Drive Surf Costa Rica – Surfers Guide
For the past few weeks I had been staying in San Juan Del Sur at that little Swedish hostel at the top of the ridge surfing some shitty river mouth waiting for an automotive part to be shipped down from the States for my 4X4. I had left California a few months earlier with the intention of drive and surf though Costa Rica.
I was almost there.
I had been chased, robbed, bribed, and conned along the way—all that was behind me now and what awaited me just across the border was worth all the suffering that I had endured to get to this point. Four months earlier I had quit my job working with the United States government. I sold all my worldly possessions and said goodbye to a version of me that was no longer. For the first time in my life I was choosing to live instead of being chosen. Living a dream instead of dreaming a dream.
It’s funny, looking back it seemed so easy to make that decision. Of course, everyone called me crazy:
“You can’t drive to Costa Rica!”
My Dad even offered me money not to go. Now that I think about it I was being offered bribes on both side of the border. He kept doing that, offering me money to live a life that he felt was right for me. That’s what some inexperienced fathers do, try and protect their children anyway they can even though they are acting out of their own fear and insecurity. At some point I realized that I was the only person that was going to figure out what was ‘right’ for me and my life. And yes, most of the time I was wrong. But damn it, at least it was my wrong and not somebody else’s version of ‘right’.
Crossing the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica took way longer than I anticipated. Not only did the Nicaraguans need to ‘let me go’ but the Costa Ricans had to ‘let me in’. And everyone gets greased along the way. My glass-off session was lost somewhere between processing my fumigation papers and paying the pestering, but essential, tout to help get the proper vehicle stamps in my passport. What do you mean ‘dame tu passaporte?’ Handing over my passport to some pimple faced kid at the border station took a leap of faith, but somehow it always came back. Being at that border with my vehicle packed with my favorite quiver was like standing in the void between heaven and hell. The commandments were very precarious and the situation could tip in either direction very quickly.
A few hours after I started the process I was finished and on my way.
Witches Rock was around the corner.
What’s around your corner?
Costa Rica is fascinating and beautiful; there are tropical rain forests, active volcanoes, and white sand beaches that stretch as far as the imagination. The country is by far the most developed of all Central American countries. There are presently over hundreds of thousands North-Americans living in Costa Rica and the number is growing daily.
Both Caribbean and Pacific coasts offer beautiful beaches, national parks and festive environments. There have been recent increases in taxes and therefore it is more expensive to travel in Costa Rica than the other Central American countries. But compared to North American standards, food and accommodations are still a bargain.
Tourism is booming in Costa Rica, just walk into any bookstore and you will find an assortment of travel guides containing information on retiring, moving, investing, living, rafting, bungee jumping or whatever you want to do in the country. People are willing to pay to have fun and this has been well-displayed by the expanding list of activities that tourists may enjoy while visiting Costa Rica. Unfortunately, you won’t find the peace and solitude that was so attractive years ago when the spines of tourism had not yet scratched the skin of Costa Rica. Nevertheless, it’s still a wonderful country to visit and it is my favorite in all of Central America.
Currency: Costa Rican colón (¢)
Most Costa Rican businesses follow a fixed exchange rate of ¢500 per $1.
Way easier to remember and to make quick calculations in your head. For both parties involved, local community and us!
(For example, $8 = ¢4000, $9 = ¢4500, and so on).
Top-end: US$10 and upwards
Backpacker (hostels with private & dorm rooms): US$9-25
Top-end: US$200 and upward toward the sky
Car Rentals (in case you need to)
Around $50 a day (total, including insurance, etc)
Costa Rica isn’t as cheap as some of its neighbors, but it’s definitely a budget destination. If you’re traveling with someone, you should be able to scrape by on US$12 a day, but US$20 is probably more realistic. If you’re planning to have your own bathroom, eat decently and catch an occasional plane, US$25-50 should cover your needs. Travelers expecting to be very comfortable can easily spend US$50-150 per day, depending on their definition of comfort. The best tours cost upwards of US$200 per day, but these include flights and first-class accommodations and services.
If you want to change cash, stick to US dollars (but make sure they’re in decent condition and avoid US$100 bills—due to a counterfeiting scam, most Costa Ricans won’t touch them). US dollars are your best bet for traveler’s checks as well, as other currencies will rarely be accepted—any of the major brands will do. If you buy colones with your credit card, expect to get hit with a huge interest bill (high commissions). It’s increasingly easy to find ATMs, even in small towns, though some banks, like branches of Banco Nacional, accept cards held by their customers only.
You don’t usually need to bother with tipping at restaurants, as most add a 10% tip (plus 15% tax) to the bill. You should tip bellboys and room cleaners about US$0.50, tour guides US$1-5 a day per person. Of course, if the service is excellent or lousy you should use your own discretion.
Surfing, Water Sports & Stoke
Surfers, welcome to paradise! Costa Rica offers beach breaks, reef breaks and off shore islands with a plethora of waves. Eight hours from coast to coast—two separate oceans within one day’s drive—substantially increases your odds of locating surf. I have been to CR thirteen times in that last twenty years and it never ceases to amaze me—yes, it’s much different now but it still has a charm and character that is timeless, the people are fantastic and the beaches are boundless. Costa Rica is a paradise worth exploring and an experience worth having—however you get there, just do it!
Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal
At the center of a national park in the northwest of the country, the perfectly conical, 1633m (5356ft) Volcán Arenal is everyone’s image of a typical volcano. The volcano has been exceptionally active since 1968, when huge explosions triggered lava flows that killed several dozen people.
The degree of activity varies from week to week; sometimes there is a spectacular display of flowing red-hot lava and incandescent rocks flying through the air; at other times, the volcano is more placid and gently glows in the dark. Don’t even think about climbing Arenal. The best views at night (when the weather is clear) are from the western or northern side. The closest accessible views of the volcano are from the Arenal Observatory Lodge. Well worth a visit. There is a museum and restaurant up there, too. Great for bird watching and having close encounters with ‘pizotes’.
You must make time to visit Tabacón hot springs while you’re at Volcán Arenal. One-day passes are recommended. It’s not necessary to spend the night at the resort. You might as well stay at a hotel or hostel in the small town neighboring the volcano, La Fortuna, you’ll get a much better deal for your money. Plenty of shuttle services available from all major coast towns.
Parque Nacional Santa Rosa
This is the oldest and one of the best developed national parks in Costa Rica. It covers most of the Península Santa Elena which juts out into the Pacific in the far northwestern corner of the country (Guanacaste province). First park you’ll spot while driving down from the Peñas Blancas border. Santa Rosa protects the largest remaining stand of tropical dry forest in Central America and important nesting sites for endangered species of sea turtle. The park also has historical connections, and includes the hacienda where an amateur Costa Rican army took on William Walker in 1856.
World-renowned Witches Rock (Roca Bruja) on Playa Naranjo is found on the southern coastline of this national park. You can stay camping if you want to spend the night at Playa Naranjo. We recommend lots of water, mosquito repellent, canned food and keep rest of munchies inside the car (raccoons are unmerciful, they will rip up a hole on your tent if they smell food).
Monteverde, this small community in northwestern Costa Rica was founded by Quakers in 1951 and is now a popular and interesting destination for both local and international visitors. Its attractions include the breathtakingly vivid cloud forest, walking trails, horseback riding, bird watching (quetzals are abundant here), a cheese factory, a butterfly garden and a number of art galleries and restaurants.
The Caribbean has more cultural diversity than the Pacific coast. Half of this coastal area is protected by national parks and wildlife refuges, which has slowed development and the building of access roads, making it an especially verdant place to get away from it all. The main city is Puerto Limón, which has a tropical park teeming with flowers and sloths. Parque Nacional Tortuguero is the most important Caribbean breeding ground of the green sea turtle and has plenty of birds, monkeys and lizards. The Creole beach paradise of Cahuita has a nearby national park with attractive beaches, coral reef and coastal rain forest. Bribri culture can be experienced in the surfing mecca of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Handicrafts, reggae, home stays, cultural tours, and mellow vibe make Puerto Viejo an especially interesting destination.
Península de Nicoya
This area on the northwestern Pacific coast is difficult to traverse because of the lack of paved roads; however, it’s well worth the effort because it contains some of the country’s best and most remote beaches. There are also some small and rarely visited wildlife reserves and parks. Parque Nacional Marino las Baulas de Guanacaste, just north of Tamarindo, includes Playa Grande, an important nesting site for the Baula (Leatherback Turtle)—the world’s largest turtle, the size of a small car! Which can weigh over 500kg (1105lb). Playa del Coco is the most accessible beach on the peninsula, in an attractive setting and with a small village, which has some nightlife. Good surfing and windsurfing can be found at Playa Tamarindo.
Caving fans head for Parque Nacional Barra Honda, northeast of Nicoya, which protects some of Costa Rica’s most interesting caves. Wildlife teems in the coastal Refugio Nacional de Fauna Silvestre Ostional, midway between Sámara and Paraíso. The main attraction is the annual nesting of the olive ridley sea turtle, but you’ll also find iguanas, howler monkeys, coatimundis (pizotes) and flocks of numerous birds. One of the safest and prettiest beaches in the country is Playa Sámara, and Montezuma, near the tip of the peninsula, is a lovely, laid-back paradise for tired, young gringos.
Surf Along The Way
Driving along the pacific coast of Mexico one will find never-ending stretches of uninhabited beach full of epic surf.
El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama all have popular, well-known breaks—it’s the unknown breaks that will fill your excite meter on this road trip.
Costa Rica already has quite a reputation among surfers, who are drawn there from near and far by the quality and consistency of its waves. Though the country gets plenty of the big waves that true surf fanatics live for, there are also days and spots that are perfect for people who have little experience with the sport, or who have been away from the ocean for a long time, and would like to try it again. This means that whether you’re a veteran wave ripper or a belly-boarding beginner, you can usually find the conditions you need to have a great time.
With 755 miles of coastline on two oceans, Costa Rica has more breaks than you can shake a stick at. The country’s selection of surf spots range from idyllic beach breaks to coral platforms where the water leaps up and tubes like a miniature Pipeline. Having coastline on two oceans is quite an advantage, since when one ocean is flat, there is usually something breaking on the other side of the country. Often enough, there is good surf pumping on both coasts.
And the country’s surf is complemented by its comfortable water temperatures — you can leave that wet suit at home — beautiful scenery, and the convenience of a variety of accommodations and restaurants near most breaks. Since it is five times longer than the Caribbean coast, the Pacific has considerably more surfing spots. Many of the country’s best breaks are found in the northwest province of Guanacaste, but there are also some excellent spots in the Central Pacific and Southern Zones. And the few breaks that are available in the Caribbean province of Limon are certainly nothing to complain about.
The following is a listing of the country’s best surf spots: Pacific Guanacaste Potrero Grande: Right point break in Santa Rosa National Park, only accessible by boat; no camping. Playa Naranjo: Great beach break by Witch’s Rock, in Santa Rosa National Park, accessible with four-wheel-drive vehicle or boat; camping permitted. Playa Grande: Very consistent beach break north of Tamarindo.
There are two main seasons in Costa Rica: Wet & Dry. The Dry season is mid December through April and it’s freaking hot and doesn’t rain. This is also when the crowds come out the the prices soar. The best surfing in the Dry season can be found along the northern peninsula (Nicoya) or on the Caribbean. In contrast the rainy season is wet and last from May to November. Towards the beginning of the rainy season it tends to rain less, usually in the afternoons and in September the real buckets start to drop and road sometimes become impassable. The best part about the rainy season is that there are fewer people and this is when the South swells fire.
Surf Camps Tamarindo has proven to be the perfect spot for those that love to surf and the Witch’s Rock Surf Camp is a great place to hang.
Here is a list of some of the main breaks in Costa Rica:
- Tamarindo: Good beach break, excellent base for surfing nearby beaches.
- Playa Langosta: River mouth break south of Tamarindo.
- Avellanas: Very good beach break further to the south.
- Playa Negra: Right point break further to the south.
- Nosara: Several beach breaks near selection of accommodations.
- Central Boca Barranca: Long river mouth left just south of Puntarenas.
- Tivives: Beach breaks and river-mouth left, south of Puntarenas.
- Jaco: Popular beach break with abundance of hotels and restaurants.
- Hermosa: Several very consistent beach breaks south of Jaco.
- Manuel Antonio: Beach breaks near plentiful accommodations.
- Dominical: Great beach breaks near hotels and restaurants.
- Matapalo: Right point break at tip of Osa Peninsula.
- Pavones: Very long left at mouth of Golfo Dulce.
- Carribean Playa Bonita: Left over reef off popular beach just north of Limon City.
- Cahuita: Beach break on Black Beach, near hotels and restaurants.
- Puerto Viejo: Fast right over coral reef, plenty of hotels and restaurants.
- Cocles: Beach break just south of Puerto Viejo.
- Manzanillo: Beach break, only when big, some accommodations nearby.
For more details on each break please see the Wanna Surf Costa Rica page or the Surfline forecast page for this region.
Costa Rica Activities
Costa Rica’s national parks offer a huge variety of hiking—the following are just two of the highlights. The Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja, northeast of Liberia in northwestern Costa Rica, is a volcanic wonderland of cones, craters, lagoons, boiling mud pools and sulphur springs. The park can be explored on foot or horseback, and visitors can bathe in the hot springs. There are long-distance hiking trails in the Parque Nacional Corcovado, which is in the southwestern corner of the Península de Osa in the south of the country. The trails offer visitors the chance to spend several days walking through lowland tropical rain forest. Make sure you visit in the dry season, and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. There are shorter walks around Monteverde and in the coastal Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, south of Quepos.
Bird watchers should head to the rain forests at La Selva (in the central north) and to the Parque Nacional Tapantí (southeast of Cartago), Parque Nacional Palo Verde (at the head of the Golfo de Nicoya), Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro (east of Upala) and the area around Tortuguero. Turtle watchers should visit Parque Nacional Tortuguero, where they can visit nesting sites and watch the turtles lay their eggs. There are also turtles at Parque Nacional Santa Rosa. Different species of turtle lay their eggs at different times of the year; check your biology textbooks for details.
Pavones on the Pacific Coast reportedly has some of the best surfing in Central America. There is also good surfing at Playa Naranjo in northwestern Costa Rica and at Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast. Windsurfers should check out the artificial Laguna de Arenal, near the spectacular volcano. There are snorkeling and diving possibilities at the Reserva Biologica Isla del Cano, 20km (12mi) west of Bahía Drake, off the northern part of the Península de Nicoya and in the Parque Nacional Isla del Coco—an isolated island 500km (310mi) southwest of Costa Rica in the eastern Pacific.
Golfito is a center for deep-sea fishing, and there are plenty of opportunities to charter boats for several days or more. Parsimina, a small village at the mouth of the Río Parsimina, 50km (31mi) northwest of Limón, has several excellent fishing lodges and good offshore reef fishing.
Río Reventazon, in central Costa Rica, is one of the most exciting and scenic rivers in Costa Rica and a favorite with river rafters and kayakers. The river is navigable year-round, but June and July are the best months. Río Pacure, the next major river valley east, is perhaps even more scenic and offers the best white-water rafting in the country through spectacular canyons clothed in virgin rain forest. Turrialba is the best base for these excursions.
Costa Rica Environment
Costa Rica is bordered to the north by Nicaragua and to the east by Panama. It has both a Caribbean and a Pacific coast. A series of volcanic mountain chains runs from the Nicaraguan border in the northwest to the Panamanian border in the southeast, splitting the country in two. In the center of these ranges is a high-altitude plain, with coastal lowlands on either side. Over half the population lives on this plain, which has fertile volcanic soils. The Caribbean coast is 212km (131mi) long and is characterized by mangroves, swamps and sandy beaches. The Pacific coast is much more rugged and rocky, and, thanks to a number of gulfs and peninsulas, is a tortuous 1016km (630mi) long.
The country’s biodiversity attracts nature lovers from all over the world. The primary attraction for many visitors is the 850 recorded bird species, which include the resplendent quetzal, indigo-capped hummingbirds, macaws and toucans. Costa Rica’s tropical forests have over 1400 tree species and provide a variety of habitats for the country’s fauna including four types of monkey, sloths, armadillos, jaguars and tapirs. There are also a number of dazzling butterflies. National parks cover almost 12% of the country, and forest reserves and Indian reservations boost the protected land area to 27%.
Costa Rica is a tropical country and experiences only two seasons: wet and dry. The dry season is generally between late December and April, and the wet season lasts the rest of the year. The Caribbean coast tends to be wet all year. Temperatures vary little between seasons; the main influence on temperature is altitude. San José at 1150m (3772ft) has a climate that the locals refer to as ‘eternal Spring’: lows average 15°C (60°F); highs average 26°C (79°F). The coasts are much hotter, with the Caribbean averaging 21°C (70°F) at night and over 30°C (86°F) during the day; the Pacific is a few degrees warmer still. The humidity at low altitudes can be oppressive.
Driving In Costa Rica
Watch your speed in Costa Rica, the police like to catch foreigners in radar traps. Also, there is a seat-belt law—so wear it! The roads are horrible but the signs are good. From the border you can make San Jose in 5 hours. From San Jose you can visit either coast in a couple of hours. Check out this very useful map to download for free.
One Entry Point
Peñas Blancas is the only entry point for Costa Rica. There are no vehicle entry points on the Caribbean side coming from Nicaragua. Therefore you must travel past Managua and south toward the Pacific coast into Costa Rica.
Your first stop is fumigation, a few $ US. Pay the fee and then drive your car through the fumigation station. If you are adamantly against having your car fumigated, you can offer the inspector some extra dinero and they will most likely give you passage without fumigation.
Migration & Aduana
The Costa Rican and Nicaraguan immigration offices are 4km apart. On the Costa Rican side the immigration office is next to the Restaurant La Frontera.
Your next stop is the Migration and Aduana, both in one building—what a concept! Park your vehicle and go to Migration for your entry stamp, a few more $ US. Next take your passport and title and give it to the official at the Aduana window.
You are required to purchase insurance for a minimum of one month. The official will give you four forms, computer generated: Certificado De Entrega De Vehiculos, No Comerciales Importacion Temporal, Instituto Nacional De Seguros, and Recibo De Dinero.
After you receive the forms you are free to go. There is an inspection station at the exit about 1k down the road, but it is very informal.
You will encounter several checkpoints on the road leading away from the border. The guards will ask for your passport and destination and then send you on your way with a smile. These stations are more for illegal immigrants from Nicaragua than for gringos.
This is by far the most efficient and trustworthy crossing you will encounter. If you have made it this far, congratulations!
Driving Time: 4 hours
Hwy: CA 1-CA 151-CA 21-CA 152
As mentioned above, you will come across several checkpoints traveling away from the Nicaraguan border. Show the officials the necessary paperwork and you should have no problems.
From Peñas Blancas follow the signs to Liberia. At Liberia you can fill your gas tank and stomach before continuing to Tamarindo. In the center of town turn right at the major intersection and follow the signs to Tamarindo. This same route will take you to Coco Beach, Playa Junquillal, Samara, Nicoya or any other location on the Nicoya Peninsula.
There are several exceptional National Parks in this region. If you see only one National Park while in Costa Rica, make it Santa Rosa National Park. The park is located between Peñas Blancas and Liberia about 45 minutes from the border and 35k north of Liberia. The beach is unimaginably beautiful, there is an abundance of wildlife in the park and there are camping facilities and cabanas for rent. There is also a cooking facility that provides meals for a small fee. There are three alternative routes leaving Tamarindo for locations further south. Depending on how far on to the Nicoya Peninsula you have traveled, you may either (1) work your way back to Liberia and continue south from the city, (2) take the short ferry at the northern Golfo de Nicoya, or (3) travel by ferry at the southern end of the Nicoya Peninsula to Puntarenas.
If you’re well on to the Nicoya Peninsula you may want to take the ferry. This can sometimes take much longer than anticipated. The ferry operator will wait until the ferry is full before leaving the port and there is frequently a long line of cars waiting to cross—ordinarily more than can fit on the ferry, so get there early.
The ferry that sails from the Nicoya Peninsula to Puntarenas departs from Playa Naranjo. There are three to five daily departures and the travel takes between 1 to 2 hours. The cost is between $8 and $10 for you and your wheels. Check departure times by calling Conatramar at +506 661-1069.
CR Border / San Jose
Driving Time: 5 hours
Hwy: CA 1
After finishing your entry requirements follow the signs on CA 1 to Liberia. From Liberia continue south 128k to Esparza. At Esparza head for San Mateo. San Mateo is the junction point for San Jose or the Pacific coast.
Follow the signs toward Alajuela and San Jose. This road leads you away from San Mateo and up into the highlands, the road is well-marked, but the ascent is steep. When you are close to San Jose you will pass the airport, about 15 minutes from town. Plan your drive into San Jose on a weekday and not during the rush hour, the traffic can be horrific. Like all Latin American capitals, driving in San Jose is not for the weak or impatient. The roads are congested and confusing, expect to pull over several times to ask for directions. Attendants at gas stations are always helpful, nonetheless, be prepared to take your time finding the way.
Hotel & Eats
If you have been driving for some time and want a great place to lay your tired bones, try Hotel Cacts. As you enter San Jose on Paseo Colon you will pass Pizza Hut. Turn right at the next corner and travel 4 blocks to Hotel Cacts. The cost is $25—$50 per night, it includes a hot shower and a light breakfast. They have 24 hour security for your car, a travel agency on-site and storage for your luggage. When you pass the Pizza Hut, turn left and drive 4 blocks.
Watch your personal items in the coastal towns and in San Jose. Never leave anything of value in your vehicle unattended. There are plenty of car parks in San Jose, but don’t trust them and never leave your keys with them. Read Helpful Hints & Other Topics for more information.
San Mateo is the junction point for San Jose or the Pacific coast.
San José, pronounced is the capital and largest city of Costa Rica. Located in the Central Valley, San José is the seat of national government, the focal point of political and economic activity, and the major transportation hub of this Central American nation. Founded in 1738 by order of Cabildo de León, San José is one of the youngest capital cities in Latin America by year of conception, though it was not named capital until 1823. Today it is a modern city with bustling commerce, brisk expressions of art and architecture, and spurred by the country’s improved tourism industry, it is a significant destination and stopover for foreign visitors.
The population of San José Canton is 365,799 though the metropolitan area stretches beyond the canton limits and comprises a third of the country’s population. San José exerts a strong influence on a wider range because of its proximity to minor cities (Alajuela, Heredia and Cartago) and the country’s demographic
assemblage in the Central Valley. The city lies at a mean elevation of 1,161 m above sea level, and enjoys a stable climate throughout the year, with an average temperature of 25oC (77oF) and annual precipitation of 1800 mm, more than 90% of it falling in the rainy season from May to November
From CR Border
Driving Time: 5 hours
Those traveling to the Pacific coast must turn right at the junction point of San Mateo and head for Jaco. The three main travel destinations on this route are Jaco, Quepos and Dominical. All three locations are worth a visit. You can also drive to the Panamanian border via this route, but the roads are worse.
The road from Jaco to Dominical takes a toll on your vehicle and spine. Jaco is your first coastal town within striking distance of San Jose. This is where all the Ticos go for vacation and weekend holidays, thus be prepared for crowds. Playa de Jaco is a great place to relax during the week, but on the weekends the ambiance changes to a festival of loud discos and, at times, a drunken calamity. This is a large coastal town with all the amenities of any resort location. Quepos is a much quieter town then Jaco. It is located about 1+ hours south of Jaco and it is the home of Manuel Antonio, a great National Park worth the entry fee ($10). Another 1-2 hours south is Dominical, a small coastal town with a great atmosphere. If you are a surfer you will definitely want to check out this place, even when there is no swell it’s thumping.
If you are looking to get away from the tourists and into the outskirts of Costa Rica keep heading south toward Golfito and the Panamanian border. From Dominical it’s another 6 hour drive. Head for San Isidro, and then south toward Golfito, 190K. Again for those surfing enthusiasts there is a great break at Pavones. If you’re in Dominical and a swell comes in, pack the camping gear and head for Pavones and some long left-handers, check out www.pavonescr.com for more information. The drive from Golfito is about 1.5 hours over a dirt road or you can fly from San Jose for $100 on flysansa.com
Traveling during the rainy season the road to the south of Dominical may not be passable, ask the local Ticos for road conditions before you make the long trek.
If your driving past Jaco make sure your car is 4×4 and your spare tire is in working order. These are some of the worst roads you will encounter in Costa Rica. The roads are passable, but they are muddy and filled with potholes during the rainy season.
After finishing your entry requirements follow the signs on CA 1 to Liberia. From Liberia continue south 128k to Esparza. At Esparza head for San Mateo. San Mateo is the junction point for San Jose or the Pacific coast.
Driving Around San Jose
One must be very patient driving in San Jose and around the city. There are radar traps on most roads and in many instances the police will pull you over and ask to see your papers, passport, and drivers license. In most cases, unless you were speeding, the police will simply check your documents and let you go on your way.
The city center is arranged on a grid, avenidas run east-west and calles north-south. Street numbers are rarely given in San Jose, instead, the nearest intersection is given. Thus you can assume that the directions to any particular local are not exact, but at least in the general vicinity.
The downtown area is dirty and congested, parking is difficult and vehicle break-ins are common. Find a safe place to park your vehicle and pay to have it watched.
There are plenty of places to stay, though the better B&Bs tend to be booked well in advance, thus if you have a particular place in mind it is wise to call ahead and reserve a room.
The population of the city itself is about a third of a million, the province ups the total to 1.2 million, approximately 40% of the countries population.
Driving Time: 4 hours
Miles: 83 Hwy: CA 1—CA 2
This is a beautiful drive through mountains (you actually go through a mountain), banana and mango plantations and lush tropical forests. The major problem is finding your way through San Jose and to the Caribbean route. You want to follow any sign you see for Limon. Travel north, up Avenida Central to the traffic circle in the center of town. At the traffic circle follow the road around to the left. This road takes you to the junction point where the road (Hwy 32) for Limon is located. Be prepared to ask for directions. Very helpful link, with specific directions to any destination.
Once you are in Limon—get out of Limon! This is not why you came to the Caribbean. There is a traffic signal, the third when you enter town, with a fruit stand on the corner. You want to turn right at the corner and travel south toward Cahuita and Puerto Viejo.
Cahuita National Park is located at the northern end of Cahuita. There is a trail that follows the cost for several kilometers and empties on to a deserted palm lined beach. Along the trail you may encounter monkeys, sloths and giant mosquitoes—don’t forget your repellent!
Cahuita is about one hour from Limon and Puerto Viejo is another 45 minutes south of Cahuita. Puerto Viejo offers great surfing (Salsa Brava) and festive night life at inexpensive prices. Those going to Puerto Viejo from Cahuita must travel back to the main road and turn left at the junction. Be prepared for a bumpy ride!
Take precaution while traveling these roads. Watch your speed and make sure your vehicle papers are in order. The police always set up checkpoints in this region. You are close to Panama and you will most likely be solicited by drug dealers in the coastal towns. Be cautious and don’t forget that you’re in a foreign country, drug offenders are not treated nicely by authorities.
San Jose/Panama Border
Driving Time: 8 hours
Hwy: CA 2
This is a long drive over the mountains into the lowlands of Costa Rica. Leaving San Jose head for Cartago, CA 2. Once in Cartago, go through the town and the road will veer right. There are no signs, so you may have to stop and ask.
After you leave the city you will ascend into the mountains again. This is a demanding drive with twists, turns, and potholes.
Eventually you will reach San Isidro in 3 to 4 hours. From San Isidro you may visit Dominical on the coast or continue south toward Golfito and the Panamanian border. Leaving San Isidro, head for Palmar Norte and then continue on to Paso Canoas or Golfito.
Paso Canoas is the main border crossing between Panama and Costa Rica. The border is open from 6:00 a.m.-11:00 a.m. and from 1:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m. Check with the consulate in San Jose for current requirements for Panama visa requirements.
Travelers, note that the Interamerican Hwy changes from CA 1 to CA 2 past Cartago to the border with Panama.
If you’re driving into Panama with the intention of traveling to South America there is an obstacle called the Darien Gap. This mass of tropical jungle prevents anyone from driving between Central and South American. There is a ferry boat from Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia.
Crossing the Darien Gap
You don’t actually cross the Darien Gap, you go around it by boat. The crossing is made on a small cruise ship that takes about 17 hours. See the special section in the last chapter for more info.
If you visit the south and you are returning to northern Costa Rica you may drive up the coast from Dominical or through the central route. From Dominical you may continue north to Quepos and Jaco and then on to San Jose. Check with the locals before you make the trip about the condition of the road.
Exiting Costa Rica
No special permit is required if you haven’t overstayed the time allocated in your passport. If your time has expired, you will need an exit visa which you can pay for at the border. When you enter Panama from Costa Rica make sure that your papers indicate that you will be leaving Panama from Colon and not the border post in which you have entered. Incorrect papers can cause grief. Insurance for your vehicle is available near the border at $70 for 90 days.
Costa Rica & Nicaragua: Peñas Blancas is the main border post between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The border is open from 8am until 8pm daily. The Costa Rican and Nicaraguan border stations are 4km apart.
Costa Rica & Panama: There are three main border crossings between Costa Rica and Panama. The most frequented crossing is at Paso Canoas; open from 6am until 9pm. Officials may require an onward ticket and proof of sufficient funds. The closest city of any size is David, about one hour from the border. From David, Panama City is another 6-7 hours travel. On the Caribbean side you may cross into Panama at Sixaola, open from 7am until 7pm. The last crossing point is at Rio Sereno, east from San Vito, this is a remote and rarely used route and the border officials are known to be sticklers on regulations and formalities.
The one major crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is Peñas Blancas, on the Carretera Interamericana.
Costa Rica/Traffic Tickets
There is a good chance that you will be stopped at some point by the police in Costa Rica. Make sure that your paperwork is in order and that your visa and car insurance are current. If not you could lose your vehicle or vehicle plates to the police. If you get pulled over for speeding or some other infraction you will be issued a ticket. You must pay the fine at any Costa Rican bank before you depart the country. If you choose not to pay you may have problems leaving. Costa Rica is more advanced than the other Central American countries and the chance of them catching you is relatively high.
Shipping Your Car From or To Costa Rica
You have driven over 4000 miles and you don’t want to drive back. No problem, ship your car home! There are two main ports in Costa Rica. If you are shipping your car to the Pacific side of the US or Canada you must ship it out of Puerto Caldera. For shipments to the Atlantic coast the port is Puerto Limon. First you must find the Aduana office which is located in the main shipping building at each port. Go to the Aduana and tell them that you would like to ship your vehicle to the United States. The paperwork and the assistance of the Aduana official will cost between $300 and $400.
The official will file all the necessary paperwork and arrange to have your vehicle placed in a shipping container. The official will also do the leg work and contact the shipping agency for booking the container on to a ship. The actual cost of shipping is between $1500.00 and $2000.00. Once the paperwork is done you must go back to San Jose and sign the release forms at the shipping company’s office. You may pay for the shipment at the opposite end, when you return, but the Aduana fees must be paid in Costa Rica.
You also have the option of a non-container shipment. This means that your car is placed on to the deck of some ship and strapped down. The cost is cheaper, but the chances of damage and theft are much greater.
The procedures for shipping a car to Costa Rica are basically the same. However, when you ship a vehicle to Costa Rica you must get your car out of Customs, which is a total nightmare. Pick up a copy of the Tico Times for information about clearing Customs and hiring brokers to assist you with the legalities.
Consider the cost and formalities of shipping your vehicle. After paying shipping fees and purchasing your return ticket you will have paid close to double the cost of driving back—the decision is yours!
Costa Rica/Long Term Travel
You may drive in Costa Rica for six months without any type of “in-country” registration, however you most update your visa and car insurance accordingly. For most this means departing the country after 90 days for 72 hours and then returning. It is much easier to leave the country by bus to Nicaragua or Panama for a few days and then to return for your new entry stamp. Otherwise you will have to check your vehicle and person in and out of each country—remember, your entry by vehicle is not indicated in your passport and therefore you may go by other transportation to Nicaragua or Panama to extend your visa. If you didn’t get a chance to see San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua take care of your extension at the border and spend a few days in San Juan.
Costa Rica Living
By now, most people throughout the world are familiar with Costa Rica as a tourist destination. Ecologically sensitive, democratically stable, peaceful, Costa Rica enjoys the reputation as an almost ideal location to spend a few days, weeks, or months basking in a tropical paradise. Recently, Costa Rica has been “discovered” internationally as an attractive retirement destination as well.
Costa Rica is the only Central American country to enjoy complete democratization since 1948. Being incredibly far-sighted, the leadership at that time demilitarized the country, rejecting a standing army in favor of providing for its people the fundamentals of equality, justice, liberty and freedom. Even before the installation of a democratic constitution and the rejection of a standing military, Costa Rica’s leaders historically provided for the health and welfare of the people. Universal health care, agricultural reforms and housing programs were all in effect before the turn of the century, reflecting the country’s true heart and serving as a blueprint for other Latin American countries to follow.
As an affordable retirement destination, Costa Rica offers a variety of means to acquire legal residency. As a legal resident, the retiree enjoys the freedoms and most of the important rights of native Costa Ricans—health care, insurance, et cetera. While the Costa Rican government has recently passed several new tax laws, few will impact on the retiree. On a sour note, many of the “perks” which were associated with foreign retirees living in Costa Rica were repealed three years ago. These included duty-free importation of household goods and a duty-free car every five years. However, to off-set this, the duties on most of these items have decreased and will continue to decrease for the next several years.
Regulations concerning retirees and residency are covered under Costa Rican Law Number 4812, passed in July, 1971. The “Resident Annuitants and Resident Pensioners Law” allows for people with guaranteed incomes to become legal residents. The law’s two parts, the “Rentista” and the “Pensionado,” differ only in the amount of money required.
For the “Rentista” (someone living in Costa Rica but not “retired”), the dollar amount which must be available for conversion to colones each month is US$1,000.00 guaranteed, in a stable and permanent way, by a first rate bank and for a minimum period of five years. Any person over the age of 18 may apply for the status of “Rentista.” The “Pensionado” (someone actually retired), must have a guaranteed US$600.00 monthly generated through a verifiable pension fund such as Social Security, private company retirement plan, IRA, or other retirement fund, and available to the retiree for life.
Application for residency under this law requires a number of ancillary documents–ancillary, that is, to primary documentation of funds available from the appropriate source. These are:
- Birth certificate of the applicant, spouse, and any children who may be migrating as part of the family.
- Marriage certificate, if applicable.
- Certification from a law enforcement agency (with associated finger print cards) verifying no police record.
- Certified photocopies of all pages of the applicant’s passport (and the passports of all family members involved in the migration).
- Twelve passport-size photos (six front and six profile) of each person involved.
- All documents should be originals, except where noted, and must be authenticated with the appropriate documentation stamps, by the closest Costa Rican Consul or Embassy. Cost for this authentication varies but will run around US$40 to US$50 per page as of this writing.
Residency applications under this law are processed by the Costa Rican Tourist Board and usually take no more than six months. Neither Rentistas nor Pensionados can work as paid employees. However, work is permitted if the resident is a share-holder in a Costa Rican company and/or is a company’s legal representative. Also, a Rentista or Pensionado should plan on living in Costa Rica a minimum of four months a year although this provision may be waived under special circumstances.
Other than residency, there are many questions a person may have about retiring here—concerning transportation to and within the country, health care, banking and postal services, taxes—let’s consider a few of the most common. Transportation within the country is hampered only by poor roads and wildly enthusiastic drivers. Rental cars are plentiful and new and used cars are available for purchase-—at a premium. Buses and taxis run throughout the country and are an affordable, and scenic, way to travel on a budget.
For the retiree, health care is critical. Costa Rica has one of the finest health care systems in the world and it is available to all at affordable costs. Health insurance can be purchased through the national insurance company and premiums are roughly one fifth those of equal coverage in the States. Residents may join the national social security system (Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social—CCSS) for a minimal monthly cost and enjoy the universal health care Costa Rican citizens enjoy. Most doctors in Costa Rica have received training in the United States or Europe and are highly qualified. Firsts for many major operations in Latin America have been performed here. Costa Rica has both private and public health care systems. Both are manned by the same doctors and the overall quality is almost equal—a patient in a private clinic or hospital will receive more attention than one in a public hospital.
Costa Rica’s mail service does not have a good reputation. Theft of valuables is rampant, undeliverable mail is common, and service to the public is spotty, at best. Efforts are being made to improve the system, but so far little improvement is evident. Many private mail services exist and are serviceable. Connecting Costa Rica with the US Postal Service, these private carriers provide a relatively safe alternative to the Costa Rican Correo.
Death and Taxes are inevitable. However, retirees in Costa Rica are spared from the “taxes” part. Neither Rentistas nor Pensionados are taxed except for municipal services and real property, both at a very affordable level. Sales taxes have risen during the past year to the current 15% on most consumer goods. There is a canasta básica (basic basket) which contains more than 700 items exempt from sales tax, tremendously benefiting those on fixed incomes. Overall, the tax burden for those living in Costa Rica is small.
Housing options are many in Costa Rica from mansions of several thousand square feet to small, unassuming cottages. Prices are generally lower than those in the States or Europe, though in many highly desirable areas housing costs are way above the norms. Several retirement projects are in the works for Costa Rica and will fill a niche in the affordable housing market here. There are reliable real estate brokers who can help find the perfect retirement home.
If you’re not yet ready to retire, you may be able to take advantage of Costa Rican Law Number 7033 passed in August, 1986. The “General Law of Immigration and Foreigners” provides guidelines for residency as an “investor” in the Costa Rican economy. Under this law an applicant must be able to demonstrate, through a feasibility study or other verifiable documentation, that an investment of US$200,000 (minimum) has been made or will be made in one of these areas:
- ornamental plants or flowers
- leather products or derivatives
- spices and/or condiments
- fresh vegetables
- processed foods
- wood or wood derivatives
- aggro-industrial projects that will utilize agriculture, cattle, fishing or forestry raw products and that require a procedure of industrial transformation industrial mining projects
- projects for the production of capital goods, consumption and consumer products for the support of exportation and investment in Costa Rica
- if a project directly involves tourism or reforestation (or other special projects considered to be in the national interest under special regulations) the investment requirement is only US$50,000.
Documentation for application under this law is practically the same as for the law governing “rentistas” and “pensionados” except for the additional required documentation of the investment. Approval for application under the General Law of Immigration and Foreigners is through two separate agencies: the Center for Promotion of Exterior Commerce (PROCOMER) and the general immigration office. Final approval can take several months and is more uncertain and complicated than the law covering retirees.
Should a foreigner marry a Costa Rican citizen, the right to apply for residency accompanies the ceremony. Residency is not automatic; the non-Costa Rican spouse must apply to the Immigration and Naturalization office to become a resident. In this case, the necessary documents are: birth certificate (or certified copy), copy of passport, and an official copy of the marriage certificate. The wait for approval varies, but is usually quite short.
With somewhat more ambiguity, the case of documented blood ties, or consanguinity, to a Costa Rican citizen may entitle a foreigner to be considered for residency. The documentation required in this case is often complex and/or confusing and consultation with a qualified attorney is most important.
If a person is interested in obtaining his or her Costa Rican residency, regardless of under which law, the advice and assistance of an efficient and qualified attorney is strongly suggested. A list of such attorneys can be solicited from the American Embassy in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica/Selling Car
Good luck selling your car in Costa Rica! The laws on selling used vehicles seem to change daily in Costa Rica. Most likely you won’t make any money when you sell your vehicle.
If you do so, you need to place your vehicle into a Customs Storage Warehouse, find your buyer, and let your buyer handle the Customs duty and purchase Costa Rican license plates. The government adds a 30-50% sales tax that substantially decreases your profit and there are additional fees for registering vehicles. There are stories that registering a vehicle is more expensive than the actual value of the vehicle’s original purchase price. All that said, here is our updated information for selling a car in 2011.
While it is possible for you to sell your car after driving to Costa Rica, possibly even make some profit, it is certainly not without its difficulties. The average customs tax on cars in C.R. is close to 55% of what an American would consider to be the value. For example, if the car you drive here is worth $10,000 in the U.S.A., expect the customs tax to be at least $5,500.00. Also, Costa Rica has their own government “blue book” that is not at all similar to the Kelley’s in the U.S.A. If you have leather seats, air conditioning, automatic transmission, anything that Costa Rica considers a luxury the cost is even more. Additionally, the inspection process has become tedious: tires cannot be wider by even an inch then the side of the car, a chip in the windshield has to be fixed, and the exhaust is carefully analyzed. This being said, it is entirely possible to sell the car without ever paying any of these taxes or going through this inspection process at all.
Some things you’ll need to know before selling your vehicle:
- sending us photos or the vehicle
- your approximate selling price
- the year
- the motor size
- transmission type
- the date you expect to have the car in Costa Rica
- and the mileage on the vehicle
- copy of the title
Driving your vehicle to Costa Rica does have distinct advantages over shipping it. Any car that that is brought in by a tourist by driving, is given a 90 day grace period (similar to that of your personal passport) to leave the country or become registered in Costa Rica. Should you choose to ship your vehicle, something we can help with as well, you can expect to pay customs tax immediately upon arrival or risk the government putting the vehicle into storage and charging a daily charge against the value of the vehicle. Once the daily charge exceeds the value of the vehicle, the government auctions the car at a ridiculously low price and you are just out. The cost for driving your vehicle across the border into Costa Rica is very inexpensive. You are required to purchase liability insurance from the government, at a cost of about $35 dollars for your 90 day stay. There is the traditional, “oh no, it has a bug on the grill” spraying charge of a few dollars, but the rest of the procedure is relatively painless. Should you wish to keep your vehicle in Costa Rica after the 90 days, we strongly advise that you hire a company like ours to assist you in the import duty process as a personal representation with customs can save you a lot of money.
Bringing Vehicles to Costa Rica
If you are traveling to Costa Rica with your vehicle (cars, trucks, and/or motorcycles), either used or new, you must carry the original title of your vehicle at all times.
If you want to stay in Costa Rica for a few weeks to travel around or drive through, you will be issued a three month temporary vehicle use permit and you will not be required to pay your vehicle’s Customs duty.
Once your three month temporary vehicle use permit expires, you can only renew it one more time for three additional months at any Customs Office and pay no vehicle’s Customs duties.
Once your renew use permit expires, you either must leave the country or must store your vehicle in a Customs storage warehouse where your vehicle will remain until you pay the Customs duties and purchase Costa Rican license plates. If you are considering staying in Costa Rica with your vehicle for more than six months, importing your vehicle to Costa Rica, or selling your vehicle while in Costa Rica, please read the following:
In order to bring your motor vehicle (cars, trucks, and/or motorcycles) either used or new to Costa Rica, you will be required to provide the following documents:
a. Original title of your car
b. Bill of lading (if it is shipped)
c. Vehicle Emission Control Certificate (*) issued by an Emission Inspection Station (Garage Repair Shop, Gas Station, etc.) certified by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) of your State or by the vehicle manufacturer (only if vehicle is new), translated into Spanish by an Official Translator, and authenticated by the Consulate of Costa Rica nearest to the Emission Inspection Station that issued your certificate
Costa Rica/Real Estate
Check the above link for a current listing of Real Estate for sale in Costa Rica. Additionally, there are several Real Estate companies representing sellers/buyers in the tourist areas with websites listings, such as Century 21 and Remax.
It is advisable that if you are truly interested in investing in real estate in CR you should visit the area and spend a good amount of time getting to know the pace of life in the particular region that you have chosen.
Most Real Estate prices listed by real estate companies in CR are extravagantly high. To get a DEAL one must travel outside the tourist areas and negotiate with the locals.
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