To rent a car or not to rent a car in Costa Rica? That might be a question if there weren’t so many freaking things to do with the car. And yes, it will be expensive, particularly because the insurance you are required to purchase will probably double the cost of the rental. No matter. Unless you’re taking buses all over the country (which take forever), you’ll end up spending a whole lot of money to get around regardless.
So now that you’ve rented that car, make a pact with yourself to take it everywhere. Sure the roads are bad, but that’s why you have insurance in the first place. Go to the Northern Zone. Go to the Nicoya Peninsula. Go to the Osa Peninsula and the Orosi Valley and Chirripó. The crowds are smaller in these lesser-known destinations, and you just might stumble on a Costa Rica feels all your own.
Should you leave from San José, this road trip begins with a picturesque ferry ride across the Gulf of Nicoya (your car goes too!), and it only gets better from there. The roads aren’t amazing, but the ability to pop around Montezuma, Santa Teresa, Cabuya, and all the secluded beaches in between is fantastic. The only thing better than a car on the Nicoya Peninsula is an ATV.
Renting a car for a trip to Arenal is a good idea, and if you tack on a side trip to Rio Celeste, it’s a great idea. This river appears to run the color of blue Gatorade, an optical illusion produced by the scattering of sunlight in the water, which doesn’t allow the blue light to get through. Yeah, it’s complicated. Just go.
When I get tired of the grit and haste of San José, the first escape that comes to mind is the Orosí Valley. After only about an hour and a half of driving, I find myself on the winding mountain roads, passing comfy B&Bs and verdant hillsides and remembering why I live in Costa Rica. Here I can hike to waterfalls, visit street markets, and explore the ruins of one of the oldest churches in the country.
This remote, wild peninsula is made for weekend warriors. The road to Drake Bay is about as much of a car-killer as you’ll find—if you’ve ridden a bucking bronco, you might have something to compare it to. Your reward, though, is pure nature: twisting jungle, pristine shorelines, and oh so many monkeys. Don’t forget your headlamp.
Driving down the middle of Costa Rica has its hazards: big trucks, sharp curves, occasional downpours. It also has some of the most scenic and interesting terrain in the country, and eventually you arrive at the tallest mountain, Chirripó. Here the cloud forest takes over, hummingbirds zip around and the air is cool—perfect for rolling the windows down.