Renting a 2WD vs. a 4WD in Costa Rica

With my hotel association, Adventure Hotels of Costa Rica, about every two years, sometimes in the rainy (green) season, sometimes in the sunny (high) season, I clock approximately 2800 kilometers driving around Costa Rica, visiting all potential and new member hotels. Therefore I have gained quite a bit of knowledge about driving around Costa Rica at all times of the year.

Though Costa Rica looks small on a world map, it takes about fourteen hours to drive diagonally from one corner to the next. Traversing the rugged landscape, few highways are straight. And when you see a sign giving directions or kilometers to a certain town, take advantage of it! Costa Rica’s Million Dollar Happiness campaign would have been far more productive spending the money signing the roads better for lost tourists, than giving the money away to some lucky tourists who can already afford a vacation, but that’s another story!

For the last seventeen years I have been making reservations for guests at my two consecutive Costa Rica hotels, Hemingway Inn and Adventure Inn and arranging good value car rentals for my guests (and others). I often get asked the question, “What do I need, a 2 wheel drive sedan or a 4 wheel drive SUV style car?”

The two major factors to be considered are the time of year and where you will be driving.

Our rainy season extends from mid-May to late November with about a two week transitional period at each end.

Most of Costa Rica’s roads are covered in a thin layer of asphalt. The rainy season causes lots of pot holes, and it seems the government takes their time at fixing them, and do a half baked job when they do, causing a bumpy ride any time of the year. It seems the roads less traveled get the thickest, smoothest covering of asphalt, such as south of Dominical to Palmar, or the roads in the northwest bisecting Volcanos Tenorio, Miravalles, Rincon de la Vieja and Orosi. In some distant places, roads are gravel, and badly in need of a road grader. I bet Costa Rica doesn’t have five road graders in the entire country.

Unpaved roads are often comprised of crushed rock, and they are as smooth as it sounds. Driving from one side of the road to the other looking for the flattest spots as you snake your way along is the norm. On paved roads, if it is covered in pot holes, you just take your time and drive around them, also from one side of the road to the next, using the center line (if there is one) only as a guide. Fortunately you have to drive quite slowly to miss the pot holes, so there are few mishaps, and 30 kilometers an hour is really moving along.

I find the worst pot holes are the rogue pot holes, the deep, sharp-edged, solitary guys found on a beautiful stretch of paved highway every mile or two. Just as you become confident the highway is in excellent condition and you increase your speed to seventy or ninety kilometers per hour, out of nowhere, WHAM!!! and you spend the next twenty minutes changing your tire, or the next day straightening or looking for a new rim. It seems the government spends little effort repairing these rogue pot holes because all the locals know where they are anyway. Same as highway directional signs, the locals are already familiar with their location, no need to put signs up. Don’t get me started!

If you are going to the Caribbean coast, both routes have paved roads all the way from San Jose so there is no need year-round for a 4WD. The fastest and most popular route involves going over the Central Cordillera mountains and down through panoramic Braulio Carillo National Park to Siquirres, where the two routes join, then to Puerto limon and south along the Caribbean coast all the way to Manzanillo (just north of Panama). The other slower but more ‘tipico’ scenic route goes from San Jose to Cartago, to Paraiso, to Turrialba, then take the high land between the Reventazon and Pacuare Rivers to Siquirres, then the same as above. Highway 32 joining San Jose to Puerto Limon requires extra care with lots of transports, and most of the way just two undivided lanes…drive defensively! There are some stretches of washboard gravel road before and after Puerto Viejo, but a 2WD driven with care should be no problem.

Year-round, you only require a 2WD sedan-style car to visit most of the major tourist destinations in Costa Rica including Arenal Volcano, Poas and Irazu Volcanos, the Orosi Valley, Golfito, Dominical, Manuel Antonio, Jaco, Tambor and Montezuma, Samara, Tamarindo, Coco and most of Guanacaste.

And to the contrary, places such as Monteverde, and mountain lodges south of Dominical, going from Golfito south to Pavones, and venturing down the rough mountain road from Cobano to Mal Pais and Santa Teresa require a 4WD year-round, not so much for traction but for road clearance. The rainy season just means you need a 4WD even more as ditches turn into rivers and can wash a road out, or cause you to take a muddy detour.

Driving along the Pacific coast in certain locations, especially in the northern Nicoya to southern Guanacaste region, there are several rivers that need to be forded, and only a 4WD will suffice in any river fording situation. If you know your way, or can follow locals, there are some beach stretches you can take that bypass the river fording in the rainy season. However, do not drive in salt water, or you could be in for a hefty charge because of the oxidation (rust) damage caused. If you don’t choose the beach detour in the wet season, you have a long drive around involving Playa Naranjo and Paquera.

Some river fording can only be done in the dry season, such as going to Drake Bay, and between Cobano and Playa Coyote. Some rivers you can ford year round with a 4WD such as between Samara and Nosara, or from Puerto Jimenez to Carate.

One vehicle option for groups of about five or more people is to rent a van. Though they are just 2WD, they are fairly affordable, have lots of room for luggage, spacious interiors, and most importantly, they have good road clearance so Monteverde and other locations requiring a 4WD aren’t out of the question. Check first though.

One particular stretch of highway climbing over the mountains between Cartago and San Isidro de el General is well named, El Cerro de la Muerte, (translated “The Hill of Death”). I personally lost two friends on it. The narrow highway zig-zags through the stunted cloud forest, often fogged in at the higher elevations, especially at night, and frustrated drivers try to overtake slower transport trucks or cars without sufficient visibility to safely pass. The new Dominical to Quepos highway now offers a far safer option.

The only place you can really use a GPS is the Central Valley where congested roads twist and wind, leaving you wondering where you are. Even after seventeen years driving in the Central Valley, I often end up lost, and have to look around for the mountain tops to tell which direction I want to head. Once out of the Central Valley however, there is generally only one road between points, so follow your nose and you’ll end up where you were wanting to go. We also offer complimentary Adventure Hotels of Costa Rica road maps at our front desk should you need one. Not only is it an excellent road map but it also pinpoints the location of about 80 member hotels strategically located throughout Costa Rica where you get a 10% discount just for mentioning AHCR when you book your reservation.

Fortunately, most of the people we rent cars to are here on vacation, with no need to race from one point to the next. Take your time, stop often, take pictures, check out that cute little roadside restaurant, or the interesting souvenir shops along the way. There’s no need to get stressed and overdo it. You’ll eventually get to your destination and eventually back home to friends and loved ones all in one piece.

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