On driving and surviving in Costa Rica

If I heeded every bit of advice regarding safety that I’ve been given prior to my travels, I’d have missed out on some amazing trips and some unforgettable experiences. No matter where I’m planning to travel, there’s always someone (usually my father) who insists that a particular place (city/country/continent) is way too dangerous to visit, or there’s an activity that one should just NOT engage in. Like renting a car and doing your own driving in Costa Rica, which is what my husband and I decided to do for our 10-day trip a few years back. We took into consideration the dozens of safety precautions we’d read about renting cars in Costa Rica and all the associated dangers, and came to the conclusion that having our own car – instead of relying on tours and private drivers/guides – is a better fit for our style of travel. I should add here that I am not completely opposed to group excursions or private tours. They might make their way onto my itinerary but most of the time when I travel, I want to do things when I want and how I want.

Sure, there were times I was nervous while driving across Costa Rica, but not any more nervous than I am during my daily commute to and from work in my hometown of Chicago. And please understand that I’m not suggesting everyone who visits Costa Rica should rent their own cars and forgo other transportation services. It all depends on your style of travel, really. Renting a car in Costa Rica was right for us and the cost of a small 4×4 for ten days was quite economical. We did participate in a few guided tours while in Puerto Jimenez – at discounted prices because we had our own vehicle. The operator or tour company did not have to arrange for transportation for us so they knocked off at least $10 per person. The guide just rode in the car with us to our destination.

What follows here is an abbreviated version of a post I originally published on my first blog about our drive from San Jose to the town of Puerto Jimenez.

Apparently, we should not have survived this trip. Everyone we talked to was shocked by: 1) the fact that we even attempted to drive from San Jose to Puerto Jimenez; and, 2) that we made it. They were even more shocked to learn that we made the trip in one day.

Road into Puerto Jimenez: CLOSED

Puerto Jimenez is only 370 kilometers from San Jose but the drive is not exactly a straight shot. The Pan-American Highway snakes through dozens of small towns, through lush valleys and over several mountain passes. It is completely paved, as is the secondary highway we had to take west from Chacarita. We were doing well, being on the road for approximately 7 ½ hours, and were only three miles from Puerto Jimenez, when traffic came to a halt. Ahead, we could see yellow police tape stretching across the road. This was not good. Everyone was out of their cars and discussing the predicament, and Mark and I desperately wanted to know what was going on. This road is the only way into Puerto Jimenez. It is not like we could have gone an alternate route. I approached a woman standing outside her car to ask if she knew why the road was closed. Of course she didn’t speak English, and it’s amazing how, in an almost-emergency, my Spanish came back to me so quickly. I learned that there was an accident; a woman was waiting for the bus at the side of the road, and was struck by a vehicle. That vehicle then rolled over and off the road so the police closed off the road in both directions. There was no way to determine when the road would be opened again. As we waited, we noticed some cars driving off-road, around the scene of the accident, to continue on the highway. The woman I talked to outside the car was with an English-speaking, seemingly American, man. He told us that he was going to try the off-road route, that we could follow him, and if we got stuck, he would help us. When reserving our rental car months before, we heeded all advice of opting for a 4WD vehicle. This was the first time on our trip that we would need to use it.

Mark put the car in 4WD and it looked as if we’d make it over the slight incline and through the dense palm tree grove, but one of the rear wheels slid in the deep mud and we were no longer moving forward. We were stuck. The English-speaking man who said he’d help us was continuing on, having no problem with the mud. Meanwhile, a local man came running up towards us, arms flailing, yelling emphatically to us in Spanish. I had no idea what he was saying. Turns out he just wanted to help us get through the mud. He yelled to his amigo, Lalo, to get the shovel (apparently Lalo has one in his vehicle at all times), and they began to dig out our tires from the mud. Meanwhile, the English-speaking man was reversing back to our location to tie a rope between his car and ours so he could pull us. It was at this moment that my faith and my belief in karma were restored. As I do whenever I travel, I am wearing my St. Christopher medal (the one Mom gave to me before I left for Tanzania), so he was looking out for us. Moreover, it pays to be nice to people at all times because you can never tell when you will have to rely on the help of strangers to get you out of a precarious situation. We probably would not have made it out of that mud if it weren’t for the help of the Tico and the English-speaking man. We never did get either of their names. Once back out on the road, the English-speaking man untied the rope and wished us well. We thanked him profusely and offered to treat him and his wife to dinner but they graciously declined as they were en route to Carate, a town that is another 90 minutes past Puerto Jimenez.

Just a few minutes later we rolled into Puerto Jimenez and found our hotel. We had a quick dinner at the hotel restaurant and called it a night. I could not wait to get to sleep.

This story could have ended very differently; I’m well aware of that. Still, I can’t help but think: if we hadn’t rented the car, maybe we wouldn’t have found the gorgeous and secluded Playa Platanares.

Playa Platanares

And after we drove from Puerto Jimenez to La Fortuna, maybe we wouldn’t have found our way to the “secret” location in the midnight darkness to watch streams of fiery lava ooze from the smoking mouth of Volcán Arenal.

Volcán Arenal – Obviously not taken during “the midnight darkness”

All worth the chance we took by renting a car and driving ourselves across Costa Rica, in my opinion. And we managed to survive.

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25 Responses to On driving and surviving in Costa Rica

  1. Leah Travels (@L_e_a_h) August 1, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

    My first time in Costa Rica back in 1997, we rented a van and drove all over the country. At one point the brakes went out while we were in Jaco. We had to say an extra night as they sent a replacement out from San Jose. Having been back since, the roads are much better than my first visit and the rental cars look to be in better shape too.

    • Francesca August 2, 2012 at 9:38 pm #

      And maybe by the next time I go back, the roads and rental cars will be even better!

  2. Mary @ The World Is A Book August 2, 2012 at 3:12 am #

    Sounds like you had a great adventure. We’re DIY travelers too and with kids in tow, it’s a bit hard to do the tours. We’ve wanted to visit Costa Rica for so long and everyone who has driven there has told us to wait until our kids were older to visit. I think at 7 & 9 yrs old, next year looks promising. I love your unobstructed picture of Arenal – so beautiful!

    • Francesca August 2, 2012 at 9:41 pm #

      Thanks, Mary! We were very lucky to get that view of Arenal. It was the ONE day that wasn’t cloudy and overcast, and it just happened to be the same day we picked to climb Cerro Chato, the dormant volcano right next to Arenal. At the top is where we snapped this shot. I’d feel comfortable traveling to and driving in Costa Rica with a 7 & a 9 year old. I hope you get there soon!

  3. Ana Silva O'Reilly (@mrsoaroundworld) August 2, 2012 at 10:59 am #

    Never been and the photos look so great! I am all for driving and planning your trip as you please!

    • Francesca August 2, 2012 at 9:43 pm #

      Right on, Ana! I think that’s why we had such a great time in Costa Rica – because we did what we wanted when we wanted to, and we went wherever we wanted to… it really was an awesome trip!

  4. lisaatgonewiththefamily August 2, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    Sounds like an amazing trip! We are also considering a family vacation in Costa Rica in the near future and I’m curious as to whether you would do the same type of trip with kids or if you would do anything differently?

    • Francesca August 2, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

      I definitely wouldn’t do the exact same trip right now with my daughter as a 3 year old. First off, it’d be way too much time in the car. Plus, the Pan-American Highway is not like a U.S. interstate in that it is not dotted with rest areas or service stations where folks can stop to use the facilities. I’m not opposed to taking my daughter to Costa Rica, though, and renting a car. I’d just keep the car rides to a minimum and maybe stay someplace more resort-y and family friendly. Hubs and I went the total backpacker/budget route for accommodations on this trip!

  5. D.J. - The World of Deej August 2, 2012 at 6:07 pm #

    You are braver than me for sure…there’s no way MJ would let me drive a car in Costa Rica. I barely could get her to agree to California!

    • Francesca August 3, 2012 at 8:22 am #

      Ha ha, Deej! Then it’s a good thing that there are plenty of other transportation options for you in Costa Rica 😉

  6. lola August 2, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

    i absolutely love that you “buck the system”! i’m glad all turned out well but i’m not surprised. yes, bad things happen but way more good things happen than bad. human beings, by in large, are good. at least that’s what i tell myself. love this!!

    • Francesca August 3, 2012 at 8:24 am #

      Glad you approve, Lola! You’re right, humans, for the most part, are GOOD, and I’ve been the recipient of such acts of kindness just about everywhere I’ve traveled. It really restores my faith in humanity.

  7. the lazy travelers August 3, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    we’re super big proponents of renting a car wherever we go- definitely more our style. i can’t wait to hear how the romantics & the hubs made out in costa rica! xo, the wino

    • Francesca August 7, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

      I can’t wait to hear about it, too!

  8. Catherine Sweeney August 3, 2012 at 4:01 pm #

    Loved reading about your adventure in Costa Rica and being rewarded with Playa Platanares. The driving experience reminds me of one we had in Jamaica where we never made it to our day trip destination and considered ourselves lucky to get back to the resort. Long story for another time…..

    • Francesca August 7, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

      Aw, come on, Cathy! You have to tell us the Jamaica story now! 😉

  9. Jetting Around (@jettingaround) August 4, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

    What a great and nicely-written story, Francesca! One of the amazing thing about travel is meeting people who are kind and helpful. Very uplifting.

    • Francesca August 7, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

      Thank you, Pola. We never would have made it through that mud if those folks hadn’t helped us. So now, I continue to pay it forward.

  10. craig zabransky (@StayAdventurous) August 4, 2012 at 11:16 pm #

    I agree with Lola… I find much more help when traveling than any trouble. It does not surprise me at all these people helped you at all… Costa Rica is all about Pura Vida and is a great destination. So glad you stayed adventurous on your trip there 😉 Great story, and definitely a great one to share so other people can learn about the kindness and caring in this wonderful world…

    stay adventurous, Craig

    • Francesca August 7, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

      Thank you so much, Craig. Now I’m really glad I decided to share this story since you and others found it uplifting and positive. Also, I can really get behind the Pura Vida movement of Costa Rica. My kinda style.

  11. Ted Nelson (@travelingted) August 5, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

    These are my favorite travel stories. I love hearing about the friendliness of people in other countries and in our own who gladly go out of their way to help a traveler/stranger in need.

    • Francesca August 7, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

      Yep. Same here, Ted. We didn’t even need to ask for help. Awesome, kind people…

  12. Juan Eduardos July 12, 2013 at 11:42 am #

    Not all tourists in Costa Rica who break down on backroads are as lucky. They are still looking for the bodies to two elderly citizens from France “near Quepos”. The car was found, the credit cards had been used, but no bodies. Ticos are great people for the most part, but there is a percentage of the population in Costa Rica which live in extreme poverty and result to crime. In our area “Parrita” there has been muggings at the beach in broad daylight. Bottom line: Gringos don’t live in guarded gated communities with bars on their windows for nothing, they know Costa Rica is a country where you must continually be on your guard, and to be very careful who you trust.

  13. Katie (Beach for Baby) May 15, 2014 at 9:56 am #

    We just got back from Costa Rica with our 3-year-old. We were surprised at the end of our trip with a $200 extra fee on our rental car for mandatory insurance required by the government, despite telling Dollar Rent-a-Car we didn’t want it at the beginning. So be careful what you sign for after a red-eye flight! Yes, the roads seemed dangerous at times, only because in Costa Rica they seem to pass on blind curves on two-lane roads. We did see a head-on collision driving back from Arenal to San Jose and it was a while until the ambulance got there. I guess there are risks driving in most places though, as my husband drives in L.A. a lot and it can get pretty hairy there too.

  14. Dessire February 25, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

    I Francesca, nice history!
    Hey i´m going to travel with my sister in CostaRica for a week and a half, and im thinking to rent a car to take advantage of the time there and maybe safe some money, Same as you my dad is worried about two young ladies drive alone.. I think we can handle because we are mexicans and driving in Mexico is kind of a challenge too!
    Do you think is a good idea? Should I think in a plan B?

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