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Traveling by Car in Costa Rica
Roads in Costa Rica are not tremendously developed. There are plenty of single lane paved roads in Costa Rica. Even the main highway that goes from Panama to Nicaragua has single lanes. There are many unpaved roads in Costa Rica. If you want the freedom to travel anywhere in the country, 4 wheel drive vehicles are helpful.
A regular car is probably fine if you stick to paved roads and drive in the ''dry'' season, in the wet season a 4 wheel drive is close to essential and make sure there is good tread on the tires. If you are a nervous driver already and do not like to drive on narrow twisting roads that you will share with the occasional wild driver, you are probably better off to take a shuttle or something similar. Except in the flatter areas of the country assume that you will be travelling at an average of speed of 35 to 40 km. per hour on the paved roads, potentially much slower on the gravel roads.
If you want to rent a car in Costa Rica, you must be at least 21 years old (some rental car companies use 25 as the minimum driving age) and some rental car companies offer optional covers for young drivers aged 18-21 years. Your country's license, issued a year or more previously, is valid for driving in Costa Rica for a maximum period of 3 months after your entry date into the country. You will also need to possess a major credit card for the safety deposit that will be held on your card while you have the car. The deposits can run between $900 - $ 2000 USD depending on the car category. Take note that car rental companies do not accept cash deposits, and if you use a debit card, the amount of the deposit is actually debited by your bank and not "held" as is done with a credit card, so it will often take more than a month for the bank to return the money to you. Since the rental car has no way of knowing whether the card you are using is a debit or credit, use common sense when doing the transaction.
There does not seem to be any way around the insurance packages and based on experience take theirs anyway, it is quite possible it will save you a lot of aggravation later on as driving in CR is not like driving at home. Assume your total package, vehicle and full insurance, will be in the range of $100.00 per day as of January 2013. That seems expensive compared to in the United States and Canada, but vehicles get worn out quickly on those twisty, hilly and often rough roads and the potential for some kind of ding, at the least, is pretty high.
There is one insurance carrier in Costa Rica that covers Car Rental Insurance, making collision coverage (CDW) and Liability coverage mandatory in Costa Rica for all drivers. Many credit cards cover Car Rental Insurance, but it is important that you check the fine print to avoid surprises when you're in the middle of an emergency and a huge repair bill is presented to you! Credit cards' coverage only covers the vehicle in case of collision, but will not provide liability coverage. You will need to purchase this from the rental car company as part of your rental. Some credit card coverage plans do not cover 4 wheel drive vehicles, others are not valid in Latin America or Costa Rica and still others do not cover car rental insurance on unpaved roads. Call your bank (card issuer) and inquire if what you want to do is covered and if possible, get a copy of your coverage to present at the rental car's counter.
It seems unlikely you will be able to do much other than pay for the full package in CR. The good new is that you will avoid an increase in rates if you have an accident. The car rental company was very professional in dealing with the damage which would probably cost $3000 or more to fix here at home.
Costa Rica has many volcanoes, mountainous land and unpaved areas. What may look very close on the map may actually be a great distance away. For example, Arenal looks very close to Monteverde on the map, but it is at least 3 hours away. Driving to Arenal from Liberia looks very close, but is a long and winding road which also takes about 3 hours.
Driving from Playa del Coco to Tamarindo looks very close but is about an hour drive time away. It could be less on the dirt road, but it is an adventure! Assume a max of 60 km. hr on average on the better roads, but likely less especially as you will likely make a wrong turn or two even with the GPS as signs are not common except on major roads and local roads are rarely marked even in towns.
Most rental cars now have GPS systems available for rent and getting one will most probably save you time and add some confidence to your driving experience in Costa Rica. If you plan on going more than once you can download a GPS map info for less then $50 from GPSTravelMaps to most Garmin GPS, rental with most car rental companies is $8 to $12 per day. Practice with it before you go, as one example, beaches are under attractions, not city names. It took a while to figure that one out and there are a lot of great beaches to choose from! The co-pilot should be handling the GPS both for directions as well as the very common warning beeps for school zones and single lane bridges. The GPS can also make mistakes or odd choices from time to time so keep your wits about you.
If you land in San Jose and have any distance to go, stay overnight and start fresh the next morning unless you arrive well before noon. The roads near Liberia are much safer so you have more leeway with your drive from that airport. Do not drive any great distance at night, you are really increasing your chances of making a serious mistake! If they offer a full tank of gas to start, take it. You do not want to leave their location with a near empty tank trying to find one of the relatively rare gas stations, nor have to find one on the way back to drop it off.
Car rental companies will usually quote you in US Dollars. When you finish your car rental you may like to pay in US Dollars on your credit card. However, if the rental company doesn't have a US Dollar terminal they will charge you in local currency - Colones. Unfortunately, to convert your bill into Colones they will use a totally bogus exchange rate. For instance, if the exchange rate is 500, they will convert at 525, making your car rental 5% more expensive (not to mention the credit card fees when you get back home). To avoid this little scam, pay your final bill in US Dollars cash.