Driving in Costa Rica

Driving in Costa Rica: Good Roads and short Distances

Driving in Costa Rica, it is no more than a handful of hours from the Pacific Coast to the Caribbean. It takes a half-dozen to drive northern border of Costa Rica to the southern.

It’s a 5-hour drive from Jaco to Limon! On the Caribbean side, it takes 6 driving hours to get from the Nicaraguan border to the Panama Border — San Pancho to Sixaola. On the Pacific side, the drive from the Nicaraguan border to the Panamanian border — Penas Blancas to Paso Canoas — is 8 hours.

And, to cross the country from northwest to the southeast, Penas Blancas to Sixaola, it takes 8 hours. From San Pacho to Paso Canoas, it is 8 horas as well.

But, there is a rub. Those are the times with a good chauffeur who understands the nuances of navigating Costa Rica’s unique approach to developing road and highway infrastructure!

If you don’t speak Spanish and/or you trust road signs, you probably want a chauffeur!

Costa Rica Has Quality Roads, but That Doesn’t Equate to High Speeds

Driving in Costa Rica is like nothing you’ve ever imagined. If you aren’t accustomed to driving in Costa Rica, it’s mind boggling. There isn’t a lack of signs, quite the opposite in fact. But, they are all the same size.  And, the reasons for which Ticos do and don’t use their horns is the greatest mystery of mankind!

Costa Rica has some of Latin America’s best road and highway infrastructure. In part, that is because Costa Rica’s roads and highways are well maintained. But, the mountains in Costa Rica are savage which means the roads are as well.

Costa Rica’s roads are narrow to the point of terrifying, though they are well paved. The highways and roads over and around the mountains of Costa Rica are extremely windy.  The roads have exceptionally steep inclines and declines and they are narrow. Even the roads in the cities have severe inclines and declines.

As such, driving in Costa Rica requires intense focus and a light foot.

Driving in Costa Rica
Special thanks to Kerry — kerryannmorgan.com — for use of her photo!

Save the roads near the coasts and the northern third of Costa Rica, there are very few flat, straight roads. It is uncommon, particularly in Costa Rica’s mountains, for a driver to exceed 45 miles per hour.

It is very common for a 30 mile trip to take more than an hour.

Furthermore, mapping software fails to account for the savage terrain in Costa Rica.

Mapping software, even the most reliable, has a difficult time calculating travel times in Costa Rica. Often times, one provides far different times than the next. For example, MapQuest claims it is a 4 hours 22 minute trip from Limon to Jaco (coast to coast. Google Maps claims the same trip requires 6 hours 2 minutes.

Time/Distance Formula for Driving in Costa Rica

A reliable formula for calculating drive times in Costa Rica is to convert kilometers to minutes. It generally takes one minute to drive one kilometer. On smaller mountain roads, though, the conversion does not hold up. The safest bet is to assume it will take you at least and hour to reach a destination that is 60 kilometers — 36 miles — away.

Alajuela, Siquirres, and Liberia: The Cities/Towns You Must Drive Through to Get Anywhere in Costa Rica

The three municipalities you must travel through to get to any of Costa Rica’s major destinations are Alajuela, Siquirres and Liberia. San Jose, Limon and Cartago are the big cities in Costa Rica. But, they are not hubs for traveling around Costa Rica.

The majority of Costa Rica’s visitors land in Alajuela, though a fair share also use the airport in Liberia. But more importantly, the best road to the Costa Rica’s Central and South Pacific Coast — home of places like Jaco, Quepos/Manuel Antonio, Dominical and Golfito — heads west out of Alajuela.

Travelers who want to visit the towns and beaches on and around the Nicoya Peninsula must drive through Liberia. Likewise, anyone who wants to visit Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast must travel through Siquirres. And, when leaving the Caribbean Coast, a trip up to North Central Costa Rica requires a trip through Siquirres.

The following breakdown is an estimate of how much time you will be spending on the road from each of Costa Rica’s three primary travel hubs to get to your desired destination.

Alajuela to…

Northcentral Costa Rica

Northern Pacific Coast

Central and Southern Pacific Coast

Central Valley

Caribbean Coast

Siquirres to…

Caribbean Coast


North Pacific Coast

South Pacific Costa Rica

Central Valley

Liberia to…

Northcentral Costa Rica

North Pacific Coast

Central and Southern Pacific Coasts

Central Valley

Caribbean Coast

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