUV. The larger size of these cars, bigger tires and better suspension just make for an overall safer ride when driving around Costa Rica. The only caveat to that, of course, is that these larger cars are not particularly great for driving around in, and parking in, the narrow streets of Costa Rica’s traffic-congested cities, but the answer to that is simply just not to drive in the city. Easy!
Talking of parking, how safe is that? Well, Costa Rica is not an extremely dangerous country by any means, but it’s worth not being sucked into the tropical, languid, false sense of security that often comes to foreigners when they arrive and see those beautiful beaches and scenery. Thievery abounds and car crime is pretty rampant. Not so much about the car being stolen, but more about it being broken into. Rental cars, with their signage on them telling the world that they are rental cars, are especially vulnerable. It’s never advised to leave a car laden with luggage or valuables in an unguarded place. That pretty much rings true all over the world, but especially in Costa Rica. Most parking lots have a guard whom it’s worth tipping a dollar or so to keep a special eye on your car. These guards are called “guachiman” (from the English “watchman”, ironically), and they look after parking lots, storefronts, stretches of street, beaches and anywhere one wants to park a car. Places that are not guarded are really not worth leaving your car in, and valuables should never, under any circumstances be left in your car.
Outside of parking and driving one would think that there’s not much else to talk about with cars. You’re either driving a car or not driving a car. In-between that process of driving and not driving comes parking. And that should be it, right? But with a rental car in Costa Rica there are some other details that are important to know, details that might save your sanity and maybe even a few dollars, too.
For example, know that Costa Rican roads can be rough on cars. The conditions are not suited to keeping vehicles pristine and rental cars in the country do a lot of miles. The smart renter will make sure that before he or she drives the car out of the lot, that the rental car has been photographed or videoed all over, every little bump and scratch and ding. Make sure that you do this in the presence of the rental car employee and that you have proof of that. That will save you when you hand back the car and they try to accuse you of adding more bumps, scratches and dings than you actually did! Again, Costa Rican roads are extremely rough on cars and the rental companies know it.
Also know that car rentals in Costa Rica are expensive. Way more expensive than you’re probably used to. There’s no getting around that. Most of the cost is in the mandatory insurance which renters need to pay whether or not their car insurance from home covers them driving abroad. This insurance does NOT cover the bumps, scratches and dings that we talked about just now. That’s extra insurance. On top of that, there is always a deposit to pay – anywhere from $800 on up – before you’re given the keys to the vehicle. Extra drivers are never included, so if your friend, husband/wife, traveling partner or whoever wants to drive as well, yes, that’s extra too. This can all add up. Knowing all of this in advance can’t make things cheaper, but it can make things easier and less stressful. Just know that you’re not in Kansas anymore.
The thing to remember about renting a car in Costa Rica is that it can be stressful and expensive. That’s on the negative side. Roads are awful and the rules are there to be broken. You need your wits about you when behind the wheel in this country, and many travel agencies and tourism pros don’t recommend that first timers to Costa Rica drive at all, at least not straight away. But the positive thing is that like everywhere, cars mean freedom. The open road, that thrill of exploring new towns, new beaches, and new horizons. It’s a stunningly beautiful country and being able to explore it at your own pace in your own car is one of the best things you can possibly do.
If you’re adventurous and love driving, then as long as you stay sensible then you’re going to love driving around Costa Rica. If you’re a more nervous driver for whom it’s far more about the destination than the journey, then you’re better off having someone else take care of your transportation needs for you.
Whatever you decide to do, you’ll have a great time in wonderful Costa Rica!
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