My husband and I were not new to the "driving-in-foreign-countries-adventure" club, after having driven a tin can on wheels (the fabulous Twingo!) in Rhodes, Greece in 1998 and out-honking drivers in Israel in 1999. But driving a car in Costa Rica really took the foreign driving experience to a new level—you might call it the GIANT potholes level.
I had read online that while in Costa Rica one should rent a 4-wheel drive (SUV) because the roads could be "rough from time to time" so that's what hubby and I did--for a mere $450 plus gas for a week. We took off from the San Jose airport with a map and trunk full of hiking and swimming gear, and headed for our first stop, Arenal Volcano and Observatory Lodge.
About 15 minutes outside San Jose, we realized that driving in Costa Rica would not be the same as driving in the US when we started noticing an increased frequency of potholes--maybe every 100 yards or so, then every 50 yards or so, then 25... we had no idea what was ahead. By the time we reached the road up to Arenal Volcano, we were going 2-3 mph and zigzagging across the road. We circumvented potholes that could easily swallow our entire SUV. Cars were literally turned sideways on the roads, trying to find the path with the fewest potholes.
Another thing we soon noticed about Costa Rica was that many of the bridges were labeled with Despacio. "El puente en mal estado". Not being fluent in Spanish (or anywhere close) it took us a few of these signs to fully understand what the warning was: Go slowly. Bridge is in bad shape. Fantastic! But we watched the cars ahead of us plunging ahead over rickety structures and we just held our breath and did the same. A couple times during the week, we saw where the locals (Ticos) ahead of us would drive through the river instead of taking the bridge, and we did the same. Thank goodness for the 4-wheel-drive!
After we left the Arenal area, the pothole situation improved slightly, though we never were able to go over 45 mph during our visit. But the nice thing about driving that slowly is you really have a chance to see the countryside and the occasional Coati (see photo, they were so cute!) and of course monkeys. And, when you finally do arrive at your destination, you have a ready-made conversation to talk about with your fellow travelers!
We drove to the beaches of northern Costa Rica (through Liberia and the Guanacaste region) to Playa Grande, where we had hoped to observe a sea turtle nesting, though unfortunately we were not successful. We did manage to see a volunteer digging out a baby sea turtle just breaking out of its shell, which was pretty incredible. Then from northern Costa Rica we drove down to Manuel Antonio (a solid 6+ hour drive) for some relaxing time at Si Como No hotel (see journal description for more info). Finally, it was time to return to the airport, and we carefully navigated a narrow, winding mountain pass filled with small trucks transporting coffee back to the Pan American Highway and finally back to Xandari Resort near San Jose.
Driving in Costa Rica is challenging, but it does give you the freedom to go where you want at your own pace. We enjoyed the experience, and will probably rent a car again the next time we return to Costa Rica.
Remember, if you see a Tico avoid a bridge while in Costa Rica, we recommend you do the same! Pura Vida.