Driving in Costa Rica: San Jose to Caribbean

Getting around Costa Rica is fairly easy. There are a few key options and each has its own benefits and drawbacks. We’ve been to Costa Rica three times and each time journeyed to the Caribbean Coast from San Jose. We are by no means experts but we’ve had a positive experience with most of these popular options,

1) Public Transport

By far the cheapest and a great way to meet people. It can feel crowded and is probably the slowest option. From San Jose to Limon can take 3-5 hours, add another hour for Cahuita or Puerto Viejo. But for $10 you can’t go wrong. In 2014 we booked ahead online for a couple friends who were meeting us in Puerto Viejo and for about $15 a taxi picked them up from the airport, dropped them off at the bus stop and handed them their tickets. Too easy.

2) Hired Driver

We hired a driver for our first time in Costa Rica. If you are lucky like we were, you will get a great driver, who stocks his comfy van with snacks and cervezas, makes multiple stops for you, all the while teaching you about his country. Thanks Wilson! This option is great if you want to be more comfortable, but aren’t quite confident driving on your own. It is expensive, about $175 in our experience (San Jose to Puerto Viejo), but manageable if you are traveling with a small group. Our friends booked this in advance through a travel agency suggested on Puerto Viejo Satellite (a great resource).

3)  Rent a Car

Our personal favourite! As Canadian drivers we found the learning curve was fairly quick. Costa Ricans drive similar vehicles and drive on the same side of the road as us. They may be a little more aggressive and all the motorcycles take a bit of getting used too, but it’s all part of the fun. We have used Poas Rental and Alamo and would suggest either. Rentals for a small to medium sedan cost about $40 per day including insurance. We’ve had no issue taking a car to the Caribbean Coast but have heard an SUV is necessary for other parts of the country. We struggled with additional insurance options like waiving the deductible, windshield and tire protection, etc….but ended up relying just on the third party liability through the rental company and whatever was offered by our credit card. Its a good idea to check with your credit card company to see if any coverage is included for international car rentals. We always add the GPS for about $10 per day, we wouldn’t go without it. Because we only rent for one day (24 hours) and we drop it off at our destination we have to pay an extra $50 fee. So our whole rental ended up being about $120, plus $20 in fuel (gas is relatively cheap and prices are regulated by the government so no need to price shop). A $1000 deposit was required at Alamo via credit card. Jeff likes to take a video of the car when doing the pre and post inspection with the rental staff. It offers some security if they claim any damage was caused by us.

Here’s all the details about our latest drive to Puerto Viejo from San Jose,

We woke up from our one night stay at Hotel Brilla Sol in Alajuela, San Jose. Its only 10 mins from the airport, its not the cheapest option but its a little hidden paradise within the city. Good food, drinks and a nice pool and garden for hanging out. A nice option if you are eager to feel like your on vacation right after landing. We always seem to arrive in San Jose late, so a one night stay is necessary to give us as much daylight driving as possible. Its not nearly as beautiful or safe to drive past dark. We picked the rental up the day before at the Alamo office, they shuttled us for free from the airport, and we finally got the car at about 5pm, so we had until 5pm the next day to make it to Puerto Viejo. The GPS tells us 4 hours if we drive non stop. It would take us almost 7 hours by the time we stopped to take in the views, eat some roadside snacks at the many sodas and of course refuel with some cervezas. As far as we understand you can have open alcohol in the vehicle but the driver cannot be intoxicated, no problem! Other then that, the vehicle laws are very similar to western countries. We left at about 9:30am. The new-ish Toyota Corrolla fit all 5 of us and all the luggage in the trunk. On this leg of the trip we had some family join us, you can read about that and more on Puerto Viejo here.


Trying to capture the view out the windshield, don’t GoPro and drive!


Britt behind the wheel


It took us about an hour to get out of town, our first trip in 2015 was a lot less but this time we hit some traffic and the GPS routed us through another part of town. It was nice to see more of San Jose and we could afford the time. Soon after weaving through city traffic, dodging motorcycles and pedestrians the scenery opened up and things started looking much more rural. At this point its a single road all the way to Limon, about 170 kms away, no more need to stay glued to the GPS. We hit a road side soda for some empanadas and Imperial before heading into the jungle.


The whole crew

The next hour or two of the journey is breathtaking, the single road twists and turns through the lush jungle, walls of trees, plants and vines cover one side of the road reaching hundreds of feet high. The other side of the road offers view of rolling valleys and mountains that seem to go on forever, the steep cliffs on this side offer a reminder to enjoy the views but keep your eye on the road!


Occasionally the road widens to two lanes allowing us to pass the slow fruit trucks or transports struggling to climb the hills. Daring drivers attempt last minute passes that made our heart skip a beat. This is one of the highlights of our trip. The freedom of driving yourself. The element of risk. The beauty out the windows.

When we felt the view was prime we pulled over and took some pictures. Another fun stop was a bridge where you can see two rivers combine. One fresh, blue, clean mountain water, the other golden brown from iron, sulphur or some other natural contamination.


After the jungle hills we spent the next couple hours cruising long, straight rural roads passing through small towns, not hesitating to stop for more refreshments.

We reached Limon around 3:00pm, a shipping port town about an hour from our final stop, Puerto Viejo. We planned to visit the Black Star Restaurant again while in Limon, we’ve been on previous trips and hear its the best typical meal around. We have to agree! The typical Caribbean meal is chicken, rice and beans, usually served with plantain and a fresh salad. We were bummed to find out that the Black Star burnt down. After talking with some locals we learned that Taylor’s, across the street from where Black Star once stood is now the spot to go. It was just as delicious as we remembered. The typical meal is usually the cheapest option, its also served the quickest and tastes the best in our opinion. Eat local!


Britt enjoying her typical meal at Taylors


Another Typical meal from a roadside stop on the way home

By now we were really feeling the heat, getting out of higher elevations and closer to the coast means rising temperatures and humidity. We couldn’t wait to get in the ocean, which was now visible as the remaining drive follows the coast line. Banana Plantations line the side of the roads and narrow bridges make for more cautious driving reminders on this last stretch. Here is a quick video shot from the GoPro during the drive,

We arrive in Puerto Viejo around 4:30pm, just in time to return the car. The drop off process is quick and easy. We throw our bags over our shoulders and walk through town to check in at Rocking J’s Hostel. An amazing first day. Another successful drive across this beautiful country complete. Renting a car in Costa Rica, highly recommended!