Google improved “Maps Offline” and Waze started automatic caching. Now, with a GPS enabled phone (almost any smart phone), there’s no need for an expensive Garmin add-on when renting a car in Costa Rica.
You need three things to navigate by GPS – 1) A network of satellites broadcasting the current time, 2) a receiver that can triangulate the signal from several satellites to determine current location, and 3) a digital zoomable map to display the current location and calculate routes to other locations.
Until recently the maps and routing information had to either, be purchased as a complete package for Costa Rica from Garmin, Navsat etc. or downloaded a little bit at a time by to Google or Waze using a cell phone data plan.
Garmin/Navsat is expensive for Costa Rica with map and data package purchase prices between $80 and $150 and rental options starting at $10 per day.
The cell phone option could also be expensive because zoomable routing maps are big and phone data can be costly.
Now you can have the best of both worlds for free!
Most phones, smart watches and some tablets (and maybe fancy new toasters) have built in GPS receivers and now Google provides an excellent map and routing package of all of Costa Rica. Once you save the Google offline map package you can use your device to navigate even when there is no wifi or cell signal available. Waze also provides and stores the maps and data you need for free but only one route at a time.
GPS signals are on a different frequency and originate from satellites instead of cell phone towers so they will still come in strong even when you’ve got zero bars. GPS signals are funded by U.S. taxpayers and there is no charge for receiving or using them.
How to “Map” with no Address in Costa Rica
Costa Rica does not have street names or numerical addresses for 90% of the destinations outside of the metropolitan area. The most important thing to remember when attempting to navigate without an address is “use common sense and confirm your destination.”
The number of times we’ve heard “google maps is total crap…I drove five hours and ended up on the completely wrong side of the country” is truly amazing. After you think you have a route planned make sure it makes sense…click on “overview” and see where you’re going, compare on a real map, check the hotel website location tab, ask someone at the car rental agency…anything to avoid driving five hours in the wrong direction.
Best case, your destination is known in Waze or Google maps and as you start typing “Capitan Suiz…” one of the options pops up as “Hotel Capitán Suizo Playa Tamarindo, Provincia de Guanacaste” you click on it and (after comparing with the location shown on the hotel website…) you choose “get directions.”
If your destination isn’t known or is ambiguous (dozens of places have the same name in Costa Rica) to Waze then landmarks are your best friend. Ask the hotel, check the website, ask the friend who recommended the place for something well known and nearby and navigate to that.
There are “addresses” in Costa Rica but a typical one – “50 meters west of the church and 100 meters north of Pali, San Ramon” – is useless for navigating directly but may help with a pin drop. For example enter “San Ramon,” look in the center of town where the church always is and find a “Pali” supermarket nearby. You should be able to triangulate your destination and drop a “directions to here” pin.
Waze – Offline Maps & Routing
Step Zero – Make Sure Your Device has GPS
There are devices that are capable of showing your approximate location using only cell tower information, ISP data, and wifi network info. GPS is a completely different system that doesn’t require phone or internet to operate.
If your device doesn’t have a GPS chip it will only know where it is when it’s connected and it will be much less accurate.
There are tens of thousands of different phones, tablets and phablets and we cannot provide instructions for determining the capabilities of each. If you don’t know if your device is GPS enabled try googling it or checking the owners manual.
IMPORTANT! – just because you can see your location on your device does NOT mean that it is using GPS. As noted above there are many other ways of determining location which work very well in U.S., Canadian and European cities but do not work at all in the Costa Rican countryside.
Step One – Install Free Waze app
Visit Play or Apple store.
Step Two – Select & Route Destination
All you have to do to use Waze offline is put in a a destination and get the routing information while you have a wifi signal (if you want it for free or cell data signal if you don’t mind paying for it). Waze automatically stores the maps and data in the local cache and as long as you keep the app open the route is available even if there’s no signal or you turn data off.
Step Three – Add Traffic information
You can even get a snapshot of the traffic at the time you start your trip. After you route your trip, with the app open tap the Waze icon, then in the menu choose Settings > Advanced Settings > Data transfer > Download traffic info > turn on
The downloaded offline traffic info will only update as long as you have wifi connected or if you have cell data turned on.
If you have a data plan for your phone or device we recommend using the cached or live Waze app instead of or in addition to the free Google downloads. The traffic information is invaluable.
Setting Up Google Maps Free Offline GPS for Costa Rica
While you are connected to the internet (preferably via wifi because you’re going to download a lot of data)
Step Zero – Make Sure Your Device has GPS
If your device doesn’t have a GPS chip it will only know where it is when it’s connected somehow and it will be much less accurate. see above “how to”.
Step One – Install Google Maps
If you’re using an Android device Google Maps is probably already installed by default. For Apple and other devices search application store for Google Maps.
Step Two – Download Costa Rica
In Google Maps
- open the menu (three lines left of the search window) and select “Offline Areas”
- tap the “+” to add an area
- zoom and move to highlight the area you want to save then select “Download”
- if the area you’re interested in doesn’t all fit in the highlight you may need to repeat step 3
The app may vary depending on the device and OS so if the above doesn’t work click “Tips & Tricks” in the menu and then select the instructions for “Using Maps Offline.”
The maps and data necessary for turn-by-turn navigation will be stored on your device for 30 days. Other information like photos and videos in the local listings for hotels, restaurants and other points of interest is not available in offline mode. This is done to conserve storage space on your device.
Normally we download both the whole country on Google Maps and individual routes on Waze. Typically we use Waze for live navigation and Google for backup and in case we want to change route or destination along the way.
Remember, Waze only knows about one route at a time and if you change destinations it will have to access the internet either via wi-fi or cellular data to get map and routing info.
While google and Waze are typically as good or better than a dedicated GPS (EasyFind, SmartWays, Navsat, Garmin etc.) the locations of a few points of interest are horribly wrong and sometimes routes can be misleading or impassable.
Do Not Blindly Follow Directions
Not all routing misadventures are as obvious as the bus stuck in the estuary above but some are even crazier.
We were driving on a paved secondary road when we encountered a collapsed bridge. Waze pointed us down the embankment and into the riverbed. Being adventurers we dropped into four wheel low and crawled upstream ten minutes until we reached an intact bridge, where we crossed the river and followed a goat path for a couple more km before rejoining the main road.
Mailing Addresses & PO Boxes
Verify your hotel location especially if you think it’s an eco-lodge and it shows up in the middle of town. The most common problem with the data is assigning hotels etc.
In other cases the precise location is not know but the business wants to be included on the maps so they drop a pin in the nearest town. This also happens with the purchased data and rented GPS units but it’s more common in the free data.
Another problem is “user error.” By this we mean drivers choosing the wrong location and/or entering an incorrect location into Waze or Google Maps. Facebook is atrocious at providing locations with at least 1 out of 4 completely wrong. The routing app will provide perfectly accurate and reasonable directions to the location but when the driver arrives there is nothing there.
It’s a good idea to at least have a vague idea of the big picture, which direction is north and what towns or landmarks you might pass while driving from point A to point B. People report driving seven hours in the wrong direction…
Google has started adding Waze information (real time updates on traffic, speed traps, construction etc.) to their standard maps but this requires a cell data or wifi connection and is not available in offline mode.