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Driving to Costa Rica

Last Updated: Jan 28, 2013

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Driving from the United States to Costa Rica is an adventure best undertaken with patience, a sense of humor, and about two weeks of free time. From the U.S. border at Brownsville, Texas to the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border at Penas Blancas, the distance totals almost 2,300 miles. The drive can be made in nine or ten days, but in order to enjoy this trans-cultural journey, it’s best to budget two weeks. 

Generally speaking, the drive to Costa Rica is safe, but there are tips to keep in mind. Try to avoid driving after dark and fill up your gas tank when possible as service stations are few and far between along certain sections of the Pan-American Highway. Have patience and always go by the book: fill out every form, show your passport and papers to any official who requests them, and make sure to carry proper insurance. Have a sense of humor, because issues will probably crop up along the way. 

Many Central American roads are not built to the same standards as their U.S. and Canadian counterparts. With the exception of Mexico’s toll roads, most of the Pan-American Highway is two or four lanes, shoulders are all but nonexistent, and potholes are common. Take time to get used to local road conditions and when in doubt, slow down, regardless of the honks you may elicit. 

Tips for driving from the United States to Costa Rica: 

  • Take your car to the mechanic for a full revision before embarking on a U.S.- Costa Rica road trip.
  • Equip your vehicle with flashlights (and plenty of extra batteries), an emergency tool kit, spare tire, a first aid kit, and emergency flares.
  • Car insurance: Although it isn’t valid in Central America, always carry a copy of your U.S. or Canadian insurance policy – it may be useful. A separate, temporary Central American car insurance policy is required for the drive. The cost of a 15-day insurance policy hovers around 2% of the car’s U.S. value; a temporary insurance policy on a $12,000 vehicle would run about $240. 
  • Paperwork: It is absolutely essential to carry your current driver’s license, car title, vehicle registration and insurance card. Make several copies and stash them in different places, in case the originals are lost or stolen. 
  • At border crossings, consider hiring a local helper to handle paperwork and Spanish-language issues. Most can be hired for about $10, but don’t be afraid to bargain for services.
  • Handing out a few extra dollars at the border crossings may help the process move along more quickly. Or not – the choice is yours. 

Once you arrive at the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border crossing, be prepared for a fairly straightforward but lengthy process. As you cross into Costa Rica, you will pass through a fumigation chamber where a customs official sprays your vehicle with a sanitizing liquid. After successfully completing this process, take your passport, car title, and vehicle registration to the Customs office. You will be required to purchase temporary insurance for a minimum of one month (approximately $20/month) and provide several forms, including a temporary import permit. If you have a large amount of luggage in the car, or if you are a legal resident of Costa Rica, note that Customs may require import duties on all imported goods. The border crossing may take several hours. 

North American tourists are usually granted a 90-day stay in Costa Rica; they are also permitted to drive using a valid driver's license from their home country during this period. Likewise, a temporary vehicle import permit is valid for the same amount of time. If you are granted a visit of less than 90 days, note that your home driver's license and temporary vehicle import permit are only valid for the period of your stay. 

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