The answer to the question “is 4WD necessary in Costa Rica?” is nearly always no. Since renting an SUV can be twice as expensive as choosing a standard car it’s worth considering whether the extra capability is needed. Paved access to the most popular destinations means the majority of travelers never need to drive a jeep trail.
Do You Know How to Drive Off-Road?
Despite television commercials showing soccer moms driving straight up the side of Kilimanjaro in their new SUV, no vehicle is suddenly going to transform every driver into an intrepid explorer.
We’ve seen tourists in Range Rovers stuck by the side of the road being passed by a Tico farmer in a 20 year old Toyota Corolla – the farmer came back with his tractor and pulled the tourist out – but you may not be so lucky.
Practice and skill driving on muddy ruts, large rocks, sharp bends, uneven surfaces and steep loose gravel is much more important to reaching the top of a challenging section of back country road than a button on the dash that engages “all wheel traction control”. If you don’t know how to handle a 4WD in off-road conditions then don’t get too carried away just because you rented one.
All Insurance & Damage Waivers VOID
Every rental contract we’ve ever seen includes a very restrictive clause stating more or less that if you drive anywhere that might require four wheel drive all coverage for damage to the vehicle is null and void…no matter how much you paid or how many levels of “full” coverage you purchased.
Routes that May Require High Clearance, Rugged Suspension & 4WD in Costa Rica
The roads are improving greatly in Costa Rica and 99% of tourists never need 4WD. There are a few exceptions and below we’ve listed some of the more popular routes that might be better in an SUV.
- Some AirBnB and vacation rental houses have long (1 km or more) private entry roads or “driveways” that require 4WD. If you don’t want to spend an hour dragging your wheeled suitcase up a near vertical incline through muddy ruts and craters make sure to check on access with the landlord and bring the appropriate vehicle.
- The last 8-10 km of the road from Sardinal to Santa Elena/Monteverde or the last 12 km of the road from Tilarán or Las Juntas to Santa Elena/Monteverde. The paving project on the Sardinal route has been “almost” complete for about five years.
NOTE on Monteverde: In mid November 2019 the highway department applied temporary sealer completing the “pavement” on route 606 between Sardinal and Santa Elena/Monteverde via Guacimal. They hope it will last for about a year while they look for a contractor to lay permanent asphalt.
- The Nicoya Coast Road between Paraiso and Ostinal or Samara to Santa Teresa when it’s wet. Sections of this route are impassable even with a Humvee in the heart of the rainy season. The river fords are too high.
- Rincon to Drake on the Osa Peninsula. May not be able to do this even with a 4WD in rainy season due to high water in some rivers. The largest river just north of Drake Bay was bridged in 2019 but there are still some in between that can be impassable.
- The route from the barge ferry at Sierpe to Drake or Rincon is tough going in rainy season.
- Jimenez to Carate on the Osa Peninsula. There are many small creeks and rivers without bridges along this route but most are passable with a decent 4WD most of the time even in rainy season.
- The southern route around Lake Arenal. We’ve only taken mountain bikes on this road but since they widened and flattened the ford across the Río Caño Negro near Rancho Margot west of Castillo we’ve been told it’s challenging but possible with a vehicle. We’ll let you know when we try it mid-2020.
- The entrance road from Cujiniquil to the Murcialago station of Santa Rosa National Park
- The road from La Casona station to Playa Naranjo in Santa Rosa National Park (open seasonally and at the discretion of the park service).
- The roads from Santa Cruz to Turrialba (last 5km currently closed due to eruptions) or Irazú volcanoes
- The 50 meters through the sand across the river mouth at the south end of Playa Conchal. This is technically public access but in addition to being very soft and easy to sink into it’s frequently blockaded by the Conchal Resort.
- Rancho La Pavona landing for boats to Tortuguero. Even in the rainy season 4WD would not be required most of the time but the suspension of an SUV is definitely nice to smooth out some of the jolting and jarring on the long rough rocky road.
- The last 2 km up to the entrance of the Poco Sol station of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest.
- The last 1-5 km (depending on recent repairs and rains) to the Puesta Barva entrance of Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Of course there are thousands of kilometers of other dirt, mud and rock strewn tracks to challenge even the stoutest 4WD but the ones listed above cover the better known tourist destinations.
The most popular destinations like Arenal, Manuel Antonio, Tamarindo, Jacó, Dominical, Uvita, Puerto Viejo and many others are conspicuously absent from the list because they are on paved roads and easily reached by any car.
Reasons You Should Rent an SUV for Costa Rica
Safety in Size
We rent big diesel Toyota Prados (Land Cruiser) and Fortuners (4Runner) because Costa Rica’s roads and drivers are dangerous.
We know it’s environmentally irresponsible but some things are more important. Eventually someone is going to crash into us and we want the maximum mass of steel and airbags that is available between us and never enjoying the environment again.
Comfort & Convenience
SUVs roll smoother over rough road and have more room and you never know when higher clearance and superior traction might come in handy.
Driving in The Rainy Season
Just thinking about a single paved road around the north side of Lake Arenal I remember at least five separate times we had to ford small rivers or drive through rutted mud where bridges or the road had washed out. Often the cars were making it across as well but there were a couple of times when they were turning back to take the 3 hour detour through Upala.
We recommend browsing through our other tips for rainy season driving in Costa Rica if you’re planning on visiting then.
Home Away, VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner), Air B&B
Many rental homes in Costa Rica are only accessible by 4WD and when they say 4WD required they may mean a real off road capable vehicle NOT a city SUV. Ask explicitly!
Most landlords are good about warning renters about access but we still hear about people having to hike a km to the main road because they rented a Yaris.
You should consider the added cost of renting a 4WD versus a car ($20-$75 per day per 4-5 travelers extra depending on just how big and rugged you need it) if you’re thinking about a rental house.
Actually Heading Off Road Just for the Adventure
If you’ve decided to accept the potential $50,000+ liability, you know how to drive off-road and there’s a destination or two on your must see list that require four wheel drive then go for it!
For example we’ve visited Playa San Josecito south of Drake Bay on the remotest corner of the Osa Peninsula several times. We’ve arrived by 4WD or by a combination of plane and boat (and once on foot but that’s usually not an option). It’s literally at the end of the road and definitely a fun 4WD adventure getting there but once we arrive the vehicle just sits there for a week (there’s nowhere to drive).
We’ve enjoyed the adventure overland a couple of times but in general we prefer flying/boating in for a few reasons.
- A large capable four wheel drive costs around $100 a day to rent or $500 for a five day visit. Airfare is between $110 and $200 per person round trip so it’s cheaper to fly for 2 people and about the same for three.
- Flying takes 45 minutes. Driving takes 10 hours.
- On one visit the SUV wasn’t going anywhere for a few days even if we wanted to because torrential rains washed out the entrance road the night we arrived. We’re fortunate enough to travel six or eight weeks at a time and if we get stuck somewhere for three or four days it’s no big deal but if you’re supposed to be back at work on Monday…
- You break it you bought it…see “Insurance VOID” above. It’s nerve wracking when you start sliding sideways towards a tree and you know if you don’t stop in time it’s going to cost you a few grand a well as the better part of a day or two.
Even if you include some of the destinations listed above where 4WD is recommended consider the other options that may be preferable.
What is 4WD vs AWD?
There’s a lot of confusion and ambiguity about the terms AWD and 4WD but whatever you call it there are some practical differences.
A “real” four wheel drive vehicle has a 4WD LOW setting or configuration with locking hubs, locking differential, solid axles, high clearance, modified suspension, traction control cutout, and maybe a snorkel, chainsaw (for downed trees), bumper jack, skid plate, larger wheels and high traction tires. Almost none of the rental vehicles advertised as 4WD are “real” and you have to rent from a specialized agency.
AWD is generally found on cars and family truckster style SUVs. It may have settings that electronically control how the drive behaves and responds to slipping which is generally more helpful on snow and ice but it can’t be switched to “real” 4WD.