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!



Puerto Viejo: Our Favourite Place (Budget Tips!)

We were apprehensive to add Costa Rica to this year’s trip. We’ve always surpassed our budget here (Costa Rica is one of the more expensive countries in Central America), and this year being on a six-week, three country backpacking trip, blowing through our savings at the first stop wasn’t an option. But, we decided that we would try our hardest to stick within our means, and enjoy the first week at one of our favourite towns in the world – Puerto Viejo.


Our friends Carson and Chantal introduced us to Puerto Viejo in 2014, we’ve now been back twice since, but this is the first time without them.

It was our turn to be the tour guides this time, we had a few family members join in on the fun. Jeff’s mom, Cheryl, his Uncle Chris, and our sister-in-law Shelby booked some last-minute flights and we couldn’t have been more excited to share this place with them.


The newbies (Chris, Shelby, Cheryl)

Puerto Viejo sits in southern Costa Rica on the Caribbean coast. It has an amazing rasta vibe, vibrant with colour, music, and food for every appetite. A hippie haven, drawing diverse travellers, some for a night and some who never leave. Expat run restaurants, hostels, bars, and shops line the streets, offering a wide variety of culture to immerse yourself in.


After our little hiccup of a cancelled flight (Read about that here), we arrived in San Jose, spent the night, and in the morning made the trek through the mountains out to the Caribbean Coast. Read about driving from San Jose to the Caribbean Coast here.

As you read above, we planned to do Puerto Viejo on the cheap, which had proven to be quite a feat in the past. We were determined to make it work, and even with the company we were hosting, we weren’t planning on changing our budget much. We booked in at Rocking J’s hostel to spend our nights sleeping in hammocks, and our adventurous family gladly did the same.

Rocking J’s is like no hostel we’ve ever been to, and you have to see it. Mosaic tile and art done by the guests who have stayed there adorn pretty much every square inch of this place, and its beautiful.


Our mosaic from when we visited Rocking J’s in 2015 – of our cat Miguel.


Our friend Nate’s mosaic.

Its known as a great place to party, with daily drink specials, theme nights, and a party that spills out to a campfire on the beach after quiet hours (for a party hostel it can actually get pretty quiet past 11pm, thankfully). There are a wide variety of accommodations to fit any comfort level – hammocks, tents, dorm rooms, and private rooms, some with their own bathroom. Our hammocks set us back $7/night, which included access to the shared bathrooms and cold water showers (hot water showers are not needed in the Caribbean, its 35 damn degrees out). Its basic and bare bones, but recommended if you want to meet cool people and try something new.


Sea of hammocks.

On to the food – and as you know, we love to eat. We were lucky enough to meet a guy who turned us on to the $4 breakfast burrito at Hot Rocks, a restaurant in town. This burrito packs enough punch to keep you full all day, even through all the activities your going to do. Breakfast and lunch in one – winning! The road side patties/empanadas are a real budget saver. Later in the evening keep your eye out for the meat sticks. If  you are looking for some cheap, fresh fruits and veggies, the organic market in Puerto Viejo is held every Saturday. Vendors selling fruits, vegetables, meats and tofu, plants, fresh smoothies and juices, and handmade goods set up in the flea market. It’s a fun place to walk around.


Breakfast burrito – pic doesn’t do it justice.



If you’re wondering what there is to do in Puerto Viejo, remember you’re in the Caribbean. You don’t have to do anything! It is home to some of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever seen, and they run all along the coast, from Cahuita to Manzanillo. The most popular mode of transportation in the area are bicycles, and you can rent them from your hostel or from a number of shops in town, for $5-$8 a day . Go see the lady at Borroco Pizza (across from the market), she doesn’t speak a lick of English but is super nice, has cheap, good bikes, and is easy to work with. Don’t be alarmed when you have to leave your passport, most places will ask you to for collateral. Just use your judgement, obviously.

We did a full day tour of the coast, biking from town to Manzanillo and back. Over 25km in total! It was hot, exhausting, but so worth it. Stop at each beach along the way, go for a swim, drink some agua (or a cerveza, your choice). The mostly flat, paved roads make the biking manageable). When you get to Manzanillo, do the 45 min hike through the National Park, you may see a sloth!



Manzanillo Hike


Parking the hogs for a cerveza break

The live music scene in Puerto Viejo is hopping, and we were lucky enough to see a couple great bands. The Lazy Mon is a great place to watch live music at dusk and late into the night, it’s a beautiful setting right on the beach. They have two-for-one drink specials every afternoon too!


And last, but certainly not least, if you’re at the end of your time in Puerto Viejo, are tired of sleeping in a hammock and need some luxury in your life that will most definitely drain your budget, go to Banana Azul. On the completely opposite spectrum of Rocking J’s, owned by two wonderful Canadians, this place is gorgeous. We were so lucky to have our family treat us to our last night here for being their tour guides for the week.


Our casita at Banana Azul.

We could continue to write forever about this place that we love, but all the pictures and words in the world can’t explain it. Go see for yourself!